Last night my friend Grace and I went to see Magic Mike. It’s been hovering in the high 90s this week in NYC and the air conditioning sounded fantastic, I’m a big early Soderbergh fan, and, fine, I wanted to see Channing Tatum and Joe Mangionello (Alcide!) prancing around shirtless.
I have no problem with strippers. I do think the dynamics of male strippers vs. female strippers are revealing. About a decade ago I went to Vegas for a wedding. A big mixed-gender group of us went to a strip club that had female strippers on the first floor and male strippers on the second. The female strippers performed on small, round tables with about six guys drinking and staring intently at them, a stack of dollar bills by each one’s side. Lap dances took place in shady corners and the entire atmosphere was surprisingly intense. Upstairs, the packed audience was hooting and hollering as the gigantically buff male strippers dragged bachelorettes and 21st-birthday girls up on stage where they proceeded to humiliate them (blindfolds, spanking, etc. – all very campy) for the amusement of their drunk friends. Yes, male strippers are objectified, but the group dynamic and the embarrassment of the voyeur aspect are almost entirely absent from female strip clubs.
Magic Mike didn’t say anything about this. Like most of Soderberg’s movies, it’s not a feel-good flick; it’s a slow depressing meditation on relationships. Mike (Channing Tatum) is in his 30s, a very successful stripper with a nice apartment, a giant truck (which he keeps in pristine condition for future reselling) and $13K in cash savings in a safe. He also runs three businesses and is always on the hustle; one business is a non-union roofing crew, another a mobile auto detailing business, and of course, stripping. Roofing and stripping are both corporeal professions in which the young guys have the advantage and any injury can end your career forever; all three businesses deal exclusively in cash; and of course, none of them offer health benefits, 401Ks or training. Mike doesn’t have much education (he asks his grad student fuckbuddy if she’s studying “social studies”) and no interest in working a 9-5. He claims that his dream job is making ugly custom furniture, but we never see him doing it. Instead, he continuously falls back on his charm and looks to get what he wants.
Magic Mike says a lot about the state of the “American Dream” and the current wisdom about achieving it. Mike is relentlessly optimistic and refers to himself as an entrepreneur. One of his stripper colleagues earnestly advocates the financial self-help book Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Dallas, the skeevy club owner, dangles equity in a Miami club as long-term financial stability for the team. These are fantasies of success and wealth that do not rely on the drudgery of minimum-wage McJobs or under-the-table construction work. People like Tim Ferris and Gary Vaynerchuk advocate living your passion, but none of the passions of the strippers have any possibility of creating financial stability, and Mike’s furniture business seems an unrealistic pipe dream. He has a passion because he’s supposed to have one, because a thousand magazine articles and movies have shown us the person who gets rich quick from their cupcake shop or dog-walking business, but when he tries to get a small-business loan he’s jettisoned by his lousy credit score. The only person with a 9-5 job is the (very boring and miscast) love interest, who processes Medicare claims at a doctor’s office. She lives in a drab apartment and seems resigned to her lower-middle-class lifestyle.
The characters in Magic Mike aspire to wealth, but lack the education or stable jobs that would allow them to build up savings or retire comfortably. They’re falling through the cracks, and buy self-help propaganda in lieu of union jobs, training, or structural safety nets. Notably, the film is set in Florida, which has been hit hard by the financial crisis and sub-prime mortgage meltdown. Entrepreneurialism is a fantasy which they want to buy into but which has little potential to benefit them.
The success of tech entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg and the constant stream of self-help books promoting self-promotion has created a climate in which the path to wealth is the hustle. But that’s simply not true. The tech millionaires who get funded are part of a closely-knit network of founders and venture capitalists. The capital needed to launch successful companies is simply not available. And the failure rates for small business are astronomical. Magic Mike shows the other side of the myth of the American entrepreneur, and how it fails the people with the most to lose in our current era of neoliberal capitalism.