Masculinity and femininity in bodybuilding world

Masculinity, Gender, and Symbolism in the film, “Pumping Iron

Pumping Iron: Displays of masculinity and femininity in the bodybuilding world

Long before Arnold Schwarzenegger symbolized budgetary restraint in California, he was the symbol of what constituted the ultimate in physical fitness. Early in his political career the film star headed the President’s Commission on Physical Fitness and Sports. However, Schwarzenegger was never a baseball or basketball player — he was famous for how he looked, rather than specific fitness goals he achieved during his career. It was his bulging muscles that proclaimed himself as ‘fit’ and masculine. The 1976 documentary Pumping Iron directed by George Butler which chronicles the early phases of Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding career suggests that Schwarzenegger’s posture of fitness was hardly natural, but was instead carefully orchestrated and constructed as the look of any woman, despite the posturing hyper-masculinity of the competitive bodybuilding world. “After fifteen years of lifting in gyms nationwide, I’ve come to believe that the terms ‘health and fitness’ and ‘hardcore bodybuilding’ have little in common,” said one former bodybuilder (Denham 2008, p.254).

Director Butler’s implication is that the masculine posture of fitness is no guarantee that a man is fit and a ‘sportsman.’ The appearance of muscles is deemed to symbolize male strength, dominance, and aggression like a model’s thinness ostensibly proclaims her as naturally beautiful. But Schwarzenegger and the other gym rats of Pumping Iron craft themselves as objects designed to fascinate the viewer, rather than build muscles to engage in meaningful activity, sport-related or otherwise. They lift weights to create a body that serves no useful purpose. The body-builder’s physique is purely ornamental in nature, other than to accomplish strange feats of strength, like blowing air into a hot water bottle until it explodes, which is used as proof of the competitor’s ripped diaphragm. Bodybuilding is about spectacle as much as an emaciated woman on the catwalk, teetering in stilettos. In fact, one man admitted that the sport’s lack of risk and insulation from injuries such as shoulder problems from baseball, or the pressure of keeping goal in soccer was what attracted him, along with its almost Zen-like, self-focused rather than team-focused, athletic qualities: “In the gym, I avoided the kinds of collisions, erratic movements, and awkward falls that had led to multiple injuries. Lifting weights offered a kind of solace that I had not found in other sport pursuits, and I especially liked the fatigue and tranquil state of mind that followed intense workouts” (Denham 2008, p. 253-254).

On one hand, Pumping Iron, on its surface, seems to be a display and a celebration of hyper-masculinity. It depicts bodybuilders preparing for the Mr. Universe and the Mr. Olympia competitions, the ‘summits’ in the universe of bodybuilding titles. This sense of competition should theoretically increase the sense of masculinity conveyed by the aesthetic of the documentary, given that the film is fueled by a drive of the participants to ‘best’ their competition. However, rather than male-related jockeying for power, the focus upon the physique of the individuals in question has a curiously feminine component to it: men are reduced to spectacles, to bodies, as is traditional of women in beauty pageants. Just as viewers, both male and female, become voyeurs of the female body in mainstream cinema, in Pumping Iron the audience members are voyeurs of male bodies.

The theorist Laura Mulvey has spoken of cinema as essentially voyeuristic — this voyeuristic nature is focused on the sexualized, female body as seen through the eyes of a male director. “Mulvey argues that various features of cinema viewing conditions facilitate for the viewer both the voyeuristic process of objectification of female characters and also the narcissistic process of identification with an ‘ideal ego’ seen on the screen. She declares that in patriarchal society ‘pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female'” (Chandler, “Lara Mulvey,” 2000). “In Ways of Seeing, a highly influential book based on a BBC television series, John Berger observed that ‘according to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome – men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” when they watch a film (Berger 1972, 45, 47, cited by Chandler in “Berger,” 2000). The classic example of a woman watching herself as an object is seen when a woman views a celluloid woman being undressed on-screen, or undressing herself and then touching her body in the shower in an erotic way that seldom occurs in daily life. The attention given to the on-screen woman’s sexual parts and self-caressing presumes a male, heterosexual gaze even if this is not the actual identity and orientation of the male or female viewer.

