“Do you think we’ll need these?” my mother asks me, pulling a neat stack of dollar bills out of a paper envelope she had been keeping in her purse. We are both standing at the mirror in the bathroom of our Las Vegas hotel room, before we head out to a strip club, and my 55-year-old Chinese mother is worried that she’s not doing it right.
As far as Vegas trips go, this one was unremarkable in many ways: We were two women applying their lipstick under unflattering hotel-bathroom lighting, with plans to get some drinks and catch a show. I had on a top I borrowed from someone who enthusiastically described it as “just skanky enough.” One of us had clearly gone to the bank! Like many other American women, I had been in this setting a half-dozen times before for various girls’ weekends. Except this time, I was weighing the cost benefits of making a break for the airport and leaving my mother behind, with just her dollar bills and the realization that her daughter is a complete wuss. She waved the wad of ones in front of my face.
“Remember? In the movie, all the women threw money at Channing Tatum.”
My mother grew up in China during a time when stamp collecting had been considered too prurient a pastime. She raised me to similarly relate things like the sound of jazzy R&B or the word “lingerie” with total mortification. We do not discuss how hot we find certain actors, and if a sex scene comes on during a movie we’re watching, one of us will always get up to “get a drink of water” lest both of us expire from embarrassment (a death that is entirely possible — it’s almost happened to me twice). I’ve seen her kiss my father once in my entire life, and it was on the cheek, for a photo, and I’m not sure she liked it. Needless to say, I don’t consider my mother particular driven by sexual impulses, and I don’t believe that she would either.
Which is why when she called me in 2012 to tell me that she was on her way to the theaters to watch Magic Mike for the second time, I nearly blacked out.
That was the first surprise. The second, it turns out, was the reason for it. My mom insisted that her love of the movie had much less to do with Channing Tatum’s abs than it did with his charisma (his charisma!!). I had seen the first movie, an entertaining two hours of oiled man-hams dressed in clothes a casino magician might choose if he was suffering hot flashes, and dancing as if they were just-caught trout slipping across the deck of a ship. Channing plays the Tampa stripper version of Jack Dawkins, and critics, like my mom, made a point to also extol its surprising commentary on capitalism and the subversion of presenting male bodies — instead of female bodies — as objects of attention. “He makes everyone around him feel positive and good,” she explained. “I like how he is in a bad situation, but still wants to make things happy.” Yes mom, but what about the dancing? “Channing Tatum is a wonderful dancer.” Yes mom, but what about the thongs? “That’s not the point.”
By the time Magic Mike XXL came out in 2015, her Tatum infatuation grew (ropy, bronzed, oar-shaped) legs. “Do you think that in real life he’s not afraid of older women, either?” she asked me once, referring to a scene where Tatum and his crew of traveling strippers drop by a middle-aged divorcee’s house as she’s entertaining her fellow friends who’ve all been ignored by the men in their lives. “I like how he wasn’t scared of them. He actually listened to them!” When news came out that Tatum was turning the movies into a live show, I suggested to her that we go. I didn’t expect her to say yes, but by then, it was too late to take it back, thereby confirming that I was the more prudish one. Two months later, we were in Vegas.
We both finish applying our makeup in the mirror, and I try to ignore the premonitions of both of our souls escaping its earthly shackles, our bodies remain forever locked in “oh no!” poses as men wearing neon-colored banana thongs straddle our faces. I’m nervous. I ask if she’s nervous.
She pauses, fits the cap back onto her lipstick, and furrows her brow.
“No,” she says finally. “I don’t think Channing Tatum would scare women.”
This is what will happen to you if you decide to attend Magic Mike Live (with or without your mother). First, make sure the tickets you are buying are not for Magic Men Live, which I came thisclose to doing (Magic Men Live, a touring male revue, is not affiliated with the franchise though it is obviously benefiting from name confusion). The Hard Rock Casino and Hotel is 1.5 miles from The Las Vegas Strip, which will require you to drive there (or walk a weirdly perilous 30-minute route along a highway, like my mother and I did in our “going out” clothes). Once inside, you will pass a gift shop filled with orgasm-strengthening quartz yoni eggs and copies of Vagina by feminist writer Naomi Wolf. The show itself is held in Club Domina, named after the fictional Savannah establishment that Jada Pinkett Smith’s character runs in Magic Mike XXL. Inside, the club looks far less like the Southern boudoir of the movie, and a little more like the kind of speakeasy-concept whiskey bar you’d find next to a strip-mall Chipotle: The floors are faux reclaimed wood; the seats are a mish-mash of nailhead-studded club chairs and couches, and there are a lot of waiters milling around inexplicably wearing both suspenders and belts at the same time.
