50 Shades of Magic Mike

Read my lips:  I am never reading 50 Shades of Grey.  Read ‘em again:  I am never going to see Magic Mike.   I have no interest in 50 Shades—as a writer I find it depressing that bad prose can make millions while good prose languishes, and as a woman I find it depressing that subservience passes as sexiness.  But I’ll admit, Magic Mike piques my lady interest.  I could watch it under the guise of gender analysis, but I can already write a one-sentence review of it:  a movie that is supposedly examining the underbelly of consumerist lust cannot do so effectively while capitalizing on consumerist lust.  So, Matthew McConaughey and Matt Bomer will just have to be sexy without me.  I’m sure they can manage.

I realize I am in the minority here:  women are flocking to 50 Shades and Magic Mike like half-starved travelers who, wandering through the desert, happen upon an oasis.  No matter if it’s a mirage—they’re thirsty and hungry beyond description, and here, at last, is manna from heaven.

But is it?  What, exactly, are my lusty sisters consuming?

My understanding is that, in the case of 50 Shades, they are consuming an abusive relationship in which the woman has little or no sense of self, but lots of somewhat kinky sex.  And in the case of Magic Mike—well, they’re consuming the male body revealed, just as men have been consuming the female body revealed for years.

In both cases, the impulse is understandable, and I don’t blame my sisters for wanting their turn.  But what, exactly, does having their turn mean?  Are we to have our turn on bad terms, or not at all?  It’s as though, in our rush to establish the truth of our own desire, we are willing to admit to anyone’s definition of that desire:  “Subservience?  Sure, I’ll take it, as long as sex is involved!  Male objectification?  Why not—our daughters have suffered for it, might as well give our sons a taste!”  I’m not saying women are consciously thinking these things.  In fact, I think that’s the problem—women aren’t thinking at all.  They’re just reacting.  I’d like us to take our time with this thing, slow it down a bit.  You know, savor it.  So we can do it right.

What, exactly, would that mean?

I’m not sure I know.  But I think it would be a lot more subtle than a strip club, and a lot more empowering than a badly-written book about a sick relationship.  I think it would be more like a man on a soccer field—have you ever really watched a man on a soccer field?  Give it a try.  There’s something there, even when the camera doesn’t know it.

That, I think, is the essence of true sexiness, and of desire:  the unselfconscious power of the physical self.  All our physical selves.  Which means that Magic Mike really does come in 50 shades—of color, age, and every other difference on the planet.  When I find a book or a movie that deals in that kind of sexiness, read my lips:  I’ll read it, I’ll watch it, and I hope we all flock to it.  Like starving wanderers in a desert of one-dimensional lust who have, halleluiah, stumbled upon an oasis of truth: you can’t separate sexy from self without damaging both.

23 thoughts on “50 Shades of Magic Mike

  1. Rebecca Aranyi says:

    Thank you for that wonderful post! I didn’t read / watch the twilight series for similar reasons. Just because a book or movie is well marketed (or hyped), it doesn’t mean that you should spend your time on it.

  2. Carl Riden says:

    I will comment on both things. Fifty Shades of Gray is crappy Twighlight fanfiction re-named to become bad BDSM erotic fiction. I can certainly point you to quality entertainment fiction in that genre- both gay and straight.

    On Magic Mike- I took one of my gay friends to see it to cheer him up. It is a better movie than you would expect, but I don’t think its critique of male objectification holds up at all. The critique of giving in to the excessive availability of drugs and sex (and the temptations of the money) I got. I think that was legit. But there was never any point where I thought the love interests judgmental attitude toward stripping rang true. Mike was a talented designer of furniture, a hard worker, and also a fantastic stripper. Channing Tatum can really dance and he is super sexy when he is dancing- stripping or not. Why would he not keep doing that? Why does she have an issue with him doing that? He wasn’t strung out on drugs or unable to function in other aspects of his life because of his stripping career. It was a fun way to make bank. I just never bought it. The stripping never had the vibe of exploitation you often see in depictions of female strippers. Also, research shows that very few female strippers say they would do it it they were not getting paid, while a majority of male strippers say they would strip for free. This I think is really interesting. I also think an evaluation of the difference between male stripping for a female audience and male stripping for a male audience would be very interesting. I really do not think that stripping, sexy dancing (i.e. gogo boys) or any other form of erotic presentation is necessarily exploitative. But the fact that it comes across so differently to us when the person doing it (or their audience) is male or female does trouble me. I think that needs further exploration.

    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      Thanks for that interesting analysis, Carl. I am still trying to figure out if I believe that stripping is automatically exploitative, but I believe I would argue that it is, because it systematically capitalizes on objectification (taking lust and institutionalizing it until personhood is swallowed), and the person stripping is not the only one making money, or even the one making the most money.

      I agree that it would be interesting to analyze male stripping for men vs. women–and I think it is is worth nothing that Matt Bomer has recently come out as gay, which means that he will be viewed differently by straight women and by gay men than he would have been had he allowed us all to assume he is heterosexual.

