image: Eugene Delacroix, Reclining Odalisque or, Woman with a Parakeet (detail), 1827
MAGIC MIKE, Steven Soderbergh’s new film about a group of male strippers in Tampa, plays with a fantasy of male domination that is familiar to many women, though antithetical to modern ideals of romance: a strong, handsome man is so consumed with lust for a woman that he carts her off and has his way with her, giving no thought to ethical or emotional considerations. An early scene portrays the uptight sister of a new stripper coming to the club to check up on her brother. Normally self-contained to the point of coldness, Brooke is particularly tense at the club, convinced her younger brother has gotten involved in a seedy underworld. But once the eponymous lead stripper starts dancing, Brooke’s reserve begins to dissolve. The camera alternates between a close-up of Brooke’s face and Mike’s exhibition of strength and rhythm — he does back flips, frenzied hip hop moves, and break dances involving a bit of skilled stage humping, all while gazing lustily at the audience from beneath his baseball cap.
As Brooke watches Mike dance, her jaw relaxes; her lips part; her eyes grow wide and soft. He flips off the end of the stage and lands in front of a lace-clad middle-aged woman. He lifts the woman, still seated in her chair, above his head. He drops the chair and catches the woman’s butt in his hands. She emits a brief yelp. Brooke’s mouth falls open. Mike lays the audience member on the stage and parts her thighs with his head. Then he stands over her, unceremoniously removes his shoes and pants, and thrusts the bulge beneath his g-string in her face. The frankness of the gesture returns Brooke to herself, and she looks away, flushed and disoriented.
The scene is a variation on a familiar trope: the reluctant woman cajoled by a man’s aggressive lust. Mike mimics a man taking control of a woman’s body for his own pleasure, right down to the pageant of fear — that little yelp as he drops the woman’s chair. Except in this case, the cliché fantasy is being played out solely for the benefit of the woman. Being deprived of the capacity to make decisions about sexual acts and needs can be highly erotic as a concept or a pose. But in real life, for most people, such suspension of the will can be unsatisfying at best. Brooke — and the audience — get to enjoy the erotic thrill of being overpowered without any of the real complications. The strip club (or movie theater) precludes physical danger and emotional entrapment, just as it precludes real fulfillment: no one is going to get off. They’ll just want to. Several women told me Magic Mike was the sexiest film they’ve ever seen.
Such a calmly authentic and compelling engagement with female arousal is a refreshing alternative to the recent spate of memoirs and autobiographical novels that treat the female desire for sexual submission as a kind of titillating depravity. In the past few years, popular memoirs and autobiographical novels by women have presented anal sex as the key to female liberation (Toni Bentley’s The Surrender), casual sex as a life-destroying addiction (Kerry Cohen’s Loose Girl), gang bangs as freedom from psychological suffering (Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M.), and expert blowjobs as the key to a hap...read more