Magic Mike opens in a jaundiced world, cinematographically yellowed to evoke a barrenness suffered in daylight hours. This is contrasted by the colour and vibrancy of the stage, where the characters appear to experience relief from the capitalist principles that govern their lives and desires—emphasis on “appear.” The mention of capitalism is significant at this early stage, for the Magic Mike duology are films that are firmly about the effect of capitalism upon people and their means of relating; it is a series that takes us through, first in diagnosis, the stages of alienation and the obstacles of what we love to do and care about experience, as we traverse an economised world; as well as, second in constructivism and strategy, the moments and lacunae of relief and grace that can be found in the interstices of this world. It is a series fundamentally about labour and labour relations, the exploitation labour faces in its most uncertain forms, and how to establish meaningful connections within a world dominated by the hegemonic reality of neoliberalism and contemporary capitalism.
“You owe me.” – Mike
Textually and thematically the first film of the series is very clearly about the need for money in a capitalist economy and how debt, credit, and financial logic structure every moment of the characters’ lives and interactions. This is made clear very early on when Mike Lane (Channing Tatum), aka Magic Mike, states several times that the character of Adam (Alex Pettyfer) “owes” him for a favour Mike has done for him. The reality of finance dominates proceedings and is apparent in seemingly throw-away pieces of dialogue to significant plot points.
Much like Mike’s very passé acceptance of debt as a mode of relation in some circumstances, another throw away scene that underscores how deeply embedded and overdetermined these characters are by capitalist relations is in a scene at a beach party. During this scene, we hear Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) discuss how he would homeschool any future children he might have so that they may be familiar with stock markets and business ideas, as this would fully guarantee that they will be incredibly wealthy. One character, Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias), responds to this idea, echoing the agreement of others by saying, “I don’t know why more people don’t do that, just from an investment standpoint.” Finance, finance, all the way down.
Beyond this, however, one vitally important scene that sees Mike attempt to secure a loan for his passion-project business venture in custom furniture—which would allow him to leave the stripping business entirely, as it is only a means to an end—underscores the thematic importance of how capitalist ideas structure the film and alienate these characters from their desire. As the conversation between Mike and the Banker (Betsy Brandt) progresses, it becomes clear Mike will not get the loan due to a poor credit rating, which is clearly at odds with what Mike’s cash-based lifestyle affords him in clothing, cars, and housing. Yet the banker—who appears to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the situation and whose strung out appearance suggests stress and discomfort at having done this one too many times—is apologetic as the bank considers Mike, regardless of his material circumstances, financially “in distress”.
Through scenes like this coupled with the jaundiced colour grading of all daylight interactions give a look at the distressing and sickly nature of what Mike experiences: he simply cannot move forward and freely act upon his desire. He is not, formally speaking, “distressed,” but by the end of the movie he finds himself in the psychoanalytic position of the hysteric, not knowing how to react to the capitalist structures that restrict his movement and capacity to create and determine his life.
“I have freedom, thanks to you.” – Adam
This restriction is a capitalist strategy that constantly opens Mike and co-workers up to predatory and exploitative relationships—the default setting of the competitive neoliberal economy. It is the position capital historically demands to more fully interpolate and shape subjectivity and to more readily open the subject up to the flows of precarious labour.
The second and third acts of the movie take us through multiple revelations of exploitation Mike is suffering from due to his impasse in the economy of his world. Throughout proceedings, we become aware that Dallas is a business leader and partner who has no special loyalty to his group. He asks for more from his performers and by threatens their job safety as a means of control and manipulation. His threats and tendency to regularly change his priorities and promises on the basis of financial interest are a further manifestation of this, even to the extent of controlling the dancers’ wardrobes in ways he feels guarantee the most money. The precariousness and risk factor in the form of employment work (and are worked) to make Mike and co. unable to reach the positions of agency, solvency, and capitalist respectability they desire; as the stripping world in acting a microcosm of the wider capitalist world redoubles their openness to manipulation.
We also see Mike’s position in his line of work exploited by the character of Joanna (Olivia Munn), who is studying the behavioural patterns of the group of strippers for her PhD while engaging in a sexual relationship with Mike on the side. As she approaches and reaches the end of her studies, she shuts Mike out. In one of the most emotive and ruthless scenes in the film, we learn she too has really only been using Mike to further herself, and that their relationship meant nothing as she was engaged the whole time. She has the capacity for advancement, an advancement that could only occur through Mike and proceeds without him once what was needed has been extracted.
A final example of this exploitative, predatory behaviour that Mike encounters is in Adam. Adam, who at the beginning was metaphorically indebted to Mike, becomes financially indebted to another. Mike, under oath to protect Adam, pays this debt only to see that Adam, having fully embraced the terms of exploitation and ruthlessness that the world operates on, has come to be yet another person who is using Mike as a means to their own ends (“I can fuck who I want to fuck”). Adam disrespectfully acknowledges what Mike has done for him and treats with Mike much like Dallas—with empty words and promises that are impossible to believe. Over a span of only three months, not years, Mike comes to see in Adam the vampiric relationship people come to have to one another in a neoliberal, capitalist world, when they embrace its term having nothing to lose. “I have freedom, thanks to you.” Is Adam thanking Mike or simply stating the foolishness of his generosity? It is awfully and pointedly ambiguous and, as the daylight reveals, indicative of the sickness this world is plagued by.
