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.


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?


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.



On the Law of Attraction

When I finished high school, my ballet teacher—and spiritual guide of sorts—gave me a graduation present: a deck of cards called the “Law of Attraction.” Each card, beautifully illustrated with abstract designs in bright colors, held a statement about positive visualization. The deck was one of the only sentimental items I brought with me across the country to college. Every Monday, I’d select a new card from the deck and pin it on my freshman-year bulletin board: a constant reminder to think boldly and optimistically. After all, a positive mantra never hurt anyone.


But over time the tradition faded. And so, too, did the Law of Attraction in my life. It was enough to muddle through college in fits and starts, succeeding and failing in equal measure, learning strengths and flaws along the way. Who needed the Law of Attraction when opportunities seemed to fall comfortably into our laps, gilded with potential? And after college, things can snowball faster than you expect; one day you’re sitting at home, fixing up your resume; the next you’re sweating in your nicest blazer as you prepare for the pivotal interview handshake; and suddenly you find yourself adding another line to that old resume, and this time it doesn’t read “intern.”

There’s a fun saying that goes “We accept the love we think we deserve.” It’s the Law of Attraction in action: we receive what we expect, what we visualize, what we aspire for. We’re treated the way we think we should be treated; we control the persona we project and the expectations that are imbued in it. This is, of course, a wildly utopian concept. Dreams do not turn into realities just by willing them that way. We’re jaded enough to know that where there’s a will, there really isn’t always a way. One glance at the news will show just how deeply the structural challenges to change are carved.

But it’s a guiding tenet nonetheless, so bear with me as I carry out this thought.

As an exercise, we can expand the saying a bit, unpack it, and flip it around. Perhaps: we accept the self-worth we think we deserve. Or: we deserve the self-projection that we accept. Or: the self we project is the one others will accept as true.

A few months ago, I read Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, an NYT bestseller about a group of self-proclaimed “talented” kids who grow up in the New York of the 1980s and fall short, to different levels, of their outsized, youthful dreams. It’s a book that hits home in a lot of ways—if you’re at all like me, you see yourself easily (and uncomfortably) in these so-called gifted children, brimming with ideals—but it also left me bitter because of the smallness of the dreams; of the limitations that each character places on him/herself. Maybe I just don’t want to accept adult reality and its finiteness, its endless smallness. The book riled me up. I wanted to slap the main character into some semblance of self-confidence, or just self-projection of confidence. As I finished it, I itched to distance myself from her story arc. There was no drama, no cathartic ending. There was only the slow fade.

At 23—well, 24 on Sunday—I am allergic to the slow fade on what feels like a fundamental level. I can only believe in the cosmic rise. Which brings me back to the Law of Attraction. It’s easy—scarily easy—to let one thing become another. To allow our fates and our work and our paths to plod ceaselessly in the direction that we start out with, because inertia is as real a force in the psychological world as it is in the physical one. That’s why we live in this modern phenomenon of “extended adolescence” that the talking heads drone on about; that’s why we fall into ruts.

The conscious choices to project a self and project a future are not easy, and they’re not comfortable. Setting stakes in the ground—“I will be this person; I will not be that person” or “I will accomplish x by x age; I will discard that other dream forever”—all of these seem so final, like closing a door when you don’t have the key. But that’s the point, isn’t it? In order to visualize what we want, the image has to be specific, which by necessity excludes other outcomes; the would-you-rather is real. Mountains or beach? The only rule is you can’t pick both.

So what does that mean for us? For me, it means I have to buckle down and actively, finally define the big bad “goal.” And it also means I have to put in place a series of incremental visions to support the attempt; baby steps. “Adulthood” is a thing that happens when you act the part each day, every day, shaping yourself into the person you’d like to become. It is not some far-off tropical destination you lust over, lazily adding photos to a Pinterest board, yet never booking the ticket. It is the daily mundane decisions: the things you buy, the people you spend time with, the stories you read, the self you create. It’s hard, and I’m terrible at it, but it’s worth a shot.

I’ve always believed in image as a proxy for reality. We perform our own truths. It’s the Law.

Let’s abide by it.

On the secret of balance

Life’s all about balance, right?

Maria Tallchief was a celebrated ballerina and a muse of the famed choreographer George Balanchine. She passed away almost exactly two years ago; her obituary in the NYT is a great overview of her fascinating life journey and accomplishments. But when I read it two Aprils back, what struck me most was one of the online comments from a reader:

…I taught dance for 30 years and would often tell my classes of her brilliance, and especially of her secret of balance. In various pas de deux she would hold a pose for what seemed an impossible time. Was she totally still en pointe? Not at all. Her standing ankle was constantly adjusting in small motions. This constant adjustment I have taken as a example for life.

