Earlier this weekend I convinced my boyfriend to go see Magic Mike. Because why not, that’s the sort of thing a normal girlfriend would want to go do. For some reason Chris wanted to avoid the stripper-hooting crowds, so we decided to catch the 4:50 pm showing. This wasn’t ideal—for me, crowds are often the best and most amusing part of the movie-going experience—but I figured that was a good compromise and anyway, wanted to make sure we got home in time to watch the History Channel’s newest episode of Ancient Aliens (they promised to answer the burning question of whether or not Leonardo da Vinci had been abducted by aliens, or experienced time travel—OR BOTH).
Luckily (for me), the theatre was about three-quarters full by the time we got there, not bad for a small Cineplex in Spokane. Unsurprisingly, the audience consisted primarily of middle-aged women, most of whom were dressed conservatively and all of whom looked and sounded drunk. Whether it was alcohol or anticipation I can’t say, but before the lights even went down, I was delighted.
Even more delightful was the audience’s reaction to Channing Tatum’s first full ass-shot, which was followed by a shot of his latest conquest’s bare breasts. The audience hooted affirmatively at the ass, and booed at the breasts. I looked over at Chris, expecting him to be as amused as I was. To say that he was not would be an understatement. I suddenly wondered if this was such a good idea after all.
I ended up thoroughly enjoying the film. It was far from a cinematic masterpiece, but it was about male strippers, for god’s sake—ART wasn’t the point, FUN was the point. And the first section of the film was nothing if not fun. Yes it (initially) glossed over the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse, and no it didn’t attempt to unpack any of the characters’ psychological motives/damage, but even according to the film’s star, realism wasn’t on the menu, at least not at first. Later the tone shifted towards a more cautionary tale about how it’s better to not be a stripper (or something), which challenged if not outright contradicted the logic of the first act. I would have been happy for the movie to stay fun, but thought the pivot towards real life was at least interesting—this wasn’t a through line of tragi-camp, it was camp with a somewhat nuanced girls-make-me-nervous relationship drama tacked onto the end. On top of all that, I liked the characters, and thought the eponymous Mike was a charming, fairly well-rounded character. More importantly, the actors seemed to be having lots of fun, particularly Matthew McConaughey, who was essentially playing a parody of himself.
All in all, I had a good time, as did the audience—with the exception of Chris. It wasn’t until later that I fully understood the source of Chris’ discomfort. As he writes here, he felt that the film merely inverted existing unfair gender norms. Furthermore he was distressed by the lack of diversity in the characters’ bodies, and came away feeling alienated by the apparent masculine ideal.
This put me in a somewhat awkward position. I hadn’t seen the things Chris saw, not in the same ways anyway, which made it difficult to know how exactly I should respond.
First, I thought the film was doing something much more interesting than merely inverting straight male objectification of women. It created a space where a roomful of people—people whose sexualities have historically been, and in many quarters still remain, pathologized—could unapologetically (if drunkenly) declare their own desire. This is rare, and from my perspective, positive. Women don’t always have the option to say I’D HIT THAT in mixed company, and neither do gay men. Straight dudes have that monopoly locked down. Of course, not all straight dudes exercise what I’ll not-giving-a-fuck-edly call straight-dick privilege, but if they wanted to, straight dudes can and frequently do publicize exactly what they’d like to do with their genitals without facing much or any social backlash. Not to mention the fact that you can’t watch a movie or turn on a premium cable channel without being slapped upside the face with precisely the points of anatomical interest that straight dudes most frequently want to rub their penises on or in honor of.
If the movie is “empowering,” then, it’s not due to it’s willingness to “turn the tables” on men—it’s because it acknowledges that straight men aren’t the only people capable of desire, and furthermore that tits aren’t the human body part worth ogling. I mean there we were, in a movie theatre, in America, watching Alcide from True Blood shove his five dollar footlong into a penis pump, while Magic Mike and the newest stripping recruit made small talk. That’s not objectification, that’s slapstick at its most literal.
Regarding Chris’ body image concerns, my first reaction was to welcome him to the club. With hindsight, this may have sounded somewhat insensitive, and inadvertently played into Chris’ assumption that men’s feelings regarding their own body image would be dismissed as being somehow invalid. What I failed to realize is that for this particular woman—and almost all the women I know—talking about and/or struggling with body image issues is so commonplace it’s almost a given. So instead of being surprised when a friend, particularly a female friend, expresses something negative about his or her body, I immediately go into commiseration mode. This is what happened after seeing Magic Mike, but instead of establishing righteously indignant camaraderie, my “yeah it sucks doesn’t it” was taken to mean “stop complaining, penis-haver.”
In all, it was surprising to see just how differently Chris and I experienced this film. I’m not going to make some bullshit Mars/Venus argument, but I will say that my experiences as a straight white woman (to say nothing of the other predicate adjectives you could attach to my name) directly informs how I experience media, as do Chris’ experiences as a straight white man. This is—this should be—an obvious point to make, but is a reminder that if we want to have meaningful conversations about representations of sex and gender, we need to take a few minutes and think about where the other person might be coming from.