“I’m not my goddamn job… That’s why I want to go to Miami, because I don’t want to fucking be some 40-year-old stripper. I want to own something.” – Mike
The journey for Mike in all of this is to realise who he is, and to see that one cannot engage in this world without having fully decided to engage it on its own terms and play by its rules. Yet, when one does this, it is to fully embrace self-annihilation. The consequences of one wild party make this clear when we find Adam lying in a pool of his own vomit after Mike throws his carefully maintained distance to the wind for one evening. To this, Adam’s sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), raging at Mike, shouts “I see you, Mike. I fucking see you… You are a bullshit, 30-year-old male stripper.” She sees one possible outcome of who he could very easily be.
The issue becomes: Can Mike sustain his current dissonant position of trying to instrumentalise the world he is in for his own ends? He, like each of the other strippers, is trying to use stripping as a means to make the money he needs. The question then is: Can he sustain and risk the danger of direct participation in the exploitative excesses the stripping world of the movie is overcome by? Does he believe he will get beyond and actually accumulate what he needs, on these terms with these people, when they consistent harm him? If he is not his job, then who is he? The film compels Mike to choose between binary options on the matter of his identity: either he is in, or he is out; he is a stripper or he is not.
Magic Mike ventures an answer to these issues in its conclusion. It posits Mike’s exit from stripping as an exit into real connection and away from exploitative, capitalised relationships once he has determined to be honest with himself about what he wants. This is a weakness of the film because the binary is utterly false. We might be inclined to think that stripping is a simple negation of the rules of capitalist society; when dialectically speaking the stripping world is truly a synthesis of the rules of capitalist society in a new field. A consequent escape from the stripping world is simply a return to capitalist society, a return to the original problems that Mike had tried to flee (bad credit ratings, debt etc.) in the first place. Mike may by the end have clarity of mind, but he does not have freedom of expression and self-creation—and no amount of romantic connection will resolve this. These are issues that spill over into the sequel, Magic Mike XXL, which offers more satisfying resolutions to them.
To say a word on this, to briefly pre-empt my follow-up post on XXL: Magic Mike XXL tackles these problems through a meditation on a central aspect of the films’ that is not fully explored here in the first: the stripping and the humans involved. Magic Mike spends little time thinking meaningfully on happens in the act of stripping, what can be realised within and through it and them. It is XXL’s prerogative that in the world of stripping, certain excesses and guerrilla-like channels—an undercommons—are being opened up within and through the capitalist edifice. These channels are the basis for answering questions of identity, as a self must answer the question of who it is to itself even as it recognises this consideration does not take place without consideration of the others who help make up and affect the self.
Magic Mike’s preoccupations—and successes—are in how it demonstrates and diagnoses how a financialised society makes indeterminate and insecure the lives of its subjects and the effects this has upon relationships. It is about the consequences for a world and people when the need for exchange and transaction determine everything. However, it is flawed and lacks any kind of constructive force, as it does not reckon with what solicits and mobilises the transaction—that is, the human person. The strippers of Magic Mike talk about and craft their stripping for the money they can solicit as a learned predatory act of manipulation. Magic Mike—in establishing the pervasiveness of capital in its yellowed, sickly world—sets up, requires even, Magic Mike XXL to chart ways through this landscape. XXL will do this through a consideration of the people who need a stripper, how the stripper becomes artist, and how their art, as an end in itself, exceeds financialisation in a social meeting of desire. The answer to the question of identity receives a more mature consideration in XXL, as by its end Magic Mike has been unable to recognise the expansiveness of alienation. Mike knows what he wants but does not see that the answer to the question of the self, and his position as a stripper, is not dichotomous. The answer comes through a consideration of his relationships with others—not simple one other, Brooke—as well as himself, and so the forging of new social connections below, beyond, and between the hegemonic social and economic forces that govern labour. In short, the film misses that the solution to the problem is utterly and fully collective in nature.
“The mission then for the denizens of the undercommons is to recognize that when you seek to make things better, you are not just doing it for the Other, you must also be doing it for yourself.” – Jack Halberstam
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The triumph of Magic Mike is in its exploration of the machinations of neoliberal capital and its attempts to define the subjective life of labour and to homogenise the behaviour of the social sphere in competitive and exploitative terms. The film understands the desperation of the isolated person in a world where seemingly everything has a price, and it clearly observes these realities and their power to alienate and control desire.
However, the film fails from a Left perspective because, while it correctly observes that identity is found, contemporarily speaking, in the doing of what the Market allows and requires, it does not understand the pervasiveness of capital. It fabricates a binary choice between dedicating oneself to being in or out of the stripping game, or in or out of a committed pursuit of capitalist respectability. In doing so, it fails to reckon with the collective and human pulses offered socially in stripping and the generative, insurgent possibilities this allows for. XXL understands this failing. We will discuss this further in the next post, as the question of who Mike is and what the stripping world can be is considerably more complex.