Joanna Schroeder is amazed at the way Magic Mike manages to damage both masculinity and the image of female sexuality in one 110-minute sausage fest.
Warning: This review contains spoilers
I walked into Magic Mike expecting to be critical of the ways in which men are objectified in the film. I expected that the guys would be turned into physical ideals for the purpose of the titillation of women, without critical examination of the effects of said objectification. What I found in Magic Mike was actually something much worse.
Not only is Magic Mike a truly terrible film, with a weak storyline and amazingly incomplete character arcs, but it encapsulates most of the things that bother me about gender and sex stereotypes today.
I’ve rewritten this review/critique twice. Part of what makes Magic Mike such a tough film to critique is that it feels like two separate movies that were jammed together at the last minute. One gets the sense that Soderbergh set out to make a dark, sensual examination of the seedy dark side of life as a male stripper, but was derailed so that the Hollywood machine could capitalize on the female desire our society has just recently “discovered”.
The Hollywood-ized film is what you see in the trailers, and it’s the reason the film is making so much money. It’s the beefcake: The greasy, hairless men humping the stage, the chiseled jaws, the dance routines, and the full-moon shots of Matthew McConaughey bending over in a thong. This mainstream portion is just a bunch of fellas swinging their banana hammocks on a stage. Women are supposed to love that, and guys are supposed to envy that. Right? Sure.
And we’re supposed to see Channing Tatum’s “Mike” as a hero. A good guy in a bad situation… Except stripping never really seems like a bad situation for Mike. It seems to work just fine.
The biggest failure of Magic Mike is in trying to “save” Mike from something he doesn’t seem to need saving from. He’s a stripper who’s also also a roofer who makes furniture. He’s saving up his money stripping and roofing so that he can start a business selling said furniture. He’s got money in the bank, $15K to be exact.
He has a girl, “Joanna” (Olivia Munn) he sleeps with who is gorgeous and likes to bring other girls into his bed with her. She expects little from him. He doesn’t want more, she doesn’t offer more. Mike seems happy.
But we’re supposed to look at that life and think, Mike deserves more! But why? Because he’s such a good guy? No. We never see Mike being a good guy. We don’t see him wanting to do more except start a business selling furniture, and nothing should be stopping him, even being rejected from the Small Business loan he thinks he needs. He’s average in every way aside from his body and dancing. And his body and dancing make him a great stripper, which should help him build a future for himself.
Perhaps he’s supposed to be seen as a good guy because he gives an opportunity to a hapless 19 year-old called The Kid to become a stripper like himself. But pushing someone out on stage who didn’t want to dance, telling them to take their clothes off, and then watching them descend into drug addiction and almost dying seems downright predatory.
And here’s where we get into the meat of the problematic masculinity in the film. As a society, we don’t see Mike as a bad guy for introducing The Kid to a life full of money and pussy. Aren’t all men supposed to want, above all, nameless sex and money thrust into their underpants? If he’s flush with cash and surrounded by women, not to mention drugs, what man would care if the world fell apart around him and inside himself?
We have to ask ourselves how we would view Mike if he were to have done the same thing to a hapless 19 year-old girl? He’d be very much a bad man. Even a woman pushing another woman into the sex industry the way Mike pushed The Kid would make her “bad” when the young stripper descended into addiction and excess. But The Kid is a man, therefore he always wants it, even when he says no. Right?
And that should’ve been Soderbergh’s film: Mike leading The Kid down a road that would eventually break him. It should’ve been The Kid’s movie. Because trying to make Mike into a sympathetic hero whom we want to find a “better” life just doesn’t work. Mike doesn’t need a better life. The Kid’s life, however, is a fascinating study in where things go wrong. Of course, Soderbergh drops that ball and decides to make this a formulaic film about how Mike is trying to find true love.
And that leads me to the women in this film… God help these women, and God help the world where these are the women that straight men have to choose from! Mike has two girls: Joanna—Gorgeous, naughty, bisexual, undemanding and ultimately dishonest. Brooke—Cute, virginal, judgmental, tightly-wound, highly demanding and rife with moral integrity.
