Essay: Masculinity Gender and Symbolism in the Film Pumping Iron

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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… [END OF PREVIEW]

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