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Channing Tatum Is Our Generation's Marilyn Monroe

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It is almost entirely certain that Channing Tatum will never find himself overdosing—tragically young—on barbiturates as one or more Kennedy scions stand over his supple-but-expiring body. But untimely death, semi-to-decidedly unhappy marriages, and debatable dress size aside, the real Magic Mike is Marilyn Monroe for the modern era.

They're both icons. Marilyn, obviously, but Channing is approaching that status now, thanks to what he's done for/to the male form in 2015. He brought back the hunk. Dadbod's nothing but a backlash to the stud revolution.

Hunks have been back in fashion for a few years now, replacing the wee-boned, muscle-adverse Leonardo DiCaprios and Johnny Depps of the 1990s and 2000s. These days, we have lots and lots of dudes who look good with their shirts off: the triumvirate of Chris (Pratt, Evans, Hemsworth), Joe Manganiello, Ryans Reynolds and Gosling, Ben Affleck sometimes, Tom Hardy—even Zac Efron went out and got himself a big, thick neck. But the clear leader of the beefcake resurgence is Channing. (Sidenote: has the patriarchy attempted to squash the female gaze with really corny terminology? Discuss.)

Dadbod's nothing but a backlash to the stud revolution.

On a movie screen, everyone is movie screen height and movie screen width, so the variable between these dudes isn't size; it's intelligence. What sets Channing apart isn't that he's the smartest (Gosling, probably) or dumbest (Manganiello, come on) of the ripped dudes, it's how he seems like he's constantly learning, despite never having gotten a 5 on an AP test. As he told T magazine last year, "My mom said, ‘Be a sponge.’ [...] I’ve learned more from people than I have from school or from books." In movies and in interviews alike, he's watchful. You can see the gears turning. They don't always click, or whatever it is gears do, but they turn and turn. He might not be a genius right this minute, but he's more interested and curious than any given Hemsworth. And that is what makes him so compelling.

Channing and Marilyn don't fill a strangely similar role in our society just because they're both perfect physical specimens, although they are. And it's not only thanks to their winking sexpot personas—although how fun are those? It's because those perfect winking physical sexpot specimen personas seemed to come to life before our very eyes.

Tatum and Monroe both started out in Hollywood as models, but they had been pure bodies for most of their lives. Before modeling, they worked real, physical jobs; Marilyn in a factory, and Channing in construction, and later as a stripper. Tatum's background was not nearly as rough as Monroe's—it's consistently described as "blue-collar." With loving parents and a brief, football-sponsored flirtation with college, it was nothing like the ward of the state nightmare that was Norma Jeane Mortensen's life. Still, he did struggle into adulthood with dyslexia and lack of opportunity, and used his body as leverage, turning stripping into dancing into modeling. But, like the iconic actress, he was unwilling to rest on his unreal looks. "It’s no secret that that’s how I got into this business," Channing admitted to T magazine, "But over time I’ve been able to develop other aspects of myself, sort of on-the-job training."

Although "Dumb blonde" was Monroe's calling card, she enrolled at UCLA in 1951, after her first few small speaking roles, and studied English and art history. She left behind a library of 430 books. You can find pictures of Marilyn reading the classics on one out of every eight non-wedding Pinterest boards. Her famous friends were often quoted saying tellingly sad things like, she's "far more intelligent than people gave her credit for" (thanks, Jane Russell), and "I think [knowing Marilyn] was the first time I learned that intelligence and, yes, brilliance have nothing to do with education." (Ouch, Bus Stop director Joshua Logan.)

Like Channing, Marilyn had never studied acting. In 1955 she was accepted to the Actors Studio to study with Lee Strasburg, from whom she had always wanted to learn. Channing, for his part, also set out to get schooled by people he admired—specifically by signing up for films he was interested in not for the script, but for the director. He signed up for Dear John to work with Lasse Hallström (no, but really), and Haywire for Steven Soderbergh. He circled back to Foxcatcher, a script he admitted to not understanding at first, to work with Bennett Miller.

Tatum has said that he has had "a few John du Ponts in my life," referring to the intensely creepy patron Steve Carrell played in last year's Foxcatcher, and saying, "I just learned everything I could from anybody who knew something I didn’t." Halleström, Soderbergh, and Miller presumably fall into this category, as does his business partner Reid Carolin, the writer of Magic Mike. Marilyn had her John du Ponts as well: Lee and Paula Strasberg, photographer Milton Greene, and her last husband, Arthur Miller.

But despite all this effort toward self-improvement, we still think mainly of Marilyn Monroe and Channing Tatum as simple (amazing) bodies. This is in part because god, look at them, but partially because they let us. They challenge themselves but, in their roles and their presentation, know better than to challenge us. They still let us call them sex idiots.

They challenge themselves but, in their roles and their presentation, know better than to challenge us. They still let us call them sex idiots.

They embraced their physicality in brazen new ways, ways that spoke as much to female sexuality as to the dominant conversation about men. Monroe was often chided in the press for her "vulgarity," with Ed Sullivan calling her performance of "Heat Wave" in There's No Business Like Show Busness, "one of the most flagrant violations of good taste" he'd ever seen. But her nude photo scandal—taken when she couldn't afford rent as a struggling actress, and admitted readily by the still upcoming actress—actually managed to generate sympathy, rare even now. She was astute enough to get in front of her scandal, and through Monroe, the American public was able to feel for a woman who used what she had to get by.

Living in 2015, and being a man (yeah, I said it), Channing rarely gets chastised for his expressions of sexuality, but that doesn't mean they don't feel new. Pectoral muscles have been around since the beginning of time, but his top-level floor humping and twerking cast men in a new, objectified light. Male stripping was a joke before Magic Mike; now the promise of seeing actually-handsome dudes take it off and shake it from the comfortable distance of not-really-being-in-the-same-room has turned respectable brunch tables everywhere into bachelorette-level horndogs. And in the new movie, there's less of that messy "economy" business. "I think this one is probably more what people wanted in the first film," Channing said to Vanity Fair, telling Jimmy Fallon's audience the same thing. And understanding that this was something anyone wanted was pretty brilliant.

Channing and Marilyn started from not-particularly-artful beginnings and, rarest of all things, flourished during their time in the spotlight—not only as stars but as human beings. They used their god-given looks and inherent canniness to navigate, conquer and actually grow in an industry that only wants pretty people to look flawless while wearing as little as possible. And damn if that curiosity isn't what makes them so sexy, and so watchable.