Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike’s Last Dance is barely a movie. About half of its 112-minute runtime is spent on dance routines that are a mix of striping and ballet.
Which begs the question: What is Salma Hayek Pinault doing in Last Dance?
Well, first, I’d wager she’s just having fun. She mentioned having the dancers over to her house during production—apparently her billionaire husband doesn’t get jealous. And while her character Max spends the movie motivated by anger at her husband’s infidelity, Hayek Pinault gets her fair share of funny moments, beautiful outfits, and impassioned speeches.
She’s also reminding us that she is not just the elder stateswoman of Latina representation, she’s also a camp-loving sex symbol who isn’t afraid to play with genre. She’s been doing it her whole career, shifting from arthouse productions like her own Frida to blockbusters ranging from Desperado to Eternals.
And there is something satisfying about watching Hayek Pinault take on the Richard Gere role in Pretty Woman. Max has more money than she knows what to do with and rescues Channing Tatum’s Mike from his now-life as a cater-waiter. There’s even a scene where they go shopping, ensuring he has the clothes to look the part of someone who could be her male companion.
But, of course, the dynamics here are very different from that 1990 film, partly because the genders are swapped, partly thanks to Max’s Latinidad, and partly due to the changes in mores over the last 30-plus years. Mike and Max grapple with the ways in which the power imbalance between them makes their romance harder, not easier.
It’s not all one way either. Max may be megarich, but her wealth —and the power and social circle that come with it— are predicated on her relationship with her husband. So she’s not that different from Mike after all.
And if Last Dance merits any serious consideration, it’s in how the film plays with the similarities and differences between the two leads. Max takes Mike to London and puts him in charge of a production of Isabel Ascendant at a local theater she owns. She tasks him with turning the costume drama into a celebration of feminine sexual desire—a.k.a. a glorified stip show like the real one on offer in Las Vegas under the “Magic Mike” brand.
This show-within-a-show offers some of the best commentary as to what Max is doing in this film and why. First, as Max and Mike storm into a rehearsal, Max calls out the false binary of the existing play’s setup, asking why women like the heroine are made to believe they must pick between the rich, awful suitor and the poor, good one.
And yet, that’s exactly the position in which Max finds herself. Her very rich husband cheats, tries to control her, and doesn’t appreciate what she’s good at. Picking Mike, though, may mean giving up all her fancy riches—or so the movie suggests, echoing the decidedly unfeminist setup of the play it pulls apart.
So what’s going on here? Is Magic Mike’s Last Dance just a sexed-up rehash of the false idea that women must choose between wealth and happiness, both entirely dependent on the man who’s offering them?
Yes and no.
This well-worn trope is literally the vein running through the plot of the film from Max’s standpoint. But, realistically, while she may lose her status as a billionaire, she’s just as likely to remain quite wealthy, even if she does pick Mike. And she can, of course, go out and make money outside of her husband’s empire—shocking, I know.
The larger difference is that Magic Mike isn’t really about her. When Mike is figuring out how to re-stage Isabel Ascendant, he argues that for his strip show to function as women’s empowerment, it needs a female protagonist. In the version we see on stage, the heroine becomes a bawdy mistress of ceremonies, introducing the dances and explaining how they come out of her desires. She herself doesn’t dance but she does watch.
Essentially, Salma Hayek Pinault is in Magic Mike’s Last Dance to give feminist cover to a debatable enterprise—while enjoying every minute of the spectacle.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. Twitter: @cescobarandrade