Disavowing Female Desire: Magic Mike and “Book Club”

It’s no secret: I’m really excited for Magic Mike. You already know that Channing Tatum is My Favorite Doofus.  I’m excited it’s directed by Steven Soderbergh, I’m excited about Matthew McConnaghey doing what he does best (read: be hot-sketchy), I’m excited for Channing Tatum dancing, I’m excited it’s getting good reviews.

I’m also unabashedly excited to ogle male bodies.  I mean, the trailer is a blatant, unapologetic call to objectify the (finely tuned) male body –

And maybe that’s why I love the premise so much: it’s not a strip tease cloaked by the plot of a romance (see: Crazy Stupid Love; any other film with Channing Tatum ever). It’s a movie about stripping. The layer of artifice — the idea that we go to the movies to see a narrative, rather than beautiful bodies — has been stripped (har har) away. I obviously haven’t seen the movie yet, but signs seem to point to the fact that a movie about the selling of sex (something implicit nearly every Hollywood film) actually highlights the insidious issues that accompany that sale (class, social/cultural ostracism).  (If you want to talk about the politics of the “female” gaze, see Kelsey Wallace’s inquiring post, “We’re Objectifying the Shit Out of Joe Manganiello and Loving It,” over at Bitch Media.)  In other words, make sex explicit and you’re actually able to talk about the societal/cultural issues that swirl around it.  Hide it, or pretend that your movie is actually about robots, and you just talk about nothing.

Warner Bros., which produced Magic Mike (budget = $5 million) has naturally channeled its marketing, exploiting the male bodies the same way that a trailer for a film featuring Megan Fox exploits the female body.  Lots of imperceptibly slo-mo shots of undulating bodies, abs, and, er, packages.  This marketing tactic has predictably alienated a large swath of the male audience — a situation that Tatum and Soderbergh have worked to correct in interviews:

“Look, this is not a movie that is exclusively aimed at women and gay men. To what extent are women going to be able to talk their boyfriends into going? I don’t know. But I don’t think guys will be sitting in the theater thinking, ‘This is torture.’ Ten minutes into the movie, they’ll realize they are not being excluded from this experience at all.”

Does that mean that there’s female nudity in the first ten minutes?  Yes, I believe so. But what matters is that this film has been blatantly and almost exclusively marketed to a female audience.  Unlike rom-coms, which appeal to a woman’s sense of romance and the specter of sex, these ads appeal very directly to women’s desire.

But that desire is still illicit.  No matter how far American society has come in terms of acceptance of sexuality (and its various manifestations) in the public sphere, female sexuality is still sublimated and made abject.  You know this: the tremendous flustered anxiety over funding women’s birth control, the GOP censure of the word VAGINA (vagina vagina vagina!).  Women should have babies, but they somehow shouldn’t have sex — or, god forbid, sex that doesn’t produce babies.

Magic Mike is thus, in many ways, a perfect counterpoint to the suffocating, frankly misogynistic rhetoric of the last year.  But what’s most interesting to me is how the television campaign at once invokes and transgresses this understanding of female desire.

Earlier this week, while watching The Bachelorette (long story), I saw a new set of ads for Magic Mike – all of them invoking “book club.”

I couldn’t find the exact ads on YouTube, but here’s one on Facebook.  Watch it.

Or, if something stops you, then here’s what you need to understand:

These intertitles are wedged between shots of abs, gyrating, and leather pants.  Right after Matthew McConaughey tells a room of stripper-anticipating ladies that “The law says that you cannot touch! ….. But I think we got a lotta law breakers up in this one.”  He’s addressing the audience in the film, but Soderbergh films him head-on, in a manner that suggests direct address.  In other words: McConaughey (and, by proxy, the filmmaker, the producer, the studio, the commercial) is acknowledging that you’re going to break the “law” of acceptable female behavior.  You’re going to go to this movie, and you’re going to love it.

BUT!  You, Bachelorette-watching, romance-loving woman that you are, feel guilty about it.  Why?  Because patriarchy makes you feel bad about desire that isn’t for your boyfriend/husband/homosexual partner.  That’s why you have to tell him you’re going to something as homosocial (meaning: all your own gender) and ostensibly desire-less as book club.  (Little does boyfriend know: lots of bookclubs are filled with sex talk about sexy books. It’s not all The Help and cheese plates).

Now, I realize that this ad is supposed to be funny.  It is funny.  But like most humor, it’s funny because it’s true: in our supposedly liberated, postfeminist society, the only way to make female desire acceptable is to disavow it.


