Magic Mike XXL: Pleasure in the Crowd [Movie Review]

Two women go to a matinee showing of Magic Mike XXL.

[Spoilers ahead, though it’s hard to spoil a movie that cares so little about its plot. Knowing the narrative trajectory shouldn’t ruin anybody’s experience of this movie.]

What we were expecting:

EL: The first Magic Mike was a movie about capitalism masquerading as a movie about abs, and I was really convinced that the sequel would dump the capitalism and hit heavy on the abs. And, for the most part, it did just that. The burlesque set pieces were spectacular, and the drama over money and entrepreneurial ambition was kept to a minimum. What was unexpected was the amount of time the movie dedicated to sitting with male friendship—just letting us watch while men talked to each other. Not in high intensity, the-bomb’s-about-to-blow situations, but during the conversations that happen when six men go on a nostalgic road trip together. I was also preparing for some great female gaze moments, which did not disappoint, and I was thankful that we weren’t forced to endure much of a romance plot. When you go to see a strip show, you don’t want to think about your stripper’s girlfriend, and the same holds true in a movie about strippers.

KS: I hadn’t seen the first movie so I had no idea what to expect. I think I was hoping for a dance movie/ female gaze romp and on that account I was not disappointed. For me, the movie reflects its knowledge of the assumed audience demographic (straight women, maybe middle-aged), but I was pleasantly surprised in the various ways this was manifested: the way the men talked to and about women, moments of sheer gratuitous fun (bonus points for showing pleasure on everyone’s faces!), and the diversity in the mass of women who made up the audience. Actually, the movie’s efforts to engulf viewers in its fantasy was one of my favorite parts—we could have easily been a part of the audience at the stripper convention which is conveniently held on July 4th weekend…

Things we liked:

EL: It was strange to me how little women signified in this movie. The love plot was pretty understated, and for the most part women only really showed up as audience members in the strip shows. This mostly worked for me. I liked that the way the movie catered to female desire wasn’t through our identification with a single romantic lead but through the anonymous crowds of women at the shows.

Image @magicmikemovie / Twitter

Image @magicmikemovie / Twitter

KS: Yeah, I was not so into the understated love plot, especially at the moment when Mike pulls his romantic interest onto the stage, breaking the fantasy demarcated by the performance space. It’s significant that in all of the other performances, female desire is embodied by a collective of individual, nameless women. Even though individual women and individual narratives of disenchantment with men and sexuality pepper the movie, ultimately women experience pleasure and gratification together. Adding a named, romantic interest spoils that fantasy—the performance becomes about one woman rather than all women.

EL: Right. Or by watching each other being done-to on the stage of the strip show. Like when Mike pulls his love interest on stage, the real pleasure is all of the women in the audience getting to watch and identify with her physical contact with his body. The woman on stage is the proxy body for all of the women’s desires in the room, which is why the romance plot doesn’t work so well. The strip show is not interested in individual pleasure, but in the collective pleasure made possible by the spectacle of simulated sex.

KS: The romantic plot enables the blurring between the real world of Mike Lane and the performance world of Magic Mike which is a line continually transversed throughout the film. One interesting claim Mike made while he was trying to convince the crew to write new dances is that their repertoire did not reflect them as anything other than stereotypical male entertainers (i.e., none of them were actually firefighters in real life). Thus, for Mike, performance should be connected in some way with reality in order to be authentic. While this certainly lays the ground for the romantic subplot and enables some pretty nifty final dances, it seems like a sketchy claim to me. I suppose the insistence on the reality/performance connection could also be read as a way that men’s fulfillment [albeit psychological] works its way back into a film about female pleasure: the men need to be fulfilled by their performance and that it not possible through providing pleasure alone.

EL: Yeah, the way authenticity works in the performance is really weird. Because pleasure is also strangely inauthentic. Like none of the audience women actually get to have sex with the performers, and none of the performers actually desire the women in the audience, and yet that is the only kind of pleasure that seems to be authentic in the movie. The other, more individual and more traditionally authentic pleasures like actual sex are almost always disappointing. One of the strippers bemoans how his sexual encounters are always frustrating because of a problem related to his dick, and a group of middle-aged women confess that their sex lives with their husbands are less than fantastic even as a genuinely erotic encounter for one of them involves getting a lap-dance and simulated oral sex from one of the strippers.

KS: Also, as flamboyantly performative as the dances are, in some ways they purport to affect healing in the real lives of women as individuals (even though the pleasure is experienced via the collective). In the example of the group of middle-aged women, the erotic experience Ken provides is meant to empower the woman to voice her sexual desires to her husband. The performative healing takes effects only in the world outside of the performance space.

EL: Exactly, like supposedly inauthentic collective pleasure can be genuinely healing. There are multiple moments when the male strippers “heal” women by involving them in performances. Each time, the payoff of the performance was that the woman smiles or laughs rather than gets off. (We don’t want to spoil the gas station scene, but it was one of the highlights.)

KS: And another thing, as the men make it to Rome’s club and see Donald Glover’s (Andre) rap/dance combo, they realize that they can offer more of their authentic, non-stage-name selves in their performance. (Andre identifies primarily as a musician who works at Rome’s club preparing for his EP to drop). From this angle, combined with Mike’s ideas about changing the group’s  routines, we can read the men’s insistence on authenticity as a way to insist that they are more than bodies.

EL: Yeah. It’s like the trajectory of the movie for the male performers is to transcend their embodiedness—or to include their “authentic” selves in their performances—while the trajectory of the movie for the women is to become a mass or crowd. This isn’t a bad thing for me. I liked that women become less individuated—and therefore less objectified—while the men have to negotiate how their individuality makes them vulnerable to objectification.

KS: Also, as a sidenote, we have only talked about straight women’s desire because the film almost exclusively portrays heterosexual desire. The closest thing to queerness we get is a scene featuring drag queens, which doesn’t necessarily mean gay.

EL: To finish up, let’s talk about the only thing both of us had a real problem with, which was the way the movie uses race. The men go to a black strip club run by Jada Pinkett Smith where, it seems, the black strippers teach them how to dance—you know, the new, black way. At one point, Ken says that Donald Glover’s rap performance has “revolutionized” male burlesque.

KS: This is a really common trope—throwback to D2: The Mighty Ducks (totally dating myself here) where Team USA isn’t playing well enough, so they go down to the hood to play streetball with the black kids in order to learn how to play “real hockey”. Thankfully though, Magic Mike XXL didn’t fall into the trap of locating black authenticity in “the hood”.

EL: Overall, I really liked this movie. The bromance was great, and the beefcake was well done.

KS:  Served with buns and cheese.

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