Movies

On Magic Mike XXL & the myth of male objectification

On one hand, it makes no sense that Magic Mike XXL was written, directed, and produced by men.

On the other hand, it makes complete sense.

Let me back up: this movie is meant as pure, unadulterated eye candy. At least, that’s how it comes across. Two hours of giving the women what they want. Tatum Channing gyrating with his carpentry tools, enjoying himself way too much? Yep. Joe Manganiello stripping to “I Want It That Way” and dousing himself with water? Yes please. A dance segment involving both a faux-wedding AND a sex swing? Naturally.

What’s shocking about Magic Mike XXL isn’t the male strippers and gratuitous toned, oiled, tanned flesh on display. What’s shocking is that everyone looks like they’re having so much fun, in what we would usually think of as a world inhabited by the down-and-out. Adult entertainment isn’t supposed to be glamorous—at least, not for the those who perform within it. (In most movies, female strippers move sinuously in cages at sleazy clubs while wealthy men of the world conduct their business, ignorant of the bodies in their midst. See: Oceans 11.) And yet: in this Magic Mike XXL parallel universe, the entertainers seem to be having just as much fun—if not more—than the entertained. Jada Pinkett Smith preens in her power, calling the women who flock to the club she owns “queens”, giving them the visually and experientially rich nights out they crave. Donald Glover seems in awe of his own ability to make women happy, just by being there to listen and to perform for them. Matt Bomer sees himself as a healer—by sharing his talents. Joe Manganiello is damn proud to call himself a male entertainer; it’s his profession! There’s none of the gritty dark side to the adult entertainment business here. Sure, the guys are on a last-ditch road trip, facing the end of their careers (and their age of appeal). They’re uncertain about how they’ll make it in a post-stripping era. But they leave that angst behind to embrace the fact that their present hedonism is beautifully harmless. This is a sugar-coated approach to the sex industry. It’s all frosting. And as pure entertainment, it’s gloriously sweet.

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So what’s wrong with that? I’ll be the first to say that I left the theater elated, giggly, and feeling pretty #blessed that people like Tatum and Manganiello exist to exhibit their bodies for our ogling. Did I love this movie? Yes. Should everyone go see it? Absolutely. I felt similarly after seeing the Entourage movie, but Magic Mike XXL left a better taste in my mouth—because I can’t defend Entourage as a feminist film (it’s disgraceful on that count, although good fun to watch), whereas popular discourse accepts Magic Mike XXL as a feminist’s dream.

But hold on. First off, this is a unicorn of a movie. As far as I’m aware, it’s the only wide-release film—at least amongst the non-pornographic kind—that exist for this kind of open female pleasure and complicit male objectification. Its singularity feels wrong, but it’s also expected. And yet: flip the genders, and the unicorn nature is still intact. Are there any sex-positive male-audience-oriented movies in which, despite heavy female objectification, the women maintain considerable agency?

The equivalent might be something like Coyote Ugly. But that one tallies more closely with the original Magic Mike, which was moodier and slower and filmed entirely (and annoyingly) in the Valencia filter. Coyote Ugly isn’t exactly sex-positive, though, despite the scantily clad dance routines. Of course, a movie about empowered female strippers who proudly claim they love being entertainers sounds ridiculous. Critics and (hopefully) audiences would disdain the positive angle. We would want grit and truth. We would dare a filmmaker to ignore the dangerous realities that plague adult entertainment, and we’d sign petitions to boycott his works for their damagingly unrealistic approach to a serious issue.

So should we be uncomfortable with the double standard we apply to Magic Mike XXL? Is male objectification inherently more palatable because it’s more rare? Or is male objectification just more palatable because the men never really seem all that negatively objectified?

That’s why, despite it’s pro-female-sexuality stance, despite the way it panders to women’s desires in a way that no other movie has ever done quite so explicitly (which is a good thing!), it’s still obvious that this was a movie constructed by men. (Add in the strict heteronormativity and elevation of machismo, and it becomes even clearer.) Straight men still have the power here—women, too, but the men are not subjugated by a gaze or a structure. They’re liberated by it, buoyant with it. This fact doesn’t make the movie any less enjoyable. It doesn’t make it any less of a celebration of the male figure (as art, as object, as athlete, as sex machine) and of the women who take pleasure in seeing and touching it. It simply begs the question: can we ever truly subvert machismo in sexuality—or is that a gender binary that will persist?

And, even more unsettling: can we even imagine a world in which (heterosexual) men do not revel in their own (heteronormative) physicality? And isn’t that pleasure-in-self—that supreme male confidence—a source of biological attraction for (heteronormative) women? In other words: is the ideal of sexual equality an oxymoron?

