The breadth of depictions of feminine heroes in 2015 films was extensive. We saw butch Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015), powerhouses Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015) and Jennifer Lawrence in Mockingjay 2 (Francis Lawrence, 2015), lesbian romance in Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015), a trans love affair in The Danish Girl (tom Hopper, 2015) and falling apart alcoholic Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, 2015). Masculine hero diversity was not so rich: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson saved apocalypse after relentless apocalypse in San Andreas (Brad Peyton, 2015). Stone cold and frankly terrifying Daniel Craig saved the day in uber-violent Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015), and space-MacGyver Matt Damon grew red planet potatoes in The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015). But, as I will argue here, perhaps this lack of masculine heroism was because all the possible stretching of masculine forms was achieved in one singular subversive queer extravaganza of a film: Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, 2015).
Critics have poured over Magic Mike XXL. Molly Stoneman points out the complicated feminism in the film for the Princeton Buffer.1 Chloe Cooper Jones celebrates it as the most feminist film of 2015 in Vice.2 Sean Fallon, for Film Inquiry, semiotically decodes its replete Christian religious references.3 Sarah Smythe, in Bitch Flicks, argues it is a direct challenge to scopophilia.4 The Magic Mike saga (launched in 2012 by Steven Soderbergh) is a celebration of straight white masculinity to some audiences, and a queer celebration of diverse female body types to others. The cinematic criticism of this film is so endless that one might ask whether there is anything else to do with Magic Mike XXL. I argue yes, and I believe that what this film does is so subversively what it does not overtly seem to state: it is master craft in visual drag. It is a performance so vibrant so as to hide in plain sight a second layer of fascinating gender play.
To begin this foray into analyzing how gender is played with in this film, we must dive deep into psychoanalytic theory. The phallus, according to Freud,5 referred to the biological penis, but for Lacan6 the phallus was less the real and more the imaginary or symbolic capacity of masculine sexual energy. For Irigary7 the phallus was the imaginary and symbolic force that centered the masculine at the heart of all psychoanalytic theory and which defined psychoanalysis as masculine to its core. From this ontological foundation Irigaray argued that the phallus represented not only the reference to the male sex organ but the foundation on which all theorization of human subjectivity, identity, desire, and sexuality was founded within the psychoanalytic tradition. Identity and selfhood, whether masculine, feminine or other, is fundamentally anchored to the phallus, the guidepost on which the human psyche refers and gains direction. As a result, the phallus according to Irigary was the heart of the problem and the thing to deconstruct and critique.
And so grounded in the theory of the phallus, I want to encourage us to see the characters in Magic Mike XXL less as characters and more as symbolic representations of the phallus: they are walking, dancing, nomadic male sex organs on the screen. What I argue this film to be is an overt presentation —an in your face dick-wagging celebration— of the phallus. However, here is where I want to queer the notion that Magic Mike XXL is nothing more than a celebration of Channing Tatum’s 8-pack. This movie is not a celebration of the “bad” phallus; not the imposing and controlling phallus. Not the malicious, structuring and regulatory phallus, as celebrated by Lacan and chastised by Irigary, but rather what the film presents is a strategically queered form of phallocentrism. While we are being showered by pelvic thrusts, the film, in fact, is subversively providing depictions of a contemporary phallus: a phallus that is interested in art and culture, a phallus that shares its dreams and feelings, a phallus who is not central but is lost occasionally, and a phallus who is not solitary, stoic and hard, but who is soft and depends on his entanglement among other phalluses to become his true self. I’m going to draw not on the plot to argue this but on two of the core dance scenes performed by Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) through the film, for I argue it is the dances through which the contemporary queer phallus reveals itself.
The dancing phallus
As mentioned, for Lacan (see Les Ecrits from 1966) the master signifier of the symbolic order is the phallus. It is the phallus on which all forms of subjectivity form themselves and one must have a relationship with the phallus in order to achieve subjectivity. The phallus, according to Lacan is ahistorical and premised on biology, but for Irigary the phallus is socially constructed. In order to challenge dominant symbolic structures like those imposed and structured from the power of the phallus, Irigary calls on the process of mimesis or strategic essentialism in order to make visible the fallacy of the so-called “natural order” of things.8 For instance, if according to Lacan women are supposed to not have a subjectivity and be forever multiple and fluid, then if women take this subject position and flaunt it in a satirical manner then the negative view can become public, exposed and demystified. When successfully employed, mimesis repeats a negative view (without reducing women to that view) and makes fun of it such that the view itself must be discarded. Mimesis is a form of drag. It is a satirical performance of gendered structures which, amidst the satire, reveals the fallacy and offers variation, possibility, beauty, fun, play, and potential for change or positive difference. When Irigary proposed mimesis she spoke of its effects, of revealing the false beliefs about female subjectivity. But what if mimesis could be used to strategically reveal, deconstruct and disrobe (figuratively and metaphorically) the fallacy of the phallus itself? What I propose is happening in Magic Mike XXL is just this: phallus mimesis. The dance scenes in particular disrobe the phallus, satirize the phallus, call its power, centrality, and presumed independence into question through satirical mimesis and offer a novel form of subversive phallocentrism that incorporates qualities of the feminine, entanglements of the feminine and masculine, as well as some creative and non-normative depictions of the typical masculine phallic hero.