In Pumping Iron, despite the intense sexuality of many of the scenes, the presumed orientation of the viewer is less certain. If the orientation is heterosexual and male, why are their so many loving portrayals of the eroticized male body, albeit in heterosexual posturing with women? The phenomenon of deconstructing the male gaze is not new: “Berger argues that in European art from the Renaissance onwards women were depicted as being ‘aware of being seen by a [male] spectator'” (Chandler, “Berger,” 2000). The men of Pumping Iron are clearly ‘aware’ as well, and manufacture their bodies for their judges, the audience, and the camera. (in fact, the director incurred considerable criticism after he admitted that many of the personal, ‘extemporaneous’ scenes were staged, rather than occurred naturally). The men are ‘aware’ as women traditionally are in art of the male specter.

Thus Pumping Iron, while it is fundamentally a film about men, as seen by a male director’s perspective, turns the voyeuristic cinematic gaze upon the male, in all of its muscle-bound, heavily veined glory. It is about sculpting the male body ‘beautiful.’ “As they practice swelling their muscles and striking poses — all the time looking at themselves — the body-builders have the self-absorbed look of fashion models. In some cases — particularly with one contender, Louis Ferrigno — the mournful expression peering out of all those deltoids, triceps and latissima dorsi calls up an image that skitters around a while before it is pinned down” (Eder 1977). In his review of the film for the New York Times critic Richard Eder describes Ferrigno as almost coquettish as he manufactures an expression that is curiously at odds with his bulked-up and intimidating body.

Richard Eder analyzed the film as a documentary, even though it has some scripted scenes, because he perceives a discontinuity with which the men are attempting to project and who they really are, in their psychological complexity. Documentary filmmaking, especially of something as outwardly-oriented as bodybuilding culture, suggests even more layers of viewership than fictional cinema. There is the gaze of the director, the spectator, and the passive subject, but the subject who is conscious of being filmed also tries to ‘project’ something onto the screen, successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully. And the athletes are projecting personas off-stage when filmed, as well as their bodybuilding identities when they are filmed on-stage.

Much as portraits of fashion models are accused of making women feel inferior about themselves, images of male bodybuilders have the potential to do the same for men when on stage and on screen. A feminist might argue that because the eroticization of the female body as an inferior being is so pervasive, a single documentary cannot have the same persuasive power as an advertisement in a fashion magazine to ‘speak’ to how the male body should be conceptualized in modern life. While this may be true, the documentary clearly shows the potential for the male body to be rendered the subject of the voyeuristic cinematic gaze, rather than merely exist as an invisible eye behind the lens. Both fashion models and male bodybuilders give viewers of their respective genders a sense of how they ‘should’ look in the eyes of ‘the other.’ They suggest an ideal to aspire to that is unrealistic and haunting in its promise of perfection, yet false. “It is, in fact, that of the 90-pound weakling to whom the body-building ads were directed. It is not so much as if the body-builders had become muscular, but as if they had put on great muscle overcoats. The hungry face protrudes from the collar,” much like that of a fashion model. The body is sculpted, put on, just as much as plastic surgery (Eder 1977). Eder also adds that to an outsider, the bodybuilder’s physique is as overdeveloped and unattractive as large lips (or long necks, or bound feet) prized in the past, in some societies. Body-building creates its own culture that is so artificial and so parodic of normal standards of attractiveness it alienates and repels as well as seeks to attract the voyeur. It forces the voyeur to reevaluate gender standards by reducing them to their extremity, again like an emaciated fashion model, rather than validates genders standards.

