One of my mother Qing’s favorite movies is Magic Mike XXL, the 2015 sequel to the Steven Soderbergh-directed 2012 Magic Mike. In the original, a young college dropout is introduced to the universe of male stripping eponymous Mike, an entrepreneurial but depressive dancer played by Channing Tatum, whose own life as an ambitious Tampa stripper loosely inspired the screenplay.
After a series of drug-fueled disasters in the pursuit of financial independence, Mike finally saves himself from the downward spiral in order to pursue a less volatile (and more clothed) profession as a furniture maker. It’s a Cinderella tale in reverse, and surprisingly sensitive and introspective—an art film disguised as a beefcake flick, and exactly the opposite of its sequel Magic Mike XXL, which is a road-trip movie that is also a beefcake flick, filled with haphazard cameos of shirtless celebrities, dizzying choreography, and juvenile hijinks, and little of the barbed truth-telling of the original.
If the first Magic Mike is a slow burn, the second is an M-80 stuffed into a pumpkin.
Qing first saw Magic Mike XXL in the Eden Prairie AMC theater with Dexin, who, to this day, offers his sole opinion of the movie by shaking his head whenever it’s brought up, which is often. After this initial viewing, Qing began mentioning it during the daily phone calls I made to her as I walked from the subway stop back to my apartment in Brooklyn: l like how Channing Tatum makes everyone around him feel positive and good. Any man who doesn’t like this movie is just jealous! Do you think Channing Tatum is not afraid of old women in real life either?
Tired of the lack of enthusiasm from her own family members, Qing tried to organize a group viewing for some of the other Chinese women she was friendly with in Eden Prairie—a huge risk, considering the other activities that encompassed the totality of their social life: nature walks, tai chi practice, and potluck dinners. To Qing’s chagrin, nearly everyone declined. Days later, she fumed to me on the phone: “Name one bad thing that happened in the movie! You cannot! There is not one bad thing. There is not even DRUGS.”
I couldn’t bring myself to tell Qing that drug use was one of the only overlapping themes between the two Magic Mike movies—specifically, what happens when you take Molly at the wrong time. But, then again, that was the basis of so much of our relationship: We pretend “bad things” don’t exist, and even when confronted with them, we pretend that we’re too naive to recognize them for what they were.
We did this with lots of things—money problems, family secrets, hurt feelings, hurt bodies. Once, when I was ten, Qing broke her leg. While rushing out of the house to a final exam for her degree, she slipped and fell, snapping both tibia and fibula so thoroughly that she required a wheelchair for months. I never once acknowledged it. I refused to help her, pretending I couldn’t hear her if she asked for a glass of water, walking at top speed to punish her for being so slow. She knew that my anger grew from my fear that she had let things fall apart, so she let me seethe. It was the way we both preferred it.
As far as sex was concerned, Qing only acknowledged the practical consequences and never the act itself. “So, when you get pregnant,” she told me before I left for college, as if we were already mid-discussion on this and my unwanted, forthcoming pregnancy were etched in stone, “you need to tell me so I come help you get an abortion.” She wore open-backed dresses that were bandage-tight and often told me I looked nice in miniskirts and crop tops. But that’s because, for her, the purpose of clothes was not to attract attention from men.
Fashion was a totally sexless game strictly for those who took the same egg-headed interest in runway trends that others might take in bird-watching. This type of ignorance to sexiness was different from being prudish or conservative about the morality of sex, in which she seemed to place no stock. She was thrilled, for example, when my boyfriend and I moved in with one another—because of the money we’d save. The guiding principle was not to stop sex. It was simply to never acknowledge it.
And so, we didn’t.
I figured that Qing’s enthusiasm about Magic Mike XXL was a more elaborate version of this tiptoeing we did. I tried to call her bluff: Would she be interested in seeing the live show in Vegas that Tatum was producing? She would say no, I expected—of course she would say no. Magic Mike XXL is a movie about strippers stripping; naturally, this live show would be of men, stripping.
