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Channing Tatum
Channing Tatum in “Magic Mike XXL”Courtesy of Warner Bros. UK

How Magic Mike is empowering the female gaze

Turns out thongs, baby oil and straight-up cheese are doing it for the feminist cause

“Are you ready to be worshipped? Are you ready to be exalted?” Jada Pinkett Smith’s role in Magic Mike XXL, the self-proclaimed “stripper odyssey”, was originally written for Jamie Foxx. Yet, as the stilettoed MC addresses her screaming audience – or “queens” as she deems them – it’s impossible to imagine anyone else standing in her place.

Defiant, fun and embracing her sexuality (the film hints at encounters with both Channing Tatum and Elizabeth Banks), Pinkett Smith is everything that takes Magic Mike XXL past a flesh-heavy sequel into a joyous, giddy celebration of female desire.

In an interview with Reuters the actress confirmed her character’s significance: “A lot of the time we’re told how we as women are supposed to feel about sex; we’re not given the freedom to find our own personal sexual identity. I wanted my character to show we’re here to have fun and to explore, and that’s OK.”

Fun is a core theme of the film – XXL is gloriously silly. Shedding the weight of its predecessor’s broader economic and generational issues, this chapter’s sole focus is the love of the job. A whisper of a plot propels Mike to rejoin his Kings of Tampa for the ultimate show – a stripper convention in South Carolina.

Finding comfort among his glistening friends instead of his conservative (notably absent) girlfriend, our protagonist embarks on a spiritual journey, of sorts, across America, basking in the pleasure that he brings to the women and men that he entertains.

Less plot means more dancing, and, while the costumes are cute and the soundtrack corny, this time there’s a real art to what these men are doing. “These girls have to deal with men in their lives everyday who don’t listen to them, who don’t ask them what they want”, explains new cast member Donald Glover. “All we’ve got to do is ask them what they want. And when they tell you it’s a beautiful thing, man. We’re like healers or something.”

Out of context this could be construed as patronising, but in a film where the female gaze is dominant this is purely observational. Women ultimately drive this film – and not by emasculating men, but enjoying them; using them as an enabler to greater things. “Tell him what your fantasy is. And make sure he does it with the lights on”, a twinkly-eyed Matt Bomer tells a woman who has given up on her sexuality.

Arguably women are paying for the services of these men – an exchange could easily be seen as a transfer of power. But instead the men stuffing those dollar bills into their thongs and cowboy boots are gracious; almost noble in their profession. At the height of the film’s peril, Joe Manganiello’s Big Dick Richie worries that he’s lost his ability to excite the women he’s entertaining, resulting in a near iconic How Stella Got Her Groove Back routine involving a packet of Cheetos and a Backstreet Boys song.

“The beauty of Magic Mike XXL isn’t just the obvious pander to the female gaze, it’s also in the subtle nod to the sects of women often dismissed by cinema; women of colour, women over a size 8 and women approaching middle-age” – Corrina Antrobus, head of the Bechdel Test Fest

Zoe Margolis, author of Girl with a One Track Mind and prolific sex and culture journalist approves of the film and its positive reinforcement of feminine values. “It’s an almost revolutionary portrayal of men as people who actively like and care about women, rather than positioning them as competing for or domination over them. It’s not mocking masculinity – it’s embracing a portrayal of men and male sexuality which is positive and real and three-dimensional.”

“It’s also a covertly intelligent film written, produced and directed by men which places all the female roles in a position of power over the men – and, instead of being critical of that status, it applauds them.”

Last month, a double bill of the Magic Mike films sold out the Prince Charles Cinema in London at the Bechdel Test Fest, a group dedicated to femininity in film, held open the doors to a crowd of excitable women (and a few men). “The beauty of Magic Mike XXL isn’t just the obvious pander to the female gaze, it’s also in the subtle nod to the sects of women often dismissed by cinema; women of colour, women over a size 8 and women approaching middle-age”, explains the festival head Corrina Antrobus. “XXL not only shows them – it worships them without irony or ridicule, which is sadly very rare in Hollywood.”

The film proved a topic of debate for masculinity in film also. “One of the most prominent comments from audience came from a man who said 'one of the things I like about the film is that it shows men just being nice to each other. You rarely see that'.”

With rumours of a third film shot in 3D already circling amongst cast members, this gleeful new take on sexual expression could well continue to spread throughout Hollywood. Films for the female gaze are still few and far between, but with Magic Mike’s magic line “my God is a she,” there is hope.

Magic Mike XXL is released on Blu-ray and DVD on 30th November