Magic Mike may be the first mainstream (and critically-acclaimed, no less) movie about male strippers (of the Chippendales variety) but this is a story you’ve seen before. However, last time you saw it the protagonist was female. You know the kind: small town, down-on-her-luck girl gets seduced by the glamor and easy money of [insert your disreputable activity here] only to crash into its seedy underbelly and either escape her problematic position to pursue her “real” dream (acting, singing, marriage+babies, etc.) or b. serve as a cautionary tale as she falls into her doom (i.e. see Burlesque  and Showgirls ).
*spoilers warning* (And no, I don’t mean that there’s lots of abs. You already knew that).
Magic Mike shares many features of this plot. First, we have the “dream” component; Mike, played by Channing Tatum, tells everyone he meets that he’s an “entrepreneur” because he ultimately wants to be a furniture designer. Second, there is the older, world-weary, semi-reputable mentor, in this case played by Matthew McConaughey as Dallas, the owner of the club where Mike works. Third, we have the oft-seen love triangle between a creep who fails to respect (an important point) the protagonist and the “tough love” person the protagonist is clearly meant to be with; Mike has a casual relationship with a bisexual psychology student (Olivia Munn) but discovers that she only wants him for his body and has no interest in him as a person. When Mike discovers she has a fiancé, he becomes open to the possibility of a relationship with no nonsense Brooke (Cody Horn). Last, we have both of this plot’s endings represented, first in Mike—who escapes the club world, regains his self-respect, and gets the girl—and “the Kid” (Alex Pettyfer)—who Mike brings into the world of stripping and who falls down the rabbit hole of promiscuity, drugs, and easy money. See what I’m saying? You’ve seen this movie before.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Magic Mike—certainly more than the shirtlessness or even the plot itself—is the switching of this generic plot from a female protagonist to a male one. We’ve seen this done the other way around. Sigourney Weaver usurps the action hero’s place in the Alien franchise and Thelma and Louise and Boys on the Side riff on the buddy travel flick. But it’s less common to see a male protagonist inserted (ahem) into the female plot. Thus, even though Magic Mike is entirely generic in all but its dancing scenes it still feels significant in the history of cinema.
Having said that, Magic Mike fails on many counts. Most obviously, it first re-creates the experience of attending one of these strip shows through its myriad dance routines only to wrap Mike’s story in a moral opposition to objectification. As noted in my earlier post about Slate‘s beefcakes feature, we remain culturally ambivalent about the objectification of male bodies. Magic Mike declares such objectification wrong, thereby implicating the audience in their pleasure in viewing Tatum, McConaughey and Co. doing their thing. However, it becomes an instance where, at least to some extent, form undercuts content because the obvious delight and care taken with the strip-dance scenes undermines the film’s culminating message.
In an odd twist, Magic Mike also remains aggressively heterosexual. Only women fill the club’s audience and Dallas tells the Kid that they are fulfilling essential fantasies for heterosexual women—fantasies that center around “the cock,” which the Kid has and the (female) audience does not. However, Dallas delivers this speech while gyrating directly behind this rookie dancer, and his assertion that the Kid not see this as “some of that fag shit” doesn’t change the evident homoeroticism of the scene. Director Steven Soderbergh tries, but somewhat fails, to walk the line here. He draws overt attention to the homosociality and, often, homoeroticism that exists between these male strippers. Yet it remains hyper-insistent on its characters’ heterosexuality, making easy, heterosexual sex one of the prime appeals of the stripping job and concluding with a contemporary version of the marriage plot. The film seems to acknowledge the fluidity of desire but ultimately shuts down that notion with its overbearing heterosexuality. It thus takes what could have been an interesting exploration of straight, male sexuality down the well-trodden path we’ve seen dozens of times before.
Some final notes:
-There’s an evident charm to Tatum’s performance as Mike. His experience serves as the basis for the movie and it’s clearly a passion project for him. Tatum’s not really my style in terms of movie star crush but, I have to say, dude can dance.
-Tatum’s dance-strip scenes often have a hip hop aesthetic and all of the numbers show the care that went into their choreography and design. Something should be said about their emphasis on the phallus (either with props, hand gestures, or other gyrations) and how they all devolve into some sort of obscene, mock sex pantomime with a member (or members) of the audience. I’m not sure I’m the person to say it, though, since I mostly felt uncomfortable and determined never to go to such a show in person. There’s something about the move from viewing a performance to being manhandled by the performer that makes my skin crawl. Perhaps strip shows have always understood the discombobulating power of a Brechtian breaking of the fourth wall.
-As is often the case, a supporting performer steals the show in Magic Mike—Matthew McConaughey. His hedonistic, ruthless Dallas mesmerizes every time he’s on screen (no surprise from a character who always needs to be dominating the room). It reminded me somewhat of Tom Cruise’s portrayal of Frank T. J. Mackey in Magnolia. It was what I wanted Cher to be in Burlesque. It also plays well into McConaughey’s star text. McConaughey is a celebrity who is clearly proud of his body and his performance in Magic Mike seems an unabashed, unapologetic celebration of that pride. Thus, McConaughey’s performance splashes exuberantly into territory that Hollywood actors generally avoid: an overt, in-your-face acknowledgement of his physical attractiveness, charisma, and general awesomeness. It matters not whether you agree or if McConaughey embodies your particular fantasy because he/Dallas, with the massive ego that makes Hollywood celebrities, cannot conceive of a world where you wouldn’t admire and desire him.
And, in an added wink, there’s the delightful repetition (said first by Tatum, later by McConaughey) of that iconic, “Alright, alright, alright.” Dallas alone is worth the price of admission (at matinee prices) and the two hours of life spent viewing. Not because he/McConaughey is attractive but because watching McConaughey do “McConaughey” is always fun.