Sex defines Hollywood as much as acting, cocaine and TMZ. Film is rooted in its ability to convey sex to its audiences, be it through subtle glances and double entendres or full-on bedpost breaking fuck fests. Laura Mulvey’s iconic essay on the male gaze posits the theory that film is defined by the men behind the camera and the primarily male audience who consumes what is filmed, ergo it presents women as objects of heterosexual male pleasure in this context. The camera, for instance, may linger longer on the naked female form, or render its female characters passive in the face of sexual aggression from men. Mulvey’s theory categorizes this watching of women for pleasure in two ways: One of voyeurism, where the assumed male audience’s fantasies are encouraged and fed, and one of narcissism, a form of recognizing oneself in the viewer. All of this makes the idea of a female gaze harder to nail down in Mulvey’s view, as, ‘the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze.’
That hasn’t stopped us from trying, obviously. The female gaze is an idea we’ve discussed - and revelled in - on this site before, from images of powerful, non-sexualized women in battle to the sexual pleasure derived from non-conventional male forms, to the shameless application of objectifying standards onto men that are usually applied to women. Still, this is not something the film industry regularly invites or encourages. Even as audiences expand and diversify, the coveted demographic is still that of a straight white dude aged between 18 and 35, preferably with middle-class levels of disposable income and a penchant for superheroes. It’s rare that a star positions themselves as a sexual object to be consumed by female audiences, and rarer so that it be done without disdain for them. Women’s sexuality is generally to be mocked, ignored or exploited. It’s not a priority to pander to it.
Channing Tatum never got that memo.
The stripped turned Abercrombie and Fitch model has spent a decent chunk of his acting career as a teenage dream, muscled and inviting and centred for the gaze of girls and women. While he no longer pads out his filmography with middling action fare and has found himself a surprise auteur muse, he’s been savvy enough to know the mileage that can be extracted from maintaining a solid and open relationship with that demographic. Jocks come and go but Tatum knew when to evolve.
Voted the most athletic at his high school, Tatum attended college on a football scholarship but dropped out and took odd jobs, including time as a roofer. Obviously, that would have made a less interesting movie than his brief foray into the world of stripping, where he worked under the name ‘Chan Crawford’. This period proved to be fascinating from a storytelling point of view, and it was clear from the earliest point that Tatum knew the movie potential for the bizarre world of stripping, from the drugs and economic anxiety to chest waxing and hard partying. In an interview with GQ, Tatum talked of the stripping industry as being ‘an alternate reality… I just couldn’t believe this world I was in.’ For any 19 year old guy, this atmosphere of women, revelry and baby oil would probably be the ultimate dream, and Tatum certainly had his fun, but also admits he was glad to get out of it when he did, as much fun as it was to ‘walk on the wild side for a second.’
Tatum later moved to Miami and was scouted as a model, which led to work for Abercrombie and Fitch, a brand that practically screams ‘young Channing Tatum’ - the right level of hunky meathead. TV ad work followed - and a brief appearance in the video for She Bangs by Ricky Martin - before he took the jump into legitimate acting. 2006 was certainly his breakout year - a part as Amanda Bynes’s love interest in teen comedy She’s The Man, a solid turn in Sundance hit A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (which won the cast a Special Jury Prize), and, of course, Step Up. The low budget dance film that spawned an array of sequels and made hundreds of millions of dollars is the kind of film you saw a lot of in the 1980s, from Flashdance and beyond. It was a top notch project for Tatum to make an impact: A story that required extensive use of his physicality - and a few lingering shots of his buff form - and offered a chemistry laden emotional and romantic hook through the central romance. The Step Up franchise has proven itself a major crowd-pleaser over the years, well beyond the films where Tatum appears, but that magnetism he offered certainly helped lead the way, and brought with him the attention of many young women. Step Up is also the film where he met his wife Jenna Dewan. They married three years after meeting on-set, and doesn’t that just make everything so much sweeter?
Solid, if unremarkable work followed over the years, and Tatum caught the attention of some major directors in-between more conventionally dumb action fare like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and cloying Nicholas Sparks romances like Dear John. While the mainstream hoped to mould him into the proto-typical action man-slash-ladies choice, auteurs like Michael Mann sought the layers underneath the chiselled surface. He was certainly keen to prove his capabilities beyond the appeal of his abs, noting in another GQ profile that ‘No one’s calling me for lawyer roles. I still have a lot to do to prove myself.’
One auteur, Steven Soderbergh, found a kindred spirit in Tatum. Soderbergh is arguably the most prominent director of his era who revels in constant shifts in tone, style and content. This is the man who went from The Limey to Erin Brockovich to Traffic to Ocean’s Eleven in the space of three years. He’s a film-maker who often seems to be working from the perspective of ‘one for you, one for me’: Make the crowd-pleaser Ocean’s Twelve then go off and film a mostly improvised drama about workers in a doll factor using non-professional actors and edit the thing yourself. 2012’s Haywire feels like a bit of both: It’s an action film but one centred on a little known mixed martial artist who does her own stunts. It’s the sort of film men have made about them all the time. Tatum is sharp in Haywire, and clearly Soderbergh saw something in him that intrigued his unique sensibilities, because his next film was Magic Mike.
