When Princess Marie Bonaparte couldn’t orgasm, she went to Sigmund Freud. She’d already failed to treat herself by undergoing experimental surgery to shorten the distance between her clitoris and vulva, so she approached the psychoanalyst seeking to understand her inability to climax during sex. It was to Bonaparte that he famously remarked: “The great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’”
Clearly, Freud had never been to see Magic Mike Live.
For the uninitiated, the Magic Mike journey began with the 2012 film, in which Channing Tatum and director Steven Soderbergh immortalised Tatum’s true story of becoming a stripper at 18. It spawned what has now become the Magic Mike industrial complex. In the nine years since, there have been two films, a live production that’s toured Las Vegas, London and Berlin, and a Broadway musical.
With his erotic routines, Tatum has seemingly done what Freud could never: discovered what women want. In creating Magic Mike Live, specifically, the actor writes he tried to “provocatively jumpstart the conversation about what it is that women really want”. The show, which premiered in 2017, is sold as “empowering, exhilarating and unexpected”. Tatum urges us to “imagine a world where all women were empowered to ask for more – from men, from a night out, from everything they wanted – and all of their desires were met.”
I’m not the type to drink the Kool-Aid. So the idea that a show of topless men will finally – finally! – give me what I “want” seems like a tall order. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the show; my issue with Magic Mike Live’s premise is that it just seems to be promising a bit much. I want my feminism to agitate for structural change, and I’m not exactly sure how a group of 16 half-naked himbos dry-humping a stage does that. My vibe is more bell hooks’ than beefcakes, and given a choice between a protest or brunch date, I’d pick the protest. Which is probably why my editor asked me to attend the show: I was easily the most cynical. But, y’know, I did what I was told.
Upon arrival, there’s an eclectic mix of women congregated: hens parties taking photos out the front with bright-red feather boas draped across their shoulders, mother-daughter pairs sitting patiently in the lobby with glasses of champagne in hand, and groups of friends who are clearly just there for a good time after enduring the shit-show of 2020. The air feels kinetic, the novelty of attending a live performance evidently not lost on anyone.
The show opens with a male MC, who looks as though he smells of Joop and had me nearly choke on my prosecco with the line, “You’ve got some precipitation in the pussy, I’m going to need a cumbrella.” Thankfully, the show shifts gears five minutes later, subverting expectations by having a middle-aged woman named Amy take the reins. Meanwhile, the men change from costumes that make them look like the Village People into T-shirts and jeans with their Calvins peeking out. Amy is sarcastic and unashamed in her lust for the dancers, setting the tone for the show with a list of her desires: a guy with a really great smile, who laughs at all of her jokes; the guy on the train reading She Comes First; a CEO who pays his women employees just as much as men – actually, no, she’s the CEO.
The dudes seem happy to go along for the ride, returning her remarks with a wink. Speaking of the dudes, I doubt it needs clarifying, but they are very hot. It’s a wonder Magic Mike Live wasn’t around when Raewyn Connell first wrote on hegemonic masculinity, because I’m pretty sure these are the kind of guys she had in mind.
The show originally included a lap-dance and slow dancing for a few lucky audience members. COVID threw those out the window, but the men more than make up for the lack of close contact. From one telling a woman she’s “more than beautiful” to others who take time out of their dance routines to thrust in the direction of specific audience members, the men ensure every woman feels seen.
Then, there’s the horniness. It is very horny. While there’s no full-frontal nudity, it doesn’t need any because there are moments hot enough I’m certain that most attendees are calculating the time it’ll take them to get home, or to their nearest fuckbuddy. Or, at least, I surprisingly was.
In two scenes one of the men is joined by a female dancer for what can only be described as very creative sexual simulations. One takes place in cascading rain, the other on aerial ropes, and in both, the dancers writhe in sync, creating a choreographed interpretation of what sex could look like when the pleasure and enjoyment of both people is the top priority. Here, the woman is an active – rather than passive – participant. I make a note to encourage any friend who’s told me they struggle asserting themselves during sex to see the show, because even if we can’t contort our bodies like the dancers, as least we can try keep that same energy.
The show’s sincere pursuit of sex positivity resonates most. Masturbation is encouraged, cunnilingus naturally incorporated and women’s desire is centred. With a soundtrack that ranges from Fatman Scoop’s booming “Be Faithful” to Sam Smith’s “Latch”, it straddles the line of being both earnest and tongue-in-cheek, delivering a perceptive meditation on women’s pleasure. Sex positivity can curdle into something cringe when it forces people into situations they’re uncomfortable with, but Magic Mike Live simply implores you to have a good time.
Co-creator and choreographer Alison Faulk tells me they wanted to create a show that prompts introspection as opposed to crafting something didactic. “Women, we change what we want all the time. We might feel something one moment, and then totally different the next. That’s OK! It’s more about giving people permission to ask themselves what they want,” she explains over the phone from Los Angeles. “Chan and all of us really wanted to give people the permission to really be like, ‘Well, what do I want?’ Maybe no-one’s ever asked them before. Hopefully, we do it in a way that’s fun and not overly serious.”
Judging by the audience’s enduring screams, it would seem very few of them actually had been asked that before. The response is nothing short of hysterical, to the extent that at one point, my friend turned to me and asked, “Do you think they’ve ever seen a man before?” In the era where WAP goes platinum and platforms like OnlyFans are mainstream, I’d believed an issue like sexual liberation to be a bit passé, but the show made me realise how far we still have to go.
In fact, the audience seem to be taking the assertion that they can have whatever they want a little too literally: on more than one occasion a woman reaches out to touch one of the dancers, despite the show’s repeated refrains that we are to look, not touch. I mean, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, and you’d think people would heed a health hazard warning, even before you take into account the potential breaches of consent. And yet!
A few days later, I’m sitting with the men themselves. They’re dressed in their suits from the show and look like the suave businessmen you walk past in the CBD. In conversation, they’re distinctive: Charlie is thoughtful, Nick is charming, Josh is sweet, Kit is assertive and Brian is a little bit cheeky. I want to know how they feel about the attention – the good, and the bad.
I learn the grabby woman I saw is just the tip of the non-consensual iceberg. They’ve had women up on stage when they’re not meant to be, others opening up their legs to reveal a lack of underwear and, because it’s 2021, some unsolicited nudes in their DMs. “I never take it personally,” Kit says, unfazed. “I mean, that’s what the show is. They’re having a good time. It’s not like they didn’t see the movie.” Even if the men aren’t totally unsettled, I still am. There’s a false assumption that buying a ticket to Magic Mike Live also gives you permission to act without consequence or, I don’t know, basic dignity and respect.
Women presumably behave this way because they’re granted so few opportunities to truly express themselves sexually. I ask the guys if doing the show made them realise how badly women settle – in love and sex. “We definitely do underestimate that,” Nick explains, holding my gaze the entire time he addresses me, with the others nodding emphatically. “Something so simple as locking eyes with them for five seconds and holding it: if they lock in there with you, you can literally see them drop out of reality and go into this trance. Everybody does have a sensual or sexual side, but some people’s are so repressed.”
It was 1925 when a sexually frustrated Bonaparte went to Freud for answers, and almost 100 years later Magic Mike Live might have finally unearthed part of the puzzle of women’s desire: being seen, feeling understood, having their pleasure prioritised. Chiselled adonises who can dance also don’t hurt.
Magic Mike Live is currently performing in Sydney until 16 May and touring Australia, visiting Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. You can purchase tickets here.
This feature originally appeared in the April issue of marie claire, on stands now.