Many year-end articles have been calling this a good year for women in film and television, but identifying what that actually means and what, specifically, counts as a good example of feminism is a hard consensus to reach. Search results for "Amy Schumer feminist" will yield an alternating list of reasons why she is an amazing), sneaky, raucous failure of a feminist. Repeat the search with Mindy Kaling or Lena Dunham's name and you might begin to suspect that it's impossible to be both an accepted feminist and an actual human woman. Even a film like Mad Max: Fury Road, which has been widely praised (including here at VICE) as the feminist action film we've all been waiting for, has its share of detractors criticizing it as being mired in lazy, sexist tropes and using Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa to problematically equate female empowerment with force, violence, and militaristic competence.
The cumulative effect of all these articles has got me worried. When we write criticisms of mainstream attempts at feminism, do we have a goal in mind? If so, what is it? The questions of what we want feminism to be and how to best represent it in the mainstream are absolutely necessary to answer, but both are so massively complex that any attempt at a mainstream feminist cultural production will prompt a glut of responses pointing out its shortcomings. These responses spur useful and nuanced discussions, but also run the risk of shaming women and men for not being the "right" kind of feminist, when what that would require remains difficult to pin down. Reducing the complexity of such issues is certainly not the solution either: Historically, attempts to simplify social causes end up excluding significant portions of the population the cause is intended to benefit.
I asked Dr. Carol C. Gould, a distinguished professor of philosophy at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, for her thoughts on this knotty problem. "I think that positive references to feminism are helpful, even—perhaps especially—in popular culture contexts," she told me over email. Similar concerns were echoed by the former president of the American Philosophical Association, Linda Martín Alcoff, who has written extensively on feminism and race. "The representations of feminism in popular culture are hugely important," Alcoff told me. "Too many celebrities feel they will lose portions of their audience if they use the F-word. And as a result, young people think feminism is a weird, small cult. I'm more accepting than perhaps most feminist theorists on its emergence in the public domain, even when what is meant by feminism seems a little thin or vague."
It is exactly this "thin or vague" version of mainstream feminism that gets attacked by critics and scholars, and it is understandable when it does. Part of the problem is that there are so many different kinds of people affected by the social (rather than biological) construction of the concept "woman." It's not by accident that Simone de Beauvoir opens up her seminal text, The Second Sex, with the question, "What is a woman?" Short answer: It's hard to determine, but there are a lot of us and we look and act and want a lot of different things, thus making any attempt to represent an ideal version in a single character—like Furiosa or Jessica Jones or the mega-capable Rey of the newest Star Wars film—necessarily incomplete, lacking, and problematically non-representative.
And this is in part why I believe MMXXL to be the most important feminist film of 2015. It eschews any attempt to exalt a single woman as the ideal and, instead, absurdly, inelegantly attempts to jam all of us onto the screen. And it fails. Of course it fails! But I've never seen a film that really made such a good faith, if clumsy, effort to try.
This surprised me because the first Magic Mike film didn't seem to care much about women. Tatum's love interest, Brooke, is a straight-laced nag/saintly nurse who chastises Mike and Alex Pettyfer's "The Kid" when they just want to have fun. One night she arrives at the strip club, ready to smother everyone with disapproval, and sees Tatum strip for the first time. Throughout much of this scene, the camera stays on Horn who reacts as if director Steven Soderbergh were in her ear whispering, "OK, now while you watch him strip, pretend you've never thought about sex before and now are suddenly confronted with it for the first time. Feel embarrassed, make an embarrassed face, roll your eyes, now flee the club feeling conflicted and joyless." A few other women roam around the film's periphery in order to provide blowjobs or offer up their fake breasts for a feel.
So, I wasn't expecting Magic Mike XXL to devote scene after scene to an inclusive picture of female happiness. That happiness comes in multiple forms—sexual pleasure being chief—and is for women of all sizes, ages, races, and economic classes. Additionally, the film presents a view of masculinity that includes honesty and emotional communication, condemns violence as an immature way of solving problems, and pronounces that men should take pride in the "healing" pleasure they bring to women. These points are hammered home so often that some critics claimed the overzealousness of the diversity grows "wearying."
Did I roll my eyes when a bunch of hot dudes were telling women how they'd "heal" them? Yes, I did. It's condescending. Also, I certainly did take note of the absence of disability in the otherwise diverse representation of female bodies worthy of sexual attention. Onscreen, disabled women are mostly represented as tragic, frail, and sexless, and while Theron's amputated Imperator Furiosa is certainly not frail, she still is a bit tragic and sexless. Dr. Alcoff had a different concern about the film. "There's a danger when popular culture uses feminist ideas in ways that not only misrepresent but mislead," said Alcoff. "This is the case with Magic Mike XXL, which appears to be about the gender equality of men and women in sex work. So the movie makes use of this representation, and then goes on to portray sex work as a choice individuals can make. It does not show the real costs, the constant violence, regular dehumanization by clients, wage theft, and sexual violence that is part of so much sex work. So, there is a falseness to that representation."