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In 2015, we’re working hard to level the playing fields of class, race, and sexuality. We’re winning small victories consistently. People are calling out Magic Mike XXL as one of those small victories: the recognition that heterosexual women are an audience worth creating for, and their desires worth catering to. I celebrate this step forward unequivocally, just like I celebrate Charlize Theron’s turn in Mad Max: Fury Road; Alicia Vikander’s performance in Ex-Machina; the Marvel universe’s development of Ms. Marvel; Amy Schumer’s unapologetic Trainwreck. These things are fun to watch, and this is a fun time to be alive to watch it all unfold.

But leveling the playing field, for all its positive connotations, should not and cannot be the goal. Just like “leaning in” is important, but doesn’t ultimately change the game—it asks women to play nice with the boys. Just like female action stars are just men with breasts. The real heroes of Mad Max: Fury Road are the harem of sex slaves who retain their femininity in a masculine world. The real change happens when we shift structures, not just behaviors. And the structures of power that define fields of sexuality are especially fraught. Rightfully so, too. They are not things we level; they are things we shape, and re-shape, and mold to fit identities and specific relationships. Which is for the best: in sex, balance—true equality—is boring.

Magic Mike XXL succeeds as a Hollywood movie because it doesn’t subvert any power structure. It is not uncomfortable. It is not a threat to the current order. It is sugar—addictive, a kind of drug, and all the more delicious because women are having fun in it, too. But when we come off the high, let’s not forget that it feels so good because it’s not asking us to participate in a revolution. It’s not asking us to eat our greens. It’s smirking at us, with Channing Tatum’s irresistible charm, to enjoy the status quo. To let him guide and fulfill our sexual fantasies. To be his complicit object. To drink his sweet, sweet Kool-Aid.

So enjoy. Just don’t overindulge.

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On “‘man” and “Boy” and “thing”

“A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing.”

This is the hand-written quote that’s scrawled on a notecard stuck to Michael Keaton’s vanity mirror in his backstage dressing room in a shabby Times Square theater. (The movie, for reference, is Birdman.) It’s a cluttered room – a stuffed animal here, flowers there, an old radio, posters, knickknacks, rickety chairs – but even in this mess, even as we get a first glimpse of Keaton’s miraculously wrinkled forehead in his reflection, that quote was where my eyes flashed to, and rested for a long moment. And then the camera swings and Keaton distracts you with an unexpected pout, a shrug of the shoulders, and the screen is his again.

A thing is a thing – not what is said of that thing.

Boyhood is about faces and representation, too. Every review I’ve read (a thing is a thing, not what is said of the thing, but still), notes the moment we meet our hero, Mason: there he is, lying on his back in the grass, eyes wide and dreamy, as fresh and young as anything. He’s got an expressive face (we learn, as we age with him), but he holds himself close – he’s not expansive, never flips a switch. A child contained. A child intent on finding truth, not living above it.

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The thing about movies like these – movies about sweet white boys, weird white men, the kid down the block, the actor we grew up with – is that they don’t threaten us with difference or with discomfort. Yes, Mason messes up, and says things that shouldn’t be said; but the anxiety we feel is because we don’t want to see ordinary mistakes in our Hollywood movies. Yes, Keaton is a mercurial bastard, Iñarritu casting his brand of subtle magical realism to guide us deftly from the ordinary to the explosive; but the fear we feel scratches at us because we have to make leaps of rational faith, because we can’t trust this character.

But no, they don’t scare us in the sense that a deeply changing world can scare us. They are friendly in their familiarity: the narratives, tropes, and story arcs are what we’ve always seen, known. The difference is only in the art of the telling.

I loved Boyhood. I can forgive it pretty much any flaw because that’s the point: to show us, with aching slowness and tender, impartial honesty, the moments that aren’t picture-perfect. Lines we crave to hear (“I love you,” maybe, or “I’m sorry”) are never delivered. Beats are missed. Angst isn’t glossed over with a makeover montage. Drama is sporadic. Mason’s energy is slow, mesmerizingly out-of-touch. It’s a simple movie, simple desires, simple lives – which is where it derives its own sense of magic. The premise gives it room to breathe, excuses its mistakes, adds a childish charm. As viewers, we get to be naive; we get to be cheesy. Because for once, we can’t critique a movie for its attempt at wit or humor or depth. Cynicism isn’t allowed, and it’s a relief.

