Transformed By The Power Of Magic Mike XXL (2015)

The truth is, I’ve always been a little scared of male strippers.

I chalk it down to a magazine article I read - maybe in a doctor’s waiting room - when I was about 13, which described in some detail a stripper smearing his baby-oil-covered bod all over a bachelorette’s silk shirt. “I don’t want my silk shirt ruined on my hen’s night!” I remember exclaiming. I’ve bought lap dances and tipped at the base of the pole, but never been within a ten block radius of a “male entertainer”.

Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh’s bracing anti-capitalist masterpiece (a sort of 42nd Street for the GFC generation) of 2012, was therefore a healing experience for me; Channing Tatum cured me. I loved that film so much that when its sequel rolled around, I had no compunction in anointing it my most-anticipated film of 2015.

Then disaster struck. Well, not really a disaster, but a double-booking that meant I couldn’t attend the preview screening I had planned to take my friend Erin to. We were, to put it mildly, bummed as heck. I cried at therapy that day. Life, and possibly my friendship, was over.

Well, life was over for the few hours between realising we couldn’t attend the preview, and discovering that our local cinema was running a “Girls’ Night Out” screening of XXL, with free Diet Coke (hysterical!) and gossip mags. We bought tickets quicker than you can say “TAKE IT OFF, TATUM!”

My preference for seeing movies on free-to-air television or at Tightarse Tuesday screenings is a regular target of derision from friends and family, but amping up the communal quality of the viewing experience is a source of joy for me. So, I reasoned, seeing XXL in a giant cinema full of women jacked up on Diet Coke would be the ideal way to see the film. I couldn’t have comprehended just how ideal.

Erin and I were seated about three rows apart, and I couldn’t help but feel a little sad that we wouldn’t be experiencing XXL in tandem. I needn’t have: two prim but friendly ladies sat next to Erin and turned around to call “We’ll look after her!” to me.

Neither was I alone: a friend from school I’d not seen in a decade sat to my left (one of the seven men in the cinema, and by his own admission “a professional homosexual”), and to my right, a gaggle of young women who excitedly ripped into their goodie bags. One turned to me and said, brightly, “Hello!” then turned back to her friends and squealed “I’M SO EXCITED!”

The demographic was impossible to nail: elegant older women in high fashion, groups of sporty young chicks with fauxhawks, women in rockabilly gear, old women in cardigans, roving gangs of “office professional” types with perfect blow-dries, girls in their late teens, mums and daughters, a few game boyfriends and a handful of gay dudes.

The lights dimmed a little and a Hoyts rep appeared at the front of the cinema (taking the “total men in room” count to eight) and made a few daggy jokes before sprinting away, at which point George Thorogood’s Bad To The Bone fired up and three Male Entertainers strode in dressed in L.A Highway Patrol gear and shining their flashlights into the audience (incredibly, this is not a euphemism).

Now, I’ve been to KISS shows, I’ve attended Monster Truck Madness and the Supercross Masters, I’ve seen the Stones three times: I have never, ever, heard a noise like that cinema full of women made when those yung Mikes started grinding. I’ve never made a noise like I made. When the guys took off their shirts and ran into the crowd, I thought the building might fall down.

Ten minutes or so into the film, when Tatum’s Mike hears Ginuwine’s Pony on the radio in his furniture workroom, the barely-bottled excitement in the room reached a rolling boil. We knew what was coming. Just as Ginuwine’s legendary slow-jam reminded Mike of the joy of dancing (sexy dancing), we were reminded why we were there.

From that point, it was on for young and old. It was like we had become Groundlings at The Globe: popcorn flying, women standing up and cheering, Diet Coke everywhere, a handful of ushers standing terrified at the corner of the room. There was shrieking, laughing, hollering, hands waved in the air.

In his astoundingly good essay about XXL for Grantland, Wesley Morris writes, “The feat of XXL is that its throngs of attention-starved, hormonally revved women always double as comments on the dusty marketplace conditions. So does all the money that just rains from the sky like confetti. This movie doesn’t put you in the mind of a woman. It puts you in her libido.”

Safe in the knowledge that anything goes at a Ladies’ Night screening of a movie about a kind and cheerful group of men doing their best to give women joy and pleasure, I screamed; I cupped my hands over my mouth and yelled “YEAH!”, and I laughed so much I cried. At a few points (mostly when one character reveals he’s a Veteran who wants nothing more than to paint) I just plain cried. When the lights came up, I had to peel myself off the seat because I’d leaped about so much I sweat like I’d run a marathon.

I don’t want to say “I couldn’t control myself”, because that would suggest there was a sense of shame in letting loose; it was quite the opposite. We had been asked what we want, and given it. “We’re healers, man,” Donald Glover’s character says at one point to Matt Bomer’s. I’ve never been to a real holy roller church service but I imagine it feels a lot like Magic Mike XXL at Ladies’ Night: we got healed. It was a transformative experience.

When I lived in L.A I hung out with an actor type who was, in a bittersweet irony, probably the one man I’ve ever been permitted to touch who looked like a male stripper. The second time we slept together he told me (before rolling over to press play on a Bob Dylan album) that I laughed too much in bed . I never really recovered from it.

In the comments section on their excellent brief review of the film’s sexual politics, Film Crit Hulk wrote, “AS THE MOVIE TEACHES YOU, WE MAKE THE MISTAKE OF ASSUMING SEXUAL EXPRESSION HAS TO AUTOMATICALLY BE ABOUT SEXUALITY. IT'S ABOUT EVOKING A SENSE OF FUN LAUGHTER.”

Initially I wasn’t sure what to expect from our Girls’ Night Out with Mike and his friends, but what I got was gales of the most kind-hearted, joyful laughter washing over me (and out of me) from start to finish. Magic Mike is one of my favourite films, but I didn’t find it especially sexy. XXL, on the other hand, is sexy because it provides, to borrow from Dr Seuss, lots of good fun that is funny.

The film is weaponised antidepressant that has no trace of meanness or cruelty; it’s one of the most kind-hearted films I’ve ever seen. Its message can be summed up as “be your true and authentic self to bring joy to women”. And watching the film, surrounded by women --shrieking, clapping, cheering and laughing-- at the woman-worshipping spectacle on display felt like the safest safe space of all time.


- originally published on Guardian Australia, 2015