General spoilers ahead for Magic Mike XXL.
Late in the sequel Magic Mike XXL, sultry club owner Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith) takes the stage at a strip show to present the male-entertainer protagonists to a vast crowd of eager, screaming lady spectators. “Are you ready to be worshiped?” she asks. “Are you ready to be exalted?” And the shrieking takes on a level of enthusiasm not much short of hysteria. It’s teen-girls-watching-The-Beatles-at-Shea levels of excitement. The onscreen audience is certainly ready to be worshipped. By extension, after 90 minutes of small samples and deliberate teasing in the dance department, the audience watching the movie in the theater is ready for the promised payoff in grinding, thrusting, skin-baring male-entertainer love too. (They aren’t subtle about it, either. At the Chicago pre-release screening, the real-life audience’s screams of delight sometimes drowned out the movie audience’s screams. This is one crowd-pleasing movie.)
The big dance-parade at the end of Magic Mike XXL is the apotheosis of a movie that’s openly about female pleasure, about male characters—and the movie stars who play them—coyly but willingly displaying themselves for the female gaze, and inviting on-and-offscreen audiences to objectify them and drool over them. It’s a raucous good time, with the onscreen crowd modeling how the theater crowd should behave: Go nuts, ladies, this is all for you. There’s no shame in expressing what you want or exactly how you want it. Let’s get exalted.
There’s a weird disconnect, though, between the onscreen audiences in Magic Mike XXL and the theater viewers, and not just because the onscreen crowd is often getting a much more tactile experience, and has the ability to reward their oiled-up, well-waxed heroes by covering them in dollar bills. (Drafthouse Theater apparently gave viewers fake bucks to throw at the screen during Magic Mike XXL screenings, in a Rocky Horror Picture Show-esque show of participation, and some early viewers report people throwing actual money in their screenings, but Warner Bros. hasn’t figured out how to transmit theater-thrown cash directly to the actors yet.) The theater crowds also have the remove of voyeurism; they know this graphic sexual display is for their entertainment and titillation, but that they don’t have to participate as anything but viewers. They know they’re safe from getting tossed around, used as props, or given faux-facials they weren’t primed to expect.
The onscreen voyeurs, on the other hand, run all these risks—and appear to love it. And that’s where the overt fantasy of Magic Mike XXL sometimes gets difficult to buy. The film is intentionally designed as an amiable, accessible, all-genders-friendly story, where men are invited to identify with Mike and his Kings Of Tampa crew as they bond over locker-room talk or bask in delirious female admiration, while women are invited to identify with the women the Kings Of Tampa live to serve and service. The guys are self-effacing and sweet with each other; any sense of competition or jealousy between them is short-lived. The women are equally upbeat; when one is singled out for a special role or special treatment, everyone else seems happy for her. This is a utopian fantasy world full of good feelings, naked skin, huge muscles, shared experiences, and nonstop contact highs.
But the dance numbers take the fantasy from broad, general, and idealized to concrete and specific, in ways that can be off-putting, or just laughable. When Mike hears his theme song, Ginuwine’s “Pony,” while working alone in his workshop late at night, and he lets the rhythm grab him for a moment, he’s expressing a simple kind of pleasure in movement and physical control. (He’s also keeping the moment ultra-brief, seeing as how this scene is one of the movie’s many frustrating teases. As a dance movie, and a sex movie, MMXXL really gets off on withholding from its audience until the big climax.)
But the dances involving women don’t have the same sense of personal joy: They’re all performative, and they all go in one of a few ways. The strippers single out partners and grab them, flipping them upside-down and waddling around with them, splaying their legs and holding them up with firm grips on their buttocks. They whirl them around like flags in a color-guard routine. They bury their faces in their partners’ crotches, simulating cunnilingus, or hump the air above their partners’ faces, simulating fellatio. At some point during every one of these routines, the lucky lady selected from the audience for a little special treatment stops being a volunteer and becomes a tool in a sexually charged public weightlifting display. And it goes further: When Rome challenges Mike to prove he’s still got the chops to dance, he pulls an impromptu performance that involves pushing women onto their hands and knees, simulating rear-entry sex on them, doing a little pommel-horse action across their backs, then lying on top of them like the top bar of a sawhorse.
