| Arts & Culture
Television According to ‘Finding Magic Mike,’ Feeling Sexy Is a State of Mind
To perform is to literally be seen, to expose yourself willingly. It’s much less scary with people who have your back.
Contrary to what lingerie ads might suggest, the sexiest I’ve ever felt was not in a bedroom with incredibly flattering lighting, in matching lace underwear and stilettos. I was wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants in an Oakland dance studio along with the all-female dance team I was a part of: me, twenty other women, and our gay male codirector, having a bonding night. We took turns in small groups, playing friendly rivalry rounds of freestyling, while the rest watched and sipped on sparkling wine in red Solo cups.
As seductive R & B played—something along the lines of “Distraction” by Kehlani or Ella Mai’s “10,000 Hours”—I leisurely rolled on the hardwood floor and caressed my own neck all the way down to my torso. At first, I looked coyly away from the audience, then turned my gaze back to meet their eyes with a sly grin.
“Okay, I see you, Chin!” my friends yelled in delight as I danced, as they sat in a row in front of the wall-to-wall mirrors. In response to their encouragement and screams, I arched my back in a mermaid-like pose and took my time languidly getting up. I led with my hip, giving them an emphasized view of my behind, and punctuated the movement with a wink. That evening, I was awarded the title of “Sexiest Facials.” I couldn’t stop smiling on the metro on the way home.
That was back in 2019. Then the whole world changed as we faced a global pandemic and its consequences. After months of consuming edibles on the regular to dull our senses as we anxiously waited for the vaccines to become available, my boyfriend and I decided to leave our pricey San Francisco apartments and move to the Lake Tahoe area together. I bowed out of my dance team. Several snowstorms and one terrifying wildfire season later, I had forgotten all about that treasured memory until I saw the trailer for the HBO Max reality show Finding Magic Mike .
Inspired by the Magic Mike film franchise, it’s a competition to see which regular-joe contestant has what it takes to become the newest addition to the Las Vegas male revue show Magic Mike Live . When I put it on, my intention was to see how professionals could teach nondancers how to dance sexy in just a few weeks—and the entertaining eye candy couldn’t hurt either. The show definitely delivers on those fronts, but surprisingly, I also found a warm and supportive scenario I deeply relate to.
As the men go through vigorous dance training, they also undergo emotional journeys of confiding their insecurities to each other, overcoming struggles, and ultimately trusting one another and themselves enough to attempt feats like stripping down to just a hat in front of a crowd. When contestant Kevin finally achieved the extremely acrobatic front-flipping kip-up move, after getting bruises on his back from “hitting the ground so often,” the entire group of competitors rushed in to congratulate him, at which judge and choreographer Alison Faulk remarked, “That was a victory for everyone.”
Later on, when the group has been whittled down to the top six, Ricky confesses to fellow contestant Adonis that he did not have a great relationship with his parents, which is why he’s extra grateful for the friendships with the other guys: “When you guys support me, it’s like, finally, for the first time in my life, I’m part of a family.” Without hesitation, Adonis responds with a warm hug. “You’re amazing, bro,” Adonis says. “I love you.”
Even as one participant is inevitably eliminated each week, his departure is always accompanied by standing ovation, brotherly embrace, and sometimes tears from those who remain. Unlike other cutthroat and drama-filled reality competitions such as America’s Next Top Model and the various shows in The Bachelor franchise, Finding Magic Mike is more of a training boot camp where the judges are also the teachers. They provide guidance along the way; those who show the most growth are rewarded.
Adam Rodriguez, who played the character Tito in Magic Mike XXL , is one of the judges on Finding Magic Mike . In the first episode, Rodriquez welcomes the contestants by telling them to “enjoy the process . . . and through that, we’ll get to see who you are.” Throughout the series, the judges’ emphasis on playing around by trying new things, having fun, and focusing on the present moment—especially when performing—reminds me to have a childlike sense of play again. On a deeper level, that advice makes me hopeful that I’ll emerge from this personal and global period of uncertainty as a truer version of myself.
I cried and laughed while watching these men help one another, with not just choreography but also their vulnerabilities. To perform is to literally put yourself on a stage to be seen, exposing yourself willingly. And it’s much less scary with people who have your back. Early on in the series, contestant Ricky explains the reason he applied for this competition show: “I don’t feel like the main character in my life anymore. I’m kind of here to rediscover and redefine my masculinity.”
This resonated with me: I loved my all-female dance team because my diverse teammates were living epitomes of how there are endless ways to be feminine and countless ways to be sexy. Surrounded by them, I could freely and securely explore how I could be and feel sexy.
I loved my all-female dance team because my diverse teammates were living epitomes of how there are endless ways to be feminine and countless ways to be sexy.
