Male strippers, as it turns out, are much less easy to find than their female counterparts. I tried to find a male strip club in Los Angeles last week, but was initially unsuccessful. You can see strippers who are women any hour of the day, during breakfast or in the middle of the night, but male strippers are by-appointment-only. You have to either order one directly to your home or find a scheduled revue. Los Angeles has a handful of revues at clubs on Friday and Saturday nights. I considered spectacles with names like Hunk-O-Mania and the Magnificent 7 before choosing a long-running show called the Hollywood Men. I picked the Hollywood Men because the name appeared to be a pun referencing the blacklisted 1940s screenwriters suspected of communism known as the Hollywood Ten. Also, the Saturday-night show was scheduled to take place at a club on the top floor of the kitschy Hollywood & Highland mall complex, and I couldn’t resist.
I was on a quest for hunks, to find out what it means to be a hunk in 2015, and how it might be different from, say, the ’80s, when my mother went to Chippendales with a friend who was writing a trend piece about male strip clubs for the L.A. Times. The industry is in the spotlight yet again thanks to today’s release of Magic Mike XXL, the sequel to the wildly popular Steven Soderbergh movie Magic Mike, which starred Channing Tatum in a story based on his own formative years in Florida. Tatum’s history as a stripper and dancer makes him uniquely qualified to play Magic Mike — the perfect male object who yearns to be recognized as a three-dimensional human being, a stripper with a heart of gold.
OHM Nightclub, a generic supper club with a vaguely East Asian theme, is the Saturday-night venue for the Hollywood Men (on Fridays they perform a few blocks away at Supperclub). OHM bills itself as “a splash of Vegas in the middle of Hollywood,” and it does feels like Vegas in that there are no windows, everyone is drunk, and you have no idea what time it is. I noted that it was 8 p.m. when I arrived, which seemed very early in the night for strippers of any kind, but it felt much later as soon as I was inside OHM’s darkened chambers. The crowd consisted of bachelorette parties, a few “VIP” tables of women having girls’ nights out or birthday celebrations, me, and the friend I dragged with me. We were shown to our middle-tier-priced seats at one of the long communal picnic tables presumably organized to give every spectator the best possible view. Vivid red and blue light illuminated the stage.
The Hollywood Men are not making 50 Shades of Grey money off their 50 Shades of Grey parody, but they’re tapping into the same market: horny women, a demographic often neglected and therefore willing to pay whatever it costs to be treated well. The Hollywood Men experience is all about making a safe, comfortable place for women to be drunk and aroused, without the fear of incurring unintended consequences like getting groped or hit on by strange men.
Everything is explicitly consensual, like a bizarro world where women’s desires are considered first. The male waiters are shirtless, in Chippendales-style collars, and unattractive men are kept firmly out of sight while the show is happening. The ritualistic nature of the bachelorette party — of getting your unattached rocks off one last time — feels powerful. It’s the ultimate expression of singleness matched by an extreme, idealized performance of masculinity over which women have financial control. It blurs the line between entertainment and sex work — there’s only frottage, which feels perfectly Hollywood.
The show had a shockingly excellent soundtrack — one guy stripped to Lana Del Rey’s “Blue Jeans”; another came out of a coffin to “Enter Sandman” for a vampire-themed routine. There was also Elvis Crespo, the Weeknd, and DJ Mustard. It was as if they knew exactly what I wanted to hear in my ideal male-stripper scenario, and that the illusion was constructed for me and me alone.
All the guys were extremely fit and could dance, and a few of them were incredibly hot. The emcee made sure to round out the fantasy by giving us some details about the guys’ day jobs — one was a CPA, another had been a rock star in Italy. The performer who sang Bon Jovi as he stripped was clearly the McConaughey of the squad. The references to Magic Mike were plenty, playing off an aspect of the first film that seems to be amped up in its sequel: the idea that being a male stripper is pretty awesome. I didn’t wonder until days later if any of the strippers were married, and if they were, whether they take their rings off when they perform.
Our host looked like a wizened Andy Samberg with a sleazy John Waters pencil mustache. I have no idea how long he’s been doing this gig, but my offhand guess was “forever.” He amped up the crowd and told us we should “make it rain” on the dancers while encouraging us to feel comfortable telling the performers to “take that shit off.” His jokes lubricated the night’s proceedings: “You wanna see me naked you gotta take me home, but then my wife would kill you.”
The first act was also the silliest — two dancers dressed as Agent Smith from The Matrix performed with a stripper dressed like Neo in a long trench coat who, yes, did a riff on bullet time. This set me up to believe that the whole show would be like this — campy, un-erotic, wildly out-of-date, but still a fun time. I was wrong. Much like the female lead played by Cody Horn in the original Magic Mike, my initial smirk soon became a slack-jaw. I went in a skeptic and came out a true believer, totally convinced that women would go to male strip clubs all the time to socialize if such a thing existed more commonly. Some of the dancers were amazing, and witnessing good dancing makes you feel incredible.
Call it third-wave masculinity — the willing male object profiting off the female gaze. Channing Tatum and Chris Pratt have both made statements about how they are not opposed to self-objectifying, and feel almost a duty to be hot because they know how much stricter the standards of hotness are for their actress wives. I don’t know that making men feel more pressure about how they look is a good idea. Is it better for everyone of both genders to feel diminished? I’d prefer if everyone felt OK about their functioning bodies. But I do sort of believe that eradicating objectification is impossible, and that it exists in our brains for some mysterious evolutionary reason.
