Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Magic Mike, Same Old Tricks

[Original post was written on August 2nd for Powered By Girl and can be seen on SPARK a Movement's website.]

After my eyes adjusted to the deluge of perfect pecs and smooth bodies gyrating in athletic finesse, I saw past the blinding stage lights, past the penis pump, past the sleaze-ball that is Matthew McConaughey — and was left with a sorry representation of the male stripper industry.
I suppose it was my inherent curiosity for all things “stripper” that led me to the ticket booth to spend almost ten dollars on a movie whose only selling point was a trailer showing bodacious dance moves by artisanally sculpted bodies. After finishing the first stage of my documentary on high-end strip clubs in Pittsburgh, I became very interested in how Hollywood portrays the industry for both females and males. So when this unbelievably enticing trailer hit previews, I leapt at the chance to expand my knowledge.
My independent project, “It’s All Play,” began the moment I realized I had so many scathing opinions and assumptions about female exotic dancers but had never stepped foot inside a strip club – let alone ever have a conversation with a dancer. I embarked on a journey to see how female dancers view themselves, and how their work makes them feel at the end of the day (one described her job as being a “dressed-up, sexier counselor”).  I wanted people to recognize their own assumptions of the industry by hearing from the dancers themselves. (Side note: For those of you interested in finding out more about this project, a website is in the works, and the final, full-length documentary is expected to be finished in the summer of 2013).
I expected Magic Mike would take a similar approach to my own investigation by examining how male dancers respond to being objectified.  I expected humility and grace, maybe with a dose of resentment. Instead, I was delivered a steaming pile of chauvinism with only an afterthought of introspection worthy of empathy.
Within the first two minutes of the film, we’re introduced to Mike Martingano’s (Channing Tatum) naked butt, and then immediately to a topless Joanna (Olivia Munn), Mike’s recurring booty call. Then the camera panned down towards the third party in the room, a sleeping naked woman, one whose name neither Mike nor Joanna could remember. Mike dismisses their blunder with the flippant remark, “Well, she was a good time, anyway.”
The movie continues in this vein. Shortly after leaving his heavenly ménage-a-trois, Mike meets Adam, our secondary hero who is eventually deemed “The Kid,” played by chiseled-face Alex Pettyfer. Adam is responsible for introducing Mike to his sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), the woman Mike chases–quite pathetically if I may add–for the entire movie.
Adam is the lost little boy who allows drugs and destructive women to persuade him away from Mike’s big-brotherly wing, while Brooke is the only “strong” female character (out of two featured actresses), where “strong” translates into angry pouts and nagging comments that went against what every other drooling woman thought of Mike.  Even her convictions were shallow, for in the end her determined refusal of Magic Mike’s flirty charms is eventually won over …by (*SPOILER*) his flirty charms.
For all intents and purposes, this movie was made for the stereotypical male mind but for the stereotypical female’s eyes. It reserves itself from fully expressing emotion, yet tries to pass itself off as compassionate to the empathetic women. As if all we needed to sway us to see their point of view is a few bare derrières and sappy pick-up lines!
Well, apparently it’s enough for some people. NY Times’ film critic, Manohla Dargus, couldn’t praise the movie enough.  In the similar fashion as I began this post, she blushes,
“Those cheeks, smooth as a hairless Chihuahua, will receive considerable attention, as will the rippling muscles, thrusting pelvises and the dancing, by turns snaky and acrobatic that are on generous display in ‘Magic Mike.’”
She continues by highlighting the movie’s swapped gender roles:
“In one school of thought Hollywood movies are always organized for the visual pleasure of the male spectator, which pretty much leaves the female spectator sidelined. There’s no leaving her out any longer — or the gay or confident heterosexual male spectator, either…. it’s clear the director is out to maximize everyone’s pleasure.”
She does have a point. How many movies can you think of where the male gaze is directed at the men? You know, scenes that have the slow, panning-up of a semi-naked man coming out of the water, or thoughtfully turning his face towards the sky so it glows like Zeus in the sunlight? For straight women and gay men, Magic Mike is a voyeuristic feast fit for royalty. But it can’t shake the irresistible urge to cater to straight men’s fantasies.
In almost every dance number, a woman from the audience is whisked out of her chair and is literally tossed around to eventually land in a sexually compromising position underneath (or splayed across) the dancer. The argument for “The Kid” to start dancing was that he could be “the husband they never had! You are that dreamboat guy that never came along!” Magic Mike is as every bit of a guidebook to the “masculine” as he is an ideal sexual partner.
But perhaps I am turning mole hills into mountains and making an actually progressive movie to sound tirelessly sexist. If I am projecting my own presuppositions on a story that is clearly novel in what it represents, tell me! These are difficult concepts for anyone to wrap their minds around, and conversation is a must if we are to get to the bottom of these concepts.
I’m sure if we had Channing Tatum and Steven Soderbergh on the phone we could gain more insight. But until I make best friends with them to invite them to talk stripping and sexuality (don’t worry, it’s a work in progress), we’ll have to resign to the comment section below.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

