‘Mike’ Taps Into a Complex Subculture

Taking it off, taking it all off, whether for eros, profit, art, or any combination thereof might just be the world’s fourth oldest profession. Throughout history in song and story, it’s usually an infernal female who works her wiles upon some hapless male, by shedding her duds. To the West, Salome is arguably the most famous belly dancer of yore. What the West does not generally know is that the East’s most entrancing belly dancers were often male.

In the 20th century, the female stripper was an American vaudeville icon before dancers like Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee turned stripping down to pasties and a G-string into rowdy performance art, by baring their all – or nearly all – behind plume or balloon. The humorist/scholar of American English H.L. Mencken coined the term “ecydysiast.”

I doubt the Sage of Baltimore had a guy in mind when he handed out that accolade. In my Big Apple youth, male strippers were automatically assumed to be homosexuals, cavorting in a netherworld club or sleazoid private parties, then hawking their sexual services afterward. Of course, there were male “gigolos,” always had been. But in the public’s perception, the gigolo was straight sexually, if a tad ethically bent. He didn’t undress for work but dressed – and elegantly. One envisioned him immaculately tuxedoed as he glided a bejeweled dame across the waxed floor.

In fact, male strippers were well-regarded performers in the Manhattan ’60s and ’70s “downtown” gay and lesbian performance art world, with its own Ab-Fab dance and dress conventions. The scene at first drew little attention from the “uptown” straight press. Everything changed with the advent of the gay liberation movement and the mainstreaming of gay culture, mediated by the groups like the Village People. The People came out of the sizzling gay disco world, scored big-time success with recordings like “In the Navy,” “Macho Man,” and their signature hit – “Y.M.C.A.” On stage, they paraded gay stereotypes like the Cop, the Sailor, the Cowboy, Construction Worker, so forth. In due time, the audiences for their records and shows frequently was more straight than gay.

The Village People’s popularity was paralleled by the rise of the Chippendales, an all-male song-and-dance review aimed squarely at straight women. The Chippendales, with their tightly programmed mock licentiousness, became a Las Vegas staple, then a worldwide franchise. The group consisted of sculpted guys dressed in a bowtie, white cuffs over bared torso, and radically tight pants. Their act was confined to the stage. Mingling with clients was verboten. Although their principal fan base was female, the group had a following among gay men, who were attracted by their hard-body look and amused by their chintzy glitz.

It would take a major pop culture dissertation to anatomize how we got from the Village People and Chippendales; from gay, fem, transgender, S&M, and every other species of sexual lib; through the culture of narcissism and celebrity, to the now-widespread practice of men stripping for women at public clubs, private events, bachelorette parties, sorority bashes, or what’s become a new edition of the old-fashioned girls’ night out.

Until the academic “full monty” is published, I’ll happily make do with Steven Soderbergh’s fascinating, if skin-deep, “Magic Mike” (skin aplenty on display). Since his 1989 debut art-house prizewinner, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” Soderbergh has consistently scored indie and mainstream triumphs, no easy task in contemporary film-making. He moves fluently across genres, for example, 2001’s “Ocean’s Eleven,” a witty reprise of the classic caper film. Wherever he comes to rest, Soderbergh maintains his abiding affection for rogue spirits dwelling on the legal/moral margins. In this regard, “Magic Mike” comprises a candid exploration of the contemporary male strip joint’s funky mise-en-scène, where bawdy choreography prompts cheering women to shed their inhibitions, get down and get lap danced into an erotic trance state, personally or by proxy.

Magic Mike is Michael Lane (Channing Tatum), by night a lead dancer at Tampa’s Xquisite club and an off-the-books laborer by day. (The average male stripper doesn’t make much from dropping his pants, of which more presently.) Mike meets 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer) on a roofing job. Adam promptly gets himself fired for stealing sodas.

They meet later outside a joint where Mike is flogging tickets for the club. Mike takes him there, introduces him to Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), its charismatic manager/impresario. When one of the leads is too stoned to go on, Adam stumbles through a perfunctory strip. His feckless hunkiness evokes a storm of lusty applause, and Dallas hires him on the spot.

Mike brings Adam home to the latter’s none-too-pleased sister, Brooke (Cody Horn). She tells Mike that her brother is an inveterate screwup who recently dropped out of college and a promising football career after a fight with his coach. He’s been living in slacker mode from Brooke’s couch and pretty much out of her purse ever since. She’s instantly put off by Mike when she discovers the questionable gig he’s gotten Adam into. But she’s also clearly drawn to Mike’s wry humor and unassuming dignity, qualities they both share. (Mike’s astonishing good looks don’t hurt, either.)