14 Responses to “Disavowing Female Desire: Magic Mike and “Book Club””

  1. Valerie says:

    I’m pretty sure you’re my favorite person. Ever. No really. I’ve been trying to explain to people while I am pumped for this movie, these ads have been so rubbing me the wrong way.

    • Meghan says:

      I’m pretty sure this movie will be rubbing you the right way. Soderbergh is a genius – remember “Sex, Lies and Videotape?” If Andie MacDowell could act, it would have been so, so much sweeter; also, Channing Tatum has paid his dues in a lot of projects where, usually because of bad plot or writing, we’ve only seen glimmers of what he’s capable of. Of course he’s not hard on the eyes. You know what is tough to take though? All these cheeseball marketing ploys, replete with gendered stereotypes instead of, oh, say, characterization, masquerading as films: most rom-coms. All I can say is, it’s about time.

  2. UrsulaWJ says:

    “a strip tease cloaked by the plot of a romance (see: Crazy Stupid Love, any other film with Channing Tatum ever”

    He was awesome in The Eagle, and I was prepared to hate him, on the grounds that it was one of my favourite books as a kid. There are, um, quite a lot of cloaks though. Does that count?

    Seriously, though, you lot in the US have it much worse than we do in Europe, don’t you? If I wanted to see this film, I’d just go, and tell any bloke who complained that I was going to perv at naked men. And if he complained I’d think he was pretty uptight. I wouldn’t do any telling him I was going to book club stuff.

    I do notice that thing you said in the difference between US and European films that are aimed at women. US Rom-coms seem to think women are obsessed with weddings, while Brit ones seem to much more about sex & relationships in a general way. I find it weird, because it’s like the wedding is somehow seen as representing the female desire, which I find totally 1950′s.

    Good blog btw.

  3. Melis says:

    THE EAGLE! Let’s talk about THE EAGLE forever. Every time I thought they could not possibly add another homoerotic layer to that delicious gay onion of a film, I turned around and there was Jamie Bell in leather jodhpurs straddling The Tatum and making significant eye contact. THE EAGLE!

  4. Julie says:

    I suppose that may be what the ad is saying, that female desire must be disavowed, but when I saw that ad I read it as “lie to your boyfriend” in a cheating way, not in a hiding desire way. Which, I’m aware, are often mixed and intertwined dynamics. Tell the boyfriend you are doing something non sexual because you frankly don’t want him involved with it and you want to get your jollies on a different/prettier/etc man.

    If a man tells his GF that he’s “out at tennis practice” or some such and instead goes to a strip club, is it then also disavowing his desire/sexual lust? Or is it just hiding it to protect a female partner who can’t handle the truth?

    Why is it disavowal for women? I’m an outlier I suppose because I do work in the field of theater and sexuality so much it wouldn’t really occur to me that it’s tamping down desire, but hiding it from a spouse. Maybe it’s the same thing.

    I just wish this movie had men I wanted to objectify for I do not really dig the cast, Some of my cast pics would be Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Strathairn, Alan Rickman, Chris O’Dowd, Danie Henny, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Jason Segal.

    Also I like Le Soderbergh so I shall see it, but I don’t enjoy the whole “women scream and freak out at male bodies business.” I’ve been reading so many wonderful breakdowns of this film and discourse around it. Great article!!

  5. cece says:

    I don’t think this is a movie that celebrates female desire. Granted I won’t see this film until later tonight but there something unsettling about the commentary surrounding the film, its stars and the women it’s being targeted towards. Many reviewers have noted in gross and condescending tones, the behavior and enjoyment of the woman of the theater.

    I just read Lainey’s review and she addresses some of the issues that concern me. From the outside looking in, this is a film that seems to celebrate men and their desires. This is type of film that pretends to empower women.

    • Annie says:

      I think you’re right about the off-putting tone of most people reviewing this film: they frame the shrieking women in the theater as grotesque. But again, that’s what has to happen — the female desire needs to be made weird, abject, wrong, other.

      As for the question of whether a film about male stripping empowers women — I don’t think so. My argument is that it invokes female desire, which the discourse around the film then must disavow.

  6. morgan says:

    Hmmm…Seems to me that the marketing for this film is very clear about trying to capitalize on heteronormative female desire. The campaign nurtures that desire by suggesting that it’s naughty, that it should be kept secret, that it can’t be shared with “your boyfriend,” quite clearly addressing women as independent, knowing, and desiring potential moviegoers. I don’t take that as a disavowal. In fact, I get the impression that the film can’t afford not to overtly nurture female desire, since, at least according to this trailer, it is relying on it–and not story, not character development–to sell tickets.

