A successful film, especially a successful low-budget film, is always more than the film itself; we are forced to interpret such films not as self-enclosed artworks, but as cultural events. Unanticipated popularity reminds the remaining connoisseurs of well-wrought urns that all cultural activity, public or private, takes place as an event on the scene of representation. We should not need a specialized “esthetic of reception” to sensitize us to the interactive nature of art of all kinds.

The Full Monty, a low-budget British “ethnic” film, was the sleeper of the 1997 season. Its success suggests some new revelation, as is almost too obvious in a film whose title refers to the most elemental kind of revelation. But nothing is in fact revealed. As a curious coincidence, I saw the film just after reading Jean Baudrillard‘s book On Seduction, where he rejects the critique of our culture’s phallocentrism by affirming that what the French call “the feminine”–not to be confused with the female–is and always has enjoyed sexual dominance. According to the inevitable genital metaphor, feminine sexuality is constant and confidently assumed, whereas its masculine counterpart affirms itself in an unstable striving that cannot be maintained. (Of course, the metaphor can be made to imply just the opposite, as has traditionally been the case; the explanation of human relations through the interactions of our sex organs can only be carried out a posteriori.)

The originality of The Full Monty is in its good-humored acceptance of the dominance of “the feminine” as a new, inverted starting point for male empowerment. In contrast to facile inversions of the Xena Warrior Princess variety that, in subordinating the male, resentfully reinforce unawares the dominance of “the masculine” (for, pace Lucy Lawless, women remain smaller and weaker than men), here the world would seem to have truly come full circle. Men having been rendered impotent, they can reestablish their public status and, presumably, their breadwinner role by engaging in a form of sexual display traditionally reserved to women. But whereas the “nothingness” of the woman’s genitals is the very core of her erotic power, that of her male counterpart is a comic deflation of the erotic in general. That the male organ is as much “nothing” as the female at the same time confirms and demystifies the Lacanian view of the Phallus as the unrealizable Penis-Ideal. The Full Monty is the reductio ad absurdum of the modern myth that human desire is sexual before it is mimetic.

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was revolutionary in its time, not for centering its universe around a woman, but for incarnating a “feminine” world-view. Emma herself is more “masculine” than the world secreted by Flaubert’s style, with its reliance on repetition and cliché. Critics always remark that her desires are copied from romantic novels, but Flaubert’s point is that all desires are, so to speak, copied from romantic novels; his originality was to develop a novelistic vision in which this is revealed, not as an exception, but as an inevitability. The other side of the coin, which critics have neglected, is that in Emma’s world the desires found in these novels can be expressed, if not satisfied, in the world of consumption. Emma’s death, we should recall, is caused by bankruptcy, not heartbreak. Her second lover, Léon, was himself an object of consumption, and had her funds not run out, Emma would no doubt have replaced him by a third. This is still a world in which Emma, not Léon, is shown taking off her clothes, but it is already one in which the model of the male producer has been replaced by that of the female consumer.

Unlike Balzac or Dickens, Flaubert never takes the world of work seriously. His is a world of consumption, not production, which somehow takes place despite the utter incapacity of any of the characters to produce anything. This world’s “successes,” notably M. Homais who receives la croix d’honneur in the last words of the novel, are schoolboy caricatures of adults, incarnations of the resentment of one who has no clue of how economic value is created. But at least they have the outward appearance and appurtenances of productivity. This trace of “realism” in the good old Lukacsian sense is no longer honored by the hyper-Flaubertian model of the world provided by The Full Monty, in which there is no productivity whatsoever. The only people we see actually producing anything are the steelworkers in the publicity clip that begins the film and that sets its tone by antithesis. Those were the days of manly toil in the fabrication of the manliest of metals. Today, the steel mills are deserted, and their only function is as a repository of girders to filch, as in the opening scene of the story–from steel mills to steal mills, so to speak.

