There’s a half-naked man gyrating on top of me as hundreds of women scream in pleasure and dollar bills fall from the sky. I’m at a Disneyland for horny women. I’m at a mecca for bachelorette parties and divorce parties. I’m obviously at Magic Mike Live.
There are some pleasures that I secretly love, with a deep, guilty desire. These require me to put my moral compass briefly on hold—when I dance to “Blurred Lines,” when I listen to Michael Jackson—but while you may assume I have to pause my feminist feelings to properly indulge in my love of Magic Mike, you’d be wrong.
The Magic Mike film series, directed by Steven Soderbergh and loosely based on the male-stripper experiences of its star, Channing Tatum, is an underrated feminist masterpiece. O.K., perhaps “masterpiece” is a tad strong, and I’m definitely rounding up because of all the glistening, nearly naked men. But it is feminist and it is slept on.
Now, if you’ve watched only the first film, from 2012, you may be preparing to remove your bra and aggressively slap me round the face with it. But you’d be premature, because the beauty of the Magic Mike franchise is that it has evolved in line with so much of our society.
The first film is a mess. You’d think that a movie predominantly created to show off Tatum’s rippling abs would have a pretty clear audience—thirsty women and the occasional queer man. However, from the plot, I have to assume the creators originally thought it would mostly be watched by straight teenage boys.
For example, the protagonist’s biggest issue is that the smoking-hot woman he’s casually seeing only wants to have threesomes with him and not a serious relationship. Other plot points include drug deals gone bad and a lifelong dream of selling what can best be described as the world’s ugliest furniture. (I fundamentally believe the only way a woman would have it in her house is if it came with Tatum.)
On top of that, it’s offensive on a number of levels—there’s a lot of homophobia (gay people are the butt of several jokes) and some serious fatphobia (the strippers break their backs trying to lift larger women), and the speaking cast is almost entirely white (except for the drug dealers, of course). While their bodies are great, all the men are undatable, intolerable men-children, characters you’d empathize with only if you watched the film on mute.
However, the difference between the first and second films is as big as Tatum’s biceps. It seems that after their initial success, the creators decided to revolutionize the way they approached making films for women by actually talking to some.
The difference between the first and second films is as big as Tatum’s biceps.
Magic Mike XXL, the sequel, released in 2015, is superior to the original in every way. It ditches the two least likable characters (played by Matthew McConaughey and Alex Pettyfer) and makes the audience want to do more than just watch the characters’ bodies roll—it makes you like them as humans. One of the opening dances shows the characters voguing in a queer space without making a single homophobic remark, and at last there are at least a few nonwhite characters who are given actual story lines.
And in Magic Mike XXL, women stop being “marks” to hypnotize with flesh and are instead “goddesses to be worshipped.” They get a new master of ceremonies—this time a woman played by Jada Pinkett Smith (pre–Will Smith Oscars snafu)—and the men develop some emotional maturity, opening up to each other about their vulnerabilities and hyping each other up.
You can tell the film took stock of who their audience really was when, in one scene, an older woman (played by Andie MacDowell) remarks that she wishes she’d met the male dancers back in “her day,” to which the devastatingly handsome Joe Manganiello replies, “Well, I’d say it’s still your day, ma’am.”
Fantasies aren’t subtle, and neither is any part of Magic Mike—by the second film, the message of worshipping women is hammered home so hard it’s almost painful. This reaches its apex when Tatum’s character casually uses female pronouns while referencing God, before remarking, “Yes, my God is a she.”
I’m at a Disneyland for horny women. I’m at a mecca for bachelorette parties and divorce parties. I’m obviously at Magic Mike Live.
The final Magic Mike film, Magic Mike’s Last Dance, co-starring Salma Hayek Pinault and in theaters now, manages to make this message even more overt. It includes lines such as “If it’s a show about women getting what they want, wouldn’t it be a little chauvinistic not to have a woman?,” “We need a woman’s perspective,” and, my favorite of all, “The sexiest act of submission is asking for permission,” delivered by the sensational Juliette Motamed.
Sadly, Magic Mike’s Last Dance has lost some of the magic of the second film, with the incredible ensemble of lovable men from the second film now relegated to a single scene on a Zoom call. The film is like a fictionalized reimagining of how the Magic Mike Live show might have come to be, but comes off as more of a trailer for the production, which I’d recommend just watching instead.
The live theatrical version is actually what acts as the perfect end to the franchise, and the culmination of Tatum’s vision, but at least the final film doesn’t lose sight of the lessons it’s learned since Magic Mike’s debut: when your audience is women, you better listen to what they want.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance is in theaters now
Flora Gill is a London-based writer