Hard Times

A more intimate, realistic tale of male strippers than Magic Mike.

Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike and Abraham Amkpa in Hard Times.
Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike and Abraham Amkpa in Hard Times. Only four episodes in, Hard Times is already probing issues Magic Mike was never interested in.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos courtesy of Warner Bros, via YouTube.

When Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike was released in the summer of 2012, it was widely seen as reflective of the precarious economic times: Watching good-looking, down-on-their-luck men like Mike (Channing Tatum) and his wide-eyed protégé Adam (Alex Pettyfer) turn to stripping to pay their bills reinforced just how constricted the job market had become.

The new, aptly titled Web series Hard Times, directed by Tahir Jetter and streaming on Issa Rae’s YouTube channel, takes a similar approach: Lead character Derek (Abraham Amkpa), like Adam, takes up stripping to make money and has to learn how to cater to the desires of women to succeed. That’s where the similarities end, however, and where the narrative path of Hard Times diverges from Magic Mike’s. In its more detailed portrait of both Derek’s money troubles and his steep learning curve when it comes to stripping, Hard Times captures today’s bleak economic picture in a way that feels more grounded and realistic than its cinematic counterpart.

When the series opens, Derek, a personal trainer living in Brooklyn (where the series is shot) is in dire financial straights: His client bookings are few and far between, and his bank account is running on empty. It’s gotten so bad that he tries to walk out on a restaurant bill without telling his girlfriend, Lark (Ashley Denise Robinson), who was in the restroom when his credit card was declined. (The waitress runs after him, at which point he pretends he was “running to the ATM”; Lark, mortified, hands over her credit card.)

Derek is introduced to the world of male stripping by one of his clients, Nia (Bianca Laverne Jones), who frequently hosts and books private dancers for her friends. Astonished by the amount of money the men at a male strip club make, he discusses the possibility of a side gig as a dancer with Lark, who is more amused than anything else at the idea, and approves. Derek takes Nia up on her offer.

Hard Times is only four episodes in—its midseason finale went live a couple of weeks ago—but already it’s probing issues Magic Mike was never truly interested in investigating. Take, for instance, Derek’s awkward transition into an object of sexual desire.

In Magic Mike Adam’s education as a dancer is treated the way road-to-fame narratives always treat their novice stars, at least since Ruby Keeler’s inexperienced hoofer Peggy Sawyer took the place of the injured lead dancer in 42nd Street in 1933: He’s practically an instant star. At first, Adam looks like a deer caught in headlights:

But by the end of the short dance number, he’s gyrating enthusiastically and making out with an overzealous audience member.

Derek’s initiation is treated with far more realism. In the episodes “Feedback Loop” and “In Search of Courage,” his struggle to learn how to be “sexy” to women is honestly and hilariously chronicled. A disastrous first-time performance in front of his roommate Felix (Vladimir Versailles) and Lark in their apartment living room leaves the two on-lookers in stunned silence. Their verdict: Derek’s moves come off as jerky and forced—and they couldn’t be less sexy.

Derek’s comparatively gradual progress as a dancer seems to reflect the director’s own professional struggles; as chronicled in a personal diary over several weeks in Indiewire earlier this year, Jetter has had to work other 9-to-5 gigs (including as a production assistant driver for a Fusion TV show) while trying to get his various creative projects off the ground.

For the most part, Magic Mike’s references to America’s economic crisis simmer beneath the surface, overshadowed by the flash and fun of seeing beautiful men strip. “The scene in which Mike unsuccessfully tries to talk a female bank employee into giving him [a] loan is as close as the movie gets to social commentary,” Dana Stevens wrote in her review. “In this economy, Soderbergh makes plain, a gift for the gab and a mouthwatering set of pecs will only get a man so far.” By contrast, Derek’s lack of money, and his faltering attempts to remedy that problem, is never far from mind. While his roommate is supportive and tries to help him perfect his moves, for example, he’s also blunt about the need to pay his share of the rent.

Even more radical is Hard Times’ portrayal of women and how they interact with the male stripping business. Whereas in Magic Mike, the Xquisite’s roster of performers is comprised of men who pride themselves on knowing what women want, in Jetter’s story, it’s most often the women themselves who have a say over what makes a male stripper a successful one. It’s Nia, for instance, who gets Derek started in the business and hires him for his first gig, a private party, and she and a female friend offer their advice to him on his moves. Later, when Derek has trouble getting an erection before his performance, Nia casually handles his member while giving him a pep talk; a nod to the power she holds (and takes full advantage of) as a sort of talent agent for Derek, and provider of excited women. After the performance, she comes on to him and, embarrassed, Derek rushes out of the apartment, accidentally leaving all of the money he just made behind. These moments of traditional gender role reversal put women in the position of sexual power, a depiction that’s still all too rare on traditional television series, even prestige ones. Women are used to being sexualized at a young age, taught how to be conventionally sexy by music videos, films, and society’s reinforcement of these ideas. But Derek must learn how to be a sexual object—and deal with the consequences of it. Watching him deal with these awkward moments, as a man, highlights what we’re too often quick to accept as simply the standard for women.

The party scenes also give a different point of view of the male stripping world. Magic Mike’s performance scenes capture the corny nature of male strip clubs: The theatrics are over-the-top, the soundtrack kitschy (“It’s Raining Men,” “Pony”). It’s what I’ve always found frustrating about male strippers, at least in the club context—unlike their female counterparts, whose sole purpose is to arouse, male dancers aren’t really meant to be taken seriously. The assumption seems to be that women don’t take pleasure in the male body in the same way that men take pleasure in the female form. Or if they do, they have to mask it. It’s rare for women to blow off steam on a Tuesday night at a male strip club, the way a couple of guys might. Visits to a male club are more often a meticulously planned, lavish event for eight or more of your closest girlfriends while celebrating a special occasion (a birthday or bachelorette party) in which embarrassing the girl of the hour, more so than titillating her, is the ostensible goal.

When men are performing for a group of women in Hard Times, the scenes are more evocative of hip-hop and R&B music videos, with the men taking the place of the video girls, performing slow-motion gyration to sultry music as women eagerly paw at them. It may still be hard to take male strippers completely seriously, but the series does make a case that there are some women who look at such dancers in a way that is closer to the way men view female strippers than to the screeching bridesmaids of Magic Mike.

Though he’s succeeded in getting his series off the ground, Jetter’s career still shares some similarities with Derek’s. It’s unclear when Hard Times will continue its season; as is the nature of most Web series, Jetter will need help from fan donations to continue financing his work. In the meantime, it’s worth taking 45 minutes to catch up on Hard Times and get a different perspective of male and female sexuality, the world of male strippers, and what it’s like to truly hustle when you have no other options.