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Male Strippers and the Female Gaze

Still of Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) (all “Magic Mike” images courtesy Warner Bros.)

At first glance, Steven Soderbergh’s new film, Magic Mike, is about a charismatic male stripper looking to cash in his gold lamé G-string to pursue his dream of designing (and selling) custom-made furniture. Like many emerging artists that work as art handlers, he’s at a crossroads. He’s in his thirties, his body is beginning to break down, and the job that pays the bills is eating into his creativity, his passion.

On closer inspection, Magic Mike is about the male body, and pleasure and gratification in looking at it in the movie theater, i.e., a darkened room. The subject, you could say, is voyeurism. In that respect, Magic Mike suggest a possible paradigm shift in mainstream Hollywood cinema. Unlike the majority of Hollywood films, the women in this movie are the voyeurs — aiming an aggressive gaze — while the men function as the bodies being observed.

A stage scene from “Magic Mike.”

This is a nice mix-up in the power dynamics between men and women in film. That being said, the film did include two obligatory topless scenes, which featured Olivia Munn and Mircea Monroe. Both Munn and Monroe are seen in close-up, and they are stationary — not moving like Mike and his cohorts. I wonder if Soderbergh included these scenes to provide comfort — or titillation — for the heterosexual males in the audience?

Paris, Workshop of Antonio Canova, Metropolitan Museum of Art. (metmuseum.org)

The men in Magic Mike are always in motion, always on the move. They rarely sit or stand still. Partially nude, yes, but not inert like an object. Therefore, is it accurate to claim that Magic Mike objectifies men? It’s true the cast’s physiques resemble the male figures painted by Agnolo Bronzino, Michelangelo, Nicolas Poussin or the figures sculpted by Antonio Canova and Cellini. Bodies chiseled, muscles toned. No hair misplaced, no wayward blemish. Skin bronzed. The bodies gyrate, thrust and grind. Ain’t no jiggling in this house.

The Kid (Alex Pettyfer) and Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) in “Magic Mike.”

At the same time, Soderbergh does indicate that these bodies are cultivated and require upkeep. The guys of XQuisite are shown working out, practicing the dances and shaving their legs. (One of the best scenes in the movie shows Matthew McConaughey — in Speedos and a yellow muscle tee, something my mother would wear to her aerobics class — coaching a protégé named The Kid how to striptease.) Also, he makes a point of showing that the bodies of the veteran dancers are in decline. One of the funnier moments in the film is seeing the dancer Big Dick Richie using a sewing machine to piece together his G-string and needing to wear reading glasses to see the stitching. In a routine later on, he’ll strain his back attempting to lift one of the ladies in the audience. While Soderbergh provides the fantasy, he subverts it, too.

“Sick Of It All (Lou Koller)” at City Gardens. (photo by Ken Salerno)

To inhabit the role of a voyeur of women is old hat for me, but not the role of a voyeur of men. As I watched the film, I thought of the countless Hollywood movies that have featured female strippers. Did Soderbergh present the male stripper in the same manner that female strippers usually are? He presents the dancers in both choreographed group and individual sequences. The camera never lingers, pauses or isolates the male body as it does in films that star women. He did not use extreme close-ups, did not isolate individual body parts. He captures Channing Tatum in long shots, so the film audience clearly gets the sense that he is a gifted dancer, beyond the standard beefcake maneuvers. The one shot where Soderbergh calls attention to his camerawork is when he positions it beneath a transparent floor so the film audience gets a view of Magic Mike dancing from underneath. The audience at Xquisite within the film doesn’t get this vantage point, but we do. These scenes reinforce (or reinforce my self-perceived notions) my physical inadequacies — expanding waistline, pallid flesh, unruly blemishes, rogue hairs. (My wife, who saw the film with a bunch of coworkers, texted me: “Boy, you better learn that Magic Mike routine.” There is no comparison. I’m doomed.)

And the rowdy audience within the film seems to be having a lot more fun than the rest of us. What struck me the most were the shots of the all-women audience in Club Xquisite. The women writhe and shout, and even grope and grab at the dancers, literally shoving their hands into leather chaps and bejeweled thongs, and they even place their mouths over banana hammocks. Compare this to the audience in the movie theater, which was stationary as a corpse. As stationary as the fatsos eyeballing the broken down strippers in the BadaBing in The Sopranos.

The scenes in Club Xquisite reminded me of the hardcore shows I attended as a teenager and young adult. I will always remember seeing NYHC legends Sick of it All play City Gardens in the mid-1990s in Trenton, New Jersey. Before the first song, “Lou,” the front man said, “My mic is your mic. My stage is your stage … Now do you know what time it is … It’s Clobberin’ Time!” The place went nuts.

I climbed on top of some kid’s back to reach the stage and grab the mic. I had to be a part of the action. There was something egalitarian about it. A direct connection between audience and performer.

Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) and L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) in “Rear Window.”

But I sat in the darkened movie theater ogling the self-proclaimed “cock rocking kings” of Club Xquisite, I felt like wheelcair-bound photojournalist L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Both Jefferies and I could not move from our seat as we sit in darkened rooms, staring through the window, watching the ambulatory lives of others go on around us. Whereas Jefferies peeps on Miss Torso, the lithe ballerina that pirouettes around her apartment in various states of undress, I ogle Mike, Big Dick Richie, Tarzan (a poor man’s Mickey Rourke) and The Kid. But is that really the main difference? Or is it that the guys on screen are offering themselves up to be watched while Miss Torso has no idea that Jefferies is watching her? Like a true voyeur, we do not participate in the action, just watch.

Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) bids farewell to the ladies in “Magic Mike.”

Perhaps, this is the point. A striptease, after all, is just a tease. As the illegitimate child of Jim Morrison and Mommie Dearest, McConaughey delivers the performance of a lifetime. He is a kind of bronzed Svengali. (Those black leather pants. That unbuttoned leather vest — which exposed his chiseled abdomen and other unfamiliar muscles I had to use Gray’s Anatomy to identify.) At the end of the film, his solo dance, set to “Calling Doctor Love” by the 1970s rock band Kiss, is pure bacchanalia. The best moment is when he tears off section from the seat of his chaps to reveal two golden orbs known as his gravity-defying buttocks, which triggers a type of feeding frenzy among the audience. The women grab him, tear off his clothes, and even strip his thong, as they shower him in dollar bills. Ah, to be devoured, torn apart, and eaten alive, like Jesus Christ himself. Like Christ, McConaughey promises deliverance, and he delivered.

Magic Mike (2012) is directed by Steven Soderbergh, and it stars Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn, Olivia Munn, Joe Manganiello,Kevin Nash and Matt Bomer. It is playing in theaters across the US and elsewhere.

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