Are Magic Mike and 50 Shades of Grey signs of an onslaught of unabashed female sexuality?

First aired on Q (06/07/12)

Recent blockbuster smash Magic Mike was based on lead actor Channing Tatum's early career as a stripper, and is being marketed as a racy girls' night out, promising lots of male nudity. The film made more than $39 million over its opening weekend, and its success is being driven by women, who have been showing up in large and enthusiastic groups. It's rare for a film to be promoted so shamelessly as eye candy for women: so is this a step forward? And with the unbelievable popularity of the erotic 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, are we entering a new era where women aren't afraid to express their sexual desire? After all, it's certainly not uncommon to see someone reading 50 Shades of Grey on the bus these days.

In a recent Q debate, Dr. Shira Tarrant, author of Men and Feminism, argued that Magic Mike is helping to break down the stigma around women openly expressing sexual desire. "It's so much fun...I think it's a step forward for female sexuality," she said. "For so long, women's sexuality has been taboo, it's been tamped down. We're not supposed to be the viewers, but in Magic Mike women get to be the watchers."

But Dr. Caroline Heldman, an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, disagrees -- she thinks the film continues with the same old sexist stereotypes, while treating the male stars as sex objects. "There are two parts of this. One is the audience's interaction with the movie, and being asked to objectify men, and the other is the actual movie itself and how it treats women, and I find that on both counts it's pretty regressive," Heldman commented. "I find it to be pretty blatantly sexist in terms of its content...even though the [presumed female heterosexual] viewer is being asked to objectify the male dancers, there's just a running script in the film that's not about our sexuality...there's this constant reassertion that men are in the driver's seat throughout this film."

Some of the film's dialogue may sound sexist, but isn't that just a realistic portrayal of how guys talk? Maybe, but that's part of the problem, argued Heldman. "This is about male sexuality. When you look at the dialogue and you look at how the male dancers interact with women, many of their simulated sex acts have nothing to do with female pleasure."

Tarrant disagrees. "What is new is that there is this opportunity for women to watch and view with pleasure, and there's this opportunity for men to be on display," she said.

Plotwise, Magic Mike is ultimately a "bro movie," which makes its popularity among women all the more problematic, according to Heldman. "The fact that women are eroticizing a bro movie just indicates how far women devalue their own sexual pleasure," she said.

Still, there's no denying the "bachelotte party vibe" that many groups of women exude while watching this film -- there's plenty of hooting and hollering when Tatum gets naked. "I think we're desperate for an experience that says it's going to cater to our sexual desires," said Heldman. "This signals that there's a lot of money to be made off heterosexual women's sexuality."

If the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon is any indication, Heldman's statement is as true in the literary world as it is in the film world. But maybe it's less about feminism than it is about capitalism. As usual.