There’s another reason I love the series: It made me realize that I miss feeling sexy about myself . The pandemic has reshaped our lives completely over the last two years now, and no one knows when it will end. Before vaccines became available, I was especially terrified of other bodies’ potential to infect me and vice versa. When I took my precious walks outside, if I saw someone approach in my direction, I would cross to the other side of the street to protect them and myself. During times like that, how could I possibly consider my body a medium for sensual pleasures when it could also be a deathly danger to others?
Trump’s insistence in framing Covid-19 as the “China virus” also made me and other Asian Americans the target of scapegoating hate crimes. For me, wearing a mask didn’t solely help to prevent infection. Maybe I wouldn’t be perceived as Asian as quickly with half my face covered. Maybe a racist would be less likely to accuse me of making them sick if I was already shielding my nose and mouth.
As I processed the tragedy of the anti-Asian and misogynistic Atlanta spa shootings, being seen as an attractive Asian American woman has never felt more like a liability. Pre-Covid, I enjoyed an edgy hairstyle that made me stand out: dyed green with a side buzz. Putting wild outfits together with my signature winged eyeliner was one of the ways I expressed myself. During the pandemic, whenever I got dressed to go outside of my home, I considered factors like Do these neon-pink pants make me look fobby? or Does this trendy patterned hat make me look like an international tourist to potential harassers? On many occasions, I ended up reaching for the less joyous pieces in my closet instead. I shrunk myself for safety.
I want to be clear: I know I’m definitely pandemic fine compared to many other people suffering . With the ever-increasing casualties from the virus and nonstop tragedies of wars, racist police violence, climate change disasters, and mass shootings, I know I’m lucky just to be breathing. It felt selfish to want to feel good beyond simply surviving. Feeling sexy seemed like a distant memory of a luxury vacation taken somewhere far away: definitely nonessential.
When the psychotherapist Esther Perel was recently interviewed about the new storytelling card game she designed to help couples “see each other with new eyes” (which I promptly purchased), the interviewer remarked that so many of her listeners submitted SOS questions wanting to know why they’re not feeling sexy during these pandemic times. Perel explained that the high amount of anxiety during this “new normal” has essentially “deflated” many of us as human beings. She went on to elaborate, “Sex comes from a feeling of aliveness inside of you, from a sense of vitality.”
No wonder I don’t feel sexy! The truth is that I hadn’t felt very alive at all in the pandemic, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. So many of us have had to continuously compartmentalize our feelings of grief, anxiety, and anger for more than twenty-nine months now to maintain a sense of normalcy and acceptable levels of productivity, yet there is still no guaranteed end in sight.
Finding Magic Mike was filmed in the summer of 2021, so it’s safe to assume every participant on the show had faced similar difficulties. At the beginning of the series, contestant Michael opens up about why he applied: “I don’t feel sexually assertive with my girlfriend . . . I want to feel sexy. I don’t feel sexy .” By pushing himself to do things he never thought he was capable of, like taking off his shirt in front of strangers, Michael built up his confidence, came out of his shell, and left the show a changed man. Seeing these men transform into much more alive and open versions of themselves demonstrates to me that if I want to feel sexier and more alive under these present circumstances, I need to intentionally cultivate that vitality inside me.
Judge Adam Rodriguez recalls when he was nervous about getting naked himself for the Magic Mike movies and tells the guys to “let go of thinking, Am I good enough? ” He connects sexiness to self-acceptance. For my part, I was confused and lost about how I’d identify myself during the long weeks of pandemic isolation. I asked my therapist, who am I if I don’t do the things I usually do? If I drop out of my dance team, am I still a dancer? Why do I not feel sexy like I used to?
My therapist calmly reminded me that becoming myself is an ongoing process, and progress isn’t always linear. Different aspects of me might be more pronounced at different times in my life, and that doesn’t mean the sides not in the spotlight disappear altogether. With that in mind, my ponderings of thinking in a circle eventually gave way to taking small steps of action toward where I want to be.
The book Come As You Are , written by sex educator and researcher Emily Nagoski, cites studies where “more than half of women report that stress, depression, and anxiety decrease their interest in sex” and “reduce sexual arousal.” Even though I knew that instinctually, it still felt validating to read evidence that I’m not alone and that I’m having a normal reaction to the continuous awfulness of the world. Oftentimes to combat the anxiety, I indulge in escapism by binge-watching science fiction and fantasy or playing soothing video games like Ori and the Will of the Wisps for hours. When reality feels too overwhelming, I sometimes choose to disassociate from it on purpose.
However, Nagoski stresses that “physical activity is the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress response cycle.” It’s not a coincidence that dance is not only used as a vehicle to feeling confident and sexy on Finding Magic Mike ; the guys on the show often describe the physical challenges they undertake as experiencing an amazing high. Contestant Kevin comments on his training on episode five: “I wish my friends back home could be here experiencing this right now. ’Cause it’s challenging. Long hours. It’s hard work. And you feel good. You feel incredible. I feel like I can really understand more of who I am throughout the show . . . I’m getting more comfortable with my own body.” The mentors on the show, like many of my previous dance teachers, often dole out the reminder to “let go”—to get out of your head and into your body .