      • Carl Riden says:

        I read your comments to my post and to those below. I am unsure about the way you define exploitation. Why is the fact that lust is being institutionalized the issue? Desire is a human characteristic and I don’t see any difference between this and any other situation where someone’s beauty or desirability plays a role in why we pay for a service. Athletes sell their bodies to corporate sponsor and team owners all the time. And it is clear that if they are sexy they will make much more money. While I may not like this, I would not say these are necessarily examples of exploitation. I know plenty of women and men who watch coverage of olympic sports solely for the hot bods. Also, who says these people have had their personhood stripped away any more than most workers who become nameless, faceless workers? This seems to be a pretty common feature of human societies once they grew beyond the level of bands and clans.

        As for the Bomer thing- he has been glass closeted like Anderson Cooper, Jim Parsons, Jodie Foster and so on. The web has known he was gay all along. This film has been heavily marketed on gay websites for a year now. That has been hotly debated there as there is no actual gay content.

      • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

        I was defining institutionalized lust as the issue because I was thinking of profit, of capitalism and the role it plays in our cultural definition of sex, and of sexy. Yes, desire is a human characteristic, but once we institutionalize that characteristic and connect it to profit, we get Playboy, and Hustler, Maxim and GQ–all of which exploit the female body in general, even if a particular female who has posed for a magazine doesn’t consider herself exploited (and, I would add, these magazines also exploit male desire–see my post Have We Come a Long Way, Baby?. I would argue–and have argued–that even if an individual is acting on his or her own sense of empowerment by presenting his or her body for the desire of others, presenting this behavior for the consumption of others is not, ultimately, a powerful act–in fact, it can be extremely disempowering, particularly for the average consumer who compares his/her body to the objectified bodies of others. See my posts Who’s Buying It and Girl, Look at That Body.

        I think the stripping of personhood is a cultural phenomenon, and happens at the cultural, not always the individual, level. So an athlete who is capitalizing on his or her attractiveness can be quite empowered individually while also contributing to objectification culturally, and profiting from it. It is women, not men, who are culturally defined as sexual objects (I realize there might be some objectification of the male body in gay male culture–I’m focusing on mainstream culture here, but would be interested to learn about how gay male culture handles this issue). Author Jean Kilbourne discusses the de-humanization of women in our culture, particularly in reference to video games, and how this de-humanization can lead to the justification of violence against women.

        The question I’m still mulling is this: how do we handle desire, or lust, in a way that allows it to be what it is but doesn’t create objectification? I think the answer is in the gaze–and mostly, as a culture, we are presented with a uni-dimensional gaze that doesn’t leave much room for personhood.

      • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

        Ah, and one more thought: capitalism and cultural objectification or no, I do see a difference between a stripper, presenting him or herself for the lust of others, and an athlete who gets endorsements, etc. based on attractiveness. Case in point: Danica Patrick. She could have driven that car all day and made money from her pretty face selling anything from cold cream to axle grease, and while she would have been profiting from capitalism and her good looks in a culture that objectifies women, she would not have been presenting herself as a sexual object. Wearing a bikini while other women paint her as a car? I’d say that’s presenting herself as an object. Similarly, I would argue that a stripper engages in an act that encourages objectification, even if he or she does not view him/herself as an object.

  3. Christa says:

    I TRIED to read 50 Shades. It was one of the most poorly written books I’ve ever held in my hand. I couldn’t even finish it. Aside from the writing, the story made me afraid for women everywhere if this is what we consider to be a healthy relationship. I don’t want my daughters to ever think this book portrays a positive, strong image for which women should strive.

  4. sara says:

    I’d love to say I agreed with you, because I usually do, and I really truly enjoy your writing. But, because you haven’t seen Magic Mike,I don’t feel that you’re qualified to comment on the motives of the film. I also don’t agree with your semi-analysis and one-sentence review, but that being said, if you watched the movie and came to the same conclusion, I would respect it as a valid analysis and not just a response to what I assume you have seen: a trailer that was designed to “trick” viewers into thinking it represented a fluffy film.

    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      Thanks for your comment, Sara–I appreciate your viewpoint, certainly, since I am critiquing a movie I haven’t seen. But I felt confident in what I was saying for one reason: the male actors in this movie are making millions of dollars, along with the director, because women are buying tickets in droves. From what I have read, they are not spending money so that they can spend time analyzing and engaging with the troublesome aspects of stripper culture, or the relationships in the film, or the pros and cons of male stripping for various audiences. They just want to see some hot male bodies–which amounts to objectification. So, even if the film is attempting to critique sexual objectification (which, according to the Entertainment Weekly review, it is), it is doing so by paying millions of dollars to good-looking male actors who are taking their clothes off.

      • sara says:

        I completely respect that viewpoint and think it is definitely warranted. Your article makes more sense to me now, so thank you for your reply! It’s sad that too few people go to see a movie like that in order to consciously engage with the analysis, but that’s definitely a widespread issue. I saw the movie because I didn’t feel like I could discuss it without having seen it, but I respect your choice to not see it for the reason you stated.

