Channing Tatum is straddling a woman six inches in front of me and I am crying. I can’t hear myself cry, because I’m in a strip club at the Hippodrome Casino with 324 other women and everyone is screaming. This is Magic Mike Live: when sales opened last June, the box office took £1,000,000 in the first sixty minutes. Channing is clothed: he’s here to introduce the show, and he’s telling us now – through the screams and a sea of iphones – “You can touch the men. Use your hands.” In the flesh, he’s smaller and more slender than he looks in photos, like a little antelope. I feel I would like to do something to make him remember me. Ideally, I would like to bite him. He gyrates ever so slightly on the woman’s lap and I’m still crying – for him, and probably a bit for me. It’s a peculiarly female experience: to laugh and scream and cry all at the same time. It’s cathartic, and it says something about our capacity for joy. Tomorrow, a woman will become so overwhelmed the show will have to stop while she’s carried out to an ambulance.
Transferred to London from Las Vegas, this is the stage spin-off of the wildly successful Magic Mike film franchise about male strippers – based loosely on eight months the real-life Channing Tatum spent stripping in his teens. The first film (2012) was a druggy, Steven Soderbergh-directed tale of money and sex and exploitation at the hands of an (inhumanly greasy) Matthew McConaughey. At the end of it, the eponymous Mike stops stripping to pursue his true dream: designing custom-made furniture. In the 2015 sequel, Magic Mike XXL, Mike returns for one last ride: a stripping convention at Myrtle Beach! Any anti-capitalist messaging has evaporated. This is basically one long, deeply erotic road trip movie in which hot men take their clothes off to R&B every 10 minutes or so across 1.55 hours. Both films feel genuinely radical, though, because they managed to tap into and dispel something very specific about female sexual shame. “XXL, particularly, was a cultural moment”, says Grace Barber-Plentie, who founded Reel Good Film Club, which celebrates racial diversity in cinema. Usually, we are made to feel embarrassed of female desire if it’s loud – even audible – or if the woman expressing it isn’t size 8, white, and aged 18-24. “In Magic Mike, we see women of colour of all ages allowed to desire, and touch men in a consensual way.” Audiences went mad for it: the films made $289 million worldwide. “We can be shy about wanting sex”, explains one 74-year-old superfan, speaking to me anonymously over the phone from Gospel Oak. “Watching the films is a kind of Bacchic ritual; you get carried away and you’re free”.
At its purest, this show is designed to put a woman inside a scene from the films and watch her squeal. Pink dollar bills rain from the sky; dancers invite women onstage and slither all over them; the finale is a group floor-hump to the tune of Channing Tatum’s most iconic strip-tease: Ginuwine’s ‘Pony’. Most significantly, there are no dicks, and no fireman’s outfits. Instead, the boys are introduced as “sexy CEOs”, and “vets”. The fantasy, says co-director Alison Faulk, is that these are just normal guys – but better: “they could have just wandered in from Leicester Square”. Apart from demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of the quality of man to be found in Leicester Square, Faulk’s fantasy points out something interesting about the nature of female desire. Rather than offering some kind of regressive emulation of women’s objectification by men, Magic Mike Live is doing something different. “It’s deliberately putting not just bodies on stage, but people – to encourage women to fantasise not just about the flesh but the person,” explains audience research specialist Dr Kirsty Sedgman. No one’s saying Magic Mike Live is an idyll. One performer told me there was a recent incident where a woman tried to forcibly remove his pants. But in the main – as Sedgman has written for Exeunt – whereas male lust gets weaponised against women, female lust tends to build its subjects up. Perhaps this is best encapsulated by an email I received from a fan a few days ago, asking me to please hurry up and finish this piece because, “Channing has been through a lot and he just lost his dog. I want him to have a good year and be happy again.”