I almost choked when she said yes, and nonchalantly suggested April for our trip.
I would attempt to defang this experience the way I approached many things in my life—by taking it on as a work assignment. By reporting it out, I figured, I’d sand down the edges of the experience before it even happened, peek around every corner, get pre-accustomed to every potentially cringey moment.
So I pitched a Mother’s Day feature to my editor at Refinery29 for a content package about motherhood as an adventure story, and about how a new batch of male revues like Magic Mike Live were employing the language and hallmarks of feminism to entertain large groups of straight women—a concept so purehearted you could even take your mom!
I admit that I came up with the thesis before talking to a single interviewee, as a sort of desperate wish fulfillment. I hoped that I was right. The show’s format seemed to support my hypothesis.
Instead of your typical male stripper fantasy—the police officer knocking at the door of a bachelorette party, the construction worker who got too hot to continue hammering with clothes on, the slick socialite with a bow tie around his neck (and another one, as it usually turns out, around his penis)—Magic Mike Live, just like the movie, provided no elaborate backstory about why the abs had to come out.
The abs were out because these men were not actually cops or roofers. They were out because this was a show about exemplary male bodies and all they can do. The dancing, I was informed over and over, was the entertainment being offered—not the “acting,” the “fantasy.” The tone they were trying to convey was one of empowerment, not titillation. This was not an expansion of sex work; rather, Magic Mike Live was an innovation on choreography. All right!Anyone can be invisible if they’re standing next to a person dressed only in feathers and rhinestones. And when you’re invisible, you can do whatever you want.
I boarded the flight to Las Vegas with the kind of peace that only comes from the reassurance you get when you’ve thoroughly deluded yourself, and I met Qing at the terminal. Upon landing, we took a taxi to the hotel we had booked using extra time-share points—we dodged the salesperson at the front desk, unplugged the landline in the room, dodged the same salesperson again on the way out, and took the shuttle bus to the main Vegas strip half a mile away.
Qing had been to Las Vegas a handful of times in the past—once, when my sister and I were children on one of our road trips, staying at the only kid-friendly hotel on the strip, Circus Circus, which hadn’t yet fallen into the grim state it’s in now. That first trip was fine—it was convenient to find cheap places to eat, no one got bored, we kids didn’t see any “bad things” except for a pair of bare ass cheeks on two women in sparkling thongs advertising a showgirls revue—but Vegas left a lasting impression on Qing, who’d return every few years, waiting for the day when her circumstances were finally such that she could accept what Vegas offered.
If a person has traveled at all, chances are they have traveled to Las Vegas. If you drive there, arriving at Las Vegas will feel like science fiction—it will emerge from the desert dunes like an oasis made of pure energy. If you fly, Vegas will announce itself while you’re still emerging from the jetway, the sound of airport slot machines and the smell of indoor cigarette smoke a spiritual red carpet. Everything begs for your attention, your company, your money.
With so much competition, everything from the architecture to the club promoters pull from the Earth’s most recognizable enchantments: castles and pyramids, queens and whores, race cars, tigers, birds of paradise, the beach, the Eiffel Tower, voodoo, Elvis, murder, guns, chocolate.
The effect is pure chaos and a context collapse. Standing on the corner of where our rideshare spot, without moving, Qing and I could see the largest Buca di Beppo Italian chain restaurant we’ve ever seen underneath the turrets of a concrete Camelot, a three-story-tall golden lion next to video screen advertising a Lil Jon DJ set, a scaled-down Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building, and one roller coaster with no one on it.Societies with the strictest rules regarding propriety and etiquette are the ones that have to have subway cars separating gropers from gropees.
One rule of excess is, with so much to look at, there’s also so much to ignore. There is, like it’s advertised, something for everyone. And in Vegas, where every door is understood to be a portal to an adventure, and every person is there because they’re looking for a release, that goes for you, too. Anyone can be invisible if they’re standing next to a person dressed only in feathers and rhinestones. And when you’re invisible, you can do whatever you want.
