Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Magic Mike" and the Heterosexual Closet

No Adam Rodriguez?
You bet your ass I went to see "Magic Mike" last week and I'll be damned if it isn't the best male-sex-object movie since "Boogie Nights." But I had an interesting experience at "Magic Mike." I went to see it at the Alamo Drafthouse Lake Creek, which is in the suburbs. Going up there is what my mom calls a "cultural experience." The theater was 99% female (I don't remember seeing any men, but don't want to leave anyone out) and the women were dressed up. Like tube tops, tight jeans, heels, makeup. On a Tuesday night. I had come from the gym in stretch pants, a sports bra and a wrap sweater. Oops.

I was stunned to discover that Adam Rodriguez, the super hot star of "CSI:Miami," was in the movie, because he wasn't named or pictured in any of the publicity materials. This man has the best jawline in television and plays the sensitive foil to Callie's strong lady firearms expert. But that's neither here nor there.

The movie is good. Not a little bit good; it's a lot good. The story is interesting, the acting excellent, the dancing inspired, and the story reminds us of the ugly human price associated with our collective dirty pleasures.

But at the end of the movie the friend who had organized the group outing walked up and down the aisle saying, "The acting was terrible, the plot was worse, but the eye candy was great." And I thought, wow, that's weird; I thought this was a really great movie. Am I wrong?

I'm not wrong; the movie has been declared good by critics far more qualified to judge the value of films than I. But "Boogie Nights" got a similar treatment, I remember, when I saw it: women I knew were reluctant to describe it as a good movie because it was so overtly sexy, even though the sexiness is balanced with ickiness. Seeing Mark Wahlberg's fake giant penis at the end (spoiler alert) is really the lowlight of an otherwise awesome movie about how our porn sausage gets made.

The movies had more in common than just eye candy--Don Cheadle's character in "Boogie Nights" wants to get out of the porn business and open a speaker store but can't get a loan from the bank that doesn't approve of his time served on the dirty screen, which of course foreshadows one of the main themes of Mike's struggle to get out of the dance biz.

The quality of the movie, though, isn't really what I'm after here. I was surprised that my friend described the movie so immediately and dismissively; but I'd seen similar comments from many other women on Facebook and heard from friends who had seen it that made clear that the only value the movie had was its eye candy, it wasn't like they thought it was good or anything. Ladies, can we not have a movie that is both sexy and good?

A concept I've batted around for a while is something I call the Heterosexual Closet. We are very familiar with how the heterosexual closet works for men: Madonna/Whore. Good girl/bad girl. Lady in the street/freak in the bed. But what does the heterosexual closet look like for women?

Sexual economics holds that, in the heterosexual "marketplace," female sex is a resource that is exchanged with men for access to material and/or social resources. The lower the "price" at which a woman "sells" sex, the more difficult it is for her to "sell high" (i.e., get a commitment) later. I use the theory to teach my students about patriarchy and the effects of slut shaming.

The theory has its flaws (though I really encourage anyone who rejects it based on popular conceptions to read the actual theory itself, and my feminist analysis thereof) and one of the many nuances left out of the is that women do in fact desire sex for sex itself; they just are really good at figuring out ways to either sublimate that desire completely (viz: sexual dysfunction) or to exercise it in ways that don't affect their standard "price."

This is demonstrated by spring break sex, female sex tourism, and the relationship between Mike and Joanna in the film. A similar finding came out of Premarital Sex in America: that unemployed men with less than a high school education had more sex partners than men who were employed and college graduates. The author couldn't understand why any woman would have sex with a man who had no "resources" to exchange for sex; to me, it was obvious that women were choosing to have sex with these men because their own value was totally unaffected by these men's low status.

"Magic Mike" addresses this issue of "respectability" and class as it applies to men, something that is rarely, if ever, mentioned in our culture. A friend of mine has a game he calls "Stripper or Supreme Court Justice?" in which we laugh at women's names and figure out where they are likely to fit in as adults. There is no such game for men. This closetedness is also shown by women's immediate distancing from the movie itself, which sounds almost like they hooked up with a dumb hot jock at a party: "I was drunk, he was hot, I would never introduce him to my friends or family so it doesn't matter that he's a stripper/waiter/bartender/personal trainer."

Though it sucks, women do really have to police their reputations; in a patriarchal system making sure they distance themselves from people, ideas, clothing, and behavior that indicate a "low price" is critical to maintaining respectability. For those women who don't just bury their sexual desire one of the most efficient ways to do this is to pursue sex with men who are inherently low-stakes: people much younger or older than you; exes; long distance hook ups; guys you meet on vacation who you'll never see again; men whose work keeps them out of your own social class and whose word no one would ever believe over yours.  Mike had absolutely no idea that Joanna even had a boyfriend, much less was engaged. She didn't want to tell him about her graduate work in psychology because she assumed he'd never show up in her social milieu. 

The way men experience being a low-stakes sex partner isn't something I can speak to, because I'm not a man. But if it's anything like being a female low-stakes sex partner, it can be both really hot and kind of crushing to realize you're the one who doesn't matter. "Magic Mike" shows us a little bit of how that plays out in the lives of men who are at the bottom of the class ladder and how they can be used for sex figuratively--as erotic dancers--and literally, as sex partners you keep secret. That is the definition of being closeted, and it hurts everyone.

Go see this movie, seriously.

1 comment:

  1. I have just installed iStripper, so I can watch the sexiest virtual strippers on my desktop.