I really liked Birdman. Edward Norton is a lit match; Emma Stone’s eyes are too awesomely big for her face. Keaton is weird, obviously, which is the only way it works. It’s artifice at its finest, the division between fact (Keaton IS this character, after all) and fiction (but can he levitate, truly?) shunted aside. You’re left with little time to ease into the suspension of disbelief; you just have to accept this alternate-yet-so-close-to-home reality. It bubbles over with its own cleverness, the melding of backstage and onstage and the world stage, the continuity of the shot mimicking the relentless pace of 21st century digital life. (The social media tirade felt weak, though – an older generation trying to write words into Emma’s mouth as she hurls them, insults, at a man the writers must themselves identify with, as though they’re delivering their own self-punishment, an apology for their age.)

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But a thing is a thing, not what is said of the thing. You can write yourself crazy thinking round and round about these stories and what they say about Hollywood, America, the patriarchy, film, art, creativity, consumerism, egomania. The thing, though, is still the movie. Two stories, a boy and a man. These are the subjects, objects, pronouns. They are real and we can’t ignore them.

The only question left: why these things? Why not other things? What can we say about the absence of things? Because no thing is… nothing.

On Hustle & Wolf: Hollywood’s finest sleaze, packaged for your pleasure

At their best, movies elevate the images of the lives we don’t lead into all-consuming, believable, magical art. At their worst, they fail to convince us that the lives we are watching unfold onscreen are worth our time, our attention, our money. At their best, they instill dreams—and nightmares. At their worst, they’re forgettable.

From that standpoint, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street are two pretty good movies. I watched them on back-to-back nights, and the comparisons between the two cropped up unbidden. We’ve got blockbuster directors, high-wattage celebrity casts, and unlovable anti-hero main characters—all bound up in two twisted, demoralized takes on the classic American rags-to-riches storylines we know and love so well (thanks, Horatio Alger). Before you watch these movies, I recommend setting aside your moral compass. In the worlds of Hustle and Wolf, right and wrong don’t apply. The compass points to success and survival; don’t bother with north.

Screen Shot 2014-01-03 at 4.05.57 PMWolf first. Leo diCaprio first. We’ve seen him evolve from Titanic‘s sensitive romantic to Romeo + Juliet‘s violent, sensitive romantic to Catch Me If You Can‘s confident impostor to The Aviator‘s over-confident visionary to The Great Gatsby‘s sensitive, romantic, over-confident impostor-visionary to… this. It’s the rawest of the Leos yet. The swagger—and there’s lots of it—is not fake, but instead bursts from an ego inflated by the crudest kind of successes. Jordan Belfort (real person, real story, real asshole) is a salesman, and that’s what Leo plays: the kind of salesman who has nothing beneath the pitch, not even an interior consciousness. His life is the pitch. And The Wolf of Wall Street, with its Leo voiceover narrating and explaining events as we see them onscreen, is the pitch.

Once we get that, we can let Scorsese do his work. What really happened doesn’t matter, because we’re getting the memory of it—the feeling of it. And what a feeling. Sex, drugs, gratuitous naked flesh, more drugs, more strippers, fancy cars, hot blondes, fancy clothes, expensive yachts, beautiful homes, public urination, violence, wads of cash, testosterone, bacchanalian parties, and the sheer, irascible, powerful force of GREED: Scorsese shoves this stuff in our faces with a reckless, dangerous enthusiasm. It’s glorious. It’s seductive. It’s despicable.

Up-by-his-bootstraps Jordan Belfort and his finance firm conned investors out of millions of dollars, lining their own pockets instead (a tactic explained early on by a pitch-perfect Matthew McConaughey as an innocent young Jordan’s first raunchy boss). In the movie’s telling, the motive is always just money. And behind the money is the art of the sale—of your business, of your shitty penny-stocks, of your self (and, inescapably, your soul). Scorsese doesn’t give us any likable characters. They’re all absolute shmucks. Instead, he wants you to drink up that world of unfettered conspicuous consumption; he wants you to get wasted on it, on the saturated colors and naked breasts and endless lines of coke. And once you do, you’re along for an aggressive 3-hour trip that doesn’t let up. (Luckily, this one doesn’t come with a hangover.)

Leo in his office element.

Leo in his office element. Those baby blues!

The Wolf is also a story of addiction. Jordan is addicted to sex, drugs, and making money. It’s those addictions—particularly the last one—that drive him from nothing to something bigger than he can handle. He gets his true high when he’s selling himself to his staff, who worship him cultishly. Everything else fades away, and for a second we see the terrifying beauty of the self-made man who has bought into his own myth. He either will not or cannot see anything beyond it.

