Have Women Defined Their Freedom In Sexual Liberation?

Magic Mike poster

OK, I'll admit it. I was one of the thousands of women that flocked to theaters across the country to see Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh's latest film starring Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum as male strippers.

It debuted the weekend before last, coming in number two at the box office, and earning a little over $39 million, which isn't surprising, considering the amount of hype surrounding its release. There were racy advertisements, promising both McConaughey and Tatum would be scantily-clad throughout to tease women's sexual fantasies, and juicy blog posts stating that "Wanton female lust [was] expected to erupt like a lava-spewing volcano at movie theaters around the country." 5 Reasons We're Excited To See The Stripper Movie "Magic Mike"

And perhaps it did in certain moments, but there was also much more to the film than errupting female lust. 

Quite simply, Magic Mike wasn't what I expected it to be, and brought up questions that gave way to a higher level of thinking than marketers gave their audience credit for. After viewing the film, I was left with a few major cultural conclusions.

The first of which? Attractive men dancing around in Speedos, flexing their muscles, and swirling their hips is much cheesier than it is sexy. In addition, the classic "central love story" fed to a predominantly-female audience was predictable and unnecessary. And lastly? Channing Tatum has an amazing body. But does it really need to be one hundred percent hairless? Exclusive! Channing Tatum On Magic Mike: "Every Dance Ends Naked"

But, really. On a more serious note.

The plotline had multiple layers, and was much deeper than expected. Out of the many themes explored in Magic Mike—themes, such as, capitalism, gender roles, and sexual ethics—the most compelling of all was an exploration of what it means to be liberated. How does our society define liberation? How do we obtain it?

These questions are referenced most overtly in a scene featuring Matthew McConaughey, the greasy strip club owner, and Alex Pettyfer, who plays the supporting role of a novice, young stripper. In this scene, McConaughey, clad in Speedos and a yellow spandex tank top, instructs his newest protégé on the art and glory of male stripping.

Both men stand, facing their reflections in the mirror. The young apprentice gyrates his hips and mentally conjures his mojo, while McConaughey is directly behind him, speaking words of encouragement and inspiration. "You're not just stripping," he tells him, "you are fulfilling every woman's wildest fantasies... You are the one night stand, that free fling of a f*** they get to have with you tonight, on stage, and still get to go home to their hubby and not get in trouble because you made it legal. You are their liberation." 10 Things to Know to Be Sexually Savvy

All I can say after watching that scene, is that if a nearly naked 19-year-old kid is truly our liberation, then I think we're all in a lot of trouble. And if we take this definition of liberty seriously, then perhaps we're in even more trouble because what he actually argues is this:

Illicit sexual encounters = liberation
Fulfilling your every sexual fantasy = liberation

And if some of us never engage in either of those things, does it mean that our lives are then lacking in some fundamental form of liberty? 

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I know this is just a film, and some may argue that I am taking it far too seriously, but as I look around our current culture, I can see evidence of this message slowly shaping the world we live in.

Take feminism, for example. I wrote about feminism last month in a post exploring the ways men treat women in romantic relationships. I questioned whether or not chivalry has died because women like to flaunt their independence too much. For example, some men no longer want to open doors for women because they've made it clear they don't need men to.

My intention is not to pick on feminism two months in a row, but I do think it's necessary to at least mention it when discussing Magic Mike. Anytime the words "women" and "liberation" are thrown together in the same sentence—as they were in McConaughey's speech—it seems rather obvious that feminism is exactly what's being referenced. /node/132336

As author and social critic, Naomi Wolf, observes, the feminist movement has taken many shapes over the centuries; yet, in modern America, "The feminist message of autonomy has gotten filtered through a pornographized culture."

What does she mean, exactly? Let's look at the HBO series, Sex and the City, for a moment. In the pilot episode, the main character, Carrie Bradshaw, runs into an ex-boyfriend and is angered by the way he is able to blithely have sex and then leave her, as though it meant nothing. In the midst of hurt and frustration, she decides to do research for her column to see if it's possible for women to have sex "the way men do." In other words, can women have recreational sex without any emotional attachments?

Carrie's first assumption is that women are not biologically capable of such a thing; yet, she is captivated by the prospect. As she discusses it with her friends, interviews single women around New York City, and conducts her own personal experiment, everyone—minus the sweet and traditional Charlotte—is openly rooting for the possibility. In the name of feminism and self-protection, they cross their fingers in hopes that women are capable of bridging this last portion of the gender gap. They have jobs like men and rights like men, but can they have sex like men? That is the question. And that question is about liberation. Can Women Be Trusted to Uncage Their Sexuality?

It's no small wonder that the target audience for Magic Mike was geared primarily toward the Sex and the City fan base, as the film seemingly answered this question with a resounding yes. Yes, women can have sex like men! Yes, they are capable of having and indulging in crazy sexual fantasies, and yes, doing so will allow them to reach an ultimate form of liberation.

Or will it?

What I appreciated most about Magic Mike is how it doesn't simply answer that question and then roll the credits. It grapples with it, and highlights some of the consequences that have resulted in this cultural twist on the feminist ideal. For example, the character of Magic Mike is not presented as a token heartthrob who strips for a living because it was his childhood dream. On the contrary, Mike's ultimate goal is to start his own furniture-making business, and hopes that stripping will help him get there quicker because he can make so much more money doing this than virtually anything else. We then watch him conduct a series of raunchy lap dances as hordes of lascivious women shove money into his g-string.

The whole spectacle calls to mind an interview I once watched with a porn producer named Brandon Irons. Irons tells the camera, "This is America, and it's a great free-enterprise system when a girl can make a quarter of a million dollars a year just with her body."

Change the word "girl" to "guy" in this analogy, and you immediately get the picture. Women aren't the only ones being objectified in today's society. Men are too, and they're being objectified by women. Yet, the rather bizarre part is that women, themselves, hate being objectified. We hate it. We're supposed to hate it. That's Feminism 101. "Men have no right to reduce us to empty sexual objects that exist only for their pleasure!" we shout. Don't Objectify Me...Just Tell Me I'm Hot!

Yet, more and more women seem to think it's all right if they do this to men—in the name of progress and equality and sexual liberation, of course. Does anyone else find it strange that we've fallen for such a trap? 

And in falling for it, we have embraced yet another disturbing trend in modern culture, and that is the commodification of sex. As Dr. Robert Jensen, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin argues, "Critics have long observed that in capitalism, everything is commodified—everything is turned into something that can be bought and sold." 

Jensen applies this idea to the sex industry and observes the ramifications. He says the tragedy of the sex industry is how it takes "the most intimate, the most private spaces of our lives—our sexual experiences, our connections to other human beings at that most basic level—and sells them." Can Sex Sell... Abstinence?

But, remember—according to McConaughey's speech in Magic Mike, the glorious commodification of sex leads to liberation. By these standards, sex becomes the ultimate form of freedom, most especially sex that involves doing whatever one wants without having to face any real consequences. Yet there are always consequences, even if they exist on a purely psychological level. I appreciated the film's portrayal of that truth, although some reviewers didn't, and referred to Magic Mike as being "overly moralizing." I wouldn't call that part moralizing, I'd just call it realistic. And, hey, if nothing else, it teaches us all one very important lesson: Perhaps listening to sleazy strip club owners isn't always in our best interest. 

What do you think? How would you define liberation in our current culture? Should sex have any part in it? Why or why not?