I had a lot of reasons I told people I wanted to see Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh’s new movie about male strippers based loosely on the time the film’s star Channing Tatum spent as an exotic dancer, and some of them were even true. Would Soderbergh continue the exploration of male body image he’d hinted at in The Girlfriend Experience, his movie about a high-end prostitute, which starred porn star Sasha Grey? Would Magic Mike be one of Soderbergh’s Hollywood romps, like Ocean’s Eleven, subbing in G-strings for suits, or would it be gritty, uncommercial fare? Would Tatum, who was so great in the little-seen New York coming-of-age movie A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, finally force everyone to acknowledge I’d been right about his talent all along (the answer, pretty much yes). But mostly I wanted to watch cute boys take off their clothes, and see what Soderbergh and Tatum had to offer as a limited answer to an age-old question: What do women want?
Some of Magic Mike’s answers are obvious: ripped abs, shaved legs, big penises, though only so much of the latter. Just one of the movie’s strippers, the accurately-named Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), sheds his G-string as a regular part of his act. When he does, his boss Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) describes the crowd as “devastated by your cock,” as if the screaming gals stuffing dollar bills into the crew’s costumes suddenly would become demure maidens when the trou-dropping was completed.
As devastated as the women might be, the movie constantly undermines the idea that penises and missionary-position sex are the be-all and end-all for modern women. Dallas may lecture the men in his employ on the importance of their penises (“You are the liberation. You have the cock, they don’t.”), but the routines actually suggest that the men on stage (and Soderbergh) believe that women are as interested in the men’s tongues as what’s between their legs. The strippers simulate oral sex as often or even more often than penetrative sex; girls spend a lot of time with their legs over strippers’ shoulders, with men’s mouths near their crotches. When Dallas tells his dancers to envision being the dreamboat guy who the women in the audience have been waiting all their lives for, it seems like the fantasy man is one who’s willing to go down on his girlfriend.
In that sense, Magic Mike is just in step with the long-emerging idea (pop cultural and otherwise) that a real man makes sure the woman he’s sleeping with has an orgasm, rather than simply taking care of his own pleasure. “I’m a gentleman, I’m a satisfy your soul / And then I’m a get mine,” promised Big Boi on OutKast’s “I’ll Call Before I Come” all the way back in 2000. For the strippers in Magic Mike, giving women what they want is a way of turning a semi-tacky/semi-seedy profession into proof that they’re real men with impressive sexual skills, unlike the fellows at home, who are leaving these women wanting.
For female movie strippers, the club is the place that emphasizes the gap between what men and women want, both sexually and emotionally. Female exotic dancers are, in the movies, constantly subject to threats of harassment and assault, and their deployment of their sexuality cheapens them rather than highlighting a talent. But in Magic Mike, when the women touch the men, it’s never presented as a violation, but instead as an affirmation for both parties. The women get a chance to be sexually daring and to make the first move without consequences or judgment, and the strippers get both money and validation. Sure, Magic Mike’s characters have their hurts and disappointments, too, but those missteps don’t happen on stage. In the context of the movie, the strip club is the one place where men and women are actually in screaming, happy agreement.