Words by Siddhant Adlakha
The reputation of the Magic Mike movies has spread far more through presumption than fact. From a distance, they’re often dismissed as disposable fluff aimed only at titillating women, the kind of media most men don’t take seriously. These are, of course, generalizations which apply to heterosexual norms and the gendered categorizing of media, a delineation whose stronghold on viewing habits prevents large swathes of straight dudes from learning the truth about this series: actually, Magic Mike is for the boys. The abs, butts, and gratuitous gyration are absolutely aimed at exhibition—there’s nothing wrong with a little somethin’ for the ladies, or anyone who’s into men—but the series is also about guys being dudes, and guys learning to be better dudes, across three wildly different installments of one of the best modern movie trilogies.
If you’re surprised to hear this, it may also surprise you to learn that Mike, played by Channing Tatum, isn’t even the protagonist of the first film, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012). It’s also more of a crime drama involving strippers than an outright erotic escapade (though there’s plenty of that to be found). The second film, Gregory Jacobs’ Magic Mike XXL (2015), is where the bump-and-grind performances take center stage. While the story is told largely from Mike’s point of view, it’s a delightful ensemble piece about male entertainers embarking on a Florida road trip, and finding themselves through exotic performance; it’s a quintessential dudes rock movie. The recently released third film, Soderbergh’s Magic Mike’s Last Dance, changes the formula even further. It finally separates Tatum from the larger cast, and makes him a romantic co-lead alongside Salma Hayek as a rich, middle-aged divorcee, in a rom-com that’s as much about intimacy and finding new zest for life as it is about artistic self-reflection.
Over 11 years and three movies, the series decouples male exotic dancing from its lurid reputation—courtesy of both the down-market view of sex work and the criminal history behind Chippendales, the franchise that brought male stripping to the mainstream—before re-purposing it as a healthy form of self-actualization. By the third film, it becomes the centerpiece of a holistic romance, and all the while, the series’ relationship to feminine desire evolves as well. In Magic Mike, catering to female fantasy is a means to a financial end. In XXL, Mike and his compatriots explore their own relationship to this gaze, and use their bodies as vessels for a form of spiritual healing. And finally, in Last Dance, the trilogy makes a vital pivot, shifting significantly toward a female perspective—rather than centering male characters’ presumptions of feminine desire—as it explores Mike from the outside in, as both an object of lust and the subject of a classic romantic fantasy.
Those aforementioned genres—rom-com, classic romance, and so on—may not immediately sell Magic Mike as something “for the boys,” but this is part and parcel of the series’ for-the-boys-ness. For one thing, the familiarity between Mike and other stripper characters like Ken (Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Tarzan (Kevin Nash) and “Big Dick” Richie (Joe Manganiello) is instantly disarming in the first film. Their casual intimacy in close quarters, while wearing little to nothing, is not only homoerotic, but quickly forces any lingering notions of homophobic discomfort far from the frame’s purview. This idea is even dramatized when protagonist and stripper newcomer Adam “The Kid” (Alex Pettyfer) is gently hazed by Tarzan for his hesitancy to be near half-naked men backstage, before he’s quickly accepted into their ranks. The frame is always dripping with masculinity, but any time it turns even remotely toxic or self-serving, things go horribly awry for the characters.
The first movie’s aestheticization of the male form—while undoubtedly geared towards the pleasure of anyone attracted to men—is also akin to that of ’80s Hollywood action cinema, in which sweaty, muscular hunks used their bodies as weapons of war—as tools to elicit screams of terror from dominated enemies. In Magic Mike, this element of weaponization still exists, allowing men (straight men in particular) to indulge in fantasy too; not simply the fantasy of being the body on screen, but of performing the body as an act, and using its motion to unlock screams stemming from unbridled, sexually-charged enrapturement and entertainment.
In the first Magic Mike, the dancers’ green room at Tampa’s Club Xquisite is a sacred space reserved for both male bonding and illicit drug trade, the latter of which slowly begins to subsume the former. Mike falls for Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn), who rejects their career choice, but through whose eyes the movie first hits us with the propulsive splendor of a Magic Mike solo dance (set to Ginuwine’s “Pony,” a recurring track throughout the series). By presenting Mike’s performance through disapproving eyes that become slowly enamored, the film positions male stripping not only as something facing and subsequently overcoming objection, but the solution to any viewers’ remaining discomfort. “It’s okay,” the movie seems to suggest, before granting permission to indulge as Mike swings across the screen with abandon. “Let yourself have fun.” (It also helps that Tatum is a remarkable dancer, since he was once a young Tampa stripper himself; the script is based partially on his experiences).
