Straight Men Still Fear Magic Mike

Guys, don't be scared off by man-thongs.

Magic Mike, which‘s PopWatch deemed “the Citizen Kane of male stripper movies,” recently passed the $100 million mark at the box office. I’m no statistician, but I’m pretty sure the number of straight men responsible for that milestone could fit in a garden shed—with plenty of room remaining for a fleet of riding mowers. My suspicions started last month when the trailer was making the rounds, and I expressed my interest in the film to a film-loving friend of mine.

“Really?” he asked incredulously.

“It’s Steven Soderbergh’s latest,” I said, referring to the eclectic director of such character-driven gems as Out of Sight and Traffic. “I’ve heard good things.”

My friend, the same one who willingly attended the awful Rock of Ages with me, remained unconvinced.

A few weeks later, I caught Magic Mike with my wife—who wanted to see it for a completely different set of reasons—at the charmingly dilapidated Strand 5 in Ocean City, NJ. A meatball about 25 years too old and 50 pounds too heavy for his “Morning Dew” t-shirt overheard my ticket request.

“You’re forcing him to see that, huh?” he said to my wife.

The biggest surprise came from my younger brother, a movie lover whose sensibilities frequently mesh with mine. I told him how Channing Tatum had finally won me over, citing his work in 21 Jump Street—which he liked—and Magic Mike.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to see that,” he replied.

What was giving heterosexual men such reluctance? My jumble of thoughts crystallized when I read an article in the New York Times, entitled “Magic Mike is Big Draw for Gay Men.”

The movie has been on the gay radar since the production was announced this year. Mr. Tatum, one of its producers, appeared on the cover of the gay magazine Out, and the trailer has been posted on gay blogs. The film was also promoted at gay pride events across the country last month …

Sue Kroll, president for worldwide marketing for Warner Brothers Pictures, said the studio coordinated a “well-concentrated and tailored” campaign intended to capture gay moviegoers’ attention. The demographic wasn’t part of the studio’s initial marketing push, but that quickly changed, Ms. Kroll said, once it became clear there was interest among gay men …

Warner Brothers hired the Karpel Group, a New York entertainment marketing agency, to generate buzz online and at gay bars and clubs. “Hot guys are a big part of the appeal of the movie,” said Craig Karpel, the company’s owner. “It’s something that captures gay men’s attention and imaginations.”

Stupid marketing execs. Thanks for making our girlfriends and wives foam at the mouth, for getting gay men worked up, and for turning me into a social pariah. Still, if your movie features some of America’s most desirable men in various states of undress, that is the foundation of your ad campaign. Gay men and straight women who have longed to see hunky guys objectified finally get their turn after Striptease and Showgirls and decades of T&A comedies. If the film is good—and in this case, it is—word of mouth fuels interest. Everyone else, unfortunately, sees the coverage and thinks, “The movie is definitely not for me.”

The nice thing about watching movies for (almost) a living is that genres like “gay-friendly,” “blockbuster” or “mumblecore” become meaningless. What matters is the experience, when a movie grabs you by the collar and shakes your world. An open mind closes when marketing—not to mention the constant yapping on Twitter and Facebook—gets involved. Based on the preview I saw for Magic Mike, no straight man would watch, unless you’re banking on Olivia Munn or Cody Horn getting naked. Casual moviegoers don’t care about directors, unless it’s someone of Spielbergian stature. The stars (Tatum and Matthew McConaughey) are stars women love. I cannot imagine George Clooney stripping to “It’s Raining Men” or Liam Neeson giving a lap dance to outwit international killers, nor do I want to.

What probably bothers straight men about Magic Mike is that the male characters are sexualized without purpose. It’s one thing to see Tatum’s naked ass in The Vow—that’s the go-to move in stormy romances, right up there with the sarcastic best friend and the disapproving parents. Michael Fassbender’s profile increased after he went full frontal in Shame, but his character was a tortured soul. Plus, we understood why he was fucking at a destructive pace: His gigantic member called the shots. Male nudity in comedy is just fine, just ask Jason Segel and the Jackass crew. But Tatum gyrating in a thong crosses a line. The logic says, “If it’s not crucial to the story or my entertainment, then forget it.” When it comes to female nudity, male logic is usually unavailable for comment, especially if the nudity belongs to someone in their early 20s.

This reluctance and “take it off!” hullabaloo obscures two facts. First, Magic Mike is very good. Second, stripping is the film’s hook, the conversation starter. It’s really about a young man (Tatum) trapped in the world he has created. Try starting over when you’re the walking embodiment of every woman’s fantasy plus the potential of youth is giving way to the comfort of routine and easy money. Thematically, Magic Mike is comparable to Rounders, Boogie Nights, Scarface, or Saturday Night Fever. Forget about the tear-away pants and man-thongs. It’s a real film, Jack.