Qing was drawn toward the liberation that Vegas demanded of its visitors: Have fun, let loose, break the rules, drink those free drinks, buy the expensive shoes. But the absolution waiting at the end was even more alluring. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. It was written on every event flier, tourist brochure, and billboard. Vegas was a place without consequences, at least for the kind of meek peccadillos—ordering two desserts instead of dinner, staying up past midnight, wearing a lipstick color that was not mauve—that Qing considered to be her most extreme “bad” behavior.
There was the not-insignificant chance that the two of us would get into actual trouble. After circling the globe for documentary wo k and playing witness to how people act when they’re on their best behavior, and then what they do when the cameras switch off, I believe there’s a powerful correlation between the degree to which people wild out and the degree to which they feel the need to repress their feelings. The most polite, people-pleasing individuals are the ones who are carried home first from a party.
Societies with the strictest rules regarding propriety and etiquette are the ones that have to have subway cars separating gropers from gropees. It will always be the salaryman who spends his life grinding himself down at the behest of those more powerful than him who will drink himself to nakedness during happy hour. It is always the Catholic school girls who will lose their virginities the first week of college. Always the teacher’s pet who is the first to pass out at the graduation rager.
But we both had separate amulets that’d protect us from the kind of debauchery only badly repressed people like ourselves are capable of. Qing was—and is—allergic to alcohol. A single sip of wine will blanket her in a rash, give her a migraine, and skyrocket her heart rate to that of a hamster’s. Mine was a severe case of nausea that I hadn’t yet realized was acid reflux. I knew that eating made it better and then much, much worse—and drinking anything other than water made m feel as if my entire gastrointestinal tract was radioactive. Plying myself with drinks would do more harm than good, and I tried not to think too much about what that meant.
Egged on by the show we had booked for Magic Mike Live on Saturday evening, slowed down by my guts and work obligations, we toed the line between impulse and structure. We walked through the grand atriums of the Bellagio as we had done before, trying not to be so obvious as we admired the glossy, pretty things in the high-end shop windows in the matter-of-fact way we were accustomed to. Look—don’t touch—and absolutely do not go in.
But as we lingered outside the windows of Céline—the French luxury brand whose handbags were the designer bags of that moment—I found myself feeling emboldened: “Mom—let’s go in.”
Qing responded casually—“En,” the Mandarin equivalent of uh-huh—and we swung right and walked through the doors.
Luxury retail is a terrifying experience. There is nothing similar, accessible to regular people, that engenders the same intense feelings of inadequacy, elation, shame, and desire—except perhaps for gambling. It turns the exchange of money into a spectator sport, where you, the shopper, are as much on display as products for sale. Even the lighting subjects you to surveillance, drowning you in the kind of bright overhead glare that magics cocktail rings into pocket-sized solar systems and highlights every fiber of polyester in fluorescence. With all eyes on you, how do you convincingly suggest you’re there for a legitimate reason—and not just to gape?
In my years as a fashion editor, I had learned small ways to slide into not being noticed. “Thanks—just browsing!” does not work (you might as well say “No thank you, I’ll just be muttering at the price tags!” with your pockets turned inside out). Pretending that you’re interested in buying something when you cannot will fool no one.
Walking around with your hands behind your back, like you’re strolling through some museum, will allow you a glimpse, but be entirely unsatisfying, as looking without touching is like smelling a cake you cannot eat. The only solution to all that, as I’ve workshopped, is to be honest about why you’re there: Because you want to hold and dote on the things you’ve only seen in photos.
Inside the Céline store, the majority of shoppers were handling its most popular handbags of the moment: the Luggage and the Trapeze, all sharp angles and gently curving trim, big enough for a small laptop but still meant to be carried by the crook of your arm, supple leather in muted tones. A salesperson immediate y materialized: “Are you looking for something in particular?”
