How "Magic Mike XXL" Became the Most Shockingly Feminist Movie of the Summer
If you haven't seen "Magic Mike XXL" yet, close your browser, hydrate, and go directly to your local movie theater. This piece contains spoilers. No, seriously, I am going to ruin everything.
When I sat down to screen "Magic Mike XXL" a few months ago, I had some expectations in mind for how I would feel when I left: blinded by ab glisten, battling debilitating jealousy toward Jenna Dewan-Tatum, and altogether too riled up to resume my normal, sober workday.
What I didn't imagine was that I'd leave thinking I just saw the most empowering, progressive film of the summer. But — I swear on Ginuwine's "Pony" — that's exactly what XXL is. It's the kind of film we've been taught that studios are loath to take a chance on. Every single one of its 121 minutes seems to have been designed not just to satisfy women's eyes but to stoke our egos and mine our more intelligent fantasies — the romantic ones and the feminist ones.
If you've seen the film, you know the moments I'm talking about: There's Joe Manganiello, the closest thing humans have to anatomical perfection, working overtime in the convenience store to get a smile from exactly one normal-looking woman. There's the hangout with Andie MacDowell and her middle-aged posse, which, underneath the rowdiness, is all about making them feel beautiful and desired well into their tenures as moms and wives or divorcees. There's the ebullient pit-stop performance at a drag club (if anyone's still partying for Pride, it makes for ideal big-screen background viewing).
And then there's the opulent, mysterious centerpiece of XXL's female gaze: Jada Pinkett-Smith's club owner character, Rome, and her vision for what the experience should actually be. Rome's male strip club was obviously conceived by a woman who's argued with her boyfriend that nope, his going to the strip club and her going to the strip club aren't the same thing, because most women don't actually enjoy male strip clubs. We'd all like this one: From the outside, Rome's venue looks like a highly exclusive bar. Inside, Rome weaves through crowds of women, calling them "queens" and offering wise soundbites on dating and confidence that rival Oprah's.
Her marquee performer (played by Donald Glover) is an approachably hot guy in a blazer whose routine begins not with tearaway pants but with conversation: He asks a woman questions about herself, then improvises a song about her and serenades her. Translation: His superpower is listening. Later in the film, with Rome overseeing the boys' national-convention choreography (by the way, don't strain yourself over the plot, it's not the point), Manganiello's Big Dick Richie echoes the same relationship-based sentiment, staging a proposal and wedding within his dance. Magic Mike sought to justify its grinding with the kind of macho conflict that could convince a guy to stay tuned, but XXL doesn't really care about that quadrant. It's more of a sexy pep talk: It just wants every woman to go home feeling giddily reminded that she deserves the full package.
When I talked to Joe Manganiello for our summer obsessions feature, I asked him what inspired the shift in focus. Turns out, it goes way back. "When the first Magic Mike was tested, it did very poorly with women," he said. "And what the studio learned from that was that women were embarrassed by it. They felt shame. They didn't want to admit that they had a good time. So the studio was really scared about how it would do."
But between those research screenings and Mike's theatrical release, something unexpected tipped the scales in its favor: The book "Fifty Shades of Grey" hit shelves and thrust female erotica into the mainstream conversation. "Magic Mike came out afterward, and it was a huge hit, largely, I think, because the zeitgeist had shifted and women felt like they could talk about their fantasies in everyday life," Manganiello said. "In the second movie, we just wanted them to feel like they could go to the theater and let that out. And because the first one was a huge hit, we could do things in the second one a lot of people aren't brave enough to finance — the drag club, [Rome's] strip club, the book club." By "book club," he meant the moms, who in the scene are gathered for one. "That was actually the physical manifestation of a tagline [Warner Bros. Pictures president] Sue Kroll came up with for the first Magic Mike," Manganiello added."'Tell your boyfriend you're going to book club.'"
You can use that excuse for XXL too. Just don't be surprised when your boyfriend starts feeling more threatened by XXL's flair for emotional support than its physical distractions. Or when a movie about strippers gives you more to talk about with your girlfriends than book club ever did.
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Photo Credits: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures