People have a hard time talking about sex work. Whether it’s pornography or strip clubs, the topic remains taboo regardless of how far our society veers from its puritanical roots. Many focus on the danger sex work can pose to women—in fact, a 2017 study suggests that it is the most dangerous profession, with its violence disproportionately affecting women. But another critical reason for our societal fear of sex work (and a reason people are much less keen to admit) is that female desire has always been deemed a scary thing. Eve’s desire begat the downfall of humanity. The sirens are seen as more monstrous than even the Cyclops. Hell, in the Twilight franchise, Bella’s sex drive gets her impregnated by a bloodsucking vampire that almost eats her from the inside out. On the other hand, there’s an entire subgenre that revolves around the male sex-odyssey: Wedding Crashers, Superbad, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, just to scratch its modern surface. While sex work on film almost always centers women, it’s clear that cinematic sex is a totally different ballgame depending on who’s seeking it out. In 2012, Stephen Soderbergh came out with the strangely revolutionary Magic Mike, a movie about male strippers that complicated these norms.
Non-judgmental films like Magic Mike, where the stigma surrounding sex work isn’t the focus, can be a bit of a shock to the system. This is especially true since, partially due to the male outrage that often ensues when a woman takes her sexuality into her own hands (using it for something other than male pleasure), films that center female sex work tend to be a little…grim.
In Luis Buñuel’s 1967 Belle de Jour, the protagonist’s husband is shot and permanently injured because she enlists in a brothel. Ninja Thyberg’s 2022 Pleasure studies an aspiring porn star who, despite her passion for the industry, is put in countless dangerous situations on the job. It is a film that advocates for sex-positivity, but cannot move past the harsh reality that sex work is inherently more risky for women than it is for men. Other films that spotlight sex workers focus instead on the gendered double standards inherent in the field. Stephen Elliot’s About Cherry sees porn star Cherry (Ashley Hinshaw) chastised by her boyfriend; she escapes judgment not by abandoning her career, but by entering a relationship with a woman. In Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling venture into the California porn industry of the ‘70s and ‘80s, characters like Amber (Julianne Moore) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham) are denigrated purely because they have sex on camera. But when the lives of men like Eddie (Mark Wahlberg) go to pieces, it has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with a sense of ego and pride that women are not afforded. For them, society demands shame be an occupational hazard.
The idyllic, lucrative life lived by Channing Tatum’s young stripper, Mike, begins falling apart at the seams when his co-worker Adam (Alex Pettyfer) starts using heavy drugs, incurs a number of debts with sketchy individuals and gets into some serious fights. But while sex work involving women is usually portrayed as ostracizing or life-threatening, the sense of risk throughout Magic Mike has little to do with their work. The most danger a character is ever in in the film, in fact, is when Adam enters into a drug-dealing scheme with a DJ named Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias).
Similarly, when Mike’s love interest, Brooke (Cory Horn), turns him down, it has nothing to do with his work, and everything to do with the fact that his stripping-adjacent lifestyle is dangerous. Juxtapose this with the breakup scene from About Cherry, where Frances (James Franco) calls his girlfriend disgusting for having sex on camera, and the double standards couldn’t be more evident.
Not only was it important, then, to make Magic Mike in order to spotlight an underrepresented group of people—sex workers—but also as an exercise in showing just how little male sex work is equated with sexuality; because society isn’t as quick to scold male sexuality, a job can just be a job. Of course, this isn’t to say that male sex workers aren’t subjected to contempt and dangerous situations. But in Magic Mike, the stripping scenes are overwhelmingly lighthearted: The men do a dance with umbrella props to “It’s Raining Men,” there’s a military parody, the list goes on.
Inherent in the playful, comedic tone of the film is the reality that shame is never really on the table. Mike isn’t exactly open about his career but, at the same time, there isn’t a sense that he will be punished by the universe for making money off of showing his body; and he is rarely looked down on for it. We see this with Brooke, who, despite her more traditional nature, is quickly accepting of Mike’s career, and with strip-club owner Dallas’ (Matthew McConaughey) conviction that it is deeply normal for women to want to attend a strip club.
More significant than that, though, is the fact that the camera tends to remain objective during dance scenes. Set up predominantly in an eye-level wide shot, the camera doesn’t focus on particular body parts or overly sexualize its subjects, nor does it linger on certain angles to show the dancer with either a disproportionate amount of power, or as being looked down upon by some external force. This, paired with the film’s humorous tone, strives to destigmatize sex work and not make it seem like some mystical, foreboding subject.
In 2015, Gregory Jacobs directed a sequel, Magic Mike XXL, which was lauded for being perhaps even more sex-positive and for prioritizing female sexual satisfaction. During its dances, we see female audiences in a refreshingly positive light. They are having fun, clapping and dancing. They also are never scrutinized by the camera for their looks. In the film’s final dance, female audience members are given the power in the dynamic by being brought on stage, seated in chairs as men dance beneath them.
Despite Magic Mike leaving a lasting impression on audiences, the past decade hasn’t seen much of a change when it comes to transferring this positivity to the depiction of female sex workers on screen. We still have a long way to go before our society actually views women the way that Magic Mike does, whether in the audience or on the stage. But pointing out that when Cherry does porn, the world is against her, but when Mike strips, his ego is his own worst enemy—well, that’s a good place to start.
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.