My therapist calmly reminded me that becoming myself is an ongoing process, and progress isn’t always linear.
Since moving away from the Bay Area, I’ve tried taking online dance classes. But dancing alone at home, there are no other bodies whose visceral energy I can feel and feed off of. Standing in a makeshift space in the living room and looking at myself in the mirror, I felt silly. Attempting to be sexy for myself seemed frivolous when I could see our kitchen in the backdrop— I should be doing something practical , I’d think, like getting started on dinner prep or doing the dishes . I also couldn’t help but criticize myself for not being as good as I used to be: less flexible, less sharp with movements, and unable to pick up choreography as fast. Ironically, with no one around, I got more self-conscious.
So recently I picked up trail running. Willing my legs to go up and down the slopes connects me to my own body again: a moving meditation and silent conversation where nothing else matters except making sure my next step hits the ground before me. Even though it’s strenuous, each time I feel powerful and proud of what my body can do. Out there on those hills, I’m free to run wherever I want to, at whichever speed I feel like, in total control of my own physical being with no one to judge me.
The times have become especially funny for being unprecedented. Just a few weeks after the Roe vs. Wade overturn leak in April, I went to Las Vegas for a friend’s bachelorette party, where our group saw Magic Mike Live together . Even though I was familiar with many of the numbers from the HBO show, I still was amazed watching them in person. Sure, the performers and the dancing were all very sexy, but I was most impressed with how it felt like an antithesis of toxic masculinity: a world where men treated women like equals.
Even before the performance started, an announcement to the 95 percent female audience was made about a “safe word” if you feel uncomfortable when a dancer interacts with you. T he amount of eye contact the performers maintained with as many audience members as possible was not only incredibly hot but also meant they were constantly checking to see how we felt about what they were doing. These handsome men wanted to show us a good time—not to exert control or dominance over our bodies.
And even though the tickets had different pricing tiers, I saw the male entertainers give special one-on-one moments to consenting ladies in all seating sections, whether it was a gentle slow dance, a romantic serenade, or a straddling ride on their eight-pack abs. And throwing cash tips was actually subtly discouraged when the staff distributed fake pink bills before the lights dimmed to make sure there would be no favoritism. The exchange felt completely fair and respectful.
For an hour and a half, that theater inside the Sahara Casino Hotel felt like a community and safe space. The last time I saw that many happy women gathered together was when the lights turned on at the end of a Magic Mike XXL film screening. Even with the male dancers, I saw them laugh and pat each other on the back like athletes during a game; they were working together as a united squad toward a common goal. As a petite woman who would go out of her way to avoid walking by a large group of men in public just in case they decide to harass me, I found it so refreshing to see these Magic Mikes collaborating to make women happy, instead of conspiring to take power away from women.
During an interlude, the female emcee of the live show quipped, “Whew, I needed that! And don’t we all need that after all we’ve been through recently?” The crowd clapped in agreement.
A few weeks passed. On an early summer morning, my partner gently put his hand on my shoulder to break the bad news: Roe vs. Wade had been overturned by the Supreme Court. I couldn’t get out of bed for a long while, and when he handed me the breakfast he made, I was still in a daze. Basic health care rights were being taken away, my distrust in our elected officials—the majority of whom are still straight white men—grows, and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.
Sexiness was the furthest thing from my mind. Being forced to carry out an unwanted pregnancy is one of the most unsexy things I can imagine. Eventually, I moved on to my next stage of mourning, from immobilizing grief to motivating anger. After I donated to abortion funds and contacted government officials, I thought about how queer joy despite it all can be a radical act.
Inspired by that, daring to feel sexy and have sex can be a small way I can stick it to those who want to take away my body autonomy. I started with baby steps: bringing back my eyeliner and colorful wardrobe, as well as insisting on only wearing silk to sleep because it’s both comfortable and sensuous. And nowadays, whenever I go back to the Bay or visit Los Angeles, I make sure to take an in-person dance class, either masked indoors or outside. Instead of judging myself for not doing as well as the old me, I set my intention to simply have fun and enjoy myself in class. I don’t need to hone any skills in order to dance and shake my ass on the metaphorical grave of patriarchy.
One of my favorite aspects about Finding Magic Mike is that it points out the contestants as “guys who feel like they’ve lost their magic” and explains that the mentors are there “to help them find it.” The subtext has never been about making these men into something they’re not. Rather, the show reassures the viewers that we all inherently have what it takes to be sexy, and for those who have lost their way, all that’s needed to find our way back is determination with a little guidance.