Note: This post contains some plot details for Magic Mike XXL.
Out of all the movies I’ve seen in theaters this year, the two that have left me with something akin to a “Hell yeah feminism!” high were Mad Max: Fury Road — and Magic Mike XXL. The former features female characters fighting back against male oppressors. And the latter? Female characters enjoying the undivided and unbridled attention of men who make it their mission to please them. Yes, Magic Mike XXL puts women front and center and is one of the most body-positive, sex-positive, female-loving movies of recent memory. Yes, the stripper movie sequel. And more people need to see it — especially men.
Women dominated the ticket sales (96 percent) for the sequel, which pulled in $27.9 during the five-day weekend. Perhaps men stayed away thinking they aren’t its targeted audience, which is true in one sense. But it is also true that men — and here I recognize I’m mainly discussing straight men and straight women — need to watch Magic Mike XXL to learn a thing or two about the ladies. The movie, directed by Gregory Jacobs and written by star Channing Tatum and Reid Carolin, may follow a team of male strippers who each have their own goals and desires, but ultimately, the loose story and energetic dance scenes exist to please women.
Jada Pinkett Smith’s character, Rome, reigns over a Savannah club filled to the brim with women enjoying male entertainers. Rome calls them queens, a term she uses later with female attendees at a stripper convention as emcee for the boys’ last hurrah. The message is clear to them and to female viewers: They — we — deserve attention and adoration. They — we — deserve to be pleased and to have someone ask, What do you want?, and then deliver. You want a glimpse at female desire? Joe Manganiello’s memorable number in the finale gives a great rundown by “illustrat[ing] an understanding that love, marriage and hot, animalistic sex need not be antithetical,” writes Soraya Nadia McDonald in The Washington Post. He’s charming, considerate and confident as he goes through a wedding pantomime with an audience member — before lifting her into a sex swing and performing an impressive gymnastics routine around her, all while she laughs in delight. His number segues from “Marry You” by Bruno Mars to “Closer” by Nine in Nails — from “I think I wanna marry you” to “I want to f*ck you like an animal.” And it works because those sentiments — being cherished and being ravished — are not contradictory. They’re hot on their own, and one’s mileage may vary when it comes to matrimony. But together? Now that’s an ultimate fantasy for many.
Magic Mike XXL is the anti-50 Shades of Grey. E.L. James is right, of course, by tapping into the notion that women (and men) want to be wanted, but her delivery and psychology of conflating an abusive childhood with S&M desires are all wrong. No woman here is seen pining for her stalker or crying because she’s heartbroken. We see a few dejected faces of women who have been let down or screwed over by men (notably from the excellent sequence featuring Andie MacDowell), but the road trippin’ strippers are there to sing to them and dance for them and remind them they deserve better. The titular Mike (Tatum) isn’t even after the girl (Amber Heard). They have chemistry, but his quest is to help her shake off her insecurities and let go of the jerk who hurt her. And he does, and she does. At the end of the movie — after she’s experienced a thorough bumping and grinding number from Mike — she’s smiling and laughing with her friends. It’s not thanks to him; Mike didn’t save the day, and the message isn’t that she needed a man to be happy. She needed a boost of confidence and a reminder of her self-worth. You don’t need a good striptease to get that, but it sure as hell doesn’t hurt. Matt Bomer’s character does the same for a middle aged woman unsure of how to fix the rut that is her marriage. He holds her, and sings Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” to her, and lets her know she’s worth more than she’s getting. She’s moved to tears.
I couldn’t tell if all the extras in the performance scenes were actresses or just very lucky bystanders, but even if they were professionals, they surely weren’t acting the entire time. These women of various ages and sizes are downright giddy at their circumstances as they are flipped and flattered and gazed upon. They are giggling and nervous and out of breath and wide-eyed, exactly how most would react to finding themselves the recipient of a striptease by Tatum or Manganiello or Bomer. It is light-hearted but also empowering. There is no male gaze in Magic Mike XXL, only the female gaze. Women have complete agency, and so do the men.
Perhaps I’m most surprised by Magic Mike XXL because it feels like it slipped through the cracks at Hollywood. It got the green light based on the success of the original, sure, but the sequel, which is devoid of crass humor or sexism or judgment, feels like a fluke. Even Pitch Perfect 2, celebrated for being a female-centric film that ruled the box office its opening weekend, carries with it jokes at the expense of Rebel Wilson’s character Amy, or “Fat Amy,” as does the original. She calls herself Fat Amy as a defense mechanism, and it’s her right to do so. But how great is it to see bigger women who aren’t trying to beat others to the punch line because the punch line doesn’t exist? Women who are who they are, no commentary needed? Such jokes aren’t present in Mike, which proves they aren’t needed. Let’s skip the tearing each other down part and focus on building each other up. We’re queens, after all.
Magic Mike XXL is an immensely fun reminder to women that they shouldn’t be ashamed of their bodies or of their desires, and it’s a perfect lesson for men that confidence and the desire to satisfy go a long, long way. A buff, glistening body isn’t a requirement. You wanna know what a woman wants? Ask her.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. You can find her on Twitter.