Bodybuilders look like solid vehicles of muscle and testosterone, and many artificially enhance their muscles with drugs as well as regimes that are designed to make them look more ‘pumped up’ rather than really stronger. Austere diets are also common, and after winning his final title and announcing his retirement from bodybuilding, Schwarzenegger celebrates with a meal of ‘real food’ for the first time in many months. The ascetic as well as aesthetic nature of the sport is also underlined in the way that Butler’s subjects, Schwarzenegger in particular, also embody femininity, however unconsciously in their physical obsessions and movements. Schwarzenegger even takes ballet lessons to improve his movement and posing, in addition to pursuing a sparse and protein-heavy diet to enhance his body. Ballet, a stereotypical pursuit of gay men and women adds a catlike grace to his movements.

Schwarzenegger’s emphasis on grace and beauty also raises the question: is bodybuilding art or sport? It is not about achieving a goal, a personal best or a ‘time.’ Rather bodybuilding, like modeling is about posing and being gazed at: it is a nonverbal, wordless art form. The female body as a sculpture is not idea that is particular to cinema, but as old as the view of Galatea and Pygmalion — the female is created, the male body simply is taken for granted. Schwarzenegger describes bodybuilding not as the pursuit of a physical achievement (like running a mile in record time or being a great hitter) or even the pursuit of health (the ostensible reason for working out at the gym) but of purely physical attributes: “You look in the mirror and see you need a little more deltoids to make symmetry. So you exercise and put more deltoid on. A sculptor will slap stuff on” (Eder 1977). One could add that a woman ‘slaps stuff’ on to her face, just like a sculptor adds more to a beautiful statue of a woman.

Schwarzenegger views his body in a cold, almost impersonal manner at the same time he glories in his ‘creation’ of beauty. However, unlike a model or a woman who adorns herself with cosmetics, the male bodybuilder clearly functions as a manufacturer of his own aesthetic: he creates his body from the inside as well as the outside, with his own sweat and tears, almost giving birth to a new body like an act of feminine birth — although even he, in the end is rendered vulnerable as a woman to being judged on his appearance. During the Mr. Universe competition, one of the losers actually cries after he learns he has not secured the victory after many attempts. His act of self-creation has failed, he has been judged unworthy — in the eyes of the male-focused gaze.

Pumping Iron lovingly stares at men in various stages of undress, but it also suggests that their competitive beauty is also dangerous, as is manifest in Schwarzenegger’s psychological as well as physical annihilation of his competitors. He is a master of intimidation, as much as any ‘mean’ high school girl and even proclaims that through psychological intimidation he can ‘talk’ his competition into losing. Again, unlike athletics with quantifiable wins and losses, bodybuilding is as much about attitude as ballet: Schwarzenegger’s sense of theatricality is so intense he even uses women to practice his ‘art’ as barbells, rather than actual implements. He trains at the infamous Muscle Beach, in the outdoors where he can be gawked at by spectators in a manner that eggs him on, and at Gold’s Gym in California, another famous venue. Although the male gaze can be damaging in its harsh and eroticizing judgment, it also has a positive potential to celebrate and validate the subject’s ego through its approval. Schwarzenegger seems to love the attention of the camera: “Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention… The act of photographing is more than passive observing. Like sexual voyeurism, it is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging what is going on to keep on happening’ (Sontag, cited by Chandler, “Eye,” 2000).

Like an athlete — or an aspiring Hollywood starlet — Schwarzenegger plays fast and loose with ethics, even giving his rivals false advice about training. He is both charming and bullying at the same time. He clearly views the competition as a way of catapulting himself to celebrity, not as of merely achieving an ‘Olympic’ best or gold metal where his sporting achievement is the be-all and end-all of existence. Bodybuilding is a celebration of the self, and the culture of competitive bodybuilding seems rooted in narcissism, an act of self-voyeurism and delight at one’s physical beauty and prowess.

