Analysis

The frolicsome sex appeal of Channing Tatum

Tatum's next role is a mermaid. Nothing could be more perfect.

It will be difficult to explain to our children why Channing Tatum's role in a remake of Splash mattered quite so much to American women in the summer of 2016. History books will remind us that this was the first time in American history that a major political party chose a woman as its presidential nominee. They probably won't take note of the fact that a breakdancer, martial artist, and former Nicholas Sparks hero was cast as a mermaid — and this is a shame.

As a fitness icon and action star, Channing Tatum occupies the cheesiest stratum of the entertainment business. His opinion isn't supposed to matter. To an extent, it doesn't. But what he represents does because nearly every role Channing Tatum plays uses his body as a tool for making women feel safe, appreciated, and adored.

Best known for his work in the Magic Mike and 21 Jump Street franchises, Tatum has the body of a linebacker and the goofy smile of a farm boy on the cover of a Harlequin romance novel. Most men who are able to cultivate a physique like Tatum's carry themselves like action figures, shifting from rigid pose to rigid pose, and from attitude to attitude, all within a sharply truncated range: anger, intimidation, bravado. In the movies where Channing Tatum shows off his skills as a dancer, his bulk becomes fluid:

As you can see in this clip from Magic Mike XXL, his greatest physical feats are based not on aggression, but play, and an apparent joy at the simple experience of inhabiting his own body. He moves like water, and maybe that's why it makes so much sense that he was cast not as the landlubber romanced by the mermaid in Splash, but the mermaid himself.

The original Splash, a frothy '80s treat starring Daryl Hannah as the mermaid, was all about a sweet, mystical creature from another world romancing a beleageured human, and ultimately spiriting them away to a safer world. This, it goes without saying, is the role Channing Tatum was born for, and one he has played many times before. It also seems crucial to call Channing Tatum not a merman but a mermaid, because all the attributes we associate with mermaids — beauty, frolicsomeness, and endearing innocence about life on land — are his.

This quality is best on display in Magic Mike XXL, in which Channing Tatum rejoins the male strippers he once worked with to drive up to Myrtle Beach and stage a new routine. That's it: That's the entire movie, no vendettas or battles or hard-won seductions in sight. The film is a fluffy revamp of the old Western trope of wanderers passing through town after town, but instead of righting wrongs and fighting frontier evil, the men of Magic Mike XXL move through spaces owned and controlled by women: a mini-mart with a female cashier, a tony strip club run by Jada Pinkett Smith, a Charleston mansion filled with middle-aged Southern belles. It's the vocation of Magic Mike's men, Channing Tatum included, to figure out what would make these women feel happier, more beautiful, more appreciated, and more secure — and then to give it to them. For Magic Mike himself, the payoff at the end of the movie comes not when he gets a girl into bed, but when he makes her smile.

Channing Tatum occupies a unique position in American pop culture. He makes his body a tool for play and pleasure in a way that would be feminizing, if not for his sheer strength and size. His career is just a little like Arnold Schwarzenegger's: His imposing physicality lets him take on roles that might intimidate other actors (before Channing Tatum played a stripper or a mermaid, Arnold played a kindergarten teacher and a pregnant man) or might keep audiences from accepting other actors in those parts.

Yet, his appearance aside, it's the attitude Channing Tatum's characters project that sets them apart, and makes him such a rare presence today. He revels in bromance. He tells stories where relationships between men and women are about trust, tenderness, and pleasure. In a time when seemingly every public message to women is a reproach — you're in the wrong story, in the wrong job; you're too bossy, too difficult, not pretty enough to pay this much attention to — his is one of acceptance. He just wants to make you smile.

This summer, Channing Tatum might be the only person in America who can do the trick.

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