Last month I went to watch Magic Mike with two female friends and their girlfriends. The show, a week after its premiere, was sold out. The theater was packed. I was excited to be out of the house, away from my computer, but was more excited about being surrounded by women. And this bunch at the theater seemed to have their circadian rhythms fully synched.
When Mathew McConaughey graced us with those impish dimples of his, a set of chiseled abs, oozing jazzy erotic energy, the whole theater exploded in mmm-mmm-mmms of approval. And when he joked that by law no woman is allowed to touch a male stripper neither up here nor down there, but that he presumed that his audience was full of lawbreakers; many hell yeahs and damn rights were heard in the theater.
We didn’t get the full monty, a fact that seemed to disappoint no one because director Steven Soderbergh offered something better: Channing Tatum’s grinding crotch, hip-pumping studs in bare-assed chaps, trench-crawling soldiers, threesomes, and male strippers with tender hearts (which makes them immensely sympathetic), thus allowing the audience to choose their own fantasy. Soderbergh also quite shrewdly offered women viewers accustomed to seeing female strippers exploited both in movies and real life a subtle equalizer: a kind of get-even-feel-good layer by making the owner of the club, a drawling man named Dallas, a father figure, a trainer, a dreamer, and a heartless businessman with a shady agenda that reveals the unthinkable: men exploiting men. Men are also victims of sexual exploitation. Who knew?
Although I, a frustrated dancer, thoroughly enjoyed the high-energy choreographies, Tatum, a guy slightly older than my own daughter, didn’t get a sigh out of me. Sorry, young men just don’t get my engine going however prime beefcake they might be. I was more enthralled by what his thrusting pelvis did to the audience than by its raunchy gyrations. There were large groups of women, mostly middle-aged broads, girlfriends and sisters. In front of us sat a babysitterless bunch with three kids. Three kids! When Dallas introduced Magic Mike, a woman in the back shouted, “I want your baby!” and the theater rocked with laughter. Now, that’s titillating.
I’m a solitary woman by nature, which means, I’m a solitary writer. I write in the basement of my house where my only companion is Honey, our dog. And I write compulsively, in long stretches of time which are interrupted only by trips to the store to buy dog food or to the gym. I live in a semirural area in Central Florida, far away from any intellectual hub. My physical and academic isolation (I have very few writer friends with whom I never mingle socially and whose friendship consists mainly of exchanges and critiques of our writing) pose a fundamental challenge for LOL, Life Out Loud, a reading series of nonfiction which I co-founded and produce. The intention of the series is to offer local writers a space to share their personal stories; a kind of safe heaven where people can openly read diary entries, make confessions, share memories, etc. Since LOL’s inception it was implicitly decided that my co-founder and friend, Jaquira, would be in charge of anything public: contacting venue owners, alerting her students of our calls for submissions, inviting anyone with a pulse to our readings and MC’ing the events. I work best behind the curtains.
We usually have a decent flow of unpolished submissions and a timid trickle of well-written stories. From the latter, we choose, edit, polish and make the pieces fit for a live audience. We rehearse them, and then we pray that people actually show up to the readings. On average, approximately 40 people have consistently attended our events. Out of those 40 people only a handful are genuinely interested in anything literary; most of them go for the booze and the food and because there is no game on that day or a country music concert or because their shopping trip got cancelled or because their boat is broken and couldn’t go fishing or because I’m their neighbor writer and they go to support whatever the hell I do. What is it that you write again? You are so lucky you don’t have to work. Don’t you get bored playing on the computer all day long?
Most of the attendees are women, I don’t know why. Maybe women are more receptive (and also more judgmental) to people’s personal stories, or maybe this is because the few people I’m close to are women. Also perhaps because I write with women in mind and about women’s issues. In any case, at the readings each writer takes a leap of faith by sharing an intimate moment with a crowd of strangers with personal quirks. Once, one writer read a gorgeous piece about drugs, sex and a toxic relationship that ended in an involuntary abortion, and a group of women attendees exploded in a fit of giggles. One of them had spotted a man in tight leather pants and the whole group was caught up in a high-school moment of mischief. They pointed their cameras at his zipper, snapped pictures of this well-endowed attendee and nudged each other while the writer offered her heart to the audience. They missed the best story of the night.
At another event, one of the women and her boyfriend engaged in such heavy petting in one corner of the venue, that after the make-out session, her companion took a nap doubled over the bar in exhaustion. At the last event, one of my guests fell asleep while I read my piece. Producing a literary series in a nonliterary world is heartbreaking and frustrating; yet it is incredibly rewarding when it works, when the guests come at the end of the reading to hug the readers, to say thank you, congratulations, I know exactly what you’re talking about. Then everything makes sense.
In the darkness of the movie theater, I realized that this collective excitement represented, in a nutshell, the kind of enthusiasm I want to generate at LOL’s readings. Would it not be wonderful to be able to move in unison 200 hundred hungry-for-literature women? Would it not be fantastic to have them interject little hell yeahs and damn rights while one of the LOL writers reads a personal story about her childhood, or cheating on a jerkish boyfriend, or raising a difficult child, or hiding vibrators in her van, or gorgifying for profit the ass-broken-shit she finds at local yard sales? Would it not be something to see them queue up outside our reading venues the way they did for Magic Mike, giggling with expectation, ready to free-fall blindly into somebody else’s abyss, open-hearted and accepting, feeling that there was no other place they’d rather be even while hauling three kids?
While the credits ran, Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time” played in the background. Women my age, with adult children and grandchildren at home, grabbed air microphones and sang along, eyes closed shut, swaying heads, left then right; it was high school and sweet hearts all over again. I liked the sight. I liked being there to bear witness to that universal truth that we all want to be young again, at least once in a life time, make out under a tree, let Johnny boy feel us up under the skirt and if Johnny happens to be buns-of-steel Channing Tatum, so be it. A fantasy is a fantasy.
But who was I kidding? It was a movie for goodness’ sake, five half-naked formidably built studs oozing testosterone, shaking their buns and thrusting their assets into women’s faces. Of course it is easy to lose oneself in the illusion, of course it is natural to let go and shout raunchy interjections at two-dimensional characters (although one of my friends is starting a petition for the release of Magic Mike in 3-D). But it is all a charade: Dallas is not a good man, the Kid is not a good friend, and Magic Mike is not a stripper at heart; he builds custom furniture. That’s where he is at his most authentic. Just I like I want LOL to be. I don’t really want horny women at the readings, moaning and licking their lips, crossing their legs tight while wriggling in their chairs. I want to remain true to what I do. What I want is a crowd of open hearts, a loving bunch of men and women who flock to our literary events because they recognize themselves in other peoples’ falls and triumphs, because it’s safe to let their inner voyeurs out of the closet, because they are willing to take a journey with a stranger. What I really want is a crowd coming to our readings hungry for life and leaving the venue shining with the humanity they borrowed from other people’s lives.