My mother had been repeatedly asking me to take her to see Magic Mike XXL (although she calls it "Magic Mike XXX") long before the film's actual theatrical release, which ought to give you an idea of just how much anticipation had been building inside her 68-year-old body, mind, and soul, ever since this stripper sequel was announced last year. The first Magic Mike was surprisingly low on camp and high on stark realism and melancholy, so I kept questioning my mom about her excitement over the second movie. She explained to me at various times, "I like to see nice bodies, okay?!" and "I want to see the naked man!" and "Chadding Taddum make me so hot!" (She also calls Channing Tatum "Shannon," depending on the day.)
I kept having to disappoint her week after week by declaring, "It's not out yet!," and hear her die a little inside each time. However, I secretly hoped, of course, that she would forget about the film and let it go, so that I wouldn't have to sit next to MY FREAKING MOM while watching Channing Tatum and his brothers-in-abs gyrate in their skivvies. Naturally, my preference was to go to Magic Mike XXL by myself, sit in the front row (you know, the "splash zone"), and whisper "day-um" periodically throughout the movie. I mean, was it not me who used to write Channing Tatum fan fiction on my now-defunct Twitter page? He and I had a special—no, sacred—thing, and watching MMXXL was to be, like my lone trip to see the first movie, a kind of personal meditation (on what, I'm not sure).
But my mom did not forget about the film. So as an early birthday present, I took her to opening night at the AMC Santa Anita 16 in Arcadia, California, where she eagerly tried to get us into the theater nearly an hour early but was promptly denied by the ticket-taker who told us they weren't ready for us yet. Since we had to wait, she made me buy her something called a Frappe with caramel at McDonald's, and she chugged it while complaining that it was making her fat.
If I had read ahead of time all the articles about how the MMXXL audience was 82% female, I wouldn't have been so surprised to find that I was only one of three men in the entire theater, which was filled with mostly middle-aged women. (I don't remember that much gender disproportion when I went to see the first movie—perhaps I was under a kind of hypnotic/erotic spell?) But, hey, "love wins," so I sat proudly and leaned forward just like the rest of the gals.
MMXXL is essentially a road movie that shoves our motley crew of "male entertainers" (as one of them insists they be called) into a food truck and has them trek to a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. This is the first time I've heard of such a thing as a stripper convention, which means, of course, as soon as I finish writing this post, I'm going to use my Southwest frequent flier miles to buy a ticket to as close to Myrtle Beach as I can get.
While some of the scenes that bridge the erotic dance numbers are entertaining (Andie MacDowell and her socialite friends guzzle wine with and ogle the guys; the boys roll on Molly/MDMA at the crack of dawn; etc.), MMXXL is all about those stripper sequences. And it is those oh-so-glorious stripper sequences that got all the women in my audience clapping and cheering and laughing and screaming. Seriously. Ladies who were complete strangers were high-fiving each other across rows, fanning themselves off, and exclaiming things like, "Mercy!"
I positioned my body so that my mother would not be in my line of vision, but I did hear her giggling like a schoolgirl throughout the evening. And she would nudge me periodically and say stuff like, "He so good-looking!," when referring to Matt Bomer (whom she calls "Matt Boomer"), and "Ew!," when referring to the actor who plays "Tarzan":
The dance numbers are fun and sexy and sometimes downright nasty, way more sexually suggestive than the first film. The guys bump and grind against their patrons and rub their faces in cleavage and crotches like champions of female desire.
It all gets off to a rollicking start when Mike (played by Channing Tatum), who gave up stripping years ago, hears Ginuwine's "Pony" on the radio while building furniture in his garage. Something in his very core compels him to move to the beat and simulate sex with power tools. It's sublime. No. Seriosuly. IT IS FREAKING SUBLIME:
And so it goes and goes and goes. There is, of course, the climatic stripper convention in which each of our main characters tries to decimate the competition by doing something "different," i.e., what amounts to softcore porn-meets-performance art. There's also Jada Pinkett Smith's "underground" male strip club in which rooms full of African-American women "rain" dollar bills onto bare bodies. And then there's Joe Manganiello's inspired MDMA-fueled dance in a convenience store, set to the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way."
All of these sequences caused the women in my theater to go into an absolute frenzy, and it made me think of the dual bachelor/bachelorette party in Las Vegas I went to many years ago. Somehow all the men and all the women ended up together at a club called Olympic Gardens, which featured female strippers downstairs and male strippers upstairs. Downstairs, men received quiet, serious lap dances; upstairs, the women were cheering and laughing, just like the MMXXL audience.
And all this got me wondering about why men receiving lap dances from women seemed like such an earnest, almost grim, affair, while women receiving lap dances from men seemed like such a boisterous, almost absurd, affair. I'll leave it it up to the sex experts and therapists to sort this all out, but I suspect it has something to do with the sexual power dynamics between men and women.
Anyway, I don't want to get too academic here (because I've spent too much time and energy over the years exploring Channing Tatum's shirtless photos on this blog to get all intellectual all of a sudden), but I do want to point out some of MMXXL's biggest surprises. While the film is indeed a celebration of the male body, it is also an unequivocal celebration of female sexuality—allowing women of varying ages, women of color, women of different sizes, to express themselves, not only without shame but with audacious pride. Through their rowdiness, their dollar-bill throwing, their brazen enjoyment of lap dances, etc., they're waving a startlingly forthright flag of sex positivity.
I didn't expect Magic Mike XXL to be a kind of feminist battle cry. But it is. (This terrific article on xojane backs up my reading of the film [I'm not crazy after all!]: the movie states, among other things, "female sexual desire matters"; "all body types deserve pleasure"; and "people of color exist.")
Now, overall, Magic Mike XXL is not a great movie. And it's singularly heterosexual focus seems like a huge oversight for the year 2015. And where are all the Asian-American male strippers at?! But you and I both know that all those Step Up movies exist not because of the riveting plots or character development or social consciousness. It's the dance numbers. And so it is with MMXXL.
As we walked away from the theater, I had my mom rank the film's stripper sequences. She smiled as she recalled her number one—when Channing Tatum and Stephen Boss tag-team lap-dance two women on opposite sides of a pseudo mirror. (The two men, one white and one black, are meant to reflect one another—someone please write a paper on the meaning of this!) I laughed because she chose probably the most sexually suggestive/explicit dance of the entire movie. And then I told her I would buy her another Frappe from McDonald's if she wanted one.
[Update 03.09.17: I'm still mixing up personal essays with movie reviews, now at Thai Movie Central. Check out my essay/review about Bangkok Traffic (Love) Story, which covers my recent trip to Thailand.]