The original Magic Mike was one of the most memorable moviegoing experiences of my life. However, it’s not the film itself—which, despite an admirable attempt to mix light commentary on the decline of the white working class with slick striptease sequences, was still mostly candy—that sticks in my mind. It’s the context of seeing the film I hold on to: A small group of gay friends and I picked the gayest theater we could think of (an off-brand cinema in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood), got liquored up on girly drinks beforehand, and giggled with delight when, as we stepped off the escalator on the mezzanine, we saw that the theater had hired go-go boys to add festivity to the opening night. Throughout all this, there was a sense that we were doing something slightly transgressive—turning a movie that was ostensibly for straight women into one of the gayest events of the year.
That gay men are an equally enthusiastic audience for Channing Tatum’s smooth moves and Joe Manganiello’s Adonis-like (though, sadly here, shaven) musculature seems to have dawned on the production team behind Magic Mike XXL, the charming sequel out this week. In fact, the film, which follows the temporarily reassembled stripper crew on a journey from Tampa, Florida, to a convention in Myrtle Beach, aka the “Redneck Riviera,” is surprisingly deferential to its gay viewership—so much so that the first third largely depends on a drag show and its glittery wake for dramatic material. Of course, drag isn’t what most gay men are coming to this movie to see; the draw is more along the lines of the glorious sighting of Manganiello’s ass that comes about five minutes in or the campy gas station scene where the same man douses himself in Cheetos and water to make a dowdy cashier smile. (Not to mention bawdy lines like, “There was a giant hole inside of me that’s full again.”) But the drag scene is a more explicit nod to gay culture than these, and a wise one, in that it manages to pander just the right amount.
When it first became clear that the boys (all of them straight) were going to a drag show, I tensed up: The temptation for the comedy to become lazily homophobic in such situations is strong. Luckily, Magic Mike XXL is smarter than that—any humor derived from the encounter was at the expense of the guys, not the queens. Mad Mary’s is the kind of bar/performance space that seems to attract straight women as well as gay men, but the mood on the night the boys drop in is decidedly queer. A queen named Miss Torie Snatch is running things, things that include an amateur voguing contest with a cash prize. Naturally, our stripper friends join the femme queens werking it out on stage, and though a gurl in a tropical ensemble rightfully snatches the prize, Channing Tatum’s attempt at voguing just about stopped my heart. Later, at a beach bonfire, the queens are still hanging with the boys, and Tatum meets his lady interest for the film, in consultation with whom he promptly decides on the drag name “Clitoria Labia.” It’s a cringe-worthy appellation but cute for the attempt.
The trouble with this kind of direct appeal to gay folks is that it can often come off as Gaga “Born This Way” blunt and annoying. No one likes a hard sell, and gays have a long history of repurposing straight culture for our own uses—as my friends and I did with the first Magic Mike. When subtle subversion is your preferred approach, directness can feel somehow vulgar. The great thing about the draggy aspects of Magic Mike XXL, though, are that they make total sense in the world of the story, both logically and thematically. Anyone who has spent time around nightlife creatures knows that the various sub-genres—drag queens, club kids, strippers, sex workers, etc.—usually overlap, at least socially. That’s why the bonfire scene felt so well-observed and lovely.
And then, of course, there’s the sense in which the entertaining Mike and the others are doing is really just drag of another gender. The roles and scenarios the guys use as their framing devices—both the old firemen/military routines and the new ones they debut in Myrtle Beach—are drag that eroticizes, exaggerates, and sends up traditional masculinity. Just as drag queens are playing with our ideas of the feminine rather than making fun of real women, male strippers similarly toy with the masculine. When you think about it, the two are really a perfect fit.
If the original Magic Mike was candy with a message inside the wrapper, Magic Mike XXL is almost pure whipped cream. But in the film’s attempt to welcome gay audiences more directly, it managed to add more depth than you might expect from similar summer romps. For that, it’s well worth your singles—however many of them a movie ticket costs these days.
Want to hang out with Outward? If you’ll be in or near New York City on Monday, July 13, join June Thomas, J. Bryan Lowder, and Mark Joseph Stern—and special guests Ted Allen, of Queer Eye and Chopped fame, and marriage-equality campaigner extraordinaire Evan Wolfson—for a queer kiki at an Outward LIVE show, hosted by City Winery. Details and tickets can be found here.