feminism

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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The pen has been in their hands

“Men have had every advantage of us [women] in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing.”

“But how shall we prove any thing?”

“We never shall. We never can expect to prove any thing upon such a point. It is a difference of opinion which does not admit of proof. We each begin probably with a little bias towards our own sex, and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle…”

—Jane Austen, Persuasion

On the “hook-up culture”: Part 2

By now many others have said—more succinctly, more earnestly, and more wittily—what I had intended to say, so instead I’ll offer up some links to thought-provoking reads on the topic.

First up, my friend Eliana over at Time lays it down in her piece What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About the Ivy League Hookup Culture (full disclosure: she quotes me in the article… #stillfamous). I definitely recommend reading her full article (it’s a quick read), but in brief she points out three major flaws in the prevailing discourse on the subject: (1) College students are choosing random hookups over meaningful relationships; (2) Most Ivy League girls are too busy and ambitious for relationships; and (3) The so-called hookup generation represents a radical break from the past. All three myths; all three debunked by Eliana. I couldn’t agree more.

Next, we have Leandra Medine over at popular fashion blog The Man Repeller. Never heard of her? Her main claim to fame is wearing crazy trendy clothes (think lots of clashing colors, unexpected layers, vertiginous heels), making Snapchat-style faces at the camera, and blogging at length about it—all underlaid by a very do-whatever-makes-ya-happy ethos. But don’t write her off just yet! Leandra’s got a social conscience too, and her post The F-Word is not so much fashion as feminism. Yep, fashion blogging—that realm of the woman-as-object-adorned-and-decorated—just got political. (Note: I have lots more to say on fashion blogging, but we’ll save that for a later date.) “There’s a sense of innocence inconspicuously tied to silence, and in this story, the men are on mute,” Leandra writes about the NYT piece. Yes! (Read the whole post, it’s great.)

Then we have one of Slate’s contributions to the ouevre, The Hookup Elites by Lisa Wade (thanks to Emily Y. for passing this one along). Wade suggests that most research on college hook-up culture focuses on gender dynamics on college campuses—but there’s another side to the story, and that side is not about male-female power play but white/wealthy/heterosexual privilege.

“So what we are seeing on college campuses is the same dynamic we see outside of colleges.  People with privilege—based on race, class, ability, attractiveness, sexual orientation, and, yes, gender—get to set the terms for everyone else. Their ideologies dominate our discourses, their particular set of values gets to appear universal, and everyone is subject to their behavioral norms. Students feel that a hookup culture dominates their colleges not because it is actually widely embraced, but because the people with the most power to shape campus culture like it that way.”

—Lisa Wade, The Hookup Elites

So not only do we (privileged women) think that men are writing the script, but actually we women are writing it too (even if somewhat unknowingly) by virtue of our subject positionality. Classic.

On the flip side of the Slate coin, Matt Yglesias reminds us that hooking up isn’t actually that bad. In fact, it makes sense! Modern world, modern problems: we are saving marriage for later and later, but are interested in sexual experimentation at the same age as humans across the centuries. “Young people should feel free to do what they want with their sex lives, but I think it’s the people who are following neo-traditional visions of dating and romance who are operating with bad information and are more likely in need of guidance,” he writes.

Which brings me to my own more broad, contemporary-romantic thoughts on the subject, which are that we (generationally, civilizationally) currently lack the language, vocabulary, and social acceptance to discuss the various newfangled romantic partnerships that make the most sense for our lives today. What often gets lost in translation is that not every relationship must exist in the black-and-white binary of casual/emotionless/short-term vs. serious/marriage-oriented/soulful. There are infinite stages in between these two opposites—don’t tell me you haven’t been in some intermediate place yourself! But until we start accepting the range of options and complexity that any relationship might hold (and the idea there is not always an end-goal), we limit our conversations (especially in the media) to this frustrating back-and-forth, and set expectations of ourselves and others that cannot be realistically met. And that, to me, is just plain regressive.

Fin.

(…For now.)

On “how to be a woman”

I’m in the middle of a self-prescribed novel-devouring time in my life, with a hefty stack of books on my bedside table, their spines fresh and (mostly) un-bent (thanks Amazon for cheap used books that are ‘Like New’!). The thinking goes that somewhere between E.M. Forster and Joan Didion and War and Peace (which I’m saving for winter, to be read by a roaring fire with a mug of hot tea), I’ll come to some kind of slow, deeply-felt understanding of truth and beauty and writing and living. Omm.

I’m eight books in now, and I woke up the other day needing something different. So I started into the one non-fiction tome I had on my list: How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. (Thanks to Phoebe & Catherine for the recommendation!)

Maybe I’m at a vulnerable place in my life, but man, this book spoke to me. Or rather, it made me laugh, which is arguably even better. It’s the grown-up version of the Angus, Thongs & Full-Frontal Snogging series (funny, silly books for and about British teenage girls), and it’s also a flat-out feminist manifesto for our time. Everyone should read it. Here is the most important passage:

“But of course, you might be asking yourself, ‘Am I a feminist? I might not be. I don’t know! I still don’t know what it is! I’m too knackered and confused to work it out. That curtain rod really still isn’t up! I don’t have time to work out if I am a women’s libber! There seems to be a lot to it. WHAT DOES IT MEAN?’

I understand.

So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your underpants.

a. Do you have a vagina? and

b. Do you want to be in charge of it?

If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.

If you answered ‘no’ to the first question, try this: (a) Do you know someone who has a vagina? and (b) Do you want her to be in charge of it? If you said “yes” to both, then congratulations, you’re a feminist too! Now, back to Moran:

Because we need to reclaim the word ‘feminism.’ We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29 percent of American women would describe themselves as feminist—and only 42 percent of British women—I used to think, What do you think feminism IS , ladies? What part of ‘liberation for woman’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue,’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF SURVEY?”

—Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman

I spent a good deal of my senior year in college talking about feminism with my peers—analyzing the debate around it, trying to pinpoint when and how it came to be problematic, discussing if it was even relevant anymore, deciding how to “fix” it so it would “work” for more people. There were Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies seminars. There were speakers and events about Shulamith Firestone and Sheryl Sandberg and sex.

So in the midst of this muddle, it’s nice to have Moran spell it out so plainly. This part of the debate is just not worth having.

The debate that is worth having is the one about sexism and equal treatment. I’m lucky: to my knowledge, I have yet to be discriminated against in any noticeable way for being a woman. (Aside from online commenters dissing my photo attached to a story I wrote, but ça va, that’s the Wild West of the interwebs for you and a whole other can of worms.) I have run in circles full of strong, leading women and equally talented, conscientious men. I’m young and admittedly can’t really see a glass ceiling for myself. Which doesn’t, obviously, mean it’s not there. That’s the point: you can’t see it.

So as many of my friends (and, eventually, me too) strike out into larger circles with more complicated social dynamics, I hope that all of us—men and women alike—don’t forget to keep one hand raised, checking for that invisible glass, making sure that when we feel it coming down to meet us we push back. Feminism isn’t scary: it’s just that simple act of pushing back, of taking a stance, of holding our ground with chin up. I think that is how to be a woman.