First Month's Reflection

Today marks the one-month anniversary of kissing Pittsburgh goodbye and making the physical transition down to Hendersonville, NC to begin a year-long stint as an Americorps VISTA service worker. The settling in was seamless, thanks to the many generous donations provided by my organization's staff, board members, and friends. And the stereotyped social graciousness of people in the South cannot be understated - people truly have welcomed us into their homes and hearts as though we were old friends. The decision to migrate out of the city I've affectionately deemed my sibling (you grow up together, you don't always get along, but you know you will never stop loving each other) was an easy one in the midst of a fitful Spring, fighting to preserve a sense of "normalcy" when life was clearly trying to carry me down a completely different path. I still wonder if I wasn't acting on a fight-or-flight impulse, but regardless of the deep-seeded reasons, I'm here, and I'm happy. 

...But just not as present as I should be. One eye is focused on my new job and feeding new relationships, but the other is still fixated on the treasures I left in da 'Burgh. Of course, this is natural. It's one month in North Carolina versus 19 years living up north. However I'm not satisfied with this. After all, the goal was to uproot myself from my comfort zone so I could really begin to see. But at the end of the day, my concerns and thoughts are still with those who are no longer physically around me. I'm terrified of losing connections to who I am, who I came from, of being forgotten. Do I have to alienate myself from one place to feel genuinely connected to the other? What does that balance look like?

Dissecting Earth and sky
"...somewhere between
the earth and the sky."
It should be stated that I do not sit at home pining to be included in the lives of those I miss back home.  Ooooh no no no. I do stuff! Just yesterday I swam in the Broad River, watching turtles peak their heads out of the water and older vacationers reliving their hey-days at a tiki bar's karaoke night. I visit Asheville whenever I can to satiate my addiction for a bustling downtown environment. I started attending services at the local Unitarian Universalist congregation. I mean, I'm even learning how to play the fiddle! (Expect to be impressed in the months to come :-).)  I have all the nature and breweries I could wish for within a half hour of where I live, in every direction; there is little reason for me to reject this new environment.  In fact, part of me believes that most of my anxieties come from the fear that I might not ever want to return for good. But who could possibly make that decision at this juncture? Anyway, I digress...

In this month's issue of Yoga Journal Lisa Walford's article set out to explain the dynamic pose of Anantasana, and instead identified the need for us to lose our balance for our own healthful gain: (I took editorial ownership and removed any pose-specific words.)
"...finding your balance is a constant, dynamic process. It's a dance that changes from moment to moment. By staying sensitive, clear, and courageous, you can become more aware of the tiny adjustments that you need to make in order to stay stable. Losing your balance is not a bad thing; it brings the edges of extremes to light and shows you where you need more physical or mental support."
Rereading this passage, I replaced the word "balance" with "way," and felt more at peace with easing my white-knuckled stronghold on Pittsburgh.  I view loved ones from home to be static representations of where I come from. And if ever I lose my footing, I just reach for those connections to bring me back on track. It's an exciting prospect, if not a vulnerable one, for sure.  Losing ground will be the best thing to happen to me. I just need to first accept the invitation to fall.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


No one told me I was smart when I was a child; they only said I was pretty.  At 10, I never read books with strong female leads like Junie B. Jones or Stargirl; I was too busy learning the best ab work-outs and how to apply mascara from the articles in Seventeen. I’m turning 23 in one week and to this day, I wake up every morning to see how my belly juts out against my pants. I still feel like a failure every time my cravings concede to a piece of chocolate. But I know the beast that made me. I dedicated my academic career to studying gender behavior and media theory to help destroy it. And I will continue to do everything in my power not to let this mental condition get the best of another girl.  Because we are more than our waist line, our bust size, our skin tone, or our curves. Our aspirations are greater than wanting to be thin, wanting a boyfriend, or coveting to have all the attention in the school. Deep within every girl is gumption and drive, yet at such formative ages those amazing qualities are too easily snuffed out of existence by glitzy media saying “Who you think you are isn’t who you should be.”

Recently I worked as a site leader for a youth group coming in to help fix up a home for someone in need. The ice-breaker question I posed was “What did you want to be when you were a child?” There were 9 people in the group, 6 of them girls. One girl named Jeannie said, “Astronaut.” One girl named Katie said, “cake decorator.” And another girl, Lauren, said, “Concert pianist.”  Later in the day, I asked some of the girls what their life aspirations were. Katie said, “To get a boyfriend.” Jeannie said, “To be a supermodel.” When I prodded them some more, it was revealed that Katie wants to travel to Italy and that secretly she still wanted to open her own cake-decorating business.

