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