Balance: it’s all in the ankles.

I’m into hot yoga lately, so yesterday morning I made an attempt to get to the early class before work. I hit traffic on the 101, realized I would be too late, and turned around and came home. I prepped for a hike instead—but free time before I needed to buckle down to the workday was fading fast, so at the last minute I decided to go on a short trail run. It’s always a series of small decisions, the ones we don’t think twice about, that hold the biggest punch.

The morning was hot and bright, and I was making great time on my run. Home was a quarter mile away. In the dusty green oak grove, I sprinted for a stretch, then jogged around a corner. A second later, I was on my hands and knees in the dirt: runner down. Ankle down. I blame the hidden tree root stretching across the path. I blame my blithe forward momentum. I blame an off-kilter balance.

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 9.27.59 PM

Eleven months ago, I sprained my ankle—the other ankle—while traipsing giddily down a sidewalk in Williamsburg, headed back to my first NYC apartment on a balmy spring evening. The ankle swelled to twice its size, turned black, blue, purple, and yellow, and generally sucked. I wore a walking boot for a month, falling asleep each night with an ice pack wrapped tightly around my foot. But I managed: I moved to a new apartment, figured out how to negotiate stairs, and developed an appreciation for the low-key comfort of summer sneakers.

And here I am again, ice pack strapped to my ankle, immobile on the couch. I had plans to go to LA this weekend, to fly back to NYC next week, to run errands and just plain run. Now: another challenge to work around. Another adjustment to make. Small motions, to find balance. Small decisions, to figure out the next step life will take.

Because stillness is never an option, and ankles are weak. Because setbacks happen. They sneak up on you when you’re relaxed and pummel you when you’re down. I’ve generally been a “roll with the punches” kind of girl, but lately that wisdom seems less applicable: standing tall might make you a target—but Maria Tallchief figured out a way to stay up en pointe. It is how we deal, the movements we make (defensive, offensive, emotional) that determine our ability to maintain the balance, to bring it back, to tap into a place where we look serene on the surface, even as we fight for composure beneath.

Or maybe the secret is that it’s never been about balance. The process is where we live; it’s where we might find something of truth. A pirouette can look like effortless spinning, but it’s work: you’re engaging your core, your back, your arms, your eyes, the standing leg and the one held in a triangle against your thigh. You’re not balancing on top of the cardboard box of a pointe shoe with ease: you’re reaching for a sweet spot that eludes you and fighting to get there and stay there. Or at least, that’s how it always was in ballet for me.

I cried twice yesterday—once out of pain, once out of frustration. I got two more pieces of unwelcome news, punched a pillow, banged some keys on the piano to let off steam. The setback is never fun. The adjustment is never easy.

But the ankle will heal. This morning is sunny. And I’ll make it to yoga, and I’ll try to balance on it, and with small motions I’ll—maybe—get close.

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 2014

In 2014, I lived in eight different homes.

I’m using the word “live” generously, but I’m quick to settle into a spot, so I think it fits. Three of the eight were apartments across New York City. Another three were short-term rentals in South Africa. The final two were with family. Throw in a cluster of hotel rooms, friends’ couches, and a floor or two – and it’s been a lot of roommates, a lot of addresses.

To match, it’s been a year of bits and pieces: a week here, three weeks there, three months over there. Each new address meant slipping on a new self, crafting an identity to match the neighborhood, navigating a new walk to work and a rapport with roommates and kitchen supplies and how communal wine purchases are consumed. 2014 was constant motion. Constant change. Constant self-reconsideration. Who were my friends? Where did I fit? How should I dress? (My Williamsburg, East Village, and West Village looks are all pretty different, naturally.)

The latest spot.

The latest neighborhood I get to call my own.

Despite my insistent wanderlust, I’m no nomad. I crave putting down roots; I’m an earth sign, after all. And it’s roots I return to, again and again. Which is why this year closes right back where it started: spending time with family in Idaho and California, places that I love but fight with because they don’t change with me. Instead, I revert back to them. Whether I’m 23 or 17 or 10, so many things are the same at home: mom’s fudge-frosted banana cake; uncertainty about the future; my dog Lincoln; a sense of not having accomplished enough; my favorite ratty sweatshirt; a desire to be and do more to fix the crises swirling outside our doors. Home brings up classic young adult angst, nothing special here.

But maybe it’s not wholly the same. Maybe this year’s angst is different, as this has been, objectively, the most different year of all (for me, at least). I mean: first interviews and first jobs, first times paying rent, first apartment-cooked meals, first jolts of the reality of our generation’s place in this country… I could go on.

