Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
There is joy in breaking the paralysis of inexperience. We go through life relying on the wisdom gained from exposure and experience, and when faced with something new, we stop; we're still. There is an oppressive discomfort, one so overpowering that when we break free, we erupt with glee – passionate, exuberant, and sometimes even adolescent delight. We see these outbursts of joy everywhere. It’s in the concert experience where the slight foot-tapping of the first song evolves into feverish singing by the final number, or in the aged singers who find they are Young at Heart when they hit the stage. It’s in the wallflowers who find their inner confidence, the partiers relishing in their now-legit ID, the professional thrown into the deep end who learns how to swim, and right now, the women who are given a cinematic space to outwardly enjoy the male form.
Magic Mike has hit theaters, a modest $7 million film earning the number-two box office spot with almost $50 million. It’s a story about men, written and directed by men, and relishing in ideas of brotherhood and sex. Even so, Magic Mike has become a polarizing emblem of the rising change in Hollywood entertainment, a lightning rod in questions of feminism and the female experience. One simple tale born out of Channing Tatum’s previous forays with male stripping has ripped off a Band-Aid of sorts, unleashing questions about the nature of sexual response, hetero male discomfort, objectification, the female experience, and most importantly, how men and women strive to understand each other.
Warner Bros. firmly marketed Steven Soderbergh’s latest to women, eschewing the film’s male themes to prey on a desire to see the naked male form. The PR machine urges the female audience to go wild and delight in the flesh, and according to many accounts, they listened. Tweets began pouring onto the web about wild outbursts at screenings; Jezebel outlined a frenzy of “squeals and shrieks” that led to restlessness as the stripping led way to more pensive storytelling: “during a quiet scene, we heard the distinct sound of a kicked-over wine bottle falling to the floor and rolling. The message was clear: Bring back the half-naked dudes.”
Where previous films sometimes aimed to include moments of objectification (Taylor Lautner continually going topless in New Moon), Magic Mike relies on it. It relies on the women who make the business worthwhile in the film, and the women who hit the theaters to see it in real life. Though it’s very much a male-centric story, it needs women to make up for the hetero male discomfort facing the film.
Before elaborating on the many ways the film will appeal to the male demographic, EW’s Darren Franich recounts:
“I have to admit that — as a straight dude — I felt awkward about going to see Magic Mike. Or at least I discovered myself overthinking the whole process of going to see the movie. Last week, my internal monologue looked something like this: ‘Should I take a date? But wouldn’t that set a weird tone for the evening? No way I can compete with Joe Werewolf. Maybe she’ll think I’m gay... Maybe if I take two girls, it’ll be less awkward. Do I know two girls… Oh, what, the movie is about male strippers? That’s cool. I didn’t realize that. Personally, I’m just here for the themes.’“
Franich goes on to talk about an episode of Louie, where “Louis C.K. talks about the peculiar anxiety of the modern heterosexual male, pointing out that straight men are the one demographic who feel outright threatened by the notion that their sexual orientation is not set in stone.” Magic Mike certainly taps into that, but it also reveals the gender barrier. Women might be happy to see men fight each other in tights or relish in the tarty world of Sin City, but “For Women” holds this rampant stigma of otherness.
This imbalance is so prevalent that it extends to how we view the male and female forms. Tracy Clark-Flory wrote an interesting piece for Salon about the discomfort with the male body. She questioned: “Why is female-oriented male stripping so often unsexy? Why is it so prone to eliciting women’s laughs or cringes?” The most prevalent answer: penises are floppy. Clark-Flory goes on to share research suggesting women are less visual creatures, theories that straight women are more aroused by demonstrations of desire, and ideas that the giddiness rises out of doing something seen as taboo. But after all the speculation: “I find myself settling on a sad thought: That the parodic nature of male stripping is an inevitable result of devaluing women’s sexuality and desire — whether it’s by the female viewers themselves, the dancers or producers of these shows. But then Safron pointed out an alternate, and even complimentary, view — that it’s a case of male erotic power not being taken seriously.”
