Unafraid to acknowledge its own camp ridiculousness, “Magic Mike XXL” presents itself as a movie about five male strippers on a road trip, but it’s really a movie that’s all about women. It even passes the Bechdel test, thanks to a steamy encounter between Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Paris (Elizabeth Banks).
Being a successful male stripper requires a unique set of abilities. One has to possess the ability to be charming, disarming and genuine, all while projecting the sort of confidence that ensures that a woman will trust you not to drop her if you pick her up and turn her upside down.
“Magic Mike XXL” features a trip to a Georgia mansion that might as well be renamed Jada’s House of Pleasure — it’s basically a giant, classy den of iniquity where black women can feel worshipped like the queens they are. Male strippers have an additional duty of making the rooms they occupy feel like safe spaces. They are agents of escapism, doling out permission to skittish, usually drunk, women who want to be entertained in a way that societal norms have discouraged, hushed and shamed. Thus, being able to read a room is a must. You always need one good sport to go first, get a little embarrassed and have a good time to get the others to come out of their shell.
I would know. I’ve been her. (#SorryNotSorry, Mom.)
Ritchie’s (Joe Manganiello) swan song illustrated an understanding that love, marriage and hot, animalistic sex need not be antithetical, something that hasn’t been so clearly articulated (not withstanding Beyoncé’s self-titled 2013 visual album) since the “Frenemies” episode of “Sex and the City” debuted in 2000.
In it, Charlotte York, the show’s Pollyanna Park Avenue princess, articulates her vexed disappointment with her supposedly picture-perfect WASP of a husband, Trey, who is impotent. Later, after Charlotte discovers Trey has no problem becoming aroused by the women in his favorite lad mag, she realizes the problem is psychological, not physiological. He’s put her on a pedestal. She approaches him in lingerie, and Trey is visibly uncomfortable. “Look at me,” Charlotte tells him. “I’m not a madonna and I’m not a whore. I’m sexual, and I’m your wife, and I love you.”
In “Magic Mike XXL,” it’s clear that Ritchie understands this is something women are still fighting to communicate, and he presents himself as a fantasy-realizing man-unicorn. Ritchie enters his segment at the Myrtle Beach strippers’ convention dressed as a groom, and he picks a lucky lady in the audience to be his bride and pops an oversize prop ring on her finger as Bruno Mars’ “Marry You” plays in the background. But then, he leads her to stage, straps her into a sex swing and runs through the rest of his, um, energetic choreography to “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails.
And this understanding permeates the whole of “Magic Mike XXL.”
When Mike and the rest of the Kings of Tampa find themselves in the company of a party of rich, middle-aged women headed by Nancy Davidson (Andie MacDowell), Mike quickly realizes that they’re going to be entertaining her and her friends, despite the fact that her 20-something daughter was the one who invited them to the house. Later, after Mike and Zoe (Amber Heard) have a private conversation in the kitchen, Mike declares that he needs to return to the “pack of wolves” in the living room.
Nancy and her raucous bunch of middle-aged friends don’t get played for laughs, and Tatum and Carolin refrain from characterizing her as predatory. Instead, she and Ritchie enjoy a perfectly adult hook-up, kiss in front of everyone in the morning, and leave the audience squealing internally, happy for Ritchie to have found his Cinderella. (Ritchie’s nickname — which we can’t repeat here — refers to what he calls his blessing and his curse.)
“Magic Mike” is the anti-“Pickup Artist.” The premise of the latter, a VH1 reality show, was that you can teach men to score with women by treating them like very complicated sex vending machines that will dispense pleasure if you say the right words and wear the right clothes. There is no negging in the “Magic Mike” universe. There is no lecturing about what women should want from clueless men. There is no hapless foibling and there is zero entitlement to women’s bodies or attention. There is not a single ounce of misogyny or male gaze. There is absolutely no judgment.
Furthermore, “Magic Mike XXL” wisely steers clear of becoming a cynical reversal of gender roles wherein male strippers serve as background noise for business deals or lost causes in need of saving, two of the preeminent tropes whenever female strippers are present.
The women of “Magic Mike XXL” don’t get played for laughs. There are no crazy women, no stage five clingers, no undesirables and no trolls. They are just women, in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors and personality types, who want to have a good time and who are happy to tip generously when you make them forget to feel self-conscious about flashing their Spanx in public.
The most depressing thing about “Magic Mike XXL” is that two hours and 10 minutes of escapism amounts to a movie where women don’t have to worry about fearing the worst from men. Even in 2015, female wish fulfillment is largely centered around a modicum of basic human decency.
The Internet is already crawling with pieces parsing whether “Magic Mike XXL” is feminist. We say: Not only is it a feminist film, but it’s the long-awaited sex-positive picture we weren’t even sure was possible.