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why magic mike is sexist – but to women, not men

Let me pitch a movie idea to you –

Right, so there’s this young, naïve girl, who gets kicked out of uni and isn’t sure what she’s doing with her life. She moves in with her protective, and somewhat judgmental older brother, who tries to get her a real job.

On one casual shift, she meets a slightly older, charismatic woman who she then runs into while out that evening. The woman takes her to a club, and tells her that in return for the favour, she has to go hit on some men. The girl obliges, and then finds out throughout the course of the evening, that the woman is in fact a stripper!

She then also becomes a stripper, and finds moderate success, tempered by drug abuse and a sort of hazy, reckless nature that is never resolved in the movie. But despite the plot flaws and the fact that there is no real conclusion, the film’s selling point will be lots and lots of semi-nude dance scenes, in all kinds of costumes, with close ups of boobs and whatnot.

Would you see this movie?

Well, for a start, it wouldn’t be the first movie to made about strippers or exotic dancers, and young naïve women joining their ranks (Burlesque and Coyote Ugly come to mind). And it definitely wouldn’t be the first movie to cash in on sexualised images of woman in lieu of a real plot.

Whenever I hear of a film like this being made, I get automatically annoyed though, because I just know that it’ll be basically soft porn that doesn’t make any real point, but might incorporate some pseudo feminism, and most importantly, won’t offer a nuanced view of the stripping industry. See, I have no issue with strippers and stripping, and raunch culture. (I have an issue with raunch feminism but that’s a different article). But movies about female strippers are not in any way empowering, the way that I imagine stripping itself could be empowering to the individual.

So to summarise, I would not want to see this movie.

Having said that, I did see Magic Mike, which is the actual movie I’m talking about, but with male strippers instead of female. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, read Courtney Dawson’s review of the film here.

Basically an excuse for a bunch of buff men to gyrate while oiled up in front of the camera, and targeting an audience of presumably horny women and gay men, Magic Mike is light on plot and real content, and big on abs and g-strings.

But the film does say some interesting things about sexuality and gender, particularly when it comes to who’s being objectified and when. Because, as Caroline Heldman says, Magic Mike is just old sexism in a new package.

Perhaps some feminists cheered when they saw the release of Magic Mike – finally, a movie where the women are spectators, and men are being objectified. But did anyone ever doubt, for a moment, that the men in each scene retained the power in the situation?

I know that in films about female strippers, I still feel as though the male audience members retain the power in the moment – they are enjoying the strippers’ bodies, and have the money and control in the situation*.

Ostensibly, female spectators could also be considered similarly powerful, but not the way Magic Mike shows it. As Heldman writes, ‘Beyond the foundational theme of male control, many (but not all) of the simulated sex acts the dancers perform in their interactions with female audience members service the male stripper’s pleasure, not hers.’

The dancers shove their crotches at women, in their faces, against their arses, into their hands. They kiss the women, they touch the women, they hoist them over their shoulder as if about to go ravage them. At no point did I feel like any of the male strippers were objects, at the mercy of their female audience.

And more so, the way the female audience was characterised was offensive on other levels. The women were shown to be squealing, quivering fangirls, completely in awe of the strippers, and each yearning to be whisked into their arms. There was no question of who was in the position of power and dominance here.

Look, I’ve never been to a strip show, maybe that’s what happens at them – but the fact that the girls were somehow still objectified throughout the dances was troubling to me. There’s even one scene where one of the dancers hoists a slightly larger woman onto his shoulder, and then hurts his back and we’re supposed to laugh because she was “fat”. Really??

Despite the fact that no one was claiming that this film would be a feminist triumph, and despite the fact that it’s basically fluff entertainment, I hope that people will be savvy in their consumption of Magic Mike.

Nudity aside, what is really on display here?

*Once again, I am not nor have ever been a stripper, and am not claiming that it can’t be empowering for some.

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3 thoughts on “why magic mike is sexist – but to women, not men

  1. My friend is engaged to a male stripper, and I have been to see one of his shows to support her (a poor excuse to say I was curious). It was absolutely nothing like I expected. Instead of the seedy, dingy club I envisioned, I found a clean, welcoming environment where the hordes of women on hens nights or birthday parties could feel safe to socialise with each other and enjoy the shows.
    My friend’s fiancé explained that they were trained on reading people, and would never force people to participate in shows or anything that would make them uncomfortable. The girls I went with commented that they felt in control and never objectified; in fact the performers had an ability to make every woman feel desirable regardless of age or personal appearance.
    Anyway, my impression of the male strip club scene was that it’s a bit of harmless fun where both the performers and the audience were safe and respected. I know that this is just one experience but I wanted to share it to contrast your completely justified and well articulated views on Magic Mike!

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