    The film and its marketing help illustrate the increasingly insidious ways in which contemporary commercial media culture centralize visibility and surveillance, especially in relation to women. I have my doubts that “making sex explicit” by presenting privileged white male bodies for objectification will generate much clear, honest, productive discourse about gender bias or sexual desire in the mainstream, as you suggest it might. I guess we can hope. Certainly, most of the reviews already out there do little to add to that kind of discussion.

    I also hesitate to get excited about the chance to ogle male bodies since, while changing who “looks” might seem like it shifts the balance of power, it isn’t changing the paradigm. Instead it implicates those looking in the potentially dehumanizing practice of objectification. And it encourages us to believe that therein lies our power (well, there, and in the choice to buy the ticket), while reifying the ideologies and institutions (conventions of attractiveness, importance of being seen, patriarchy, capitalism) that sustain class-, race-, and gender-based oppressions.

  7. Seed says:

    I am 52 so I remember going to male strip clubs in the 80′s. It was a hoot! A woman in line in the bathroom exitedly told everyone that she had told her husband she was going to a tupperware party (book club?) It was women only unless you had a escort (not many men showed up) and at closing time it opened up to an after hours that let men in.These after-hours men were pathetic, after watching all that hunkflesh. These men thought they could come in and score with a horny woman. I had absolutely no shame in reveling in hot men, and the woman-only aspect was liberating. You could throw open your bawdiness and have a great time.

  8. Mymble says:

    I have to disagree. I think it’s just the exact same ad campaign they use for men; replace boyfriend with girlfriend and book club with Home Depot and it sounds like any other ad. It IS quite interesting to actually see the female gaze being represented openly, but I’m with morgan above: I don’t think anyone should be objectified, I don’t like the female gaze any more than I like the male gaze. I think the ridiculous difficult-to-achieve body types on display are 1. boring and 2. a breeding ground for men developing the same issues with their bodies that women have had for years, which I’m sure the multi-billion dollar beauty industry would love to happen. Instant doubling of profits!

    As for the reviewer response “fram[ing] the shrieking women as grotesque”, THAT is the point I would focus on, and definitely says something about society’s feelings about female desire. Compare how shocking this is for adult female behaviour, when basically the same thing is happening at every One Direction concert.

    • Annie says:

      I most definitely see both and you and Morgan’s points — and didn’t have enough time to parse the complicated “flipping” of the gaze onto the male’s body. The post I linked to discusses it somewhat, but it’s a complicated, fraught issue….and I’m not even sure I completely understand how I feel about it. Do two “wrongs” make a right? Should we do tit for tat when it comes for objectification? Obviously that moral algebra doesn’t work. But is the “female gaze” still an act of subversion, given the 1000+ years of male gazing?

      But again, that’s another blog post — although I’m glad you raise these issues in the comments. For now, I think your comment on how (mostly male) reviewers have framed the reaction of women is just another prong in the argument above…..people don’t know how to invoke or talk about female desire without making it a joke.

  9. Sara says:

    I agree — the potential was there for pushing a new genre of female desire in this film and I was really excited to see how/if the film was going to follow through with this promise. As I was watching the movie last night, however, I noticed two things: one, the emphasis on men grinding their crotches in women’s faces (a go-to move that permeates the film); and two, the male strippers using their penises like machine guns while dancing. These two images (and there are others to be sure), did a lot to remind female viewers that it was not their desire that was central here. And while giving oral sex does not mean that female desire is necessarily absent, the image that is portrayed here is decidedly about male pleasure. And penises=guns is an old metaphor that needs little in the way of interpretation.

    It was an incredibly paradoxical experience watching this film as a woman–at once called upon to be desirous and yet still marginalized even in this format.

    • Valerie says:

      Definitely noticed this as well. There were a *number* of times in the film where I caught myself thinking that something would not only not be not pleasurable for me ,as a woman, but downright uncomfortable.

      I will also say though, that the film more or less matched my experiences with male strippers. There is a lot of male crotch to female face. Even in this realm that is meant to be about female desire, the things they *do* seem to perpetuate male pleasure first ,and female second.

  10. JL says:

    Seems like it just glorifies cheating. The women in the club are groping and being groped. The audience is supposed to lie to their boyfriends. Rather than empowerment, it seems like just becoming a lying exploiting type person. Not “liberation” at all. Just more of the same way people have laways behaved — “I get mine.”