I smiled, remembering my lines. “Yes—but we’re in no rush.” I looped my arm through Qing’s. The associate gave me a knowing nod and then retreated to help another customer.
And so, we were left alone. I walked Qing over to the clothes I had seen in online slideshows of the Paris fashion shows-the long, fluid skirts that undulated like the glossy surface of a hotel pool, the heeled sandals that affixed to your feet by just an ankle strap and a loop for your big toe, the luscious leather pieces that felt like lotion in our hands. But what I really wanted to see in person was a color—International Klein Blue, to be exact—a brilliant cobalt made famous by the French pop artist Yves Klein.
Céline’s designer at the time, Phoebe Philo, had referenced the artist in her latest collection by dipping the hems of white cot- ton-poplin dresses in the hue and drenching a flannel-lined pair of trousers in it. From my computer screen, the color glowed a little brighter than the other pixels surrounding it, but in person, underneath the retail lighting, the blue beamed like it was alive. In the store, I stopped in front of the collection’s most popular piece—a funnel-necked shift dress that had been stamped with a voluptuous human body dipped in blue, an homage to Yves Klein’s Anthropometries, in which he used the body as a paintbrush.
On flat canvases, Klein’s prints became three-dimensional. On the Céline dress, the body imprint broke out of two dimensions, broke out of three dimensions, and became a human with a story: There were lopsided breasts, a full belly, and vase-like thighs that curved forward, outward, and inward.
“It’s real?” Qing asked. I didn’t know. Is it a copy? An original? Was there a real person who laid their real body against this dress? “Does it matter? It looks real.” It was not a print of a horizontal body at rest—the gravity of where it pulled things down, the alignment of the parts, the contours of the strokes, was of a naked body standing in front of some- one else, in a controlled, deliberate, wanted embrace. It was choreography. And up until that point, it was the sexiest thing I had ever seen in Vegas.
For the rest of that day, we gently egged each other on to do the things that had always been just outside our comfort zone, just to see if we had it in us, and to pretend things had always been that way. Qing graciously accepted compliments without grimacing, and made spicy little comments through the day that I pretended didn’t shock me. A cab we had taken was pulled over for driving five miles above the speed limit, and after the traffic cop wrote us a ticket and handed it to our driver, Qing shrieked from the back seat: “You know why you got ticket?”
“Girl–” the driver started. I began to turn around, my eyes pleading that she not deliver a lecture about safety. “Because we are color people!” Qing asserted, folding her hands and leaning back into her seat. The driver whooped in agreement, and they spent the rest of the trip telling each other about the speeding tickets they had unfairly gotten.In the gift shop, there were books by Naomi Wolf for sale alongside egg-shaped rose-quartz orbs meant to tone your vaginal muscles.
Back in the hotel room, getting ready for that evening, Qing walked into the bathroom, where I was finishing putting on my makeup. We had both decided on our outfits the week prior and agreed to coordinate—a lace top for me and a silk button-down for Qing, heels, and matching skinny jeans instead of skirts. We’d both wear bold lips. Dressed and nearly ready, I was in the middle of painting on a precise coat of long-wear lip stain the color of black cherries when Qing came in.
“Goule ma?” she inquired: ls this enough? She was holding on to a thick stack of creaseless dollar bills. “Two hundreds.”
“This is for throwing,” she proceeded. “Right? Connie.
“Y-yes!” I stammered, snapping back into form.
“This—that’s right. That’s right. Where did you—did you go to the bank? Mom!”
As it turns out, I was not right. As part of the mainstreamification of the male revue, Magic Mike Live offered “unicorn dollars” to all ticket holders, pink rectangles of printer paper stamped with hearts and the words “You’re Welcome.” Thank you, I said to the Channing Tatum in my head, grateful that the evening was starting like a school carnival—a sign, I hoped, that what was to come was also PG.
As far as I could tell, we were not the only mother- daughter duo there. There were others like us; groups of gay men, too; some couples. The majority of the audience consisted of gaggles of women in coordinating outfits with sashes around their torsos and plastic veils on their heads, women who were obligated to have a wild weekend and approached this duty with various degrees of commitment.
