There’s been a lot of talk lately about how women’s sexual fantasies are being addressed in pop culture like never before, and how empowering it is. Following the Fifty Shades of Grey frenzy came the entertaining Magic Mike, which started a celebration from viewers, bloggers, and journalists: Finally, a movie where the men are the ones being objectified! Dicks and ass are the new tits and ass! Women like to get kinky too! But before we start designing flags of Susan B. Anthony spanking Matt Bomer in assless chaps, it’s worth looking beyond the gyrations and oiled-up bodies to the plot of Magic Mike. And if you do, you’ll see that beefcake aside, at the heart of the film is the same story that romances have been telling for years: Women just want a guy whom they can fix.
The critical discussion about the movie has centered mostly on what all the male nudity means to women: Jezebel walked us through some of the lady-squeeing that went on at a screening and made the case that — see? — girls are visually stimulated creatures, too. (Although, as Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory argued, we’re not so into the floppy noodles found at actual strip clubs. Sorry, Chippendales, you will not profit from this alleged revolution.) Over at Slate, in a piece called “What Women Want, Magic Mike Edition,” Alyssa Rosenberg applauded the movie for “constantly undermin[ing] the idea that penises and missionary-position sex are the be-all and end-all for modern women.” All the simulated oral sex we see onstage, she suggests, is proof that women are “as interested in the men’s tongues as what’s between their legs,” and “the fantasy man is one who’s willing to go down on his girlfriend.”
Very good points, all. And yet, come the conclusion of the movie, Magic Mike comes scurrying back to the most traditional of the cinema’s romantic lessons. (Spoilers follow.) Ultimately, all these alluring bad boys, other than Magic Mike, become increasingly unattractive over time: Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) turns out to be even more sleazy than you thought he was; the Kid (Alex Pettyfer) is sort of pathetic and shows his age; Ken Doll (Bomer), with his wife-sharing, is creepy; Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) is more comic relief than anything. There comes a point where you don’t even want to see these guys strip anymore, unless Mike is with them. Okay, fine: You still want to see them strip, but in a kitschy, hoot-and-holler way — and that pales in comparison to the earlier, truly arousing moments, like the umbrella-penis dance and Channing Tatum solo-writhing to Ginuwine’s “Pony.” You begin to identify more and more with a real-life strip-club audience, which is to say, you don’t want to think about who these people are offstage anymore; you just want them to shut up and take it off, baby.
And so when Mike, with all his crushed dreams and heartbreak, quits the club, you’re deflated because you know that means the really earth-shattering hot times are over. But you’re also relieved because you’ve been set up to root for his happiness. (That sweet, stutter-y monologue about him not being his “lifestyle,” the scene where he realizes his booty call was just using him: We’re on your side, Mike!) And then he shows up at his savior Brooke’s house and asks her to “talk.” He just wants to talk. He is ready to be more than a piece of meat. And she helped him realize that. It’s a classic story of flawed man who, by the grace of a good girl’s love, turns his life around. Much like Troy Dyer in Reality Bites or Mr. Big in Sex and the City. Except instead of a guy who was once depressed and “riding his melt” or a rich narcissist who is finally no longer afraid of commitment, we’ve got Magic Mike retiring his air-hump-fortified G-string.
Does this mean the desire to reform a bad boy is part of the female fantasy in the real world? That’s up for debate. (We do love how, even though Mike came over to chat, Brooke subtly suggests a seven-hour fuck fest once he’s gotten everything off his chest. But that’s only after he offers her a cutesy breakfast and jumps through the requisite hoops.) But the good-girl-fixes-bad-boy fantasy is one that has been depicted onscreen for years, and it’s central to Magic Mike. And while we won’t leave the theater forgetting all the beefcake we’d just ogled for two hours — in fact, we will obsess over it for days, searching for something, anything, to fill the void — we’re not going to deny that when all is said and done, Magic Mike is a very traditional story. It’s just one with enough manly bells and whistles to make us feel like we’re being subversive.