It compels me to tears thinking about how much energy and attention I devoted to complying to the rules laid out for me in those early issues of Cosmo Girl and Seventeen. And to see girls openly changing their goals to match the roles they see their idols filling in magazines and TV shows shallows my breath. If ad agencies and magazine editors and TV scriptwriters do not start realizing the immense impact they have on young minds, and how damaging it is to them and in return, our nation, our society, our world will never change. It’s time to keep it real, people. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What a Man, What a Man, What a Mighty Confused Man.

The pattern couldn't have been more obvious if it were featured on Good Morning America as a breaking trend.  A few days ago BBC listed two reports back-to-back on their US & Canada headline stream (coincidentally?) that featured a common theme among adult males in combat and on the football field:


The manliest men on the Masculine Persona spectrum (not a real spectrum, don't look it up.) are choosing more and more to take their lives. Or are we just finally paying attention to it now? And if so, what happened to make our consciousness more aware of the trend?
The first of these headlines needed no further description to understand the severity of the issue: "US military suicide rates hits one per day". BBC cited an increase of 20% in the number of deaths reported were reported this time last year.  The Pentagon referred to the issue as "one of the most urgent problems" they faced.  PTSD is ubiquitous among veterans returning home from combat, but these cases of suicide are cropping up among members currently deployed or are about to be deployed.  And rather than receiving unanimous support, stories of men taking their lives receive chastising remarks from their higher-ups.
The subsequent article begged the viewer to read on beyond the headline. Titled, "NFL players join forces to sue league over concussion," the article detailed components in the lawsuit as saying the NFL has "glorified violence" via media marketing ploys.  At the end of the article, Mary Ann Easterling , the wife of late Atlanta Falcolns' safety, Ray Easterling, cites the tragedy of her husband's suicide as a result of his deep-seeded behavioral problems due to persistent head trauma.

So what exactly are we seeing here? Well, think of all the stereotypes you might use to describe a typical GI Joe or first-draft linebacker: muscular, dumb jock, heroic, hard-headed, proud, master of their jurisdiction, capable of fixing anything.  Any association that implies a correlation to physical aptitude and worth to society, basically.  Notice how any adjective describing vulnerability is completely absent.  Just as stereotypes assume women to be weak, defensive cry-babies, the "masculine" man is expected to be exactly the opposite.

But the times, they have been a-changing - we are shattering these definitions left and right, on both sides of the gender divide.  We are seeing a spike in the number of women who volunteer for combat, raising consciousness over the unhealthy practice of Photoshopping, and sloooowly but surely voting more women into public office. And studies repeatedly show how boys are being left in the lurch next girls' progress in the American education system. This is a huge testament to immeasurable work women throughout the century completed to achieve gender equality in schools. However... while one side is working full-time to level the playing field, the other is left eating their dust.  

It took years and a fantastic professor to open my eyes on the problem that young men in America are facing today.  Men are not getting the appropriate attention needed to facilitate a seamless transition away from rigid, archaic stereotypes, let alone enough support to back them up in the roles they are responsible for upholding now.  The need for a transition from "macho" to "human" is one that is absolutely vital in achieving gender equity in every facet of society. Yet at every turn, organizations and major establishments such as the NFL and Hollywood (I could write a whole separate seething film review of the movie, What to Expect When Expecting, don't get me started.) take the most lucrative road and buy into furthering these disastrous stereotypes while trying to promote the gender they're glorifying.  The more pressure men receive to sustain the one-dimensional role of being physically-impressive, the more there will be pressure building up against their repressed emotions of living in a world that is paying more attention to women. 

This is not to say that there is still not an immense burden placed on the Western Woman to adhere to strict physical and emotional confines. Nor is my specific aim to blur the roles between men and women.  For the vast majority of people in this country, guidelines, on some level, are necessary in sustaining sanity.  However, in order for women to break free from dangerous structures surrounding how they act professionally, sexually, emotionally, etc, men need to be shown guidance as they navigate their reassessed roles (i.e. one who is not an abuser, emotionally vacant, or solely focused on physical prowess) in a redirected society.

BUT. There is hope. It has just been announced that the Veterans Affairs council has taken note of the demographic with the lowest rates of suicide to aid them in their attempt to quell the number of suicide attempts in the military:  "[They] hope to re-create elements of black female culture that may help stop military veterans from killing themselves."

The jury is still in discussing the sociological implications of this idea.