Shedding the hypermasculine while dancing
In the opening dance scene, Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) is seen in his workshop. He is working on some sort of blue prints when he is suddenly moved to sand down a piece of metal.
Out of the blue the iconic song “Pony” by Ginowine starts playing on the radio. The song represents the memory of Mike being tethered to the toxic masculinity culture of the previous movie (embodied in Matthew McConaughey character). He begins to dance to the song but dances in a manner that sets the stage for a deconstruction of the phallus. The song plays and Mike shakes his head as if to say to himself, and viewers, “not this song again”. He lowers his metallurgical helmet and presses his metal rod, the material and figurative symbol of the phallus, against a grinding machine. Sparks fly to the rhythms of his pelvic thrusts to the music. As he overtly grinds to the beat, subversively he shaves the tip off his metal phallic prosthesis. He stops the sanding process again laughing at the song and his own desires. He tries to laugh it off, tries to ignore his innate sensuality, but the force seems to emerge as a sort of essence or uncontrollable —dare we say— pre-symbolic desire to dance.
In a satirical act of mimesis the scene says: we know sexuality is supposed to be the essence of the phallus but what too if it was dance? The dance sequence is at once sexual and normatively masculine, but also differently masculine. At no point do we want to giggle at the stripping masculinity hero. The dance is a reveal instead of a performance. In Irigiary’s writing (see the abovementioned Speculum of the Other Women, 1974) she claims that the phallus, as symbolic master narrative and thus rigid metaphor, has bled into all realms of social life including science, politics and ideology, which privileges masculine metaphors of solids over fluids, hardness over softness, and linearity over cyclicality. In this dance, however, Magic Mike embodies this all: at first his dance moves are nothing but circles, spirals inward. He embodies the typically hard male physical body while his dance moves are melting and fluid. He scatters across and around the room as if being poured in many directions at once, always adopting moves that show his physicality. The dance is overtly masculine but quite subversively non-masculine or other than masculine or satirically masculine. In any case the dance is a picking fun of the phallus and it is that picking fun that offers something playful and interesting to the representational politics of masculinity here.
The final, climatic dance scenes are an ode to psychoanalytic theory: men shed their old selves for non-normative femininity, men critique structures of patriarchal control (like weddings) and Channing Tatum has sex with himself in an oversized mirror. Leading up to the final scene, all the characters undergo a sort of existential bro-venture in an ice cream truck to redefine themselves post-McConaughey, who embodied classically heteronormative, patriarchal, toxic masculinity.
In one scene their hero’s journey vehicle —a yogurt truck— drives down the road while the characters call on each other to shed the material items of their former identities: “Were you ever a real fireman??? Well then good bye fire man helmet! Good bye gold g-string!”. The final scene presents the fresh new and glowing non-normatively masculine subjectivities of all the five lead characters/dancers. Enormous and WWF-like persona Tarzan becomes a pirate-bloused baroque painter of a female muse from the audience. (He paints in glitter, as if that wasn’t enough gender play).
Ken (Matt Bomber) dances as a sort of Frank Sinatra crooner role aiming to bring pleasure to a wide arrange of feminine body types in the audience: a black woman, an overweight woman, a woman in a wheelchair all grind against him while laughing and smiling. Adam Rodriguez dances to 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” but the symbolism is that his character in fact does want to open a frozen yogurt shop because he really likes yogurt. (Normative masculinity can include health food can it not?) Big Dick Richie’s final scene is an ironic “fuck you” to straight-laced hetero normative marriage. In it, dressed, in a perfect black tux, and amidst a handful of tossed rice, he hen-picks a wife to be from the audience, to the song “Marry You”, by Donald Glover (who also appears in the film).
Mid serenade, he drops his pseudo wife into a leather sex swing and fucks her —and the structure of heteronormative marriage— to the counter-tune of “(Closer) Fuck You Like an Animal” by Nine Inch Nails.
It should be noted that Richie’s entire trajectory through this movie is an existential hero’s journey. His metamorphosis moves from normative stripping firefighter, through to lost soul who no longer knows if he has what it takes. At the pinnacle of his disorientation he finds himself anew in a corner store, post-Cheetos and water bottle infused dance routine while trying to crack a smile onto the face of a stone-faced blonde cashier. The whole lot, minus Tatum’s character, are mimetic heart throbs: presenting themselves as stereotypically masculine, but so masculine that this presentation revels the fallacy of masculinity and at its core the phallus. This reveal isn’t done overtly though: they are still hot, they are still sexy, they still have moves, but if you can see beyond this surface masculine destruction, they also are playing with the phallus, stretching it, broadening the terrain, offering it more softener, stranger, creative, and playful subjectivities that was ever possible before. But behind the phallus is difference, play, anything but the master signifier. The new phallus is hiding in plain sight.