Tatum’s past as a stripper was exposed in 2009 when a former employer of Tatum’s sold a video of him performing to Us Weekly. In it, Tatum looks very young, very fit and seems to be enjoying himself. Women scream and the clothes come off. Allegedly, Tatum’s team were terrified that this revelation would kill his career, or at the very least reduce him to a public joke, but Tatum, to his credit, shook off such embarrassment. ‘I’m not ashamed of it,’ he said to GQ. ‘I don’t regret one thing. I’m not a person who hides shit.’ He took that lack of shame and he used it, working with Soderbergh to turn this part of his past, previously thought too sketchy to reveal to fans, into box office gold. Magic Mike is a sensitive examination of masculinity and post-recession economic anxiety in America that just happens to feature stripping. Tatum had originally hoped for Nicholas Winding Refn to direct - boy that would have been something - but Soderbergh is ideal for Magic Mike, and that $7m indie film grossed a glorious $167m worldwide. Funnily enough, ticket sales were higher in red states than blue. Tatum is great in the lead. It’s a truly brilliant dramatic performance that hangs a lampshade on the fact that he looks like that.
If Magic Mike showed Tatum could do serious, that same year, 21 Jump Street showed he could be intensely funny. His work is the self-aware version of the early Channing Tatum image: Cute but kind of slow, only here it’s hilarious. Being funny is a good route for the muscled man to prove his worth in Hollywood. It’s done wonders for the wrestling world, particularly The Rock and John Cena, who know how to work a crowd for maximum effect. Tatum’s image has always been more sensitive than that - the dancer with the heart of gold, the Sparks romantic hero - but the jock-ness helps make that palatable to a male audience. Women love stripper Channing; men love sports hardass Tatum. Few actors have wielded their own public image so powerfully and effectively in the modern era as Channing Tatum. There’s plenty for men to enjoy, but really, Channing is for the girls. More than any actor today, Tatum has the keenest self-awareness of how he appeals to female audiences.
While Tatum has expanded his range to include further action stuff like White House Down and impressive dramatic performances in Foxcatcher and Side Effects, the film that may exemplify the power of Tatum more than anything else is Magic Mike XXL. Where the first film was a covert drama concealed by abs, this is pure spectacle and damn proud of it. This is not a film of stakes or gambles or social commentary, but it is one with a radical message: The sexuality of women - or at least straight women - is a thing to be treasured. Magic Mike XXL is essentially a love letter to those women. It bends over backwards - with a quick groin thrust - to accommodate their pleasure. In one scene, Joe Manganiello dances through a convenience store to try and make the sullen shop worker smile (all set to that most nostalgic of bands, The Backstreet Boys), while in another scene, the band of roaming strippers stay at a mansion where Andie MacDowell and her friends are staying, and they’re delighted to entertain these older women. There are no cougar jokes, there’s no eyeroll over the idea of middle-aged women enjoying sex, and there’s no disgust at the prospect of loving them. These men find true purpose in making women happy through their bodies. And they aren’t just women in their eyes. As Jada Pinkett Smith’s emcee says, they are queens, ready to be worshipped and exalted. Magic Mike XXL is a sillier affair than its auteur-led predecessor, but it takes the joy of women completely seriously, and that’s a depressing rarity in a male dominated industry.
It’s hard to imagine a gender-swapped version of this, simply because society wouldn’t allow the same standards to apply. An actress who worked as a 19 year old stripper to a crowd of braying men probably wouldn’t be able to own that and fictionalize her life for artistic purposes in the same way Tatum did. That’s one of the reason’s Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze cannot be so easily subverted to offer women the same power: Society just doesn’t do that for us. Tatum is special as a star because he has made an explicit choice to be a sexual object for the opposite gender. Most women don’t get that offer, because as Mulvey notes, the camera is practically made to consume them in a more objectifying standard that offers little ownership in return. Even for Tatum, his sexuality is still rooted in power, strength and active seduction, never passivity.
A lot of Tatum’s appeal also lies in the coziness of his real life. He and Dewan have been together for 11 years now, and their daughter was born in 2013. The pair offer a united front on red carpets and social media, and it’s clear that Tatum just adores Jenna Dewan-Tatum. Their Lip Sync Battle could easily have been a silly bet between them that just happened to become a big damn deal. Tatum is the bigger star but it’s clear he sees himself as second fiddle to Jenna. If Magic Mike XXL is Tatum’s way of adoring women, it’s made that much sweeter for female audiences when they know he goes home every night a proud family man. Even when he jocks out, as he did in a GQ interview where he took the female reporter for tequila and camping, he still calls ahead to clear it with his wife.
Tatum’s brand of cinematic sexuality probably couldn’t have happened any other time than our decade, but his presence is a fascinating call-back to another era of movie masculinity. His fluid physicality and dancing skills, so inextricably tied to his acting and his persona, are akin to the prime era of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, albeit with more visible abs. It’s not that he makes dancing masculine: It’s simply that it is. His role in the Coen Brothers’ homage to the golden age of cinema, Hail, Caesar! delighted in exploiting this parallel, giving him a dexterous tap number evocative of On The Town. He grins, he slides across tables, he moves like a man who’s danced all his life. Tatum, like Kelly, is the consummate performer.
Tatum has yet to do a superhero movie, although he’s got a role in the upcoming sequel to Kingsman later this year and has put in time as Lego Superman. He’s been attached to the Gambit movie for quite some time, but little forward traction has happened for that project in the past year. Given the success of Deadpool, it would be silly for Fox to not jump on an opportunity to further display the talents of an oft-underestimated leading man. Even if the now expected route of franchise gigs doesn’t work out for him, Channing Tatum has carved out a unique niche for himself: Part Soderbergh muse, part sexual idol, part old school leading man, and all with the most carefully controlled understanding of who he is and how he appeals to the masses.
Not bad for a guy who my followers kept comparing to a potato.