If you’re not a straight man, you’re probably used to exploring your sexuality in the margins of popular entertainment media—particularly if you’re not cisgender. Even for straight women, though, the content marketed as titillating tends to pander more than it excites.
As a young teen girl, I found the space to discover my hormonal sexuality in the least likely (and least “female-friendly”) medium possible: videogames. Because while all the men playing Prince of Persia or Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption were identifying with their male protagonist, I was too busy falling in love with him and making the camera zoom in on his perfectly sculpted butt.
Was it juvenile? Yes. But it was a hell of a lot better than discovering my sexuality via the traditional Disney prince and princess—or, worse still, books like Twilight. Because while we criticize the objectification of women in media, we neglect to realize that most sexual entities are portrayed with a distinct lack of humanness, regardless of gender. Whether they’re the hunky prince or vampire, the attractive male figure in female-targeted entertainment usually possesses little to no desires outside the female protagonist. Women are fed the notion that the perfect man should want nothing more than her—to the point where he becomes so maddened with love that he turns into a semi-abusive partner.
None of that bullshit was remotely present in my intimate moments with hot, gruff, male videogame protagonists. In fact, even while I shamelessly lusted after his meatiest man bits, I never once was capable of losing sight of my love interest’s autonomy. Hell, his autonomy was the entire premise of the game—and it was usually part of the reason why I lusted after him: for his buns and his journey to redemption (or whatever).
I don’t think a summer blockbuster movie like Magic Mike (and its sequel, this summer’s Magic Mike XXL) could’ve existed when I was a blooming teen in the early 2000s. Because despite the fact that it’s a man-juice fueled striptease fest, its treatment of sexuality comes across as distinctly human in a sea of objectification.
Again and again, Magic Mike XXL emphasizes that autonomy, communication, and honesty are sexy. When we left Channing Tatum’s titular character in the last movie, he’d quit the male entertainment business to start his own. In XXL, we see him returning to the brofest for one last hoorah and bringing his newfound autonomy with him. Importantly, it’s a return he makes of his own volition, and not out of desperation (like every other depiction of sex work ever). One of the sexiest scenes in the entire movie depicts an empowered Tatum (almost metaphorically) nailing a table he’s working on for his new job with the gyrating motions from his last job.
As the team makes its way to Myrtle Beach for the stripping convention (is that even real? You don’t know and you don’t care because JOE MANGANIELLO’S BUTT WILL BE THERE), Tatum suggests they throw out the tired old stereotypical fireman and sailor outfits for a more personal touch. “Are you a fireman?” Tatum asks Manganiello’s character (who has a phobia of anything that burns). No, Manganiello responds, “I’m a fucking male entertainer. Not a fireman.”
What proceeds is the most adorable sequence in which Manganiello learns how to be a better stripper by not presuming women want “a man with a job,” but instead, learning that what women truly want and find sexy is nothing more than simple sincerity. By getting in tune with himself as a person rather than an object, Joe Manganiello does the impossible job of somehow becoming hotter.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty wrong with Magic Mike XXL. Now that Steven Soderbergh passed along the directorial torch to assistant director Gregory Jacobs, the series takes a turn from arthouse to bromance circle jerk. The centrality of the bro-ness (while mostly enjoyable) encapsulates my major problem with Magic Mike as a female-targeted movie about female sexuality. Because while the script emphasizes again and again that, to please a woman sexually, you need only ask her what she wants, nearly every influencial crew member in the end credits is male. So when 96% of the audience that turns up for opening week are women, it probably wouldn’t hurt to get an actual live female director and/or writer on the team.
Regardless, XXL tells a tale of sexual empowerment for both women and men. And despite its gendered marketing tactics and traditionally masculine focus, XXL makes a point of addressing inclusivity (and getting it right).
The fun of Magic Mike XXL goes beyond glitz and glamour and even simulated cumshots. Like my time with John Marston in Red Dead Redemption, human stories are not the antithesis of sexiness in this striptease. Because when an Adonis truly bears all, he also reveals an intoxicating vulnerability. And in this moment of true nakedness, we are intimate with him in a way actual sex can only hope to accomplish.