The scene in which Brooke watches Mike dance spends an equal amount of time on Mike’s movement and Brooke’s static close-up. One might argue that these movies fall under cinema of the “female gaze,” narratives centering female artists, audiences, characters or perspectives—a category generally implemented as a counterpoint to a century of male-centric cinema, in which women are the fetish objects of the “male gaze.” That latter term is an important one, though it’s often reductively misapplied to the mere act of looking (specifically, of a male filmmaker’s camera gazing at a female body). However, when viewed in its original academic context, it becomes particularly well-suited to discussing Magic Mike. Popularized by critic Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the male gaze is a psychoanalytical framework for understanding cinema as an act of voyeuristic scopophilia. A vital tenet of Mulvey’s thesis is the duality of this gaze; she posits that cinema is as much about the act of watching as it is about the act of identification. And while I apologize profusely for reclaiming Magic Mike for the male gaze, the reason this series is so heavily “for the boys” is that Mike and his crew are boys worth identifying with.
This is especially true in Magic Mike XXL, in which Mike—after re-discovering his passion for dance when “Pony” comes on the radio—joins Ken, Tito, Tarzan, and Richie on a trip to a Miami stripper convention. En route, minor resentments and lingering tensions build up to unavoidable friction. But their time on the road allows them moments of bonding and introspection, starting with a friendly competition to see who can put on the best drag performance (they all readily oblige, re-enforcing the characters’ comfort with their gender and sexuality). A collective MDMA trip forces them to look inward at their performance routines, compelling them to help each other view their work not just as entertainment, but soulful therapy.
This yields one of the most absurdly joyful scenes in recent Hollywood, when Richie puts on a public striptease (set to the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”) for the sole purpose of making a woman smile and brightening up her day. By the end of the movie, the characters have not only crossed paths with older women in need of seeing themselves as beautiful and desirable—something the boys help them do by using both their bodies and words of affirmation—but they’ve also begun using their performances as outlets for self-expression. Tito, for instance, blends his confectionary skills with a dance centered on melted chocolate, while Richie expresses his desire for monogamy by staging a stripping routine amidst a fictitious wedding ceremony.
However, where XXL is a movie about getting wild with the boys while you help each other sort through emotional baggage, Last Dance is what happens when one of the boys is forced to grow up. The film certainly has no dearth of youthful sensuality—when Mike gives Maxandra (Hayek) an intimate lap dance, it re-awakens her adventurous spirit—but the subsequent story, which sees Mike directing a risqué stage show in London on Maxandra’s dime, is about the clashing perspectives and compromises that arise in a mature, committed relationship (and, in this case, a relationship built on the fantasy of a woman flying her sexy boytoy overseas). The medium of expression may still be dance—and boy, does Mike eventually use it to express his deepest desires—but the story is no longer about finding your truest individual self. It’s about being forced into close contact with an equal and opposite, who challenges and intrigues you. It’s about the Magic Mike series growing up as well, and about Magic Mike the character seeing himself through someone else’s eyes, until finally, he expresses his love for her by turning a scene from their rocky romance into an impassioned stage performance that reminds her of her worth.
This climactic routine—a full-bodied romantic confession through exotic, rain-drenched ballet—places a model version of a historic London theater within the theater itself, since it re-tells a key moment from Mike and Maxandra’s relationship. It’s self-reflection that turns the film into a mise en abyme, as the Magic Mike series loops back on its own chronology and imagery, in order to reflect on regrets and turn missed opportunities into art that loves and unifies.
In the first Magic Mike, sexual exhibition becomes the wholesome alternative to a rotting American dream; it’s Scarface with male strippers and a happy ending. But by the time the series reaches its conclusion in Last Dance (ostensibly, Jane Austen with male strippers), eroticism has become its lingua franca. And it has written paeans to expressing male sexuality, in healthy ways that strengthen the individual, the platonic, and the romantic—whether by using the masculine form to make a stranger smile, to forge a lifelong relationship, or to make your boys feel like they have room to be themselves.
Published on February 17, 2023
Words by Siddhant Adlakha
Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter