July 26, 2015

No Roads Lead to Rome: The Tragedy of Magic Mike XXL


She's wearing the pants in this movie, neighbors. What a shame.
She’s wearing the pants in this movie, neighbors. What a shame.

By Alexa Day

Last week, I was struggling with my fears that Magic Mike XXL would turn out to be everything people said it was. A feminist stripper movie, which did not distract its primarily female audience with a plot or anything that might prove disturbing. Two hours of gentle reassurance that yes, you are pretty and men should be nicer to you! An evening of gentle hand-holding and slightly adventurous sexuality.

Basically, I was afraid it would turn out to be the gummy vitamin of stripper movies. Not frightfully stimulating, but good for you in small doses.

I also said I would eat all 800+ words of last week’s post if I was wrong.

And I was wrong about a couple of things. I was also right about something. Then, on top of that, I was disappointed by things I didn’t expect to disappoint me.

Because I will be able to eat words without spoilers, and because I think folks enjoy seeing a good bout of verbophagy, let’s start with the things I was wrong about.

1. Joe Manganiello. I didn’t mention Joe last week, so I can’t honestly say I was wrong about him. It’s just that Joe has been right in front of me all this time, and I didn’t notice him, which is kind of criminal. Last movie, I was distracted by the plot — and I do not apologize for that — so I didn’t pay quite as much attention to Big Dick Richie as I should have. This time, he’s got the best scene in the movie and the best line in the movie, so he’s harder to ignore. The first word I need to eat is Manganiello. It’s a pretty big word, but I was really wrong, so I’m going to eat it twice.

2. The dance. Is dance enough to sustain this movie by itself? Well, let’s adjust the question. Would I have paid full price to remove all the plot from this film and just watch hot, scantily clad men dancing about the big screen (or the stage) for my personal amusement? Yes. Yes, I would have. I do still need a plot, and I find the suggestion to the contrary a little off-putting. But I can totally be present just for dance.

3. The moral. I’ll be a good sport and eat some words here, but in all honesty, I think everyone has been wrong about the moral of this story. This is not a story about what women want. It’s a story about artistic authenticity. Before the movie takes a hard left turn, Mike and his crew have a long talk about the route to success. Success doesn’t come from trying to figure out what other people want (or used to want), says Mike. It comes from you doing you, and from your willingness to share that with the audience. It’s a frightening prospect for any artist, and watching each of the men slowly embrace the idea is the molten core that makes the film work. Each of them takes a huge chance on the idea, each of them is a little vulnerable during the process, and each of them is a better off afterwards.

Ultimately, women respond to authenticity. Doubt me? Ask yourself this: how did Big Dick Richie get a smile out of the girl at the convenience store?

For the record, I continue to object to a stripper story with a moral, but there it is. Last week, my colleague Madeline Iva alluded to the potential for a new brand of erotic romance, and I hope that’s what she is referring to. I think the genre would benefit from more artistic authenticity and less writing directly to a fickle market. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve pulled many an artistic punch because I thought that’s what the market wanted, and I have been the loser every time. That’s another story for another day, though.

This concludes the word-eating portion of today’s post. I cannot address the place I was right or my major disappointment with this film without disclosing a great deal of plot. All the spoilers come after this classic Toni Braxton video. If you’re trying to avoid that sort of thing, this is a good place to say goodbye for now. I’ll see you back here next week.

Still here? Great.

Last week, I predicted that “everything gritty and complicated and potentially unpleasant or challenging has been excised from the storyline established by the first movie.” Well, that happened. Everything and everyone that made the last movie complicated and challenging has been removed with near-surgical precision. Everything. Everyone. It left me shaking my head, but before long, something else drew my attention. I only mention the surgery here because I cannot pass up an opportunity to say “I told you so.”

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let us come to Rome.

We are introduced to Rome and her club, Domina, when Mike needs help. I won’t waste your time with sugarcoating. Rome runs a predominantly black club. Indeed, it certainly looked like Mike and his friends were the only people in the place who were not black, but that place was crowded, and I can’t say I saw everyone.

That bothers me a little. I have an issue with separate but equal entertainment forms, but I don’t have the space to go into that here, when I’ve addressed it before. In any event, Domina seems like a clear response to complaints that the first film wasn’t diverse enough. I myself didn’t care about that because the first film had enough story to keep me very engaged. I’d also prefer not to have diversity issues resolved by awkwardly sticking a large number of black people onto the plot with duct tape. But that’s not my biggest problem here.

From the beginning, when she sends another man out the room to talk with Mike, it looked to me that Rome was being set up as an asexual special helper. I wanted so much to see that Rome was going to be more than that. She certainly eyes Mike hard after introducing him to the club as a ghost (a ghost, by the way, is someone who disappears from a romantic relationship without so much as “it’s not you, it’s me”). She doesn’t even seem to be angry at Mike after the way he’s treated her in the past.

But that’s as far as it goes. Rome does make Mike work for what he wants, but she takes nothing for herself. I kept waiting for her to cozy up with Mike or one of his lovely friends. I know she’s done it before, so we cannot rely on the tired excuse that maybe she isn’t into the swirl. I even thought Rome’s age was an issue before I saw Andie MacDowell. But sadly, by the time Mike and his crew are upstairs for the only non-sexual afterparty in the entire film, I knew where this was going. Among other things, Rome helps Mike and his friends get to a house filled with authentic Southern caricatures, who are evidently acceptable sex partners. Then she disappears until he needs her again.

No roads lead to Rome.

She’s certainly a capable helper; she’s smart and confident and absolutely fearless. She’s compassionate and gorgeous and open-minded. She also seems to know the business like the back of her exquisitely manicured hand. And so I defy anyone to explain why she isn’t a better love interest than the women at Caricature House. I mean, I think I know what the answer is, but I want to hear someone say it.

Magic Mike XXL goes to great pains to make sure that its audience does not perceive Rome as a potential sex/romance partner for any man in the film. Mike performs to impress her and please her customers, but it’s clearly a matter of business, and he does so with tremendous reluctance. He confesses his relationship with Rome in a low mumble from the darkness of the back seat. I half-expected a fusillade of inappropriate responses, but Mike’s barely audible admission is met with silence. I wondered which would have been worse.

I would never have done this to Rome. Ever.

Part of my brand promise is that heroines like Rome, smart, sexy, confident black women, are at the center of the story, whether they’re in it for the sex itself or the romance or both. You should not find a woman like Rome — who is absolutely killing it despite the fact that this film keeps putting her in men’s clothing — helping other people and leaving the story empty-handed. Not in my stories. I know a lot of other romance writers are also living this brand promise; my colleague Tracey Livesay and I have had many an animated conversation about it. But when are we going to start seeing ripples outside our very narrow slice of Romancelandia? When is popular culture going to start catching up?

I guess it’s possible that an audience of 21st century American women is totally okay with this sort of thing happening to female characters of color. Maybe no one cares that this is quietly encouraging people to think that this is the proper place for female characters of color and by extension, women of color in the real world. I hope that’s not the case, but I guess it’s possible. It’s certainly easier to believe that than it is to accept that no one sees this trend at all.

Let’s return to Toni Braxton.

In the time before she joined the world of questionable reality television, Toni Braxton made the really sex-positive music video I included with this post. The elevator game is a pretty apt metaphor for my own love life (I’ve been a damned lucky girl, and I ain’t done yet), as well as the love lives of my characters. And so this is what I wanted for Rome. I wanted to see her picking and choosing (albeit from a more diverse cast of suitors), not helping and disappearing. I cannot understand why so many characters like Rome are being marginalized, and I don’t get what else I can do to stop this from happening.

But maybe Mike is as much part of the solution as he was part of the problem. Maybe I need to focus harder on just doing what I do and trust that authenticity will open doors for the characters I love so much.

I don’t have the answers. I just have a brand promise and a new determination to be authentic.

As for you, are you following Lady Smut? We’re keeping it real.

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  • Post authorTracey Livesay

    As always, your words challenge me and cause me to think. Like you, I was highly annoyed by Rome being put into the “magical negro” role, when she is, as you accurately described her, smart, confident, fearless, gorgeous. Would popular audiences have found Mike less attractive if he’d been currently attracted to her? Someone must’ve thought so, considering a portion of Mike’s time and attention goes to an attractive young white woman who is a lesbian.
    I believe in being authentic and I know it shows in your work. I will continue to be the change I want to see and hope everyone else “catches up.”

    Reply to Tracey Livesay
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      It’s really frustrating, isn’t it?

      I guess in the meantime, we have fanfiction to help bridge the gap. People do tend to write the stories they really want to see, and I’m always encouraged by the amount of fanfiction that turns up in situations like this one. I have a feeling that the fans will see to it that Rome is taken care of. 😉

      As for us romance writers, though, I know what you mean. We just have to keep being the change, I guess.

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorMadeline Iva

    I take your points. Much to chew on. I think I’m going to have to write a blog post about Magic Mike, cause there’s still just so much to say. My eyes are going tilt in response to all this.

    But I felt Rome nevertheless was stuck pretty far in the center of a movie that’s trying to do the same thing but different as a successful sequel–given that she wasn’t in the last movie. And I thought the film was trying to represent more facets of the South than the sticky artificial touristy parts. So yes, they were making nice with more diversity — both in terms of color, but also in terms of gender, and in terms of Southern representations. Were they successful? I give them points for trying.

    I mean, as far as I saw it, Rome was replacing the last film’s authority figure — southern white boy Matthew Mac. So thumbs up for showing black woman as authority guide figure…

    I mean, I guess what I thought they did (but I make up stories for a living so who knows if this is even true?) is they sat and listened to people who strip for a living and wanted to celebrate what was good about that profession. And props to the creative movie team for doing so right? I mean, how sheepish must they have felt for making an anti-stripper movie that made millions because of the stripping.

