Metrosexuality had to live and die for us to get to this new, at-ease, intimately homosocial era of masculinity, at least as it is depicted in pop culture. It's a time of bromance, of straight dudes getting drag-queen makeovers on reality TV, of straight soldiers lip-synching like drag queens on YouTube, of Chris Brown and Justin Bieber intimately duetting, of Drake and Justin Bieber intimately duetting, of rappers implicitly endorsing gay marriage. And no film has better encapsulated the new masculinity zeitgeist that values self security over rigid, external notions quite as definitively as Steven Soderbergh's male-stripper saga Magic Mike.
The world of Magic Mike is devoid of homosexuals, which makes the homoeroticism that much more palpable. (Homoeroticism plus actual homosexuality is just gay.) Backstage, members of the stripper entourage encourage one character to rub lotion on another as part of "initiation." One pumps his cock pre-show in plain sight. New recruit Adam (or "the Kid," played by the scrawny Alex Pettyfer) goes into a slight gay panic after the sister that he lives with sees his newly purchased thongs, sailor hats and boots and makes assumptions about his "preferences." "It's not what it looks like, OK?" he says, taking a break from shaving his legs. A while later, we get to watch him do a dance inspired by a cowboy showdown opposite Ken (Matt Bomer). Then we know he's assimilated into this world – and he probably couldn't have done it if Matthew McConaughey's character Dallas hadn't sidled up behind him and showed him how to grind his hips.
These men share an intimacy with each other that in another era would have been confined to back rooms or the Middle East. "Hey, Mike. I think we should be best friends," the Kid tells the titular Magic Mike (Channing Tatum, the star of this film and of the industry itself these days). Mike is the unofficial leader of the group and Tatum, with his charm-your-pants-off mix of action-figure angles and unplaceable beauty, is the perfect poster boy for new masculinity. He performs onstage and off with an improvised ease, a looseness that oozes of self-assured maleness. He humps a bench in an impromptu cheer and beckons a character goofily, like he's calling a dog. He holds onto the back of the Kid's neck tenderly but without flirtation. When Mike shows up at the Kid's house in Marilyn Monroe drag, we don't get an explanation as to why, but then we don't need one. He's just easy like that.
The "cock-rockin' kings of Tampa" use traditional symbols of rigid masculinity in their acts – police uniforms, military gear, a Tarzan bikini, a Ken Doll box (OK, so Ken wasn't exactly butch in normal terms, but in Barbie's world, he was the source of testosterone). They tear down the archetypes through their outlandish dancing and stereotypically gay song selections (wretched covers of "It's Raining Men" and "Like a Virgin"). It's a tongue-in-cheek, cock-in-banana-hammock critique of traditional maleness. It's also a chance to revel in how far we've come.
The unfortunate fact of the matter, though, is that this sort of gay-spotting is a lot more enjoyable when it isn't so blatant. Watching Top Gun is an active sport in comparison to the tea-bagging that Magic Mike provides its audience. The dancing is amusing – especially since much of it seemingly was inspired by the '90s-style body rocking of Bobby Brown and Jodeci – but the film hits a kind of staccato rhythm midway through, doling out one goofy excuse for us to almost see celebrity peen after the next. Great asses across the board, though.
The non-stripping parts are even worse. They're shockingly low-energy and being thrust back into the mumbling action after watching an opulent, tackily lit stage show is like repeatedly being sent back to sepia-toned Kansas after spending just a few minutes in Oz. It doesn't help that the story centers on uninspired American-dream musings (Mike is a guy with drive and a flair for custom furniture) and a bland relationship between Mike and the Kid's sister, Paige (played by Cody Horn, who is a Styrofoam peanut of an actress). She makes a draggy film drag harder. She's a strong case for a "No girls allowed" sign.
Magic Mike is an admirable film, one that's so seedy in its dudeness that it seems audacious even in the social climate it's exemplifying. But it's not an especially enjoyable one. It's unfortunately appropriate for a film about stripping that the fantasy here is better than the reality.