None of this is necessarily beyond belief for a real-world strip show. When I discussed the film with a friend, she pulled out her phone to show me pictures from a recent bachelorette party where the male entertainment did pick up and flip several of the guests (including one surprised, not-at-all-pleased lady who was “wearing Spanx with a crotch cutout for bathroom time”). He pulled many of the same groin-and-face moves while wearing only a skimpy thong. But the expressions on his targets’ faces in those pictures range from shock to mortification to paralyzed discomfort. It’s one thing to watch these antics onscreen, from a safe remove, where the shock is part of the emotional charge. It’s another thing to experience them up close and in your own face—and without any input into how your body gets used.
Magic Mike XXL never acknowledges the potential discomfort in the equation; it doesn’t fit with the fantasy. The film’s bevy of strip-show attendees are beyond thrilled when, for instance, one of them gets strapped into an onstage sex swing, dry-humped, then forgotten and left dangling for the rest of the show. Mike’s latest love interest, Zoe (Amber Heard), repeatedly resists being volunteered for the final number, and has to be physically dragged onstage, over her protests—but then she seems overjoyed to be publicly groped, straddled, flopped onto her stomach, and face-humped by a sweaty, mostly naked near-stranger. And probably the movie’s least believable idea of female pleasure comes from its dude-porn love of the faux money shot. In one scene, Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) tries to lure a smile from a bored convenience-store clerk by writhing his way through the chips aisle spraying Cheetos in all directions, then simulating masturbation and spraying water from a crotch-level bottle in a parody of ejaculation. In another, a dancer at Rome’s club squirts oil all over himself and a fully-clothed target, then smears the oil into her dress and skin while she wails in excitement. In a third, Tito (Adam Rodriguez) pours chocolate sauce all over three clothed women, smears it around with his tongue, then spritzes all three with an unlikely, explosive burst of whipped-cream, implying a prodigious three-partner facial. It’s all outrageous, over the top, and fairly hilarious. But is it sexy? The women onscreen certainly think so.
Well, except for that store clerk, who regards Richie’s antics with the dull-eyed discontent of someone who hates her job, and probably hates it even more when some sexed-up clown makes a big mess that she’s going to have to clean up. It feels significant that no matter how much clothing Richie removes, how energetically he gyrates, or how graphically he pretends to come in her direction, she only gives him the smile he wants when he actually talks to her. When he treats her a little like a person, she engages for the first time. And that’s the film’s smartest and most heavily underlined message—but it’s a message the narrative itself only accepts intermittently.
We could get all culture-of-consent on the idea of a performer spraying his audience with fluids, or manhandling a woman’s body without warning or permission, or even against her repeatedly expressed desires. That’s probably taking the film too seriously; no matter how seriously it presents its messages about female pleasure, it’s still primarily a big musical sexual fantasy, not a treatise on bedroom etiquette. Let’s just stipulate that women generally don’t go to strip shows hoping to come home with chocolate and whipped cream smeared all over their clothes, and that not every woman wants to be picked up, inverted, and paraded around a club ass-first. There’s certainly no hesitation onscreen about any of this behavior—anything the entertainers do, their audience adores. And that’s where the film’s dedication to “worshipping and exalting” female bodies starts to feel strained, because it becomes a one-size-fits-all parade of sexually hyperbolic performance for an uncritical, endlessly approving audience.
Magic Mike XXL is making plenty of headlines as a “feminist film,” a term that in cinema reviews is rapidly becoming a catch-all meaning, more or less, “foregrounds at least one woman instead of treating them all as background objects.” There’s a whiff of irony to the feminist label in this case, considering how often women in this film are used as dance props. But there’s a lot of truth to it, too. For all that the movie assumes one kind of strip-show fandom—the kind that wants nonstop simulated sex, with plenty of you-will-get-wet audience-spraying—it spends a lot of time carefully and emotionally considering the female experience, too. The film is overtly about women’s pleasure on so many large and small levels. It isn’t just the pleasure of being performed for, or attended to, or having the power in a consumer transaction between performer and client. It’s about being seen as an individual with specific needs, and having those needs met.