These are all valid, useful critiques of the film, but I still believe MMXXL to be the most important film of 2015 and my reason for that has something to do with my weeping mother. We saw the film together and while the entire theater was laughing and clapping, we were crying.
My mother cried at the scene when our road-tripping protagonists make a stop at a palatial estate in Charleston. They are there to visit a girl they've met earlier, but upon their arrival, they find the girl's mother, played by Andie MacDowell, and her rich, wine-drunk, middle-aged friends. I noticed my mother shifting uncomfortably at the beginning of this scene. There's an expectation that this interaction will be played for laughs at the expense of the older women who seem to be nothing more than sloppy cougars throwing themselves pathetically at younger men. I could sense my mother preparing herself to sit through yet another sexually desperate and cartoonish depiction of women her age. But that's not what happens. Instead, the men and women engage in genuine conversation about, as my mother put it, "the nature of love and desire." Here were a room full of people, said my mother, "who had been married or were married or wanted to be married. They were all talking to each other, trying to figure out why things don't always work well. And no one is ridiculed." One still-wedded woman admits that her husband won't make love to her with the lights on. Ken, played by Matt Bomer, is shocked by this and is eager to remind her how beautiful she is while serenading her with Bryan Adams's "Heaven." It's a scene that comes close to being cringeworthy, but is somehow saved by Ken's unabashed sincerity.
At the same time that Andie MacDowell's crew is entertaining the men, Mike notices that Zoe (Amber Heard) is feeling blue and goes to investigate. One expects Zoe to clearly emerge in this scene as Mike's love interest, but—despite a bit of friendly flirting—a love story between them never materializes. They share a conversation in the kitchen that is both sweet and displays Mike's emotional intelligence. Zoe has met a photographer who tries to sleep with her under the guise of supporting her talent. In this scene, Tatum does not: dodge the emotional burden of the conversation, make her feel apologetic for having feelings, chastise her for being too emotional, fetishize her sadness, condescend to her by telling her she should have known better than to trust a guy who claims to be interested in her talent, condescend to her by telling her she's worth so much more than she herself knows, condescend to her by telling her she's so special and someday everyone will see her the way he sees her. He does not tell her she's perfect or beautiful with the accompanying assumption that that is all that really matters. At no point does their conversation reveal itself to really be about their attraction or love. At no point does Mike indicate that what he is really after is sex and that he's willing to do this talking bit due to the future promise of sex. At no point does he require a congratulatory pat on the back for being able to have a non-sexually motivated conversation with a woman. The camera does not linger uncomfortably on Zoe, letting us watch her watch him leave the kitchen, new feelings burbling up on her angelic tear-streaked face, her eyes telling us that he's not like the other guys. None of that happens. Instead, they make each other laugh. He tries to make her feel better. And then the scene moves on. He does slip in a few cheesy lines about helping her "get her smile back" about his god being a "she," but the moment is saved, yet again, by sincerity. Cue my weeping.
My mom and I were deeply moved by these scenes simply because they showed something so divorced from the day-to-day reality of our female lives. And that was a huge fucking bummer. "I've come to expect men to either ignore me or approach me with a rote come-on," said my mother, my heart breaking from the sheer recognition of this pattern in my own life and the lives of the women I know. "I haven't experienced much sincerity from men," she said in a quiet, stern voice.
MMXXL is not a perfect film, but, through stark contrast, it did remind me just how far our society is from achieving its feminist goals. It's intended to be a wish-fulfillment film, but it was painful to be reminded just how much of it is fantasy. None of this is meant to be some blanket statement about "men," as I'm well-aware that there are many men in this world who regularly communicate with women without entitlement or the promise of sex; there are men who can celebrate a woman's sexuality without implicit or explicit blame; there are men who comfortably share their feelings without punching each other or hurling insults borne of their bizarro gay panic. I know a bunch of these men and, luckily for me, I'm married to one of them.
But here's my point: This is still not the expected norm for me in my interactions with men, nor media representations of male and female relationships. Nope. I still live in a world where the morning news tells me that a presidential candidate referred to Clinton's 2008 loss to Obama as her being "schlonged" and pundits blame her for her husband's infidelities. I still live in a world where I have to explain to a male colleague why it's anti-feminist to frequently say women's periods and vaginas are disgusting (his response: "But they are disgusting!") We still live in a world that denies rape culture and legislates women's reproductive choices, but won't pass laws ensuring women get paid the same amount on the dollar as their male counterparts. So, the world of MMXXL was, in many ways, painful to visit, as it is just so far removed from the one I inhabit. Nonetheless, the film is a helpful and important reminder of how much work toward gender equality can—and, hopefully, will—be done. It comes as a great surprise to me that, at the end of 2015, I'm lobbying for further consideration of thick-necked Channing Tatum's feminism, and I'm sure plenty will disagree with me, but I urge you to watch the film again with an eye toward the inclusive, progressive world it attempts to build.
Chloé Cooper Jones is a writer and philosopher who studies and teaches in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.