And isn’t that all we are? Aren’t us girls all just virgins and whores when it comes down to it?
(There is a third woman, the one The Kid gets mixed up with on his descent into the dark side of stripping. A entrancingly beautiful, drugged-out, hollow-eyed ghost of a girl who doesn’t speak, she slurs. There’s a deep sense that she’s been damaged, and now she’s out to damage herself even more. She also who carries around a baby pig that is somehow the best part of the film. The baby pig is the peephole into the film I believe Soderbergh originally set out to make.)
But women are what Mike is all about. Pleasing women, getting them to jam money into his crotch, and trying to make them love him. He can’t have Brooke (the virginal one) because he’s so bad. He can have Joanna’s body, but nothing more. And at first he doesn’t seem to want more. She tells him twice she’s getting her PhD in Psychology, but he doesn’t care enough to remember that. When she stops sleeping with him, he seems devastated and goes back to trying to pursue the virgin.
And here’s where we get to the meat of what is horrible about Magic Mike. Throughout the film Mike pursues both women—the virgin and the whore—and ends up with none. And only when he has no girl to give him attention does he realize that stripping is “bad”, and that he’ll never get the good girl while he’s still “bad”. So he quits stripping and hooray! now the good girl likes him!
And the woman’s chaste virginity conquers all, as it always does. Her purity tamed the big, wild beast of a man and made Mike into just the right guy for her… Never mind his dream of making furniture, which he could’ve achieved with his stripping money. Never mind that stripping never seemed to bother him or affect his life negatively. She thought it was bad, and she’s the good girl, so she must be right.
That’s the message of this film: That you, as men, are not enough. That your life, unless it’s sanctioned by that virginal woman, is not “good”. You’re not good until the girl declares you so. And you better quit being “bad” and meld into society’s view of masculinity or you won’t be loved.
Ultimately, the whole movie is very sad, and the end of Magic Mike left me feeling very unsettled. Despite that great Hollywood ending—Mike quits stripping, so Brooke gives him a chance—I was left with the sense that Mike is pursuing another false sense of fulfillment with Brooke. He’s become what she wants, but does he have any clue who he is? If Soderbergh had left you with just that question, offered up an open ending, that unsettled feeling at the end would’ve been interesting.
But this movie tells you that it shouldn’t matter if Mike is still lost, because he won her love. They walk off into the sunset together, so Hollywood is happy and so are the mindless hordes who go along with the notion that men are bad and it’s a woman’s job to tame them.
There is also a sense that Mike dragged The Kid into the stripping world that crushed him, without really pulling him back out. He may help The Kid get out of immediate trouble, but a deeper, looming sense of dread still floats on the horizon. There is no resolution for The Kid except his protests (through drugged-out eyes) to Mike that his life is great now that he has money and women everywhere… Oh, and the dead-inside girl with the baby pig.
In truth, I think that bizarre little baby pig says a lot about what this film was supposed to be. The appearance of the baby pig and the beautiful, hollow girl are ghosts of a moving, dark portrait of men who are lost in a world where they are put on a path to achievement, but who deviate so far from that path that even the strangest, most haunting sights don’t phase them. This is supposed to be a sad story wherein two innocents are corrupted by trying to be who they aren’t. Mike trying to be “good” for Brooke, and The Kid trying to believe that sex and money will satisfy him.
Ultimately, the worst thing is the absolute waste of Soderbergh’s talent and vision upon a movie that somehow became a way to capitalize on women’s sexuality. I can imagine some studio head in Hollywood saying, “Let’s make this film into a 110 minute sausage-fest and sell it to all the women who read 50 Shades of Grey. We’ll tell them they’re empowered for having seen the film. We’ll sell them that they’re declaring their sexual freedom by screeching when Mike tears off his clothes.”
What they don’t tell you, however, is that in buying what “Magic Mike” has to sell, we’re endorsing antiquated, and ultimately harmful, notions of both femininity and masculinity, not to mention truly toxic models of male-female relationships.
What did you think of the male characters in Magic Mike? How about the women? How could this film have been better?