And that emerges in some oddball ways, but also some fairly tender and intelligent ones. Mike first meets Zoe on a beach, and they have their first conversation in near-darkness. Narratively, it’s an overlong and draggy scene, and visually, it’s confusing and dull, since it’s so hard to see what’s going on. The sequence only really works on a thematic level: Neither of them can objectify the other. They can’t judge each other by facial beauty, or body type, or what they’re wearing: They can’t even see each other. They can only engage intellectually. When Zoe makes a pass, and Mike turns her down, he isn’t rejecting her personally; he’s honestly expressing that he isn’t ready for a casual hookup after his recent breakup. He’s a female fantasy many times over in that moment: sensitive, wounded, not interested in casual sex, in need of emotional rescue. But he’s also engaging with her as a person, not a body.
Similarly, in a later scene where the Kings Of Tampa wind up in the home of aging Southern belle Nancy (Andie MacDowell) and spend a long time tangentially discussing sex and romance with a group of appreciative middle-aged ladies, the focus winds up being on how women’s needs are or aren’t met in the sack, and what women deserve, and how they should feel free to ask for what they want. It’s a quiet moment that leads to a personal connection, and even the frathouse leers the next morning can’t dispel the sense that the film is paying respect to the sexual interests of older women, instead of sneering at them as cougars. For that matter, the entire film is filled with women of types rarely seen on Hollywood screens: large women, dark-skinned women, older women, women without curves, women with freckles and wrinkles and sags, women who aren’t Hollywood-beautiful. And all of them are expressing their sexuality shamelessly and gleefully, without becoming punchlines.
Rome in particular underlines the movie’s swoony focus on female pleasure. She calls her clients “queens” so many times, she seems to be trying to crown them through sheer force of will, and it isn’t just an act: Her entire business model is based on how much she enjoys making women feel important, loved, and well-serviced. The long sequence where Mike and the crew visit her to ask for her help becomes a parade through her business and her philosophy, as she singles women out from the audience for a dance, or to have her in-house singer Andre (Community’s Donald Glover) improvise a song glorifying them. Andre later says that just asking women what they want, and listening to the answers, makes him special in their lives; he calls himself a healer because he’s so good at building the fantasies women need.
And Mike and the others take all this lecturing to heart. Part of their journey is about finding themselves so they can design those identity-expressing dances. But most of it is about taking their “male performance” to the next level by focusing not on presenting their own bodies, but on lavishing attention on their audience’s bodies. It’s an unusual message in an entertainment environment that’s still learning how to address female sexuality and female pleasure without looking ridiculous, earning scorn, or scaring off male viewers.
But in this film, the newfound dedication to intensive lady-pleasuring still manifests via manhandling and spraying the audience. Dating women in MMXXL is about respect, communication, and individuality. Pleasuring them is about trotting out a few tried-and-true showoff moves. There’s nothing inherently wrong about any of the stunts that keep coming out in the dances—sexuality runs a wide, wide gamut, one woman’s never-not-ever is another woman’s idea of light foreplay, and there are no doubt plenty of women out there who are into the specific activities being fetishized onscreen here. And regardless of whether it expresses its respect for lady-pleasure through gentle verbal caresses or nearly hardcore pelvic action, MMXXL is subversive and forward-thinking about women’s sexuality. It’s daringly inclusive about the women it puts onscreen, and daringly feminist in claiming that there are many ways to express masculinity simply by treating women well. There are plenty of reasons to love the film, or at least to have a sweaty one-night stand with it in the theater. But it’d be a stronger film if it played with women’s individual sexual fantasies half as energetically as it plays with their bodies.