Magic Mike: less about stripping, more about social class.

I’m sure you’re unsurprised to know that I had no interest whatsoever in seeing Magic Mike. A movie about attractive, well-muscled men taking off their clothes? What possible appeal could that hold for me?

…. okay, you should be done laughing by now. So, in case you missed it, this is the cast of Magic Mike:

It is a movie about them taking their clothes off. The chances of my not seeing it were roughly 20% less than nil.

Like most people, I didn’t expect Magic Mike to be more than a campy lark for folks who like seeing men take their clothes off. Like most people, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it is a great deal more than that. Let’s back up quickly and discuss the premise, so you know what I’m talking about. Mike (Channing Tatum) is the main attraction at a strip club run by the awesomely sleazy Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, whose recent career reinvention (by which I mean The Lincoln Lawyer and this, but I’m hopeful) has been a delight to witness), but he claims to be an “entrepreneur” attempting to save enough money to get a custom furniture business off the ground. He recruits/tricks Adam (Alex Pettyfer) into joining him in the stripping game, and Adam takes to it like a … any joke I can think of to finish that sentence is wildly offensive or deeply corny, so let’s just say he takes to it like two things that go very well together take to each other. Also in the “all-male revue” are Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Ken (a very, very miscast Matt Bomer), Tito, and Tarzan. While Adam is getting deeper and deeper into the world of professional clothes-taking-off, Mike is developing a big crush on Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn). All kinds of shit ensues.

Now, if you read Alyssa’s post that I just linked, you’ll see that she’s sort of trying to draw a line between the economic choices made by the strippers and the recession:

These strippers are marginally employed men trying to move up the economic ladder in a state with the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country, and their struggles show how financial need leads people to deceive each another—and, more importantly, themselves.

I like that, but I don’t necessarily think the movie is aiming that high. Guys like Mike have been around since long before the recession and they will be around long after it’s over. So let’s talk about Mike in more granular detail. Mike’s primary revenue stream is stripping. He gets a chunk of the door off Dallas, helps manage the books, and has a promise of some percentage of the back end whenever the club moves to Miami, but you’ll note he doesn’t seem to have anything in writing. He’s definitely hardworking – he promotes the club, works as a roofer during the day, and might own an auto detailing business. (At least he drives a van that says he does.) He also makes custom furniture, which in point of fact is ugly as shit, and it’s implied that he remodeled his home, because his home is stunning and he has no money and since this movie is actually pretty firmly grounded in reality I have to believe that that’s what we’re meant to take from how pretty the house is. Clearly Mike has skills, on top of which he’s a sweet guy and reasonably intelligent. And that bod. Oh Jesus. Let’s take a moment to appreciate it:

Anyway, Mike is shown to be a good dude who’s serious about what he’s doing, but he doesn’t know how shit works. He goes in for a bank loan with a credit score in the 400s, and when this is pointed out to him he pulls out several stacks of cash, apparently not realizing that makes him look like a minorly successful drug dealer. As mentioned, he’s supposed to get some percentage of the club in Miami but has nothing in writing. He’s not dumb, but he’s kind of a mark. You watch him and you just wince, because you know he’s gonna get fucked.

He does (and not just by Olivia Munn, in a small role as an unrepentant ho AKA my role model), and it’s bad news. But it’s not like he’s a babe in the woods; he may not know how shit works, but he’s a grown-ass man who could have covered his ass a little better, and he gets called on this by Adam’s medical assistant sister Brooke, who he’s sort of trying to romance. (He doesn’t do a bad job, either. He’s funny and charming and has lats you could play xylophone on. Channing Tatum has been incredibly lucky to find directors, first the guys in 21 Jump Street and now Soderbergh, who see something special in him and bring it out. He should count his lucky stars because he was one more bad action movie away from being Beefcake #23 for the rest of his life, and now I think he could be looking at a reasonably interesting career.) Critics have been praising the scene where Brooke loses her shit, screaming “I see you! I fucking see you!” while shaking her finger in Mike’s face – and props to Horn, who I think is excellent – but I prefer the much quieter scene when Mike visits Brooke at home looking for Adam and Brooke tells him in no uncertain terms that his Miami plans are well-intentioned bullshit. I love how she cuts through the nonsense. I love how she honors his feelings, telling him in essence “I believe that you believe it,” while pointing out the logical fallacies.

Here’s the thing, for me – we’ve all known a Mike. We’ve all known someone with big plans and big dreams who talks a good game but clearly doesn’t have the tools, be they concrete knowledge or personal qualities, to carry out any of them. Personally I find these people pretty annoying and usually want to shake them while dropping atom bombs of reality in their faces, but that’s because I’m kind of a shit. The truth is that these people are the way they are because our society has done a great job of setting them up with high expectations for themselves (you can be whatever you want to be! shoot for the stars!) while undereducating them to the point where they don’t even know what they don’t know, or how to find it out. They got fucked coming and going. This is also, incidentally, why I like Brooke so much: Brooke comes from the same world as Mike, but she got her head out of her ass. The film’s choice of job for her is particularly telling. She’s a medical assistant, which isn’t really anyone’s dream job but is a stable, marketable gig you can get without a college degree – the exact kind of job you get if you’re trying to climb into the middle class and fucking stay there. (Which isn’t to say it’s not a legit gig in and of itself, because it totally is. Fuck yeah to anything that’s marketable in a recession.) So when she calls Mike on his shit, it’s not just “you’re a dumbass.” It’s “I know what you’re doing and I’ve seen other people do it before and seriously, no seriously, it’s bullshit.”

So I don’t think Magic Mike speaks to the recession as much as it speaks to how a certain (lower-middle-class and working-class) segment of the population can get royally fucked through a combination of unreasonable expectations and an abrogation of the social contract. And that’s really cool. We don’t talk about our social class problems in America much; we prefer to talk about race and act as though class isn’t part of it. But it is, and this film gets right into the meat of that, albeit in a little bit of a sideways way.

Also, here’s the thing I didn’t know: Channing Tatum is a really really ridiculously good hip-hop dancer. I mean I actually gasped he’s so goddamn good. So you should probably watch him bust a move. It’s sweet.

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About Sara

I like to talk about media, food, and gender.
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5 Responses to Magic Mike: less about stripping, more about social class.

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Sold. (No, seriously, I was going to see it anyway, but I was expecting to feel icky about it, because while I am okay with seeing a movie purely for the eye candy, I would prefer that the eye candy not be in the service of exploitation narratives. But now I have a frame that I can be comfortable with! Yay.)

  2. Nice! I may have to watch. Re: Alyssa’s comment I get a feeling that after I see it I will probably agree with you. The film that REALLY sends that message is “The Full Monty.”

  3. Vykromond says:

    Movie was really good. Script pretty cliché BUT the dialogue is remarkably, super duper on point and the actors really give it their all. GJ Soderbergh. I’m hearing talk about a sequel though which if I could hard veto I could.

    Hated Lincoln Lawyer a lot btw but McConaughey was amazing in this.

    • Sara says:

      Agreed across the board especially with the hard veto. I want an even harder veto for the confirmed Broadway show, except for the small part of me that hopes it’ll be The Full Monty.

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