You might not realise it because it’s only just begun, but cinema and its leading men are in the midst of a sexual awakening. For decades, audience members were programmed into thinking that the sexiest of leading men were strong, were silent, were handy to have around for a fight, and were forceful with their weak-willed women. After that, we were inundated with six-packs and hairless chests, with the camera no longer afraid to ogle the dudes the same way it had been ogling the dudettes for as long as we can remember. We’re thinking of Daniel Craig coming out of the sea in Casino Royale, or Ryan Gosling when he stunned Emma Stone into silence in Crazy Stupid Love, or Gerard Butler and all of his barely-dressed mates in 300. Still there was that propensity for violence, for saying as few words as possible, for looking good while doing very little. There’s also the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston proving that ‘smart is sexy’, but they represent a vast minority of pin-ups.
However, with Fifty Shades of Grey about to hit cinemas worldwide to undoubtedly huge box office success on the back of the zeitgeist-y trilogy of books (side-note: if everyone who bought the book also buys a ticket to the movie, it’ll join the billion dollar box office club), we’re looking at the beginnings of leading men bringing sexy back in a brand new way, and the trend-setter may come as a surprise to everyone: Channing Tatum.
Back in 2006 was when we were first exposed to Tatum and his unique charisma, as the former Abercrombie & Fitch model and Ricky Martin back-up dancer went all-in for Step Up. Unlike most other outings within the sub-genre of dance movies, Tatum wasn’t just there to support the female dancers, and his twerqs sent many an audience member’s heart a-fluttering, not to mention the reactions of their other body-parts.
This eventually lead up to the watershed moment; Magic Mike. Featuring Tatum and a group of other handsome and buff men, this was a mainstream release from an Oscar winning director about male strippers. When you think of “stripper movies” in general, there are really only two other examples that immediately come to mind: Striptease and Showgirls, both box office and critical tragedies which can only now be enjoyed ironically. On the other hand, Magic Mike cost $7 million to produce and went on to make $167 million worldwide, proving something that smart movie-makers have known for decades… make a good movie for men and they might go, but make a good movie for women and they WILL go.
As the guys in Magic Mike took their clothes off for the panting hopefuls in the crowd below, cinema took a staple usually associated with women – stripping and simulating sex on a stage for money – and got the guys to do it. Critical and commercial success aside, it was the first proper step in the new sexual revolution, and will be followed up by the ingeniously titled Magic Mike XXL this July.
Which leads us back around to Fifty Shades of Grey, another movie featuring a male lead partaking in something usually associated solely with females. While there have been hints of sado-masochism enjoyment within some borderline mainstream movies – Maggie Gylenhaal in Secretary or Lucy Liu in Payback come to mind – they almost always go hand in furry-handcuffed hand with some leather clad female dominatrix, turning men into pitiful putty with their sexual dominance. This time round, a naïve young woman is introduced to the kinkier world of sex thanks to a naughty minded Thomas Crowne-alike, and the male is the one bringing the freaky stuff into the bedroom.
Even the casting of the movie showed how forward thinking modern audiences can be, as nearly 100,000 fans signed a petition for the openly gay Matt Bomer to play the lead role, showing a level of open-minded progress that was blunted by the eventual casting of looks-good-with-his-top-off Jamie Dornan. And it’s not all progress all of the time elsewhere either, as Chris Hemsworth was crowned 2014’s Sexiest Man Alive, yet another strong, silent, six-packed type, showing that while men can claim to find funny actresses like Tina Fey or smart actresses like Gillian Anderson sexy and then still get distracted by a good pair of (insert your favorite noun here), women get equally distracted by a God’s rockin’ bod.
Looking forward, whether the progress will continue will depend on how the women turn out for Fifty Shades of Grey, and whether its presumptive success will in turn lead to a glut of copycat successors. Females led the charge for Harry Potter, which in turn brought about a tidal wave of fantasy teen-lit and their cinematic adaptations. Twilight’s audience was also female-centric, which lead to the sudden upturn in paranormal romance books and movies. Fifty Shades of Grey itself is an off-shoot of that, initially a Twilight-based fan-fiction before author E.L. James rewrote it as an original story, and since its release in 2011 has sold over 100 million copies, and in turn the erotic fiction section at your local bookstore has had to widen the girth of their shelves.
With female audiences deservedly demanding the sexual equality (in both senses) in their cinema consumption, what other female-only sexy-cliches can we expect movies to break next? Manic Pixie Dream Boy? A homme fatale? Two straight dudes passionately making out just to get the attention of a group of randy ladies? Watch this space…