We often paint straight men as the only objectifiers, when it’s obvious to me that everyone — regardless of gender or sexual orientation — is equally capable of objectifying men. Magic Mike showed that audiences of all stripes were starved for images of idealized male bodies, and that straight men weren’t put off by the idea of male objectification either. Magic Mike was a Floridian gloss on Saturday Night Fever — the male bimbo whose body is valued by the world more than his brain and knows it in a way that is tied in with class issues. Blue-collar guys like Tony Manero1 and Magic Mike struggle to assert themselves upward using the only capital they have: their hot, hot dance moves.
One of the Hollywood Men stripped down from a Tony Manero white suit.
After Ray Velcoro’s crack on this week’s True Detective about how he supports feminism by “having body-image issues,” it feels like male objectification is currently in the cultural ether. It’s a backlash against the whole dad-bod thing, which reinforced something everyone knew — that physical standards are laxer for male celebrities and men in general. Tatum and Pratt are saying maybe men owe it to women to try a little bit harder to preserve their sexy, but it’s also very savvy for both actors, who are making bank off that self-objectifying stance. Pratt was funny and lovable when he was bigger, and he’s funny and lovable now. But with a six-pack, he gets cast as an A-list lead in action movies, and the change in how he’s being treated isn’t lost on him. A separate, loftier section of Hollywood’s Mount Olympus is reserved for those who have attained the mainstream version of physical “perfection.” Getting there usually takes a while.
Channing Tatum sold his body for cheap long before he could sell it for millions — his years of logged time as a music video dancer and model inform his story. All the Magic Mike guys have a similar history of time spent in the cultural coal mines. Joe Manganiello, whose characters is named “Big Dick Richie,” spent years as werewolf eye candy on True Blood. Adam Rodriguez, who plays Tito, began his career as an extra on The X-Files. Kevin Nash was a professional wrestler named “Diesel” before he was “Tarzan.” I assume that people rarely listen to what Matt Bomer is saying because they are too lost in his eyes. And Tatum lives the dream scenario for a normal working actor, the guy picked out of the chorus line and made into a star. But he drives his own story.
Beautiful men, even those who can dance, are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, but beautiful men who can dance and are also funny? Who seem thankful for their gifts, are humble about struggles and modest despite being megastars? If Tatum and Pratt sometimes seem to dumb it down a notch, it’s because it helps them remain seemingly unthreatening. It’s very shrewd. I’m not saying either one is in MENSA, but humor is a kind of brute intelligence that has very little to do with intellectualism. Like Jennifer Lawrence, they make a show of demonstrating how clumsily unsuited they are for stardom as a paradoxical way of proving that they are absolutely perfect for it. Never underestimate that dumb hottie, they wink at us.
Magic Mike is a genuine tribute to the eroticism of the male form, but conceptualizing that form can be dehumanizing to subjects of any gender. Idealism is subjective and personality informs preferences, so any “dream body” is going to boil wide preferences down to lowest common denominators. Not every woman wants a man with a six-pack, which might convey a high-maintenance attitude toward fitness. But the oiled-up physiques and impressive mating dances suggest a gynocentric worldview that feels rare. They’re working this hard to please us.
The brides-to-be are probably going home happily to considerably less hunky men who they love more than hot strangers with abs. It allows women to indulge in being physically superficial, with the promise that women won’t actually become as tough about standards of male physical beauty as men have generally always been on them. Movies have spent so much time focusing on what kind of arousing images straight white men would like to look at that it always feels revolutionary and refreshing to see anything else.
Not a tremendous amount has changed about the male strip revue experience since the Chippendales established the art form in 1979. All the Tom of Finland tropes of masculinity were trotted out in the course of my evening — cop, construction worker, etc. Just like those hoary old clichés of female sex workers dressed up as schoolgirls and nurses, they were pretty damn effective, maybe because they’re rooted in such deeply embedded cultural stereotypes about gender and class. The connection between dancing and fucking is made explicit here.
A Fox News crew was there, too, presumably doing a segment about male strippers and Magic Mike XXL, just like me. The lowlight of the evening was two guys dancing to a rock cover of Ginuwine’s “Pony” that lacked the gravitas of the original. The highlight was probably the guy, introduced as the “Magic Mike,” who re-created a routine from the XXL trailer and then did pole tricks in a corner of the stage. Just like the smartest guy won’t necessarily be the funniest, anyone — traditionally hot and otherwise — can be good at dancing, even if they’re not “good” per se. You just have to commit to it. You can’t half-ass a dry hump, and the Hollywood Men rarely do. And that, to me, deserves a lot of respect.
At some point I drank a margarita, which got me more into yelling “WOOOOOO!!!!!” with all the other women. The emcee roused the crowd again. “How many girls are gonna see Magic Mike XXL?” The cheers flew up. He encouraged women to get onstage and buy lap dances from the performers, saying, “The men aren’t here! Nobody’s here to label you!” The owner of the Hollywood Men show, a schlubby-looking dude, made an appearance onstage and introduced himself during the last few moments, revealing that the true power behind the female sexuality-empowering throne was, as per usual, just a normal guy.