The fact is, men and women aren’t used to discourse on female desire and men’s bodies, let alone manifestations of that desire. Historical imbalance has led to a ridiculously messy environment of misinformation, discomfort, and craziness. The only real sexual education seems to come from trial and error. We’re in a world where romance novels and erotica claim that the clitoris is half-way up the woman’s vagina (it’s really not). We seem to know how to appreciate the female form, but not understand how it works, and likewise, know how the male form works but feel uncomfortable appreciating it. Though artists like Herb Ritts have made art out of men’s bodies, we’re constantly conditioned to laugh at them, to think they’re ridiculous.
But it’s not all laughing. Some is simple glee – excitement over all-too-rare visual stimulation. As much as this world is rife with gender confusion and imbalance, aren’t the exuberant reactions to Magic Mike just like that awkward person at the concert who covertly taps their foot, then sways, and then sheds their inhibitions and dances to the music? I wonder if men and women approach sexualized images differently (fun and lively male strip clubs versus exploitative leering in female strip clubs), or if women just haven’t been given the space to evolve as far with their reactions. It’s always glee because it’s so rare.
Devin Faraci aptly surmises: “The male gaze is historically gross, to be honest – exploitative and condescending. The female gaze, it turns out, is a wild hootenanny. Some of that, it seems to me, comes from the fact that this aspect of femininity was repressed for so long. There's a sense of joy at letting it loose.” Then again, Slate’s Alyssa Rosenberg suggests that Magic Mike reveals a fundamental difference between film’s male and female strippers, that “when the women touch the men, it’s never presented as a violation, but instead as an affirmation for both parties,” which is unlike the female movie strippers who are “constantly subject to threats of harassment and assault, and their deployment of their sexuality cheapens them rather than highlighting a talent.” Excitement would certainly be bred from any entertainment striving to affirm both parties instead of marginalize either.
A twitter conversation last week led to e-mailing with Devin, Jenni Miller, Todd Gilchrist, and Alex Huls about the phenomenon, and the idea of safe spaces continued to pop up. Todd thought that the film legitimized women’s “raunchy objectifications” in a way that is “safe,” while Jenni noted that “women are getting more comfortable about expressing their desire in public spaces” and Alex wondered: “I’m not sure if women are learning how to react, so much as learning that they can react, perhaps.”
This is a world where one journalist drove elsewhere “and paid $32 to park just so we did not see Magic Mike at the local theater where we could quite possibly – God forbid – see anyone we knew. Or anyone who knew our children, now grown up enough to be horrified.” The entire piece is steeped in prudish condemnation and heavy irony, condemning any female agency present in the film because they don’t jive with the writer’s world view, but it’s this strange insistence that it is shameful to see Magic Mike that resonates.
Yes, female audiences are currently objectifying the men on the screen. Is that bad? Is it a double standard? As Devin sees it, it’s not “a double standard; it’s a function of emerging freedom. In a decade or two we can take 40-year-old moms to task for sexually screaming at 17-year-old movie or pop stars.” He has a point. For all the discourse that insists we should all be on an equal playing field, it cannot be equal without experience and understanding – without the opportunity to enjoy the perks that the male moviegoer has enjoyed for many years, let it finally feel natural, and then re-examine.
If we take the concert analogy in another direction: When two people meet, there is often a period of uneasiness as the strangers get to know each other and find common ground. When they do, it’s the stuff of epic romance, brotherhood, and sisterhood. In one e-mail, Jenni wrote: “communication is sexy. Giving a voice to desire is important.”
Perhaps Mike’s real magic is not his gyrating prowess, but his creation of a space that gives a voice to female desire and leads us closer to real human interaction on and off the screen. It might seem like a poetic dream, but it’s about damn time we strike down notions that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, no matter what new rom-com films with Reese Witherspoon are emerging.
*This column came together thanks to the great insights of Jenni Miller, Devin Faraci, Todd Gilchrist, and Alex Huls, all of whom deserve your attention.