Equal opportunity objectification
I went to see Magic Mike last week and all I got was this lousy sense that we had very much not entered a glorious new post-patriarchal era.
Forgive that downbeat intro, but with all the crowing about "the summer of objectification" that has surrounded the release of Steven Soderbergh's male stripper movie, you'd think the world had changed.
As The New York Times' Manohla Dargis put it, "In Magic Mike, men exist to be looked at, and women do the looking, a reverse of the old cinematic divide between the sexes that finds so-called passive women who are looked at by so-called active men.
In one school of thought Hollywood movies are always organized for the visual pleasure of the male spectator, which pretty much leaves the female spectator sidelined. There's no leaving her out any longer."
Alas, it takes more than a few front-and-centre buffed-up bods to shift the paradigms of sexism - and Magic Mike, its star, his treatment, and the industry that made them all are a fantastic microcosm within which to explore exactly why that is.
First of all, it must be noted that Magic Mike is a fantastic film, one of the year's best.
Soderbergh somehow manages to maintain his anti-capitalist rage while spinning a story about male strippers into one of the most charming screen romances in recent memory.
Channing Tatum - surely the most likable fellow in all of Hollywood - is terrific as Mike, the cheery stripper who dreams of making custom furniture, and Matthew McConaughey outdoes himself as the hysterical revue boss, Dallas, in his best performance since Contact (though a seedy stripping Svengali and a bestselling pop theologian on the President's speed-dial are perhaps not the polar opposites of character they first appear to be).
The film, written by Tatum's friend and collaborator Reid Carolin, is loosely based on Tatum's own experience as a young stripper on the make (I'll get back to that point later); in Magic Mike, that role is filled by Alex Pettyfer as the starry-eyed wannabe, Adam "The Kid".
Adam's drug-fuelled excesses are, according to Tatum and Carolin, the fictionalised part of the story.
Fuelled by news reports of movie theatres full of hollering middle-aged women and gay men, I expected to spend my screening of Magic Mike hooting and clapping.
Instead, I spent most of it clutching my clasped hands to my chest and exclaiming "Aww!" (Although the three 85+ year old ladies in wheelchairs in front of me really got into it.)
Indeed, one of the most surprising things about Magic Mike - especially considering it's a Soderbergh film - is, on its surface at least, how buoying it is; it's almost wholesome.
Which probably shouldn't be surprising, really, given it's cut from the same cloth as classic Hollywood "a beginner is thrust into the spotlight" narratives like 42nd Street and Singing In The Rain (the latter is winked at when "The Cock-Rocking Kings Of Tampa" do a group umbrella-twirling routine in trenchcoats to a bewildering dubstep remix of It's Raining Men, something I'm sure Gene Kelly couldn't have imagined in his wildest dreams).
But that narrative is also meshed with a wonderfully naturalistic, unfussy approach to sex and sex work.
(And, briefly, I don't know that Soderbergh's film is geared towards the female gaze; to refer back to Dargis' review again, "Magic Mike is very much about the beauty of bodies in motion and the deep cinematic joys of watching good-looking people perform extraordinary physical feats".)
Consequently, it struck me that it would be a pipe dream to expect a similarly good-natured, un-squeamish film about the sex industry with a female lead.
The closest I could come up with, while racking my brain on the topic, was Kate Beahan's beautifully nuanced performance as Lesley, the compassionate escort, in Jonathan Teplitzky's sublime Burning Man.
She didn't need to be saved, or shamed; she wasn't a "hooker with a heart of gold", she was just a good person who happened to be a sex worker. It was also one of the rare cinematic examples of sex work depicted as just another job (which it is).
In Magic Mike, stripping is depicted as both a means to an end (Mike has been saving to get his small business off the ground) and a job for life (it's clear that Adam plans to stay in the game). When the narrative is spun from a female perspective, stripping is a fallen woman's dead-end.
Look at another recent blockbuster, Rock Of Ages (which incidentally was also pegged as an example of "the female gaze" thanks to Tom Cruise's naked torso; whatever), in which the sad downfall of small-town girl Sherrie involves being forced to strip for cash.
Thank goodness that city boy, born and raised in South Detroit, is there to pick up the pieces. Oh, the humanity!
But it's Hollywood's treatment of Tatum himself that is most compelling. From the word go he has been upfront about his having worked as a stripper.
His Saturday Night Live hosting monologue centred around his fancy moves. In short, it's cool. And good on him; it was a job he had, that he enjoyed, and that allowed him to move on to other work. The End.
I had to dig many layers into the internet detritus, on the other hand, to find even scant mention of actresses who've been permitted to be similarly open about their stripping past.
There were a few lines about Catherine Zeta Jones stripping to save for acting classes, those rather charming nude photos of a young Demi Moore, and of course Traci Lords' triumphant ascent from porn through B-movies to TV and mainstream cinema.
(Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody has been vocal about her days as a stripper, but I always got the sense stripping was something of an experiment for her, rather than a mundane necessity, i.e., just a job.)
And, yes, there are plenty of "celebrities" who used to work in the sex industry, but they aren't bound by the same apparent moral code as "real" actresses.
Were an actress whose star was on the rise as intensely as Tatum's to reveal, shrugging, that she'd been a stripper or escort when she was younger, I doubt the response would be as generous as the one Tatum has received.
It would be her "SHOCKING PAST" and "STRIPPER SHAME", and there certainly wouldn't be an upbeat, award-worthy movie made about it. She'd have to apologise for "letting my fans down", and do a sober interview with Oprah about it, with plenty of inserts of her looking out a window on a rainy day.
If you don't believe me, look at the ruckus that erupts whenever an actress is pictured smoking a joint, getting out of a car awkwardly, or sending nude photos to her partner.
It's Different For Girls.
So, in short, as brilliant a film as Magic Mike is, if anything, its existence proves that we are miles away from a post-patriarchal, female-gaze-led era.
The reality of the Hollywood money machine is that the women who oil its cogs are required to fit a straight and narrow code of morals, otherwise - presumably - the whole damn circus will collapse in on itself.
Salon's Andrew O'Hehir put it well in his (favourable) review of the film: "[I]t isn't quite as much randy, escapist fun as it looks like on the surface.
That's because Soderbergh fears there is no escape for Magic Mike, or any of us, from the permanent Tampa strip club of the mind, where we sit inhaling Buffalo wings and making it rain all over the latest naked offering."
The day someone makes Magic Michaela, or an actress gets to host SNL and crack jokes about her college days on the pole, maybe then I'll pay your "post-patriarchy" claim.