    So was this a chick flick? No. Was this a sentimental film? A romantic film? No, no, not really — Mike fucked up with Rome in the past, and I think that’s where his mumbling comes from. This was a film that did two things:

    a) celebrated grown women as sexual beings (hey-yo!)
    b) you’re right — showed men embracing their artistic side for what it is–even if it wasn’t high brow. Richie doesn’t say “i aspire to be a fire fighter” instead he aspires to be what he is and learns to take pride in that.

    As far as romance goes — Tatum didn’t really touch much of anybody in this film other than during the dancing– I wonder if that’s in his contract? But none of the men really did, the film wasn’t really about that. I too rolled my eyes at the Amber-Home-Wrecker-Heard story line. Man, she just did not fit in with the rest of the movie. Like at all. Blerg.

    Meanwhile, I think we all can agree that JPS just rocked it as Rome. I *like* this side of her as an actress. Not sure I’ve seen it before. I think the costume choices might have helped her to differentiate herself from her other roles in the past. She’s just so got it going on. More of her please. I hear what you and Tracey are saying but I’m glad the world got to see this side of her and I hope it leads to more things like this for her — we do not see enough women like her in movies.

    Reply to Madeline Iva
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      I read once that part of the Southern tradition is to describe things by telling stories about other, seemingly unrelated things. In keeping with that proud tradition, here is an apparently irrelevant story. 🙂

      Once, when the earth was cooling in Charlottesville, I turned in a paper for a class I really enjoyed. I was late with the assignment and I knew it, but I’d gotten a little casual with assignments because I’d lowered my own standards. I figured I’d be docked a few points, but I didn’t think it would be a big deal.

      Eventually, I got that paper back. I still have it here somewhere, 20something years later.

      The paper was almost completely unmarked, except for the occasional remark about something that had gone over well or resonated with my instructor. On the last page, in red ink, he’d written the number “90” — a B — above a single sentence.

      “You would have gotten a perfect grade on this paper,” he wrote, “if you had turned it in on time.”

      I don’t tell this story to boast of my ancient writing skills. I also can’t say I’ve gotten a lick better with deadlines. I’m telling this story because that single sentence taught me that I was no longer allowed to coast. Good enough was no longer good enough.

      This is where I am with Hollywood. Hollywood has been coasting for a damned long time, and it’s going to have to start demonstrating that it cares if it wants higher marks from me.

      I was frustrated after the last Mission Impossible film, Ghost Protocol, because I could not think of a single reason Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton were not walking off, hand in hand, into the ending credits. I have written off the entire X-Men movie franchise because I can no longer participate in the giant cinematic rip-off perpetrated against Storm. I stand ready to quit Sleepy Hollow, which seems intent on marginalizing its two kick-ass heroines. And those are just the three examples I can think of right this second. You don’t want to know what I yelled at the screen after Eraser, the only action film I’ve ever seen in which the action hero doesn’t close out the movie by kissing the heroine breathless.

      I’m done. Hollywood has had a long time to fix this. It is coasting because we allow it to coast, and I am putting my foot down.

      It doesn’t have to be a romance or a chick flick or anything specifically directed at romance. As long as people are pairing off as they did in Magic Mike XXL — first at the beach and then again when Richie finds that glass slipper — I think the questions of sex and partner choice are going to come up. I’m okay — hell, more than okay — with celebrating the sexuality of grown women if we are celebrating the sexuality of all grown women.

      Until then, no more coasting. Hollywood will get higher scores from me when it stops trying and starts succeeding.

      Definitely curious to see where you go with your XXL post. I think this movie’s greatest accomplishment so far is that everyone seems to see something different in it.

      Reply to Alexa Day
      • Post authorTracey Livesay

        OMG, Alexa, I can’t believe what you wrote about Hollywood and movies/TV. EVERYTHING you said is what I’ve said, cursed, screamed about for years. Every single example. And let me add one, Commando, another Arnold movie, with Rae Dawn Chong.

        It’s not enough for Hollywood to show black women being strong. It’s like the double-edged sword. We’re so strong, we don’t need to be loved. We know we’re strong. We’re also beautiful and sexy and worthy of being loved. And when you go out of your way to refuse to show black women as being a viable choice as a partner, what you’re telling your community is that we aren’t.

        Reply to Tracey Livesay
        • Post authorAlexa Day

          And when you go out of your way to refuse to show black women as being a viable choice as a partner, what you’re telling your community is that we aren’t.

          This is exactly what I’m talking about. Exactly!

          Reply to Alexa Day
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  • Post authorMadeline Iva

    Well, I mean, I think everyone walked away from Magic Mike XXL wanting to slip into bed with Jada Pinkett Smith, you know? She was hawt. You’ve convinced me — that movie missed doing the smart thing, the best thing, the right thing. And I’m glad we’ve talked it all out too — it makes me feel good to connect like this and hear your words and know your thoughts about all this.

    Reply to Madeline Iva
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