The decor was unintentionally kitschy; part strip-mall speakeasy, part magician’s club, where you’re likely to see someone wearing suspenders with a porkpie hat and novelty socks. The welcome music was somewhere between what you’d hear at a bat mitzvah and a club for mostly thirtysomethings.
In the gift shop, there were books by Naomi Wolf for sale alongside egg-shaped rose-quartz orbs meant to tone your vaginal muscles. By the time the lights dimmed, I was almost relaxed. This place was clumsy, try-hard, inauthentic—a gibberish salad of references, genres, and aesthetics. I knew this place.
I don’t to spoil it for you, but Magic Mike Live is a good time. The jokes are self-aware (“You’re in great and multicultural hands,” the MC said about their hunk line-up). You never feel sorry for anyone—there are no exhausted dancers onstage, or brides-to-be getting forcibly dry-humped for laughs. And there are moments of true exhilaration. The dancers are athletes and artists, and the routines, whether choreographed or improvised, are appreciated by people who can’t help but feel moved when watching human bodies masterfully negotiate strength and grace.
Plus, there was all the flinging about of “us” “showgoers,” who I assumed must be hired actors because of how unwieldy the routines would have been if both parties hadn’t practiced them first. Dozens of “ordinary women” around me got the Magic Mike treatment-they were flung, spun, and flipped like precious pancakes, making it through without injury to body or reputation. What a diverse group of hired actors, I noticed, pleased.
I was impressed by the show’s commitment to the idea that eve y woman was worthy of Magic Men. They were all ages ethnicities, body types—the only thing connecting them was that they were all wearing pants. Even that old lady over there; I watched as a woman with hair was hoisted in the air while she was still seated, turned upside down, and then gently dragged along the floor. What a fun acting gig, I thought. Good for you!
I felt something on my shoulder. I looked at it. Whatever it was—logically, it must be a hand—was enormous, like a hot water bottle attached to five hot dogs. Those fingers have muscles, I remember thinking. They gripped my shoulder like it was a cheap paperback. How funny, my brain went. They mistook me for one of the actors.
“Will you join Ryan on the stage?”
Without thinking, I put my pocket-sized hand inside the god’s hand, and felt myself switch into autopilot, my feet moving without being asked to, right up to the side of the stage, where my escort matter-of-factly ran down the safety tips: “Do not try to turn around and interact with Ryan. If you feel yourself slipping, it’s okay to hold on. But keep your arms and legs inward so you don’t accidentally get hit during the drum solo.”
“I’m sorry, what-drum solo?–”
If you have never sat on someone’s lap, backward, as they are performing a drum solo in front of a live audience—please, let me explain to you. It is like sitting in the backward-facing seat in row of an ancient wagon on a country road. It is jarringly bumpy, and a little lonely. You have a view no one else has, except you have the sneaking suspicion that everyone else’s view is better than yours.
Because you can’t really see much of anything, including much of Ryan or much of yourself except for your high-heeled right foot that is gently jostling in the air, like a baby’s foot in a high chair. Under the hot stage lights, you can barely make out the crowd, either—and besides, they’re moving too much, a mass of pumping arms and open mouths.
The only thing that will be visible will be your mother’s face, because, unlike everything else, it will not be moving, because she will be singularly focused on the glowing screen of her iPhone as she tapes the encounter with the determined, proud focus of a stage mom.
And afterward, if your experience is similar to how mine was, your mother will come up to you with a big hug. “I film you,” she will say. And you will flush with mortification—but not shame—and tell her to never show anyone, least of all yourself. And even though you know you will never watch the video, you will be glad it exists. It will be an experience you had once dreaded and feared. But you’ll realize that after all has been said and done, the real secret to neutralizing bad things is to stare them right in the eye.
From Oh My Mother! Used with the permission of the publisher, Viking. Copyright © 2023 by Connie Wang.