The rise of the hunk
Who's saying what
Scarlett Harris writes.
Male stripper movie Magic Mike has been marketed as finally giving straight women (and, to a lesser extent, gay men) what they want: an opportunity to turn subjugation on its head and become the voyeurs, and they’re using the film as a tool to do so.
Never before in mainstream Hollywood can I recall a film that so blatantly puts the male body on show for the unashamed consumption by hetero women. “But what about The Full Monty?” some might ask. It could very well have been the original male stripper hit. But while Monty is mostly a heartwarming story about unemployment and child custody offset by distinctly average-looking Joes getting their kit off, in Magic Mike, the story comes second to the buff bodies of Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer and Matthew McConaughey.
Sex and gender writer Hugo Scwhyzer agrees that Magic Mike isn’t exactly the first of its kind:
“The ‘discovery of the female gaze’ isn't entirely new; when I was in grad school over 20 years ago, people said the same thing when the Marky Mark Calvin Klein underwear ads hit magazines and billboards. We shouldn't oversell how new this ‘permissioning’ of female desire is. On the other hand… the success of Magic Mike reflects a recognition that women are visually aroused.”
As Schwyzer mentions, back in the nineties, there was the underwear ad that arguably started it all: Mark Walberg in his Calvins, followed lately by football aficionados David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo in their tighty whiteys for Armani. Then there’s True Blood (featuring Magic Mike’s Joe Manganiello), where there’s as much male eye candy as there is female.
In porn, men are seldom seen as more than an erection but adult star James Deen has won female adoration for incorporating the whispering of sweet nothings and, in a particular scene, letting out an audible growl whilst going down on his partner. His surprisingly real-seeming “lovemaking” has earned him a small town’s worth of lady Twitter fans.
It’s not just the vice industry that has come to commodify female lust. Pay TV channel LifeStyle You’s latest marketing campaign cashes in on the male body objectification trend, using ripped, shirtless men carrying out everyday household duties like ironing to reel the women in. And who can forget 2010’s Old Spice ads, aimed more at women whose partners could smell like the dreamboat who gallivants from bathroom scene to boat to horseback in 30 seconds flat.
So while Magic Mike might be groundbreaking in some ways, it’s kind of like E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. It’s not that women haven’t seen it before, it’s that the zeitgeist is cottoning on to these relatively novel, of-the-moment trends that appeal primarily to a female audience.
Because female sexuality and desire has been pushed aside in favour of males’ for so long, maybe the success of Magic Mike—not to mention 50 Shades and the burgeoning use of sexy men to sell all manner of things from vodka (Jason Lewis of Sex & the City fame in those Absolut ads) to iced tea (Hugh Jackman for Lipton)—is not due to its groundbreaking role reversal (after all, women’s bodies have been used to sell sex for eternity), but because we just don’t see anything like this in mainstream Hollywood cinema?
Dodai Stewart writes for Jezebel just this: “Could it be that women are so used to seeing the female body sexualised on screen—from the point of view of the male gaze—that we don't even know how to react to the sexualised male body?” While Stewart recalls hollering and hooting from Magic Mike’s audience, when I went to see the film it was all mute, sexual tension-filled leg-crossing and uncrossing and squirming in seats. If that doesn’t demonstrate that women are unsure of how to react to the male form being used as a vessel for desire—not of it—I don’t know what is.
As Schwyzer reiterates: “There's huge resistance to recognising just how much women look—perhaps chiefly from men who are understandably reluctant to recognise that they're being looked at and evaluated. Men like to repeat to themselves the comforting claim that women aren't particularly visual—perhaps because we know that if we really acknowledged just how much women look and lust, we'd begin to feel some of the same pressures that women feel.”
You’ll notice that most of the male stars of Magic Mike’s careers have thrived on the commodification of their bodies. McConaughey is more recognisable with his shirt off than on and Manganiello has been quoted as saying he “could care less” about being typecast as a beefcake. I find it kind of refreshing that men are wanting to show off their bodies in a way that has been traditionally reserved for women.
For all the championing of a pop cultural trend that turns the gaze onto men, you’ll notice Magic Mike, itself greatly panders to male sexuality. Caroline Heldman writes for Sociological Images:
“Make no bones about it, this movie is all about reinforcing the notion that men are in control and men’s sexuality matters more… [M]any (but not all) of the simulated sex acts the dancers perform in their interactions with female audience members service the male stripper’s pleasure, not hers. Dancers shove women’s faces into their crotch to simulate fellatio, hump women’s faces, perform faux sex from behind without a nod to clitoral stimulation, etc. As a culture, we have deprioritised female sexual pleasure…”
For those who cry “hypocrite” at the women who’re now wolf whistling at the screen, playing F-ck, Marry, Kill, and drooling over a shirtless Ryan Gosling, as if all women find the sexualisation of their bodies oppressive, I direct you to one of the core tenents of feminism: choice. If women are deemed autonomous enough to make their own decisions about their bodies and whether they want to use them as a commodity, it stands to reason that men are, too. It might be a hard concept to grasp, but after centuries of the ingrained objectification of women, perhaps men want to try their hand at being desired as opposed to desiring.