Magic Mike Live opened on March 30 of this year to incredible fanfare. The show sold an impressive 25,000 advance tickets, and Club Domina only seats 436. Channing Tatum’s promotional appearance with the troupe on Ellen has racked up more than 6.5 million views on YouTube (a dozen of those views are from my mother), which places it as one of the most popular clips of her show. The show runs twice a night, on Wednesdays through Sundays, and the cast consists of a dozen professional dancers who’ve worked alongside touring musicians, including Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Lady Gaga, and Kylie Minogue. The fact that these men had to learn how to take their clothes off specifically for this show is the entire point (as well as the main appeal of the amateurs category in porn); these men are not strippers by trade, and are as flesh-and-blood real as the cute guy in the next cubicle.
“Anton is a professional dancer with a Swedish nationality and is fluent in French, German, Swedish, and English,” the Magic Mike Live website reads. “Jackson’s prize possession and number one love is his Harley (equal to Mum of course).” “Luke is a husband and father who enjoys every moment given, living a bicoastal life between Los Angeles and Atlanta.” Contrast these with how the men are presented in competing Las Vegas show, Thunder From Down Under — just a first name alongside a photo of a shiny man with lips the color and sheen of grocery-store bologna. Magic Mike’s dancers’ bios are ones that would get right-swiped on Tinder. That’s no accident: “Obviously, our guys are physically beautiful, but they have hearts and brains and talent and personality and charisma,” says Theresa Espinosa, associate director and choreographer for Magic Mike Live. “If you saw a man on the street with all those things, you would want to know who he is. And it’s not just because he’s taking off his shirt.”
How’s this for down-to-earth? During the debut week of the show, the cast took their first day off after weeks of rehearsals and performances with a backyard barbecue that looked much more like a neighborhood block party than the Molly-fueled hotel pool party depicted in Magic Mike XXL. There were babies and wives, various types of sports balls, a bald man wearing New Balances, a dog, and a balloon in the shape of a unicorn — the unofficial mascot of the show. Having spent a large amount of time stalking the cast on social media and the website prior to show, I felt the exact same way I did when I was 11 and about to see The Backstreet Boys: giddiness, terror, and a compulsion to pick a favorite (mine was Ryan, the long-haired one who liked metal bands and drummed).
"Chan was adamant that this show had to be from a woman’s perspective. He knows that we’re always going to have a different instinct."
In my life, I have found myself witness to a handful of stripper experiences — whether for a friend’s birthday or when-in-Rome travel situations. I have hated some experiences, and I have found some to be mesmerizing, but I have never, ever found them to be “relatable.” Until Magic Mike Live.
There is a funny bit in the beginning of the show where the Pinkett-Smith stand-in waves a smoking smudge stick around the stage to “purify the house” after a segment parodying traditional strip clubs. Phrases like “safe word” and “permission” get bandied around without exposition or explanation for anyone unused to reading feminist articles; when the host capped off the house rules with “no means no,” the audience cheer was louder than when Manwé showed off his butt. At one point, the song “Sail” came on, and a woman wearing an off-the-shoulder top sitting directed to my left leaned over to her similarly dressed friend and shouted “OMG how’d they know our turn-up song?” — AND THEN Proxy Pinkett-Smith grabbed the mic to announce, “I spent the past three years dancing alone to my room to this.” The shoulder girls almost lost their shit.
These are references you’d expect to find on Twitter among self-proclaimed feminist meme-makers, not inside a male strip club geared toward the mainstream. But it’s a testament to the creators of the show that these moments came across as funny instead of smarmy or patronizing. And, the main reason that it’s apparent that the writers, choreographers, and even costume designers of the show understand women is because they are women.
“Our production designer is a woman, our costume designer is a woman… There are tons of women around here,” explains choreographer Alison Faulk, who worked with Channing Tatum on both Magic Mike movies. “Chan was adamant that this show had to be from a woman’s perspective. He knows that we’re always going to have a different instinct.”
That meant reworking a few things about the traditional male strip club experience. Firstly, minimizing the embarrassment factor: “In our research, we discovered that it was men who were telling women ‘This is what we think is sexy.’ Most of the time, women would just giggle, or get uncomfortable, and be like, ‘Sure whatever.’” That means that at Magic Mike Live, the men are trained to read body language — and understand when a woman is dying for a lap dance, or if she’d rather just die. “We picked guys in our auditions who had the natural instinct, but then taught the dancers about body language. If you see a woman with her arms up and her legs spread, most likely it’s going to be okay to engage with her.”
