Yes, ‘Magic Mike XXL’ is a feminist movie, but the reason may surprise you

So, this weekend, like any good feminist, I went to see Magic Mike XXL. This is the second movie I’ve seen in a month (which is more than I usually see in a year). Both were alliterative, and both were surprisingly feminist. Coincidence? Probably.

Anyway. Magic Mike. Obviously I went so that I could ogle shirtless (and hopefully pantsless) men. Now, before you get all huffy and head to the comments to yell “reverse objectification!” at me, please remember that if your accusation of oppression includes the word “reverse”, it’s not a thing (see: racism, cultural appropriation, sexism).

xxlcoverBut another reason I was particularly interested in seeing it was some of the reviews I’d read. Some claimed that the both the film’s content and its existence provide a safe space for female viewers. Some enumerated the many ways in which the film tried to cater to women’s fantasies and desires without using them as punchlines.  Others even commended the film for acknowledging its gay fan base in a way that, while it bordered on pandering, was still respectful.

And I have to say, I agree with all of these.

However, for me, the real feminist outcome of this film was its surprisingly nuanced look at masculinity.

(In case you’ve forgotten, feminism is actually really concerned with men and the ways that patriarchal standards affect them too.)

Sure, each character’s muscled body fit the cultural standard of “masculine”, but the focus of the plot is on each man’s journey as he thinks about his future, after this, the team’s “last ride” (although I’m sure I’m not the only one hoping for a trilogy).

Definitely stereotypically masculine.

Definitely stereotypically masculine.

See, XXL works hard to avoid slotting its characters into tired stereotypes of masculinity. Instead, it allows them to carve out their own definition of masculine in the specific way that makes them happy. And in case that wasn’t enough, the overarching theme of the film is that listening to women will make both the women and the men feel fulfilled.

Not bad, huh?

One way the film does this really well is by totally subverting and dodging the aggressive heterosexuality and subtle homophobia we’ve (sadly) come to expect from a film about manly men.

For instance, twice in the film, Joe Manganiello’s character, Big Dick Richie, is asked, “did you bang her?” about a female character. The first time, Richie admits to his insecurity about his body (specifically, his frighteningly large penis), as his friends listen sympathetically.

The second time, his answer is yes, but instead of responding with locker-room banter and high fives, his friends see his success as helping him overcome this insecurity – their hugs congratulate him on his improved body image, not his sexual conquest.

It's the friendships that are the real driving force of this film.

It’s the friendships that are the real driving force of this film.

Over and over, XXL’s version of supportive male friendship staunchly refuses to shout “no homo”.

In fact, the film overtly works to avoid homophobia; in an early and oft-cited scene, the guys attend a drag club night and party with the performers afterwards. However, XXL also avoids homophobia in the more subtle ways it often asserts itself in male-centered comedies.

This refusal to rely on homophobic comedy is most obvious when Mike and Tito return to their hotel room after a long day of choreography. The scene is shot from inside the hotel room; the screen is black, the door opens as the guys walk in, and the light comes on to reveal a king-sized bed.

At this set-up, I cringed, as the next obvious thing to happen would have been some kind of comic tension over the idea of two men sharing a bed. Instead, they both flop down, exhausted, and Mike offers to give Tito some advice on his business model after the competition is over. It looks like they’re going to sleep in the same bed, and that – gasp! – it’s not a big deal.

640_magic_mike_xxlSince the characters don’t need to constantly assert their heterosexuality, the film lets each character show vulnerability. In fact, it’s each characters uncertainty and need for support that provides the majority of the character development and some of the more touching scenes in the film.

Over several scenes, it’s revealed that the large, long-haired Tarzan is a Desert Storm veteran who loves oil painting and feels regret at not having a wife and family to love.

Tito wants to develop his business creating artisanal frozen yogurt flavors in his food truck but isn’t sure he has what it takes to run a business.

Ken’s acting career isn’t taking off the way he wants it to, and Richie worries that he’s lost his, for lack of a better word, mojo.

The characters work together to develop a show that lets them live out their hopes for the future. Adorbs, right?

The characters work together to develop a show that lets them act out their hopes for the future. Adorbs, right?

Each time one of the characters admits his insecurity, the admission is met with sympathy and encouragement from his friends.

minimartIn fact, in one of the funniest and most heartwarming scenes in the film, Mike tries to convince Richie that he deserves to break out of the character and dance routine that Dallas (their old boss) had created for him. Richie fears he can’t do it, and the guys set him a challenge. At a gas station convenience store, he has to make the sullen, frumpy cashier smile. He nervously walks into the store, a Backstreet Boys song starts, and he spends the next three minutes dancing as hard as he can while his friends cheer him on from outside.

At the end of the dance, he is rewarded with a smile; he is reassured that he can, indeed, make women happy with his dancing.

Speaking of making women happy, I’d be incredibly remiss if I didn’t at least mention the film’s treatment of women. In a word, I loved it.

In every stripping scene, the women that the men choose to dance with are black or white, fat or skinny, gorgeous or average. Hot women aren’t there for the men to be attracted to (in fact, in one scene, Mike dances with the hot girl he’d met earlier in the film; she has already indicated that she’s not interested in men, and his dance isn’t aimed at changing that – he just wants to make her smile).

I also respected the film for featuring two actresses who are well out of their 20s - Jada Pinkett-Smith as a savvy business owner who has devoted her life to helping women feel beautiful and special at her high-end strip club, and Andie MacDowell as the radiant middle-aged woman who helps Richie get his groove back.

I also respected the film for featuring two actresses who are well out of their 20s – Jada Pinkett-Smith as a savvy business owner who has devoted her life to helping women feel beautiful and special at her high-end strip club, and Andie MacDowell as the radiant middle-aged woman who helps Richie get his groove back.

On the flip side, when the men dance with a fat woman or less conventionally attractive one, it isn’t for comic value. In all cases, the point of the dance is to make sure the woman feels as beautiful and special as she can. While this point is a little belabored at the subscription-based male strip club owned by Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Rome, those scenes act as an education for the men. They’re happy to shut up and learn from the other dancers and from Rome herself about the joy that can come from listening to women and acting out the fantasies they desire.

Overall, while I’d gone into the film expecting to enjoy it, I was pleasantly surprised at how it surpassed my expectations with its progressive version of masculinity and its pro-woman themes. And while I would have liked to see just a little more stripping (XXL shows decidedly less skin than its predecessor), I guess the trade-off isn’t so bad.

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