Scorsese doesn’t pass judgment. The shocking shallowness of The Wolf isn’t supposed to be a reprimand to American consumer culture; if anything, all the things that (dirty) money can buy are lovingly fetishized with that slick Hollywood lighting and Leo’s sexy voiceover. (That includes naked women in all objectified forms. From a feminist perspective, this movie is abominable. I’m trying to set that aside so I can critique it more objectively. Not sure if that’s a good thing, though.) There’s something both shiny and grotesque about the whole thing—the story, the way it’s filmed, the characters—and I still can’t decide if it’s revolting or appealing. Is hedonism so bad, after all? Hasn’t America always revered this kind of man? Hasn’t he always been our way in, our dream, and our addiction?

(And here’s a sobering account of why the Hollywood-ification of this kind of crime is problematic at best, and destructive besides.)

American Hustle is also about the art of the sale—in this case, the ability of a sadly de-Batman-ified Christian Bale and an oddly sexed-up/tits-out Amy Adams to sell fake loans. They get caught by an over-ambitious, hyperactive FBI agent (an energetic Bradley Cooper) and end up working a complex con involving a fake Arab sheikh, a half-dozen corrupt politicians, and Robert deNiro in an inspired cameo as a mob boss.

But Hustle is less about the work they do than the things they conceal about themselves, the human relationships they struggle with—and what drives each of them to get a little bit ahead. It’s a more nuanced movie than Wolf (thankfully); these guys all do have interior lives. It’s also much slower and sometimes angling towards dull. (I have to wonder if they dressed Amy Adams in free-boobing costumes slit down-to-there in every scene for character purposes… or more likely just to keep male viewers engaged.) Where Wolf never stops striving for more, more, more, the characters of Bale and Adams are content with just enough to be better than the rest… until Cooper wants more, more, more, and then they’re hustling for real. The Hustle here isn’t necessarily money: it’s staying one step ahead of the game, whether that’s in love or in career. It’s an addiction, one could say, to “getting over” the other guys (in Amy Adams’s words). The only one left out (at first) is Jennifer Lawrence, the spurned, airhead wife—but she gets in on the action in her own way, too. (She’s also, in my opinion, the movie’s hands-down highlight.)

Again, no heroes; no clear good-guy/bad-guy; no ethics separating those who succeed from those who fail. There’s a shady glamour in Adams & Bale’s small-time pre-FBI work. The movie is a love story to the low-rent hustle, to the small not-so-great things people do in order to lead almost-great lives. It’s only when they go big that things start to crumble; the love story is up, the romance begins to fray, there’s infidelity on a number of levels. But they pull it together, conning their way back into stability. Faking it until they make it. Classic.

Sweet costume design, though.

Sweet costume design, though.

In Wolf, you root for Jordan Belfort not because you like him, but because you want to be at the crazy party he’s throwing with all that Leo charisma… and you believe in our American right to have that kind of party. In Hustle, you root for Bale not because you like him, but because you want to believe that for this one very flawed—but not irredeemable—regular guy, his story can have a happy ending… just like yours.

Oh, America, aren’t we predictable. The self-made man is always our favorite Hollywood flavor—served with a side of sexed-up women, naturally. They will sell this vulgar myth to us as art until the end of days, and like Jordan Belfort, we will never be sated. It’s bad, it’s morally reprehensible, I shouldn’t be supporting the film industry making this stuff… but as movies, they are pretty damn good.

So, are we addicted or what?

On intergalactic anthropology (and Chris Pine)

Disclaimer: my brother’s bar mitzvah was Star Trek themed. As he is five years older, I grew up unwittingly watching endless rounds of Trek episodes on TV from a young age—of which my parents approved. Suffice it to say that the indoctrination started early, and although my exposure was passive, it was very formative. I even went to space camp at the tender age of 10, and was determined to become an astronaut until age 13, when my poor vision ruled that out. Not gonna lie, I cried when that dream was crushed.

So, cut to the present day and “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” Zoom in on Chris Pine (Captain Kirk) and his shockingly blue eyes. Cue J.J.-Abrams-trademark lens flare. Watch the primitive humanoid alien population of a far-distant planet, wide-eyed and loin-clothed, develop new ritualistic behaviors and cosmologies based upon the sighting of the USS Enterprise rising out of the ocean, manned by a crew of what I’ll term “intergalactic anthropologists.” (I majored in Anthropology, so this is my jam). Swoon.

