In this podcast, Carmel Cedro and I discuss the female gaze. Topics include: the difference between a male gaze and a female gaze; the importance of this gaze in popular cultural texts; the potential for a fluid female gaze; and the representation of sex, desire and eroticism in contemporary screen media. This podcast ended up being a double episode because we just had so much to discuss! We hope you enjoy it x
About seven minutes into this magnificent film, Channing Tatum’s character, ‘Magic’ Mike, starts dancing to the song ‘Pony’ by Ginuwine. He’s in his workshop, sawing and melding while sparks fly out around his body, glittering across his exposed, greased-up, and obscenely muscular arms. Mike dances and grinds for several minutes, directly performing to the camera, before suggestively and languorously smiling at the spectator as he writhes and reclines on a table. It’s all very phallic and performative. My sister turns to me and exclaims ‘oh my god he’s so hot, I can’t handle it.’ This early scene sets the tone for the entire film – it is pure and often outrageous spectacle, performed to glorious excess. And this performance is gleefully engineered for the female gaze. It is a celebration of that gaze, its importance and its potential power. I spent the entire film grinning and laughing with absolute delight at its extreme pleasures, its nonsense, its intensity of affective engagement.
In another equally insane and spectacular sequence, Richie enters a gas station and breaks into a spontaneous performance. Cheetos hail down upon him (yes, really) and ice water streams down his body as he strips for a rather surprised female gas station attendant.
As you can probably tell from these brief summaries, this is not a film heavy on plot or about narrative action; rather, it is about the performative excess of male bodies presenting themselves for a variety of desiring gazes. These perfectly sculpted men, slicked with sweat and often covered in glitter, and clad in diamante-encrusted g-strings, present their bodies for masses of appreciative women in various settings (the expected strip clubs, but also women’s homes, the gas station, workshops etc.). Furthermore, they perform for all sorts of women – women of different shapes, ages, and colours – and we see this wonderful variety of women’s bodies experiencing pleasure, being thoughtfully attended to, and respected. I love this. It says: you don’t have to conform to this strict set of rules of ‘ideal’ femininity (i.e., white, slender, dressed in ultrafeminine accoutrements) in order to be granted permission to assume a desiring position. You can be whoever you are and our performance is for you and your pleasure, however you take it.
These women are referred to as ‘Queens’ throughout the film, and the characters constantly remind us of their aim to ‘worship’ women. Mike even exclaims, ‘yes, my god is a she!’ Ken advises one woman that ‘if [your husband] isn’t gonna worship you, there are plenty of guys out there who will.’ The men reiterate that women are to be ‘worshipped’ and ‘exalted.’ I 100% question this whole discourse of women needing to ‘be reminded how beautiful they are’ (direct quote) as some kind of magical antidote for dealing with living in a woman-hating culture, but in the moment of my viewing, I have to admit that found it refreshing. Perhaps this is because we are so overwhelmingly bombarded with messages about everything that is wrong with our bodies, what we must tame, manage, cover up, get rid of/supplement etc. in order to be ‘acceptable’ or ‘desirable’ or even worthy of simply being represented, acknowledged, and seen. Andre remarks that he thinks about how the women he performs for ‘have to deal with men in their lives who, every day, don’t listen to them. They don’t ask them what they want. All we gotta do is ask them what they want and when they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing, man. We’re like healers or something.’ These men take it upon themselves to listen to and then perform for women’s fantasy and pleasure. While the film calls us to light-heartedly laugh at this hyperbolic claim of being ‘healers,’ there is nevertheless a sense that this fantasy and spectacle at least temporarily alleviates the sense that we live in a culture that is actively disinterested in our desires and what we take pleasure in.
Furthermore, and very obviously, they present themselves for a desiring female gaze. The mise-en-scene and cinematography engineer the possibility of this gaze: hot pink spotlights shine on their figures, drawing attention to them; the framing is often in close-up or extreme close-up, encouraging a close intimate mode of looking; and the camerawork deploys a lot of panning shots back and forth across their figures, which I think promotes a caressing, tactile form of viewership. I also think it’s important to note that the film doesn’t really turn that gaze back on the women characters: there are no lingering, eroticising shots of women’s bodies. These are reserved solely for the ‘male entertainers.’ While the male characters certainly remark upon the attractiveness of some of the women they encounter, it is never really taken much further than that. Zoe, the character positioned as Mike’s potential love interest, is bisexual and ‘not really going through a guy phase.’ I was so pleased to see that the film did not try to recuperate her orientation for a heteronormative outcome by having her end up in Mike’s arms at the conclusion of the film; she certainly enjoys his obscenely erotic display in the final dance number of the film, but this is as far as it goes. This was so surprising and refreshing, because we usually see mainstream media either fetishising, chastising, or ‘redeeming’ women characters who do not conform to heteronormativity. Even more love for this excellent film as a result. This is a sublime work of visual excess that turns many sexist tropes of erotic display on their head to create something very pleasurable and very entertaining, and in many ways, very refreshing in terms of its sexual politics.
PS Channing Tatum is a cinnamon roll and I love him.