Can a film about male strippers really be feminist? On the surface, Magic Mike XXL certainly tries. However, the first time a woman speaks is 22 minutes and 27 seconds into the movie. Normally, going one-sixth of the way through a film before introducing a female character would be quite noticeable, but since there are only three or four named women in the movie, the missing dialogue is subtle. For a film so obviously targeted to women, does this movie do enough productive work?
In this sequel to 2012’s Magic Mike, the guys are back together for one last ride, literally and metaphorically, as they road trip from Tampa, Florida, to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for the annual stripper convention before they go their separate ways for good. When Mike (Channing Tatum) loses his magic after retiring from stripping to pursue his custom furniture business, his nostalgia drives him to join his former colleagues Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Ken (Matt Bomer), and Richie (Joe Manganiello). While the first film, with a loose plot (à la Spring Breakers), sought to be an artsy social commentary on hedonism, economic realities, and the cost of ambition, this movie knows what it is and who is buying the movie tickets. Magic Mike XXL is pure entertainment, sans moralizing commentary. Though Gregory Jacobs takes over as director, the original film’s director Steven Soderbergh brings a surprisingly beautiful and coherent visual palette as director of photography. This buddy-comedy embraces its campy premise of the bro’d trip, and though you already know the familiar plotline of self-discovery-through-misadventures, it’s the choreography and rippling abs that make it a joy ride.
On the surface, Magic Mike XXL pays a great deal of attention to “what women want.” The film goes to obsessive lengths to emphasize that the male stripper’s role is about the women who watch them dance. That doesn’t stop the guys from doing a little soul searching (often thanks to some weed and ecstasy), but alongside the hip-thrusting the film mainly revolves around fulfilling the emotional and social fantasies of women.
Mike’s old flame Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith) is the most powerful argument that the film is pro-feminism. As a successful business owner, Rome’s strip club focuses on making women–whom she calls Queens—feel truly seen by the male entertainers. The dancers focus their attention on the curvy, shy women rather than the modelesque patrons, and their praise goes beyond gyration to include serenades and personalized poems.
In perhaps the movie’s most unlikely scene, the chiseled dudes spend hours with mid-50s divorceés and unhappily wedded women, showering them with praise and charming their socks (clothes?) off, seemingly for the simple pleasure of making the older women smile. When one desperate housewife complains about her husband, the film puts on no pretenses in essentially speaking directly to the (mostly middle-aged) female audience. As Ken professes: “He’s not showing you how beautiful you are. You’re gorgeous, you know that, right? Your energy is pure, and sweet, and loving. . . . If he’s not gonna worship you, there are a lot of guys out there who will. And the line starts right here.”
And there’s the key word: worship. This film seeks to positively drown women in praise and self-esteem, but this veritable tidal wave feels too overwhelming, and too aware of the audience. Ken’s declaration sounds like your best girlfriend took over his mouth. This chiseled Adonis tells you exactly what you’d like to hear about an unsatisfying relationship. But can we trust it?
For a film that worships the personal and emotional (and yes, sexual) needs of women, why are there so few women characters? Aside from Rome, the most important female character comes in the form of Mike’s romantic interest Zoe (Amber Heard), who we must assume is “original” based on her piercings, pink highlights, and troubled past. Her shallow story arc revolves mostly around Mike and his ability to fling her slender body around during dance routines. Quick cameos from Elizabeth Banks and Andie McDowell certainly add humor and big female personality, even if they do not truly influence the story. Still, the movie arguably does more work for women in a larger sense than more traditionally pro-women movies released this summer, like Trainwreck and Pitch Perfect 2. Perhaps the simple objectification of men rather than women deserves partial credit.
If anything is true, XXL provides a healthy alternative view of masculinity. In their final dances, the bros embrace not only women’s emotional fantasies but their own. Shedding the trite Sexy Fireman and Sexy Cowboy getups, they turn their personal hobbies into apotheoses of romantic commitment, which they (surprise!) also wanted all along. The addition of So You Think You Can Dance’s Stephen Boss (aka “tWitch”) and Community’s Donald Glover (better known by his rapper alias, Childish Gambino) was a productive move for diversifying the whitewashed original cast without detracting unnaturally from the gang’s arc. The men in this movie have deeply supportive emotional bonds and demonstrate healthy friendships without degrading women. And this should be celebrated.
Magic Mike XXL’s brand of feminism feels forced and profit-oriented, but it is nevertheless pro-women. If you can ignore the obvious and endless tugging for straight women’s and gay men’s heartstrings, Magic Mike XXL is two hours of pure, comfortable, fluffy entertainment.
“Magic Mike XXL” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Grab your girlfriends and a bottle of red.