Last summer, my best friend and I took a little road trip from her home in central Missouri out to Louisville, Kentucky. It had been years since we’d hung out kid-free together, so when her husband offered to watch both of theirs for a week, we made reservations at an Airbnb before he had a chance to change his mind. On our drive out to Kentucky, we listened to music and reminisced on our past, trading stories about our lives as the top strippers in Guam, which was where we had met each other nearly sixteen years ago.
One afternoon, in between whiskey bars and distilleries, we decided to kick back for a few hours with a bag of microwave popcorn and watch a movie. After a few minutes of scrolling through Netflix’s catalogue, we both agreed on Magic Mike XXL (2015), since neither of us had seen it yet and, well…um…Channing Tatum. Although admittedly, we may not have had the highest expectations going in, I can honestly say that I was pleasantly surprised by the film. Not only did it have all of the shirtless minutes of sexy male entertainment that I could handle, but it also did a remarkably good job of representing the world and lives of strippers. Unfortunately, when I later went home and sought out the first Magic Mike (2012), I did not have the same magical experience. Instead, it left me feeling slightly disappointed, although it took me a little while to figure out exactly why.
Firstly, for those of you out there who have still not gotten around to it, you might want to consider pausing right here until you’ve made time to enjoy at least some of this male stripper madness. In this piece, I touch on both Magic Mike (2012) and Magic Mike XXL (2015) (not literally you pervs, although I totally wish!); however, the former is, in my opinion, far less essential to watch. That being said, if you want to avoid spoilers or are maybe just a nerd like me and always show up to the first day of school over prepared, then please feel free to familiarize yourself with both films before proceeding. Once you’re done, and for everyone else, please go ahead and keep reading.
To briefly summarize these two films, Magic Mike (2012) tells the story of a handsome and kind-hearted young man named Mike, who, among other things, works as a stripper at a male review club in Tampa, Florida. Although this is clearly how he makes most of his money, he also dreams of other things, not least of which is getting out of the entertainment industry to start his own custom furniture business. In between scantily-clad dance numbers and party scenes, he somewhat lazily pursues a romantic relationship with a new recruit’s older sister, with whom he, of course, ultimately falls in love. At the end of the film in its classic, romantic comedy grand gesture moment, he walks off stage, leaving his friends and the world of male entertainment behind. Presumably, he makes this bold move at least in part, for his love interest, and perhaps also with the hope of somehow finally starting the furniture business that he had been dreaming of.
Magic Mike XXL (2015) picks up this story a year or two later, with Mike, now single again, working long, hard hours to keep his furniture business afloat. After getting a phone call from one of the men that he used to dance with, he decides to go on the road with them one last time, to perform at a male stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Although there is also a slight love interest in this story, the focus is far more heavily centered on his friendships with each of the male characters, who, as is suggested in the final scene of the film, all ultimately forge a lasting connection with each other as well as with themselves.
There is a point near the end of the first Magic Mike (2012) where Mike and his love interest Brooke are in the midst of an argument about her brother. She tells him that she can’t be around Mike’s lifestyle anymore, to which he responds, “I am not my lifestyle! […] I am not my goddamn job […] I mean that is what I do, but that is not who I am.” As a former dancer, this exchange really resonated with me, not so much for its significance to the driving force of the plot, but rather for how well it echoed my own feelings and experiences as a dancer. In that moment, Magic Mike seemed to be speaking not only for himself, but also for all of the current and former strippers out there, including the actor Channing Tatum and myself. Although ultimately, I found that the first film fell short of maintaining this position, in Magic Mike XXL (2015) this message was successfully conveyed loud and clear.
After re-watching the first Magic Mike a second time, I realized that the problem with this scene, and more broadly with the movie itself, is that, just as Brooke points out to Mike, it is not entirely clear that the filmmakers actually believe that he is more than his job. In fact, we don’t really see Mike (or any of the other men, for that matter) doing much beyond their jobs at any point during the film. True, in between the eight performance scenes we catch small glimpses of their lives beyond the club, but even then, and especially for those men other than Mike, we don’t get much sense for who they really are. While I totally get that this is probably due to the fact that the filmmakers realized a mostly naked, dancing Channing Tatum would motivate folks (including myself) to watch the movie, this motivation also undermines the very message they were attempting to send. Instead, they encouraged viewers to once again perceive both Channing Tatum and his character Magic Mike mainly as strippers, thereby reaffirming the notion that those working in this profession are little more than their performances and bodies up on stage.
In contrast, I found that the sequel Magic Mike XXL did a much better job of humanizing these characters. Although we were privy to certain insecurities and shortcomings of theirs during the first film, in XXL, all of the men seem to be in search of themselves. Repeatedly, we hear them press each other to answer the question, “who are you?” to which they consistently respond with a naked vulnerability that was mostly absent in the first film. Whether it is Big Dick Richie searching for his own voice and identity as a dancer, or Tarzan revealing his deep desire for love and a family, the viewers really get to know these men as complex individuals in this second movie.
Notably, even the performance scenes in XXL underscore this difference. Although we still get to marvel at the dance skills and chiseled physiques of each of the male dancers, in stark contrast with the first film, here their individuality is central. Whether it is Magic Mike recalling his glory days to “Pony” by himself in his workshop, or Big Dick Richie trying to coax a smile from a convenience store cashier with some Cheetos and a bottle of water, these men appear to be performing primarily for themselves.
This motivation is also clearly illuminated in the final dance sequence, where each of the men except for Mike perform solo acts that are centered on a core element of their personality. For Mike, instead, his individuality was articulated through the journey to the convention itself, which was about reconnecting with old friends and a part of himself that he thought he had left behind.
As a former stripper, I really appreciated these representations of the adult entertainment world. In both films, I found the fun, and good natured approach to stripping to be a refreshing break from the usual line of tragic characters and hopeless situations most films featuring strippers usually portray. Significantly, these tragic representations are almost always women, whereas in these two films the characters were mostly men, which speaks to the ongoing disparities between genders and their still unequal access to sexual freedom and expression. However, the sex-positive lens viewers are encouraged to experience the dancers through in both films does still work to improve attitudes toward sex workers and the industry as a whole. Particularly in the second film, my best friend and I felt free to both enjoy the men’s performances and reminisce about our own, ultimately reconnecting with each other and that part of ourselves that we found and cultivated through dancing.
Lorien Hunter is a writer, researcher and aspiring world traveler who currently lives in San Jose, California. In 2017, she earned her Ph.D. in media studies from the University of Southern California, where she examined digital media, popular culture and marginalized communities. Today, she is a regular contributing writer at Bi.org, where her weekly column, The In-between, centers on her experiences as a biracial bi woman finding comfort and belonging in the spaces between worlds.