In the ensuing ruckus, consider the question: is it more important to preserve endangered populations and ways of life, or to allow all life forms to develop on their own, uninterrupted by outsider intervention?

From the American Anthropological Association’s “About” section:

A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems.

Spock believes in preserving life, as long as outside influences are not registered in the cultural history of the population—a kind of “do good and leave no trace” anthropological ideology. (Classic Vulcan—and classic civilizational superiority complex.) Captain Kirk believes in going with his gut; he isn’t much of an anthropologist, just a good-looking roguish dude who likes to keep his friends alive and adventures forever on the horizon. Captain Pike, an old-timer, believes in adhering to the rules, which are strictly observational; more science than ethnography.

Cut back to Chris Pine’s dreamy eyes. Since this is Star Trek and Chris Pine is always getting beat up, he’s been in a fight since we last saw him on screen. Notice the subtle black eye he’s sporting, and gratuitous facial lacerations. He looks great.

If you saw “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” the other parts of the movie that mesmerized you were most likely the special effects and the good-vs-evil storyline. There were laser guns, explosions, and lots of high-stakes sound-enhanced hand-to-hand combat. Throw in a cold-as-ice unbeatable villain (Benedict Cumberbatch), advanced military weaponry, and a hot shirtless blonde—and you have all the makings of a solid summer blockbuster. Star Trek’s premise of exploring new worlds is geeky at first, but in the hands of Hollywood it gets the royal action-movie treatment. And with a plot that pits ideology against ideology—pre-emptive warfare vs. adherence to legal and moral codes—it even resonates gracefully in our contemporary post-9/11 consciousness.

But if you’re like me, the violence, visual effects, and even the plot are ultimately beside the point. I was much more into the opening scene of alien exploration, and the closing moment in which the mantra of the starship Enterprise is narrated in Chris Pine’s dulcet tones:

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Now that’s a cinematic franchise for the anthropologically-inclined. It doesn’t hurt that it’s got lots of Captain Kirk to gaze at, and Spock to bestow us with subtle lessons in cultural stewardship.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the next Trek installment. Intergalactic anthropology: definitely my dream job.

On “the bling ring”

Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” is not fun to watch.

Maybe it’s because it’s based on real events: many of the lines are taken from actual recordings. This group of teenagers actually stole over $3 million of clothes, jewelry, cash, and drugs from the L.A. homes of celebrities. It actually happened, as absurd as it seems.

Maybe it’s because we know how it ends: the kids get caught and arrested.

Maybe, though, it’s mainly so disturbing to see because it’s unflinchingly true in its depiction of kids these days—myself included. We may not be thieves, but is our self-aggrandizing self-branding any less criminal in its shallowness?

In one scene, Emma Watson and her cohort of pretty young things sit at a booth in a glitzy downtown club, messing around with their phones and taking the occasional duck-faced selfie as they down their bottle service. Their smiles flash on and off with the cameras. To us in the movie audience, their studied aloofness comes off as uncomfortable boredom. They don’t talk, except to say “You look hot” or “Oh my god, there’s Kirsten Dunst” or “Get your drink in the pic!”

And the next day? “You were SO drunk last night.” A character uploads the pictures to Facebook and smiles: that was fun—or so it looks, in its digital encasement. Smoking cigarettes at the beach, they look less “cool” than “teenager-trying-to-be-cool”: the ripped jeans, exposed abs, careful poses. In dialogue, the vocabulary doesn’t develop much beyond “sweet,” “sick,” “wow,” “I’m down.” Neither do the characters.

None of us want to think that we are like these kids: that we would steal with impunity, play with other people’s money like a toy, treat the law like a school rule we can nonchalantly break. But Coppola reminds us that it’s not what they did, but who they were, that is most chilling. The characters never develop because there isn’t anything there to begin with. The movie isn’t a parody of this California subculture because there’s no substance to draw from. Instead it’s a straight-up reflection: this is what your life looks like, because all you care about is what it looks like. You live in an echo chamber of pretty things. Better Instagram it.

Most critics have emphasized the celebrity-obsession that the movie highlights, but the “celebrity culture” wasn’t what hit me (even with the documentary-like clips of paparazzi footage and TMZ news items and Facebook feeds). No: I squirmed in my seat because I’ve had those empty conversations, felt that hit of joy from looking at the Facebook pictures, struck those same poses while reclining in a club’s booth, drink in hand. On Instagram the next day, we look good, and our social network feedback loops reinforce what a fun time we had.

So why isn’t “The Bling Ring” fun to watch? Maybe it’s because just like the kids in the movie, we weren’t actually having fun.

OOF.