Or maybe the world spins on its own crazy way, and each year is – in the grander scheme – a little smaller, a little more repetitive. Hard to say if our problems and pleasures are any truer and deeper as we age, or if they simply feel more pressingly present, and then by the time the next New Year’s Eve rolls around they’ve inevitably faded away to be replaced.

The least I can do is try to keep track. So, in keeping with last year’s New Year’s Eve post, a reckoning is in order. I didn’t always live up to the goals I set: My yoga handstands got worse, not better; my Portuguese is miserably rusty; I still have 50 pages left of Moby-Dick; and I’ve been a bad blogger. I did complete a few: I know how to use Pinterest, I figured out where I was living, and I found myself a job. So we’ll call it a wash, shall we?

Things I did in 2014: Moved into six apartments and out of five; met an eclectic group of people and made new friends; explored vineyards; designed a website; flossed more; started wearing red lipstick in the daytime; bought, consistently, only black clothes; became a coffee-drinker; learned a new language (well, the jargon of media work); drank a summer’s worth of rosé; figured out how to work a PC (and how to add things on Excel!); listened to great live music; bounced around various cities with good friends; developed a low-level SoulCycle addiction; spoke publicly in presentations; made small talk; had fun.

Things I’m working on for 2015: having longer conversations; planning a trip to somewhere new; finishing Moby-Dick; cleaning the bathroom regularly; productively running errands on the weekend; writing more; cooking vegetables; being there for friends who’ve been there for me; arriving on time; not being afraid of change. And maybe getting back to that Portuguese.

And so the cycle begins again. Happy New Year! Thanks for sticking around. Drink your champagne.

What does that indignity amount to

“What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance? Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.”

—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

On fresh starts & fall holidays

I’ve always loved that the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the following Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) fall, on the lunar calendar, right as autumn kicks into high gear. There’s a bite to the air that lazy September didn’t bother with, and there’s a feeling of time speeding up, coldness encroaching, skies darkening and leaves disappearing with a quickness that felt distant just a few short weeks ago.

Sun sets on another summer.
Sun sets on another summer.

Last year, in late August, I wrote a post about not going back to school for the first time. I said:

“It’s hard to remember that not going back to school doesn’t mean nothing has to change. It’s hard to feel the fizzy butterflies of a fresh start without everyone around me doing the same thing. On the flip side, though, there’s a dark glamour in now feeling personally responsible for any changes I might want to make to my life. If this is the empowerment of adulthood, it’s scary but encouraging.”

It still rings true. But for this, my second not-back-to-school, I ignored my own advice. I spent September largely as I had spent August: work, play, work, play. Yes, I moved into a new apartment in a new neighborhood with new roommates. Other than that, the continuity from summer was seamless. Work carried on. I didn’t buy fresh boots to kick off the season. My AC buzzed on in my window.

From the East River...
From the East River…
... to the Hudson.
… to the Hudson.

Making a radical shift is, it’s clear now, not easy. When we were still students and the school year started up, we could pull on our casual blazers and button up our blouses and present ourselves in class—then go right back to t-shirts in our downtime. There’s no obvious line like that, in this grown-up world: we are always in blazers and blouses. Every person we meet is a potential connection, and the lines between professional and personal lives blur ever closer, as work emails pile in on Sundays even as we’re sipping weak mimosas at boozy brunches with our coworkers.

So the timing for the Jewish New Year is, for me, a nice check-in; a reminder that we don’t have to let the fall (and the year) get away from us. We can take the time to celebrate, to reflect, to set new standards – or perhaps just remind ourselves of the standards we had hoped to live up to, which get ragged as we wear at them all year.

At the Yom Kippur services I attended this year, the rabbi spoke about our truths: the stories we tell about ourselves, and the stories other people remember. He said we should seek to be, as an old metaphor has it, like iron sticks: the friction of two different perspectives striking against each other sharpens us. In the indefinite space between the stories, between the sticks, might burn an objective truth. But it’s the lived experience — what we believe about ourselves — that shapes our reality. The challenge we must accept is incorporating the other stories, other perspectives, other pieces of truth. Then, we grow.

It’s a challenge that resonates. As the days grow cooler and my life here flattens into an unremarkable routine, I’ll make a New Years’ resolution of my own, no matter how cheesy: to seek out sparks of debate, to question what I know about myself and my world, to take criticism seriously, to embrace the different stories that will force me to sharpen my thoughts, that will help me see this city anew even as the streets become familiar things.

Always chase the golden hour.
Always chase the golden hour.

(I also resolve to drink more champagne. Rosé season may be over, but champagne is a timeless restorative for the tired soul.)

Here’s to 5775; may it be full of health.