Opening the live show in London wasn’t an accident. On a per capita basis, the films actually did 1.5x better in the UK than in the home market of the US. Then, when the Las Vegas show opened in 2017, producers noted a disproportionate number of women travelling over from the UK to see it. London became the next logical step: the box office took £8 million before opening night, and tickets are now going on resale websites for £675. It’s not like we didn’t have own strip shows already – the UK’s first male lap dancing club Tricky Dicky’s opened in Birmingham in 2006; in London you’ll find Dreamboys, Hunkomania and Forbidden Nights. They’re characterised, though, by a quiet thrum of disdain for their audience. One Dreamboy was quoted in the Guardian in 2015 about what he’d learned on the job: “I know out there there are some amazing women, but the majority are insane.” The overwhelming response to Magic Mike Live suggests hunger for space where female desire isn’t sneered at.
Channing’s boys go through an extensive interview process to make sure they “are not douchebags”, says Faulk. Most interestingly, though, they need to be able to expose themselves, not just physically but emotionally: “They have to want to lay themselves open to connect in an intimate way: whether they’re kissing a hand, or giving a lapdance.” It’s this commitment to male vulnerability – rare in our culture – that made the films feel so groundbreaking, and, according to doctoral researcher Kristen Cochrane, so queer: “Channing makes his body vulnerable; I would attribute that to a feminization of his body, like wearing a thong and providing a service to a person who is giving him money.” Men, in this schema, were presented as sex workers whose labour was taken seriously – because women’s pleasure wasn’t irrelevant, or shameful anymore. It was a serious business. The shamelessness all had a lot to do with Tatum himself. When, in 2009, a former boss leaked a video to Us Weekly of him dancing in a Florida strip club he didn’t apologise: “I had wanted to tell people,” he said at the time. “I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not a person who hides shit.”
But when Magic Mike Live boys take off their clothes they are wearing boxers, not thongs. Interestingly, while the whole franchise was born out of Tatum’s embrace of his stripping past, the theatre show seems to be purposefully moving away from it. Because after Channing leaves the stage and I stop crying, what unfolds is less like a strip show, more like a corporate female empowerment summit. Sex is being simulated – but so is affection. A female MC, played by Sophie Linder-Lee, is brought up who talks a lot about our mutual romantic disappointment. The boys are introduced as antidotes to the modern London dating scene. The bar is frighteningly low: there’s the fuck boy who actually texts you back; the Adidas model who would like nothing more than to give you head. Then there’s the man who arrives onstage to fulfill what is presumed to be our wildest, most deeply held sex dream: he’s holding a baby. During an Ed Sheeran slow-dance segment, women are picked out of the crowd and held tenderly. One of the lucky ones, Alexa – who owns an inflatable penis called ‘Channing’ – tells me that as she was led back to her seat afterwards her partner touched her hair lightly and whispered, “You’re amazing”. Did she think he really meant it? “No, probably not. But at that point I was like: yes. Thank you.” She has just bought tickets to go and see the show again.
Romance played a part in the films, too: in one moment, Donald Glover appears, like a half-naked angel, to serenade an under-confident girl named Caroline; in another, he describes male strippers as women’s emotional ‘healers’. But this show turns things up a notch. Post #metoo, Magic Mike Live seems to be capitalising on a female audience’s perceived need for validation, even love. The MC, played by Sophie Linder-Lee, tells us, again and again, that we are enough. It’s even printed on the programmes: YOU ARE ENOUGH. The assumption appears to be that we don’t think we are. And while Alexa got two dances and loved it, she says her friends who got none were jealous. I am blessed with one but by this point in the night I am a wreck. A man is on my lap and I feel his lovely slippery six pack and fumble for my fake dollar bills but I’m not really laughing anymore I’m just screaming. I want it too much. The shame comes rushing back. It’s well-intentioned, but where the films position male strippers as something women can enjoy because we’re sexually liberated; the show frames them as something we desperately need because the men in our lives treat us so badly.
You could see Magic Mike Live as a kind of utopia: a vision of London where women have real sexual power. From the sounds coming out of that Hippodrome we were all getting high off it. But for me, the bleak open secret of the show is that it’s all so unreal. The films created a coherent fictional world with new models for masculinity, and desire. In the flesh, there’s a tacit acceptance that this could only ever be a fantasy. It says something uncomfortable about sexual inequality that this picture of ‘empowerment’ looks so much like a caricature.