‘Magic Mike XXL’ and the Rise of the Female Gaze

“I think it’s appalling that for a long time only women were objectified, but I think if we really want to advocate for equality, it’s important to even things out,” said recently beefed-up Jurassic World star Chris Pratt last week. “Not objectify women less, but objectify men just as often as we objectify women.”

As I sat in a press screening for Magic Mike XXL and heard the unapologetic hoots of women journalists greet the first thudding notes of Ginuwine’s “Pony” and the shouts continue to crest while Channing Tatum gyrated and welded, moving in sync with his power tools (“He could really hurt himself!” I thought, ever neurotic, before I let the moment take me with it), I couldn’t help but acknowledge that Pratt’s dream of equal-opportunity objectification is rapidly coming to fruition.

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After centuries, nay, millennia, of the male gaze reigning supreme (shoutout to  Titian and Courbet, legit great painters!), the female gaze is finally on the rise. “No one does sex for women well — not in film and not on TV. Women are accustomed to seeing distorted images of themselves reflected back by way of the male gaze, but media that operates from the nexus of a woman’s desire is still so rare,” Transparent‘s Jill Soloway told Ms. Magazine last year. “We’re essentially inventing the female gaze right now — not just myself, but also showrunners like Jenji Kohan,” she added. To this, I’d add that this gaze inversion isn’t just happening  in sophisticated, queer-friendly shows like Transparent and Orange Is the New Back, but has leeched out into popular (and often dumber) entertainment, too.

Pratt feels objectified. Outlander turns its kilt-clad, brawny, tortured male star, Sam Heughan, into an object in more ways than one. Not to be outdone, Masterpiece Classic is broadcasting the BBC’s Poldark, which highlights its male star’s abs in an upcoming half-naked scything scene that our friends across the pond really enjoyed.

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Broad City‘s gals stand by the basketball court to ogle dudes in basketball shorts until their gaze subjects are made uncomfortable.

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Bob’s Burgers‘ Tina Belcher has the healthiest libido and female gaze in the cartoon universe — she’s a pop-cultural teenage girl who is as horny as the cartoon teenage boys who have come before her.

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And Magic Mike has shimmied, on the strength of its stars’ pecs and good nature, into a popular franchise —  while Channing Tatum has developed something of a specialty in appealing to the ladies.

Bare chests and man-thongs are only the beginning: Magic Mike XXL is explicitly geared to women. The male strippers talk constantly (and to me, a little dubiously) about how their work involves healing women, listening to their customers as other men don’t, and multiple plotlines involve making sad women happy once more or bringing sexual satisfaction to women who haven’t had enough.  Joe Manganiello’s best moment is a convenience-store striptease that gets a sad female clerk to grin; Channing Tatum works on a forlorn photographer who’s lost her smile. The other men claim to see beauty in all women — the camera pans across strip-club clientele of all shapes, colors, and sizes — and don’t mind being surrounded and mobbed by this diverse array of adoring, leering fans. Jada Pinkett Smith, hamming it up as a fabulous proprietress of a fantasy strip club in Savannah, calls all the women who come to her club “queens,” and her eyes rove for the ones who need a confidence boost, and will then get serenaded by Donald Glover’s soulful singing self-esteem-bestowing stripper. In Magic Mike’s world, women come first.

A few quick caveats before I praise this trend: the bad kind of objectification, which entails not just lustily appreciating someone sexually but reducing them solely to their looks, isn’t great if it’s taken to extremes either direction — furthermore, claiming that all women like a certain kind of entertainment is reductive. Obviously, different eye candy strokes will work for different folks. All that having been said,  popular entertainment, which exists to spin fantasies onto the screen and page, really ought to cater to tastes beyond the stereotypical male ones, which might not even be what all men like. “I think obviously women have been starved for quite a while because all of these films and shows that are coming out right now that are catering to that, you see the voracity of the audience,” Outlander star Catronia Biofe told Salon, after the mid-season premiere’s extremely lengthy sex scene that emphasized female pleasure. “I think if it’s some kind of mini-revolution of sexual awakening for women in the media, then that’s fantastic.”

In fact, this mini-revolution in taste goes beyond sexuality and reversing the gaze. As I sat through Magic Mike XXL, alternately entertained and bored, I kept thinking about another big sequel I saw earlier this year, Pitch Perfect 2. Both of these films managed to last nearly two hours with only a few wisps of actual conflict — which almost made them feel anarchic for their near-rejection of a traditional plot — and nary a genuine hurdle for the protagonist. Each was ostensibly framed around a competition, yet both undercut that structure by emphasizing togetherness, hard work, the quirks of the weird members of their ensembles, and the sheer fun of their respective art forms — female a capella and male striptease. Each film’s prevailing mood was goofy, with humor ranging from absolutely corny to genuinely cutting  and completely positive in spirit.

Thinking back about other “surprise” hit films that puzzled critics but that women loved in box offices, from Mamma Mia! through Twilight (which gets prodded at in Magic Mike XXL) through today, you begin to see that “the female gaze” may not just consist of the camera panning down the male body, or putting women in traditionally male roles, but also about embracing aesthetic preferences that disrupt linear, conflict- and violence-ridden storytelling structures with lingering romantic awkwardness, offbeat humor, earnest themes, and occasionally fanciful song and dance routines that defy reality. But hey, how much less realistic is solving a plot problem via choreography than solving one through blowing things up, after all, and walking away casually? The point is, the doorway is widening. And the more diverse ways we have of telling mainstream stories, the more likely audiences  will find something that speaks to them, irregardless of gender expression or identity.