“The other night, this woman got a lap dance, and her dress came up in the process,” Espinosa tells me to illustrate that point. “She had no panties on, and she was totally fine with it. She got her lap dance, and proceeded to tell us that it was her birthday and she was 49. For me to watch and see this experience was inspiring. You don’t really think about being 49, and being sexually free. Women are taught to be nice and polite, to close our legs, not slut out. This show is literally letting women express themselves in any capacity.”
Of course, any capacity also means the exact opposite. “Our casting director was here with her friends and one of the women didn’t want to interact,” Faulk chimes in. “She said she felt so empowered when the men would come up to her, and she could say no with the safe word, because they were so respectful to her. It’s all welcome, it’s all accepted, and there’s no judgment.”
There’s also the whole thing about who gets picked to go up on stage or be the recipient of one of those lap dances — the kind of spin-you-in-the-air acrobatics from the movie that I assumed was completely pre-planned and choreographed. Turns out, it can be done with just about anyone. During the show, I watched as one middle-aged woman in high heeled boots and black jeans was whirled around, dragged along the floor, and delicately humped on various surfaces — all while still seated, extremely serenely if I may add, in the same chair. Across the venue, dancers were engaging with women of all sizes, ages, heights, and ethnicities. This kind of inclusivity was noteworthy in the movies, especially as it sat in contrast with the worldview you’d expect dudebros who say things like “Did you, uh, did you bangee?” would have.
Even more notable was that none of the men in the movies ever pat themselves on the back for their egalitarianism. Making that invisible shift was paramount in executing Live, as well: “People are coming to the show from all around the world,” Faulkner told me. “They all come from different cultures with different expectations. People who will be brought up are not just a certain way — they’re different in how they look, how old they are. It’s for everybody, not just a skinny, young person.”
But of course, not everyone gets to spend QT with Anton, Jackson, and Luke, and a few things will get you skipped over. Some of the numbers will involve a woman straddling a dancer, and if you’re wearing pants, you’ve got a higher likelihood getting pulled up on stage. Also, because of the free-flowing bar and the fact that the show attracts a lot of bachelorette parties, they look out for sobriety: If you’re too drunk, you might bonk your head when getting spun around. Women who appear to be too discombobulated don’t get picked, though ironically, they’re oftentimes the ones who’ve purchased seats right next to the stage.
The most simple but striking difference between traditional male revues and Magic Mike Live is how you tip. It turns out that my mother didn’t need to take out all those singles. On each seat at Club Domina is a stack of pink “unicorn dollars” you’re meant to throw in lieu of actual cash (Magic Mike spokespeople confirmed that any actual money that’s tipped goes into a fund that buys snacks for the dancers between shows — though they’d “prefer” that this objectively excellent fact did not make it into this article.) Unicorn dollars are printed with hearts and the phrase “You’re Welcome”...which begs the question, who exactly is doing the thanking? If dollar bills at strip clubs could talk, “You’re Welcome” would definitely not be what they’d say.
“You’re Welcome” speaks volumes about the difference between Magic Mike and traditional strip joints with female strippers — there, attendees tip strippers for their services in gratitude; we at Magic Mike tipped male dancers in acknowledgement that they’re in the presence of queens, and that they — not us — should be the ones feeling grateful.
This is a dance show. None of them have stripped before.
A day before the show, I insisted on watching Magic Mike XXL with my mother — in part to mentally prime the pump, but also because we had never watched the movies together before, and I wanted to gauge her reaction (any water breaks?). To my surprise, she stayed put the entire time. She didn’t smile though, nor whoop nor clap — to be fair, my mother watches any movie with the stoicism of the Pope — but she did make comments throughout. I still don’t get it — what are condomints? It’s so hard for her to smile. Do you think that Channing Tatum would be okay if his daughter wanted to dance like him...like that?
I asked the last question to Faulk who had gotten to know Tatum years after he was himself a male stripper in Tampa. “I assume that he’d only want his daughter to follow her heart,” she said, after a pause. “I know that both he and Jenna are raising her with love and letting her explore the world. He’s very supportive of his daughter and everything that she’d want to do.”
Earlier this month, Tatum penned an open letter to his daughter on Cosmopolitan.com, attempting to tie together his hopes for her and the purpose of Magic Mike Live, writing: “I want...my daughter to be expectation-less with her love and not allow preconceived standards to affect her, to ask herself what she wants and feel empowered enough to act on it.” Tatum went through this with his own family, who didn’t learn about his stripper past until he talked about it on Ellen, 18 years later. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Tatum admitted that his dad was disappointed that he felt he had to resort to stripping: “My dad said: 'Why? You didn't need the money. We always provided,’ [It] broke my heart. I told him it had nothing to do with him. That was my road. That was the road I had to take."