Turns out that Mike, at age 30, is growing dissatisfied with his party-hardy, casually promiscuous lifestyle. He hopes to leave stripping for handcrafting furniture, once he can assemble a grubstake from the grubby fivers fans stick in his thong. Until then, he must keep on dancing, literally and figuratively. Dallas fancies himself America’s premier strip choreographer and is about to realize his ambition to open a major strip space in Miami, perhaps even go international. He’s promised Mike a heavy percentage of the action but has a shabbier cut in mind.

The film devolves around Adam’s ascent – or descent – into his Xquisite career. Dallas tutors him in the profession’s idiosyncratic aesthetics, light years beyond crude bumping and grinding. Selecting the outrageous costumes and props appropriate to the crowd at hand is as crucial as pitching them away. Adam eventually becomes the “Kid,” an ur-symbol for his ravished fans of pumped-up late-adolescent eroticism. He reveres Mike as his liberator from middle-class conformity; revels in the questionable perks of his notoriety – a cornucopia of nubile women, booze, and major substance abuse.

Mike, who promised Brooke he’d watch Adam’s back, fails wretchedly. After Adam overdoses, Brooke angrily rejects Mike, then has a predictable epiphany that Adam is beyond her redemption. From now on, she realizes, he’ll have to follow his own fallen star.

It’s Mike who redeems himself in the end, bails Adam out of mortal danger from heroin hooligans with most of his savings, recognizes Dallas as an arch exploiter and second-string legend in his own mind, and quits stripping forever. Presumably, he’ll attain authentic selfhood carving Bauhaus barstools. The film concludes upon Mike’s and Brooke’s first kiss.

Soppy stuff, easily tossed off as a soft-core coming-of-age tale, but genuinely touching in Soderbergh and his leads’ capable hands. Channing Tatum, himself a stripper in his late teens, captures the muddled distress beneath Mike’s cool facade. His character senses, but can’t yet consciously admit that he’s edging past his prime, in a dubious profession where he’s seen the skull beneath the smile.

Alex Pettyfer renders Adam’s callow adolescent rebellion achingly palpable. Cody Horn vividly depicts Brooke’s anguish over her brother’s obtuse, refractory vulnerability, as well as her painful struggle toward accepting that she must distance herself from Adam’s draining dependency if she’s ever to move forward with her own life. Her dilemma, tragically common in clinical practice, rarely achieves such a tidy, unambivalent resolution, except – of course – at the multiplex, and in less than 2 hours.

Now in his early 40s, McConaghey’s range and depth grow with each new role. He’s a pitch-perfect Dallas, oozing with oily charm, cozening his devotees with smarmy insinuations of the lewd delights awaiting them – a small man with a big tawdry dream and an utterly ice-cold soul.

“Magic Mike” has been received well, critically, and done well at the box office. It’s attracted female audiences and generated a solid gay male following as well. My older gay patients and friends – including a gay studies academic – admire the film’s homage to the ribald exuberance of the Village People, and other kindred spirits from the ’60s-’70s downtown performance/disco scene. My professor added tartly that the film’s lavish hard-body display might have something to do with Magic Mike’s appeal to his crew.

The film has received fire from combatants on the right and left sides of the culture wars. Arch-conservatives rage at its supposedly debased vision of womanhood, in which even the most wholesome wives and mothers can be transformed in a wink into voracious painted Jezebels by viewing the strippers’ satyric gyrations.

I don’t propose taking your kids or grandkids to “Magic Mike.” But I submit that this puritanical thunderblast is exemplary of perennial male angst about aroused feminine sexuality that reaches back to Homer’s Helen of Troy and beyond. Many men, even of liberal stripe, are ignorant about, and would be scandalized by the extravagant bawdiness of the feminine equivalent of male locker room trash talk.

However, given the inequalities women still face today – namely, the underpaid and badly used girls of “Girls” – I do sympathize with the frustration I’ve heard expressed by older feminists about the male striptease mise-en-scène. It would indeed be a sad and sorry thing if Xquisite club bachelorette parties were the signal achievement of their courageous marches back in the day.

“Magic Mike” also has been critiqued by male strippers themselves, variously for not accurately portraying their art or failing to document the degradations and dangers of the profession. Male ecydysiasts claim the film’s footwork is clumsy and the dancers aren’t buff enough, and complain bitterly that one gets no sense of just how down and dirty it gets when the thongs come off (they routinely do). The strippers assert that women often treat them like “objectified” slaves, badly act up and act out, particularly at private parties.

I am far more concerned about reports that some men – although clearly not the majority — become involved with the trade, especially on the seamier private side, not for sex or art, but because they simply can’t find any other work in this devastated economy. Like the Kid, they own the requisite looks, abs, and butt to have 5 bucks shoved into their thongs night after night. They live an iota above the subsistence level, lulled by the spurious glamour of their demeaning labor.

Yet another testament to the betrayal of youthful America’s hopes.

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