'Magic Mike,' Junk in the Face and the Female Gaze

Illustration for article titled 'Magic Mike,' Junk in the Face and the Female Gaze

Magic Mike made a healthy $39.16 million this past weekend, a very tidy sum for a Soderbergh film with a production budget of only $7 million. Standing in line to enter a sold-out showing on Friday night, two things were overwhelmingly obvious: First, the audience was 99% female, and second, they were positively giddy about seeing some naked dudes.


Once the movie started, the mood escalated; the naked backside belonging to Channing Tatum elicited squeals and shrieks from the crowd. Joe Manganiello's shirtlessness earned him whoops of approval, and Matt Bomer's antics drew clapping; one woman behind us hissed the word yessssss. The rowdy, bawdy tone of the first half-hour of the movie was reflected by many of those watching; we actually counted 43 separate instances of "whoo" from the audience throughout the film. But as things slowed down and got more Soderberghy, it became clear that the ladies were restless and yearning for more skin — during a quiet scene, we heard the distinct sound of a kicked-over wine bottle falling to the floor and rolling. The message was clear: Bring back the half-naked dudes. Anyone who claims that women aren't visually stimulated — sexually — is obviously wrong. Still, there's a difference between the loud laughter and yelps associated with women at a male strip show and the behavior of men at a strip club where women are writhing scantily clad.

In a piece for Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory writes:

…Some women do find male stripping erotic. But the typical atmosphere in such an establishment isn't one of arousal and longing, the kind that reliably fills the air in a female strip club. As far as I can tell, female patrons are typically cracking up, shielding their eyes in mock horror or cartoonishly objectifying male dancers as a performance for their friends. Ladies-only male strip clubs exist primarily for groups of female friends to get a li'l wild ‘n' crazy - in a parodic way - not for individual women to pursue their carnal desires.

Clark-Flory theorizes that one reason women react to male strippers with laughter and screams is that there's nothing sexy about the floppy, flaccid male penis. And a reader emailed us to complain about Magic Mike, saying, "The dancers in this movie say over and over again that they are providing women with what woman want. So, the message is that women want ball sacs shoved in their faces? That is hard for me to accept." She went on to break down the sexiness of the moves in the flick thusly:

Crawling around on the floor — Sexy.
Humping the floor — Okay.
Butt cheek shaking — I'm in. It's friendly.
Lap dancing — Come on over. I'm not opposed to getting close.
The Twirling Around Really Fast dance move — Don't ask me why, but when Tatum does it, sexy.
Rhythmic pelvic thrust from afar — You've got my attention.
Anytime the dancers put their junk right in some woman's face — I recoil.

Clark-Flory notes that anthropologist Carole S. Vance came up with something called "Vance's One-Third Rule," which is: "Show any personally favored erotic image to a group of women, and one-third will find it disgusting, one-third will find it ridiculous, and one-third will find it hot." Beyond being floppy, a flaccid penis is one unaroused — already, not sexy. But is recoiling from junk a societal, cultural response? It's worth thinking about how little junk we actually see — in this movie and in all non-pornographic films. I've loved movies my whole life, and probably watched hundreds, and I could count on one hand the number of times I've seen full-frontal male nudity. Female nudity, on the other hand — bare breasts, bare butts, a mons pubis with or without a merkin — is incredibly common in mainstream movies (as well as on cable TV). Could it be that women are so used to seeing the female body sexualized on screen — from the point of view of the male gaze — that we don't even know how to react to the sexualized male body? (And by the by, you'll see far more bare female breasts in Magic Mike that you will unsheathed junk — there's no full-frontal. Also, Joe Manganiello is barely in it, so if you're howling for werewolf junk, you'll be disappointed.)


The frenzied, excited ready-tp-throw-money-at the screen ladies in Magic Mike's audience reminded me of (NSFW) footage that Edward Barry Shils shot for a 1998 episode of HBO's Real Sex, in which a room of women lose their minds over well-endowed male "exotic" dancers in Philadelphia. For decades, Western society deemed ladies too delicate, too tender, too dainty for sexual thoughts and actions; a lady was supposed to blush at the mere hint of touching and faint if conversation turned sexual. To see the raucous joy and wild abandon the women in this clip exhibit in the face of bare chests, bulbous asses and swinging junk is in stark contrast to delicacy and decorum. This fits in with what Amanda Klimczuk, a researcher at the Institute for Mind and Biology, told Clark-Flory: That seeing male strippers is "seen as something ‘naughty' - like eating ice cream right out of the carton - so doing it with friends may be pleasurable, but may also instill giddiness because they're all doing something ‘taboo' together."


Still, while it was funny to hear a crowd of ladies hoot and holler over the flat abs and taut hip bones on display, larger than life, there was nothing parodic about the very real and palpable desire in the air; a hunger for hot, sculpted, sexualized male flesh. And while mainstream male nudity may not be as common as mainstream female nudity, it does seem like women gazing upon men purely as sexual objects — from the Old Spice man to the ripped vampires in True Blood and the asses of Magic Mike — is becoming more common, more accepted. Maybe if full-frontal wasn't so rare, women wouldn't need to get ridiculously giddy over a few peeks at buttcheeks.


Pope Alexander

Great article, Dodai — but what I think none of these experts really touch on completely is this: haven't we been trained to find female appreciations of male nudity/sexuality "silly" as a way of reinforcing the female lack of sexual appetite? To clarify, we're so used to seeing through the male gaze that, much like a pack of hetero dudes would, we tend to become uncomfortable with male nudity or male objectification because the concept of the female gaze is ridiculed in and of itself.

So what you wind up with is the male assumption or interpretation of what women might want, which ultimately boils down to a gender-swapped version of what men want. Men want bare flesh to be presented in a way that's potentially humiliating or at least vulnerable for the person displaying it, so clearly that's what ladies want.

I'm not saying this applies to ALL women, because I'm not an idiot, but I am saying that the atmosphere Dodai describes in the theater, and the atmosphere described in a typical male strip club kind of drives this home.