An Example: Magic Mike
Someone looking for an example of male objectification in popular culture need look no further than Warner Brothers’ 2012 film Magic Mike and its sequel. Magic Mike—highly successful with young female audiences—celebrates muscular male strippers as well as the young women who pay for their services. Such movies are a real moral poison. They entrench the cultural wave of male sexual objectification and therefore deepen the problems explored above. Most opponents of sexual exploitation have little to say about Magic Mike, and thereby risk alienating men from the broader fight against sexual commodification.
Unfortunately, Magic Mike is extreme but not atypical; mainstream cinema is now replete with highly eroticized images of muscular men. This is particularly relevant because movies are a substantial force in shaping people’s behavior and sense of self, a point underscored by Ross O’Hara of the University of Missouri. His research shows that the consumption of sexual imagery in movies provides young people with sexual scripts that increase the likelihood of unhealthy behavior. The impact of movies on young people’s sense of self, he finds, is greater now than that of television. The contemporary tentpole movie has become tremendously effective at normalizing its content and thereby shaping society in its image.
O’Hara’s conclusion has a powerful intuitive purchase. Movies, after all, are viewed in the centers of our modern life—in the mall, that galleria of conspicuous consumption, or in the large movie complexes adjacent to family-oriented staples like Chili’s, Claire’s, and Kids ‘r Us. The marketing is pervasive, airing in the early evening primetime hours, and fixes the film’s cultural influence even among those who won’t watch it—including, importantly, among age-inappropriate audiences. Nationwide, promotional posters hang at theatres right next to those advertising the next Disney film. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that major movies can serve to normalize the behaviors and standards depicted in them.
Leaders in the anti-sexual exploitation movement launched a nationwide campaign against the movie Fifty Shades of Grey.The movie was found objectionable for a range of reasons, including its glamorization of violence in sexual relations, but one reason was also its salacious objectification of the leading female role. No similar protests were raised by the first Magic Mike movie or its sequel, which opened over the Fourth of July weekend.
At least one prominent member of a core element of the emerging coalition against sexual exploitation took things in the opposite direction, embarrassing the movement by her response to the Magic Mike series. Caroline Heldman, a noted feminist professor at Occidental College, has for a number of years advanced powerful and important arguments against female sexual objectification in contemporary society. Someone reading her review of Magic Mike, however, would be excused for inferring some hypocrisy on her part. She writes of being “heartened” by the movie and being disappointed only that it did not contain even more male nudity.
Is this a tactical ploy, an attempt to let men feel the sting of objectification, and thereby spur them to oppose exploitation? No, her review did not aim at making objectification as suchunpalatable. Instead, in a mostly critical review, Professor Heldman finds at least one consolation: “It is wonderful to see so many women spending money for an experience that purports to cater to our sexual desires.” What’s good about the movie, in her view, is that it legitimates the objectification of men by women.