… You get to go for lunch with the best people you’ve known for not-quite a decade, and drink cocktails that come in glasses the size of your head, and then meet up with Other Awesome People who you met on the internet and go to the cinema to watch ‘That Stripper film with Channing Tatum’. And it’s FAB.
However, this is not a post about what we did to celebrate the Fairygnome’s birthday, but more about Magic Mike (the stripper film in question) and how Steven Soderbergh has managed to make a film about hot men, for women like us, without exploiting us or the men, and about how he is clearly, therefore, remarkable. As @Aidey commented after the film, ‘There was a lot more going on in that than I was expecting. And then I remembered that it was directed by the guy who made Contagion.’ Yep. And Traffic, and Out of Sight, and Haywire, and The Limey, and the Ocean’s films (and that’s just me listing some of the ones I’ve seen. The two parts of Che are still on my to-watch list). Soderbergh is really good at doing genre without dissing it, working within tropes to tell us something about ourselves, and is also really interested in modern life and culture without being a pretentious snot about it.
For those of you who don’t read film reviews / watch trailers / pay attention to posters on the side of buses (that last, normally advisable), Magic Mike is a film (loosely based on Channing Tatum’s own past) about how Channing Tatum (Mike) is a stripper, and mentors a young Alex Pettyfer (The Kid/Adam) into the business. The longer trailer highlights a plot about how what Mike really wants to do is start a business making custom furniture and is trying to get enough cash together to convince the banks to give him a loan, plus, Adam may or may not be wild in the head, and Mike may or may not have a thing going on with Adam’s sister, Brooke, who is worried about her little brother and concerned that Mike is too lost in his lifestyle for his own good. It’s a fairly standard looking plot, but, as was said to me, ‘No one’s really going for the plot.’
They’re going to watch Channing Tatum (and colleagues, including Matt Bomer of White Collar, and Joe Manganiello from True Blood) dance – and strip. I like the dancing. And I have a great soft spot for Channing Tatum, who I think of as something of an adorable doofus with mad dance skillz. I care less about the stripping, and I personally find Matthew McConnaghy pretty disturbing in any state of dress or undress. But a lot of the audience is there for the men, and the male body, and it is really rare that any movie takes that seriously. It is culturally acceptable for the movies to offer up the kind of shots of women that the Transformers films do of their female stars (and if you haven’t listened to Mark Kermode on that particular subject, then you’ve not seen Shakespeare the way it was meant to be done), but they don’t do it with men. When men are objectified it is done for men (you should aspire to have this kind of body/life) as much as because women want eye candy. And while I’ve not heard too much of it, because I just don’t have that kind of social circle right now, there’s apparently been a bunch of pretty negative male reaction to the film. Which is primarily because we live in a culture where we’re used to giving women what we think they want, not just offering men up to them and letting them actively participate or take what they want (and also in an age that’s having complicated masculinity issues).
The appeal and success of Magic Mike says something. It says that the modern woman wants more – in a relationship, or in everyday power dynamics – than what most popular culture thinks is normal/right. The success of Fifty Shades of Grey probably says a similar thing – I wouldn’t know, I haven’t read it, but that is as much about the the fact that it is reputed to be really badly written as it is about the fact that it isn’t what I, personally, want.
Now I’m not saying that’s all good and unproblematic, and the film itself is not at all perfect (you cannot, after all, fully escape the world you’re in all of the time when you’re creating, even if you want to try). There’s a long sliding scale running from commenting appreciatively on a friend’s appearance when you think they’re looking nice down to full-on, long-running objectification, and when you hit the lower end of it you get to catcalling, implying women behaving in certain ways are ‘asking for it’ and other unpleasant situations and norms – and I have no desire at all to see men end up in the same screwed up place as women in the way the media looks at bodies and behaviour.
I mentioned earlier that it was said that no one was going to see Magic Mike for the plot – but actually it is the plot that stops this film from being exploitative. This is true for the women – those in the club are largely there for fun and to surprise themselves at their own daring in taking (even for a short time) something they’ve never been allowed to have before, while Brooke is open to the idea of the fun of watching the show, but worried about the possible exploitation of the men in her life. Mike’s other girl, Joanna, is – however – using him: “You just have to be pretty,” she says – and that stings from her to him as much as it would the other way around.
There is objectification, but that’s not what creates the problems for either Mike or Adam – it’s the adulation and the confusion of popularity and quick money with freedom. And there is exploitation – but it’s not of the actors by the film. It’s within the film, in the way Dallas treats Mike and Adam, keeping them tied to him by the promise of those things, and in the way the women who end up connected to the strippers in the longer term end up as messed up by the lifestyle as the guys they’re drawn in by. Mike wants more than popularity and the easy money that comes from stripping, even if he’s taking a long detour and possibly getting lost along the way, and so he is more grounded and better equipped to walk away. Adam doesn’t know what he wants, apart from an easy life, and so he is more vulnerable to the chaos that both of those things lead him into. His problem isn’t as much about any exploitation of his body, but a bigger cultural problem that exploits all of us by telling us that popularity and wealth are the definition of The Good Life.