Review: The Perfunctory Feminism of Magic Mike XXL (Moonlight Cinema)

13 February 2021

As a friend and I wandered along the periphery of the Royal Botanical Gardens towards the entrance to Moonlight Cinema, we nodded knowingly at the crowd, clad in fuchsia dressing gowns and clasping bottles of pinot noir. The name “Channing Tatum” echoed through the ascending crowd like an omen. Debauched giggles rustled through the twilit trees. The collective mood was one of indulgence.

Upon scanning our tickets and entering the cinema complex, we were presented with two bespoke wine glasses by two men kneeling before us like we were royalty. According to the bold graphic affixed to our cups, the film promises to help you “meet your wild side.” This is not to say that I had low expectations of 2015’s Magic Mike XXL. Yet, admittedly, my perceptions of the franchise were somewhat coloured by a vague recollection of topless dancers jumping out of their seats among the audience of Ellen—like bizarre jack-in-the-boxes, thrusting in synch with the burping beat of Ginuwine’s Pony

Nevertheless, I was excited by the novelty of collective viewing—as opposed to the solitary Netflix hate-binges induced by COVID-19 quarantine. I watched keenly as our fellow audience members settled into their hired beanbags and began breaking off pieces from thin blocks of dark chocolate. The simple spectacle of other people still feels like a blessing when Victoria’s second wave was not so long ago. 

Tatum’s eponymous Mike has retired from the sex work industry to create his own furniture business. Mike enjoys using drills as phallic props, and inexplicably wears a backwards cap for the entirety of the film (“it’s killing my vibe,” says my companion). When summoned back to his former crew, the Kings of Tampa, Mike is roped into one last revival of their glory days at a convention in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. 

Magic Mike XXL’s attempts at feminism were flawed, but man did they try. Mike refers to his God as a “she”. Jada Pinkett-Smith’s undeniably charming Rome operates a subscription-based service in a hulking mansion, in which clients are referred to solely as “Queens,” and are guaranteed unlimited exultation from male entertainers. It is these sex-positive talismans of women’s liberty and empowerment, perhaps, that led VICE to dub MMXXL “the most important feminist movie of 2015.”

There were some genuinely heart-warming scenes. My companion and I both agreed that the highlight of the film was the Kings of Tampa infiltrating a girls’ night hosted by Andie MacDowell’s Nancy. What follows is a raucous sequence of wine-drunk middle-aged women venting their marital frustrations to their attentive interlopers. When one woman confesses that her husband refuses to have sex with the lights on, Matt Bomer’s Ken serenades her with a sweet, if cringeworthy, rendition of Bryan Adams’ Heaven. Nancy even manages a rendezvous with Joe Manganiello’s subtly named Big Dick Richie at the end of the night. 

The issue, however, lies in the Kings of Tampa orienting themselves as sexual menders imperative to the spiritual betterment of women. A speech made by Donald Glover’s Andre reeks of condescension, in which he proclaims that by simply catering to female desire, Mike and his gang are “like healers or something.” 

Here, the Kings of Tampa’s clientele are equated with a so-called brokenness, stipulating that the heterosexual female gaze must be borne of conjugal dissatisfaction or relative sadness, rather than plain old lust. The women who partake as spectators are oriented as damsels in distress, while the Kings of Tampa are the white knights—the ostensibly good guys there to ameliorate the traumas of past relationships and therapise their clients by way of a lap-dance. This notion is both self-congratulatory and vastly imprecise in capturing the vagaries of women’s desire; the number of reasons (and subjects, irrespective of gender) which might cause arousal. .

The film’s portrayal of sex work is also patchy. Mike’s furniture business is framed as a so-called real job, whilst the men still participating in the entertainment industry are purportedly washed-up. Sex work is framed as a stopover – a means to an end – rather than a viable career option. It is even portrayed as something to be avoided, with Amber Heard’s Zoe remarking ruefully that she is “trying to stay off the pole.” 

Yet did I enjoy giggling at the furious gyrating and those poor, poor ripped muscle tanks? You bet. Was I astounded by Jada Pinkett-Smith’s surprising ability to pull off a fedora? Yep. And did I leave seeing The Backstreet Boys’ I Want it That Way in a whole new light? Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—I did. Though perfunctory in its feminism, Magic Mike XXL did what it said on the tin—it delivered abs. So many abs. And for that, I give it a reluctant nod, and I move onto Hustlers. 


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