In "Magic Mike XXL," the Star of the Show is Women's Pleasure

I’m a movie-lover, and I especially enjoy going to movies in the theater with my girlfriends. In general, I am that person who side-eyes or even shushes anyone who dares utter even a little “psst” during a movie screening. But this past weekend, I joined the ranks of the most raucous theater-goers I’ve ever encountered. I attended a screening of Magic Mike XXL, which, I will tell you now in case you haven’t already heard, truly achieves magic for viewers. Grab a hand towel and cue up the Ginuwine, everyone. 

I’d heard rumblings about this movie on Twitter from one of my favorite contemporary feminist writers, Roxane Gay, so I was thrilled to rush home after the movie to read Gay’s much-talked about recap of the film: I Wanted to Hug Him Every Part of Him With My Mouth. Gay’s re-telling of the visuals and the plot are far better than I could ever hope to explain myself, so I’m not going to attempt to top her. In fact, the film has received a lot of feminist acclaim, and it’s well deserved. The sex-positivity, body-positivity, and OMG-kill-me-now hot hot hot (straight) female gaze of the film is… an experience. That’s what I want to talk about: the life-affirming, rowdy, and extremely pleasurable experience that is a theater viewing of Magic Mike XXL.

What thrilled me most about watching XXL was not necessarily what happened onscreen—it’s what happened in the audience. At the screening I attended, the theater was almost entirely women. That’s how the audience for the film has been across the country: Women account for 96 percent of people who bought tickets to Magic Mike XXL. That is the most female-dominated audience for a blockbuster film ever (Sex and the City, as a point of comparison, had a 90 percent female audience). This is a film made with women in mind—and that’s a big deal. While women buy 52 percent of theater tickets annually, we’re routinely sidelined by the film industry in many, many ways. But Magic Mike is unabashedly going after straight female ticket-buyers. And they’re doing a very good job of it. Watching the film in a theater full of women made my experience at the movie so much better.

In general, a movie theater is a place where you’re expected to hush. More generally, as women, we’re often told to be quiet and demure and to take up as little space as possible. The Magic Mike XXL theater experience turned both of these expectations upside down, creating a sexy, joyful straight-lady freak out. There were shouts of “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” There were sassy “mmmmmhmm!”s, giggles, guffaws, shouts, clapping, fanning, and shrieking. It was a gleeful and riotous celebration of what we find sexy. I went with one of my best friends, Leslie, whose shoulder I was nudging and slapping throughout the movie whenever something sexy happened. Whack! “Holy shit how much simulated oral sex are they going to show…? More! More!” Whack! “Do you see Channing Tatum humping that metal grinder?!” We kept looking at each other and cracking up. We were loud. We were giddy. And we weren’t alone. Throughout the movie, I kept glancing over at my fellow lady viewers. They were burying their faces in the collars of their shirts and hooting at the screen. Jaws dropped. Eyes widened. Together, we were unapologetically enjoying sexiness and our collective female gaze. 

That kind of experience is all too rare. This public display of raw female sexuality was welcome counter-experience to watching many films, where misogyny is casually tossed around right and left and female sexual desire is not often acknowledged. My friends and I are usually much more likely to share an eye-roll at a stereotypical female character onscreen than have the chance to revel together over a deliciously sexy moment. So part of what made watching Magic Mike XXL magical was the pure shock factor; not just of the shiny, naked male bodies, but having it sink in that this movie is for us

While this film has, of course, received so much praise from feminists for the very fact that it so thoroughly celebrates at least the female gaze, there's been pushback to the idea that XXL is progressive in any way. In the film, men’s bodies are clearly objectified. Does the movie display men's bodies for the pleasure of female viewers? Absolutely. Does this mean that the movie is not feminist? Definitely not. This film is a celebration of sexuality. 

The manner in which male bodies are objectified in this film, I'd argue, is qualitatively different from the ways we see women's bodies portrayed in your run-of-the-mill flick. The men in this film are 100 percent in control of their image, they are empowered by displaying their naked bodies, and they really want to please women and have fun doing it. There's a scene in which the group of male entertainers encourages “Big Dick” Richie to dirty dance in a convenience store, specifically to make the woman working as the cashier laugh. Richie needed a confidence boost, and the way to do that was to bring delight to a woman who looked like she needed to be cheered up. These men want to be admired by onlookers. It's why they do what they do. Further, this film is all about consent, consent, consent for both women and men. All of the women who attend the strip shows want to be there. They want to be sexed up and entertained and treated like sexual goddesses. They want to participate in a fantasy, and they're apparently willing to spend several hundred $1 bills in a night to prove it (hello, enthusiastic “yes!”). 

Jada Pinkett Smith and Channing Tatum share a moment in Magic Mike XXL.

While the film is legitimately sexy, it certainly runs on the camp side. This is the nature of celebrating anything in a completely unmitigated fashion. What you want from the film is what you get: hot, naked guys. There is no teasing or subtlety. The movie is over-the-top in a pornographic sense. But this is also part of the “hell yes” feminist factor of the film. They're saying, “Straight women of the world: Take this and enjoy it.” I don't want to apologize for finding men sexually attractive and going for it. I don't want to be embarrassed or shy about that. Sometimes I just want to scream it from the rooftops. XXL has given me and literally millions of other women the opportunity to do exactly that. Even better: We've had the opportunity to do it in the company of other women, affirming and validating our collective sexual desires and sensibilities in public. This isn’t something women are often really allowed to do. The experience of viewing this film in the theater can be read as a model for how sex can be celebrated publicly—not with gross catcalls and unwanted “flirtations” from men, but rather as a consensual celebration, where everyone is empowered and it's a damn good time. 

While the main characters in film are all men, the star of the show really is women's pleasure. It's the focus and the underlying theme from which every scene plays out. It might be “about” a group of male strippers, but the message and intention of the film is clear: Women who like men should leave this film flushed, blushing, and perhaps most importantly, extremely happy to be women. 

When the film ended, I actually stood up and clapped. I was riding a pleasure-high. Not only because there was devastatingly sexy dancing, strip-teasing, simulated sex and just oh so many abs, but because I got to share this sexually charged joy with so many other women, who were equally as thrilled. An experience like that is exceptionally hard to come by.

Or, you know, easy to come by. 

Related Reading: The Virtues of Watching Feminist Porn with Strangers

by Elizabeth King
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Elizabeth King is a writer, feminist, mountain enthusiast, and ice-cream connoisseur based in Chicago, IL. Come say "hi!" on Twitter @ekingc. 

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