It would seem that Tatum’s own wokeness about stripping would be an effective galvanizing force to changing how society regards sex work; the fact of the matter is that stripping to most people is still a shameful career path. The popularity of the Magic Mike franchise and Channing’s own personal connection to the industry seemed like an opportunity to humanize sex work and sex workers. But Faulk and Espinosa made clear that the intention of the show was to disassociate the franchise from that world: “I’ve never thought of that,” Faulk responds, when I ask her whether the show considers itself engaging in sex work. “I think our mindset is women empowerment, and if that includes sex, great,” Espinosa offered. “But, this is a dance show,” Faulk eventually countered. “None of them have stripped before. So, it’s completely different.”
The main innovation of Magic Mike — or pitfall, depending on how you look at it — is that its audience is not expected to actively participate in sexual acts; observing is just fine. That’s a big difference from the mainstream strip industry. “It’s embarrassing sometimes, but that’s part of the allure, right?” says Blaine, a male pole dancer based in New York City. “You go to a strip club to throw money on hot, wet, dirty bodies, and the opportunity to let men touch you, and for you to touch them. You need to participate. You need to tip. You need to understand that you’re coming in to be a part of it. When you take all that away, what is left? You’re just watching a show.”
"MAKE HER FEEL BEAUTIFUL!!!"
A line from the Magic Mike show.
After my mother and I were seated, I looked around to take stock of our location. We were not in the first rows next to the stage, where groups of women in novelty veiled tiaras and matching sashes were taking those one-leg-hug group photos that you always end up untagging yourself from on Facebook. Behind them were smaller groups of women in every age, ethnicity, and level of lit, including my mother and me (55 and 29, Chinese, and way too sober). Behind us were larger groups of women, some relieved at the distance between them and the spotlights, and others clearly plotting how they were going to sneak up to the front.
I was more worried about the fact that we were next to a stage entrance, and right in front of a major throughway — and if you’ve spent any time at all in a comedy club, magic show, or Blue Man Group number, that is very bad news (or very good news, if you’re an Aries). For me, a person who cried in the bad way at her last surprise birthday party, this was Very, Very Bad News. There was a very good chance of either revealing to 435 screaming women that I have absolutely no abilities to casually groove to music while a He-stranger tosses me around, or I would have to watch the same being done to my mother. I could always give the safe word, of course. But, if asked to participate, how could I decline? I hadn’t come all this way to turn down this weird an opportunity.
“MAKE HER FEEL BEAUTIFUL,” the Pinkett-Smith Surrogate bellowed, as one of the dancers did pull-ups while a lithe brunette woman in skinny jeans and a tank top clung onto him like a teenage koala. Anton showed up at one point carrying a plastic baby. I drank a drink in two big gulps as a woman who looked like the Puerto Rican version of my mother merengued with a shirtless Sebastian. My mother politely clapped after Luke deftly slid across the stage on his knees and straight into someone’s crotch. It was hilarious and theatrical, and sure — a little sexy, but not in a way that I’d need a “water break.” I found myself laughing and even seat-dancing. And then, a big, sweaty hand that felt like a football with fingers reached for mine. It was Manwé. And it was about my Backstreet Boy.
“Will you join Ryan on the stage?”
Friends, journeywomen, I do not really remember what happened next. Three drinks and profound distress took the wheel, and I somehow stumbled to the side of the stage following Manwé who held onto my hand like I was Kate Middleton, and he was the person whose job is to make sure Kate Middleton doesn’t fall and embarrass the kingdom. I fumblingly slow-danced with him while we waited for Ryan to set up his drumset, pretended to understand him while he shout-whispered what was going to happen to me, and finally made my way onstage and onto Ryan’s lap where I remained throughout a drum solo. I have no idea what song he played to, nor how long I was up there. Upsettingly, my mother’s face was the only thing clearly visible to me in the crowd — illegally filming the entire encounter with the focus of a Dance Mom.
The only thing I do remember is that whether because of the adrenaline or what turned out to be the incredibly awkward mechanics of sitting backwards on someone’s lap while he jiggles his arms, it was not actually very sexy at all. Exhilarating? Yes, in the way that scary surprise parties are exhilarating. Empowering? Fine, sure — it’s somewhat fortifying to know I could get through something like that without self-combusting.
Nope, not at all — but my mother could have told you that.