For the rest, nearly all the people we see working are government bureaucrats: the police and the welfare employees distributing the dole. When one of the male characters does find a job, it is as a security guard in one of those megastores that combine Safeway with Walmart. This suggests a corollary economic observation. We see our guard, a worker in the most unproductive of professions, walking through well-stocked aisles of practically everything. Clearly the point is that while production seems to have disappeared, consumption is doing very well. Sheffield may have lost its steel mills, but it is by no means unprosperous. It is only the heroes of the film, chronically unemployed former steel workers, who are shown as suffering. And for them too, security guard positions no doubt beckon for those willing to take them. Watching others consume is a serious occupation, however painful for former producers. Is it the women who work? Certainly they have money to spend, in the store and at the strip club. But we are not asked to concern ourselves with their source of income. The dominance of the “feminine” is displayed by the inversion of the “masculine” world of hard physical labor into a world dominated by consumption. The strip club is the former workmen’s clubhouse and, in one significant scene, what had been a men’s room is inspected with a conquering air by a group of women, one of whom pulls down her pants and pretends to urinate in modo virili.

The title of the film refers to the decision of the male strippers not to end with a G-string but to go “the full Monty.” Thus “the full Monty” means, in effect, nothing, the nothing that they will strip down to. The once-redoubtable revelation of the phallus is now understood in purely negative terms: “fullness” is that of the clothing to be removed, not that of the thing itself. When the former foreman, the oldest of the group, worries that, as in a past experience on the beach, he might get a “stiffie,” the others suggest thoughts to help avoid this eventuality. But we understand that this is an old-fashioned concern, a relic of the patriarchy; the phallus is by now so far from the penis that we can scarcely imagine our heroes, confronted by their aggressively cheering audience, in a state of erection. Indeed, whereas their performance was anticipated to be a simple inversion of female stripping, with male performers and a female audience, the actual audience for their show is mixed. There is no real difference any more between the sexes, just between their reversed “positions.” In contrast with the old opposition between (dominant) male producers and (subordinate) female consumers, we now have the opposition between (dominant) female consumers and (subordinate) male self-displayers. One can make money and even, like the chief protagonist (played by Robert Carlyle), become an acceptable father to one’s son, if one learns to go “the full Monty” in accepting this new set of roles. Whereas in the past, female display was part of the standard sexual ritual–we have all learned by now that women’s prominent breasts were selected as an advertisement of sexual suitability–now males display their non-masculinity, which paradoxically has become a new equivalent of sexual, or at least social, suitability. Playing the traditional “feminine” role has become the sign of accession to the new consumer-dominated society, where production has been replaced by comic-sacrificial self-display.

The unmanned world of The Full Monty is not exactly a dystopia. In fact, it is more of a utopia, as worlds with happy endings usually are. The end of the era of “man’s work” is depicted as an era of prosperity with no work at all. The only obstacle to participation in this prosperity, the film tells us, is refusal to go The Full Monty, to abandon all reserve toward this society’s “feminine” values. Instead of the “masculine” domination of culture by nature, we are asked to believe in a world in which the only physical nature we need deal with is our own. Yet however much we may want to believe with Baudrillard that the modern market system no longer allows for any distinction between reality and simulation, the only way to have consumption is to have production. I hate to sound like a neo-Marxist, but I wonder if there is not some connection between this emasculated vision of modern society and an economic neocolonialism that does its manufacturing either in third-world countries or in factories peopled by third-world immigrants.

All culture makes the utopian claim to provide human experience with meaning on the model of its unique operation: the deferral of violence through representation. In the tragic tradition, the protagonist’s life receives meaning from its encounter with the human propensity to mimetic violence. Now we have come full circle, and we dream of a culture so powerful that it can generate not only peace but economic value from the enactment of its own denial, as though it sufficed to take off one’s clothes to be transported back to the plenitude of Eden.

The final shot does not dwell on the dancers. It shows them from behind as they reveal their nakedness, but gives us no time to savor their triumph or hear the cheers of the crowd. The genius of the film is to cut off the action before we begin to ask ourselves whether we too want to see the nothingness of what they are displaying to the audience–which would oblige us to ask ourselves who is triumphing over whom. The myth of The Full Monty is not that of the infinite value of our naked selves, but the equally utopian construction that attributes infinite value to the revelation of our valuelessness.