Magic Mike’s final dance scene is purely Lacanian. In it he and dancer Twitch face each other in front of a large frame.They are each other’s mirrored self. For Lacan, the mirror stage was the start of all notions of subjectivity. The origin story of the self. In this final dance by Tatum, there is an irony though. If the original phallus is to be the center of all definitions of subjectivity, if the male body is that on which all notions of feminine subjectivity are hung, then why are two women present as audience to this origin story? During this dance, Tatum’s platonic love interest is pulled from the audience and seated—back to the mirror—facing Tatum as he dances with himself/Twitch. Seated against her back is another woman pulled from the audience who faces Twitch.
As Tatum and Twitch dance they dance at once to themselves but also necessarily to the feminine subjects who inhabit the position of the mirror itself. They in fact interrupt the direct and solitary reflection of the phallus upon itself. The phallus cannot see itself without seeing itself, seeing itself being seen by the feminine viewing subjects. From a Lacanian stand point, what is going on here? Is this set up a suggestion that the phallus can become, perhaps even must become, in tandem with the female subject? Provocatively, is this dance an aspiration of the phallus towards a central feminine subject on which all masculine desire is hung? Is this a reversal of Lacanian notions of phallic subjectivity? Is this a provocation of either a marriage of gender binaries or a dependency upon the phallus of the feminine? For what is a strip tease without an affirming audience? Further given the amount of grinding, leg opening, and almost desperate desire to pleasure the feminine subjects in the final dance I wonder, is this a display of the vulnerability of the phallus? Its soft side? It’s slow erotic fall from its high horse? Many audiences I’ve discussed this movie with describe the final scene as entirely confusing but also a hot mess of fabulous. They scene ends in a similar way to how a night ends in a gay bar: anthems play, everyone joyously grinds up against each other, everyone celebrating everyone else’s fabulousness.
A short time lapses —presumably it’s the end of the dance competition and everyone is out on the town— and the final scene shows the cast of male dancers wandering the city boardwalk when they leave behind their female partners distracted for a moment by some unexpected fireworks. While the men lean against a fence in a scene reminiscent of the rat pack’s final scene in Ocean’s 11, they are perhaps making one final comment to the potential future of positive depictions of bro-mantic friendships in film: no we didn’t rob a bank together, a la Ocean’s 11 (Lewis Milestone, 1960; Steven Soderberg, 2007), but we did dance our butts off together, we did make a trail of women feel beautiful and confident, and we certainly helped one another find our purpose, redefined subjectivities, and fluid identities within a collectively supportive emotional masculine dance adventure. And that is one novel Hollywood narrative. It’s a picturesque Bollywood ending for the post-phallus dancers.
What are the impacts of this sort of performance? Since the film’s release, only a year later, we saw Lala Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016) win multiple awards. In was another film centered on dance as a medium of expression to repaint and rethink both heteronormative love stories and heroic gender roles in film. Is there something about the medium of dance that can offer a unique in road for playing with masculinity? Is there something about the way dance permits an exception to the physical and thus psychic restrictions of masculinity that presents it as a special venue to stretch the possibilities of masculine media representation? Should we have more dance films?
Magic Mike XXL can be read in innumerable ways. It still runs during many pride months and in many retro cinemas as the film for “girl’s night out”. It can be read as a spectacle of beautiful abs and Channing Tatum’s sweet dance moves. We can read it on the surface, but I want to suggest that the overtness of the surface is doing much more than simply providing cinematic eye candy. Instead, I have argued that the overt over- the-top nature of masculinity is actually an act of mimesis—masculinity picking fun of itself, the phallus presenting itself in a variety of iterations beyond its typical depiction. We can absolutely see it as is mostly on the surface fun but I would like to suggest that it is provocatively and subversively more than fun. It can be read as an Irigarian she-jaculation of creative post-masculine futures sprayed all over the big screen. A subversive form of performance that deserves credit for hiding gender play in plain sight.
- Molly Stoneman, The Complicated Feminist of Magic Mike XXL. Princeton Buffer, 18 October 2015. https://princetonbuffer.princeton.edu/2015/10/18/the-complicated-feminism-of-magic-mike-xxl/ ↩
- Chloe Cooper Jones, Magic Mike XXL was the most important feminist film of 2015. Vice, Dec 30th, 2015. https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/8gkbak/surprise-magic- mike-xxl-was-the-most-important-feminist-movie-of-2015 ↩
- Sean Fallon, Closer to God, the Relgious Experience of Magic Mike XXL. Film Inquiry, Nov. 1, 2017. https://www.filminquiry.com/religious-experience-magic-mike-xxl/ ↩
- Sarah Smyth, Please Look Now: the female gaze in Magic Mike XXL. Bitch Flicks, 27 August 27 2015. http://www.btchflcks.com/2015/08/please-look-now-the-female-gaze-in-magic-mike-xxl.html ↩
- Sigmund Freud, An Introduction to Psychoanlaysis. (Read Books, 2013; 1917) ↩
- Jacques Lacan, Les Ecrits. (W.W. Norton and Company, 1966) ↩
- Luce Irigary, Speculum of the Other Woman. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974) ↩
- Ibidem ↩