Warning: the following article contains spoilers.
Magic Mike is back for one last dance in the male stripper franchise’s third and final instalment. After Mike’s (Channing Tatum) furniture business falls into hard times post-COVID, he finds himself working as a bartender.
At a charity fundraiser, he meets Max (Salma Hayek Pinault) – a wealthy socialite who offers to pay him to accompany her to London to put on a stage show of male dancers at her theatre.
Max says boldly: “I want every woman who walks into this theatre to feel that a woman can have whatever she wants, whenever she wants.”
The first two Magic Mike films have already suggested that this wish can be fulfilled by male strip shows. In the first film, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) tells The Kid (Alex Pettyfer) that he is “fulfilling every woman’s fantasy”. In Magic Mike XXL, Andre (Donald Glover) and Ken (Matt Bomer) were depicted as “healers” who listened to women, unlike the other men in their lives.
The notion that male dancers know exactly what women want was also present in my own research with male dancers and women customers in strip shows in the UK. Male dancers frequently held one-dimensional views about what women wanted, which reverted to sexist ideas about women’s desire as “naturally” sexually passive and something that needs to be elicited.
They often performed the same routines each week, with the same costuming and choreography, which gave the impression that there was a singular way to sexually entertain women. As one dancer told me:
That’s what women want, they wanna see a little bit of nakedness but they’re also shy and a little bit reserved and … they don’t want it too full on.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance seems to subscribe to this idea. There is certainly less nudity than in the previous films and at times, it suggests that men know what is best for women better than they do themselves. Mike even tells Max that it is “chauvinistic” if she doesn’t include a female lead in a show about women’s empowerment.
Permission and empowerment?
While some of the women customers that I interviewed spoke of times where they were forcibly grabbed and flung over the shoulders of male strippers, or where they had a dancer’s genitalia “thrust” in their face, Magic Mike’s Last Dance overtly centres consent.
In this way, the film departs from previous conventions in both striptease films and real male strip shows.
We see Mike teaching new dancers how to obtain “permission” for a dance, through taking a woman’s hand and looking deeply into her eyes. When giving Max a striptease, Mike asks her to give him a signal if he takes her out of her comfort zone – to which she replies: “I’ll fucking slap you.”
The language of Last Dance is of women’s empowerment. Max speaks of the “ecstasy” that women can feel, how they can “transcend” into the “promised land” of their desires. When her show runs into licensing issues which throw its future into jeopardy, Max reflects: “The law is useless when you’re dealing with entrenched male power structures.”
She also critiques the way Mike keeps women sat in a chair during his dances and encourages him to allow their interaction to take up more space on the stage. It’s clear that womens’ agency is becoming more central to his show in the final performance, when a microphone descends from the ceiling for a female MC. The metaphor is clear – she is being given a voice to articulate what she wants.
Last Dance also dabbles in the taboo subject of older women’s sexual desires. This centring of diverse women’s bodies contrasted with my research on real male strip shows, where I often witnessed women being ridiculed by club hosts for their appearance, including class-based insults. One host commented on a customer’s clothing: “It looks like you’ve got that down Primark, love.”
The absence of women customer’s voices
Given the progressive depictions of consent and power dynamics, it’s surprising that none of the women customers in Last Dance are consulted about what they want.
In one scene, the MC showcases the “types” of men that women can “have”, cutting to shots of women enjoying the show, but that is the end of the audience engagement. We are told this is a “zombie apocalypse of repressed desire”, yet we don’t hear from the “zombies” themselves – those women who allegedly need “waking up” from a sexually repressed state.
My research highlighted that interactions between women are also a key element of watching a male strip show. Women spoke of “bonding” but sometimes experienced “competitive femininity”, where they vied for the attention of dancers. Women also spoke of wanting “one-on-one” encounters:
It’s just not private enough, if you fancy a man and you think he likes you … there’s … nowhere you can be alone.
For a film that claims to centre women’s experiences of the strip show, we see little about how women’s interactions with male dancers – and with each other – might play out. Despite claiming to centre what women want, Magic Mike’s Last Dance leaves little space to explore women’s own desires.