        The irony of an objectifying film critiquing objectification is not lost on me. It speaks to an industry so enmeshed in sex and portrayals of the naked body, that without these things it could not successfully (in both a monetary and narrative sense) critique the industry. Knowing and loving Steven Soderbergh’s films, I feel certain he at least sees the irony as well. I don’t want to excuse the objectification aspect of the film, but it also seems indicative of a wider problem — one that people like you and hopefully others are already talking about and will continue to talk about.

        (Additionally, seeing Channing Tatum dance was, to me, the equivalent of a man on a soccer field (which is a fantastic analogy). It was the same in Step Up as well. He does what he does beautifully, and I admire that.)

  5. Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Sara. I agree that Soderbergh probably sees the irony as well. I think these are difficult issues to wrestle with–for example, where is the line between lust (a normal human response) and objectification? Exploring this question is one of the reasons I’m writing this blog–thanks for your comments!

      • sara says:

        Fascinating article, thanks for posting! It’s refreshing to hear from someone who enjoyed (guiltily or not) the sexiness of the film, but also looked past it into some of the things that I think make this an iconic film. I still think your earlier reservations are valid from your standpoint, because of your opposition to the objectification aspect of the film, but I’m glad to see that people are analyzing the underlying merits of Magic Mike.

        I think (even though I don’t know you) that you might be be interested by the many aspects of the film that are not objectifying. The discussion of male sexuality, the gender roles, the critique of the culture, the internal struggles Mike faces when what he wants to do and what he’s doing aren’t matching up, the portrayal of Mike’s love interest (who isn’t conventionally beautiful, works long shifts, and also takes hard uncompromising lines with her relationship standards, not just giving them up at the sight of all of Mike’s physical assets) and many more. When I watched it in theatres (opening night, Las Vegas), I was surprised by how little dancing there was in the film (compared to how it was depicted it would be, a somewhat Burlesque style “narrative”, relatively little plot). The audience hollered loudly and joyfully all throughout the sexy parts of the film, but were completely silent for the majority of the film, because it was such a narrative film that didn’t constantly invite audience participation.

        Anyway, I really appreciate your continued responses to this conversation, and wish that I had more to offer!

      • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

        I think you’re absolutely right–I would enjoy the aspects of the film that analyze sexuality and sexual response (male or female), relationships, etc. And I considered seeing the film for that reason. I also considered seeing the film because, in an Entertainment Weekly review, I read that Matthew McConaughey practiced a move he dubbed “Lick It and Slick It.” And, when it came right down to it, I had to admit to myself that it wasn’t the analytical part of my brain that was winning out in the “let’s go see the film” part of my internal debate. The author of the Feministing article says as much–she doesn’t want to critique, she just wants to enjoy, but then she critiques anyway. I appreciated her honesty about the complexity of approaching the film–objectification vs. analysis.

        I’m glad other women have seen the film, and that critique of it is out there–but I have yet to see anyone make the point that ultimately has kept me from seeing the film: how effective can any critique really be, how much of a point can any movie make, if the reason the film is making money is not the critique but the objectification? And how can women then expect men to refuse to participate in the objectifying aspects of culture?

        A possible solution would have been to give some of he film’s profits to a cause connected to feminist principles (meaning the principles of sexual equality for both genders and any sexual orientation): Miss Representation, an organization that fights sex trafficking, etc. When I see Hollywood put it’s money where it’s mouth is, I’ll start paying much closer attention.

        You have contributed a great deal–you’ve helped me hone my own thoughts and my position, which is always a great thing. And I’m always open to rethinking a position–I think that is one of the tenets of good debate. Thanks!

  6. Carl Riden says:

    I wanted to respond to your response up above. The general discussion of exploitation of workers in a capitalist society is a classic Marxian analysis. Basically we are talking about alienated labor since his concern was that labor is one of the true expressions of being human and to control one’s labor (i.e. the products of ones mind and body) is necessary for fulfillment of our human nature. What I don’t understand is why exploitation of desire or that involves sex is somehow worse than any other kind.

    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      I didn’t state, and didn’t mean to imply, that sexual exploitation is worse than any other kind. I was simply focusing on it because of the nature of this blog and the movie and book under discussion.

      • Carl Riden says:

        If that is true then is this really a critique of capitalism we are having here? I see know way to have a capitalist economy without exploitation of the kind we are discussing. You have to sell your labor to the person who really owns the means of production. The only way to avoid that is for everyone to be an independent worker in control of his her or her own labor and reaping all of the profits from that labor. The other side of our discussion has been objectification- not the same of course.

      • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

        An interesting question, and one to consider in the light of gender texts and subtexts from Mad Men to Barbara Berg’s Sexism in America to approaches to sexism and gender studies in an academic setting. The discussion, however, is too broad for the purposes of this post–better to take offline. Thanks for your comments!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s