Yesterday, I read Amy Taubin’s insightful interview with Steven Soderbergh about his new film, Magic Mike. Early in the piece, Soderbergh reveals the film’s intention when he says “I felt that Magic Mike would be the way to build credibility for the final assault on heterosexuality in movies,” the “final assault” in question coming in the form of his forthcoming Liberace biopic.
The world “assault” is a tad strong, but the fact remains that Soderbergh takes strides in dismantling notions of heterosexuality in film. He achieves this in a number of ways in Magic Mike, namely the ways in which this supposed erotic dance is just about the most un-erotic thing imaginable. Soderbergh (with the aid of choreographer Alison Faulk) stages these dances as grade-school level performance art, equipped with hokey costume and loosely-assembled narratives. The experience seems to be the complete antithesis of what goes down at an all-girl strip club, where the mood is decidedly more lurid and far less showy. At the root of this dichotomy is gender expectation. As evident in the reaction of the women in the film—as well as the women in attendance at the screening I went to—male erotic dance doesn’t appear to be a source of sexual gratification for straight women. Between the incredulous shrieks of “Oh, my God!” and the incessant, nonplussed giggling, male strippers appear to be a novelty—making the plight of Magic Mike and The Kid that much more lamentable. However, the same can’t be said for their female counterparts, who are subjected to far higher degree of sexualization. The patrons at an all-girls strip club may cheer, but never at the spectacle—in other words: “Oh my God, I can’t believe that guy is taking is his shirt off!” as compared to “Fuck yes, that chick is taking her shirt off!”
This conflict of gender expectations is at the center of Magic Mike much like it is at the center of his other 2012 film, Haywire. In both films, it’s the physicality of the human form that defines the character. Gina Carano’s Mallory Kane has a outwardly feminine frame, but as Soderbergh demonstrates both pictorially and thematically—seen in those jazzily orchestrated fight scenes and Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor’s exchange of “I’ve never [assassinated] a woman before” and “Oh, you shouldn’t think of her as being a woman. No, that would be a huge mistake”—her character is defined by far more than just her physical appearance. So if McGregor is right, and we’re not meant to think of Carano as a woman, her obvious femininity is at odds with her masculine ability to, well, kick people’s asses really well. The space between this conflict is Soderbergh’s chief concern.
Magic Mike, meanwhile, poses similar question: Can a dude who strips for a living have ambitions that extend beyond just stripping for a living? It’s unwise—and just plain rude—to assume that strippers, male or female, have zero aspirations beyond taking their clothes off for money. Likely, many of them wish they could make money doing other things—Tatum clearly does. And yet here’s Cody Horn, who’s gradual warming toward Tatum is both the narrative’s emotional arc and Soderbergh’s frame of reference to gender expectations. She’s skeptic of his profession and the influence it has on her brother; as a medical assistant who works long hours, she feels as if she has the moral high ground. The lesson she eventually learns is that one can’t judge another based on their physical attributes. Tatum, aside from being a bit of a meat-head, is an artist: His handcrafted furniture is his true passion—one that requires a good amount pf physical excursion, an eloquent thematic touch from Soderbergh and writer Reid Carolin—but the country’s economic struggles keep him from fully realizing this dream.
Discovering these layers in Magic Mike amid its other themes of ambition, the commodification of sexuality, and the aforementioned economic crisis made the film all the more rich.