Schwarzenegger describes bodybuilding as a runner’s high and a sexual, orgasmic high: “When you have driven your body past the barrier and then you relax, all the blood comes rushing, pounding back into your muscles. You feel like you’re swelling up, like your skin is about to explode. That’s the pump,” he says when he describes what it means to be ‘pumped up.’ The feeling is orgasmic, but it is a self-induced orgasm that celebrates the body beautiful of the subject. And the beauty is also selfish given the approval for such a physique is only given by bodybuilding culture and judges. The supposed beauty of the male bodies is laden with an element of the grotesque, much like overly large breasts, but only when viewed from outside of the culture: “The startlingly overdeveloped musculature of professional body-builders is apt to seem more of a deformity than an achievement to outsiders” (Eder 1977).

The desperate neediness of validation from other men, from the judges and the bodybuilding world suggests a hint of desperation to the men’s psychological development, given that almost all of the bodybuilders describe themselves as ‘weaklings’ in their youth. “Mike Katz was a replica of the 98-pound weakling. Once shy and afraid of girls, he is shown as a warm and confident man flexing biceps with his two toddlers. In a revealing scene, he acknowledges, without self-pity, his early feelings of aloneness and how bodybuilding was his key to a sense of personal worth and public recognition” (Hause 1977). The men are also dominated by their trainers, which often renders them childlike: “The innocent giant of bodybuilding, Lou Ferrigno, is relentlessly driven toward the Olympia by his ex-policeman father, a stage father without parallel” remarked one reviewer (Hause 1977). Validation from others is necessary because it is only known if it the builder has ‘enough’ and has achieved perfection and symmetry if the trainer or judge states that this is the case. Fragility of the male ego, based upon appearance, is rife within the sub-culture, just as mass media continually makes women uncertain if they are beautiful/thin/selfless enough by striving to sell them commercial products.

Even the uber-confident Schwarzenegger wrestles with a father complex, as he describes himself as too preoccupied with competing to even attend his father’s funeral “By all accounts, Mr. Schwarzenegger’s drive to succeed was not merely an immigrant’s classic up-by-the-bootstraps obsession. It was a calculated effort to turn himself into an invulnerable and powerful (physical and otherwise) figure. He was also a far cry from the skinny Austrian boy whose father, Gustav, a policeman and a one-time member of the Nazi Party, intimidated and sometimes beat him, favoring his other son, Menhard, according to published accounts of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s life” (Weintraub & LeDuff 2003, p.1).

Schwarzenegger used bodybuilding and Pumping Iron as a springboard for a competitive acting and later a political career. Both careers are careers of personality, of spectacle and gazing equivalent to body-building itself: “Is bodybuilding a sport?…they [the bodybuilders] simply show up and hope for the best…because scoring in bodybuilding contests, like scoring in beauty competitions, is somewhat subjective” (Denham 2008, p.241). Cattiness and underhandedness are rife — just as in any beauty pageant as well. Underneath the musculature, the same attributes which often garner women criticism within the mainstream culture, such as too much focus on appearance, are rife. Bodybuilding as a subculture rewards the narcissism creates a fragile sense of self which is the result of a life focused upon one’s physique — for both men and women.

Works Cited

Chandler, Daniel. “The eye of the camera.” Notes on the Gaze. April 10, 2000.

June 7, 2010.

Chandler, Daniel. “John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.” Notes on the Gaze.

April 10, 2000. June 7, 2010.

Chandler, Daniel. “Laura Mulvey on film spectatorship.” Notes on the Gaze. April 10, 2000.

June 7, 2010.

Denham, Mark. “Masculinities in hardcore bodybuilding.” Men and Masculinities. 11.2: 234-

252 (2008). June 7, 2010.

Eder, Richard. Pumping Iron. Review. The New York Times. January 19, 1977. June 7, 2010.

Hause, Irene L. Pumping Iron. Review. Muscle Digest, 1(7). May 1977. June 7, 2010.

Pumping Iron. Directed by George Butler. 1976.

Weintraub, Bernard & Charlie LeDuff. “Schwarzenegger’s Next Goal on Dogged, Ambitious

Path.” The New York Times. August 17, 2003. June 7, 2010.

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