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The unlikely origins of fitness culture could give us a different view on what it is to be a man

Performing for the crowd, acting up and showing off – physical culture's origins as theatre have fed into today's toxic masculinity.

It has never been more urgent to discuss what it is to “be a man”. As the poet Austin Allen says: “no one is happy with the conventions of masculinity, least of all the men who strictly obey them.”

The fit, muscular, athletic body has been a long-held manly convention. But living up to this ideal can be destructive – there is evidence of increased use of anabolic steroids by young men, and gym-goers are considered narcissistic and self-obsessed. Muscular men are apparently less likely to support social and economic equality, yet muscle-bound masculinity is still everywhere from superhero films to advertising.

Should we throw away gym culture with those “toxic” aspects of masculinity that desperately need to go? This risks also discarding the positive benefits of men’s fitness. I propose instead that we reassess the meaning of the ideal muscular male body, by looking back at the unlikely place where it was born: the 19th-century popular theatre.

Fitness and fakery

Programme for a Physical Culture Display, Memorial Hall, 1901. Image credit: From the Ottley Coulter Scrapbooks, HJ Lutcher Stark Centre for Physical Culture and Sports, University of Texas at Austin.
Programme for a Physical Culture Display, Memorial Hall, 1901. Image credit: From the Ottley Coulter Scrapbooks, HJ Lutcher Stark Centre for Physical Culture and Sports, University of Texas at Austin.

Men’s fitness training was invented and popularised by the popular music hall entertainment tradition of the 19th and early 20th century. “Physical culture” performances ranged from weightlifting displays at local clubs to vaudeville strongman shows. Some performers were huge celebrities - for example, the bodybuilder Eugen Sandow. They used these theatrical shows to spread their message of ideal health, fitness and manliness.

The great bodybuilder and strongman George Hackenschmidt (1896-1968) reinvented himself through the theatre. He was an apprentice blacksmith in Dorpat (now Tartu), Estonia, when he was discovered and became “The Russian Lion”, performing feats of strength and wrestling in theatres across Europe. Eventually, he settled in London, and became one of theatre impresario CB Cochran‘s best-known acts.

Hackenschmidt was deeply conflicted about his life in the theatre. In his unpublished autobiography, he sneers at other strongmen and their “swagger, showmanship, or theatrical manner”, claiming the most eye-catching feats were mostly “slight of hand”. While he posed for physique photos like other bodybuilders, Hackenschmidt stated that his muscles resulted from his “natural” strength, and maintained that he never fixed or deliberately threw a match.

After retiring Hackenschmidt took up philosophy, lecturing at Columbia University and Trinity College, Cambridge, and published several books. His philosophy is concerned with authenticity, and how to live freely and truthfully. Not surprisingly, actors were his example of how not to live: “They do not represent their own, individual qualities and attributes”, he wrote in an unpublished essay, “because of their great degeneration […] they are particularly well suited for pretence and deception.”

Hackenschmidt’s hatred of theatre – even though it made his name – is similar to why the theatrical history of men’s fitness is a mere footnote today. Historically, theatre has been maligned and even hated for its association with deceit, fakery and excess. Hackenschmidt, like other physical culturists, was trying to show his audiences how to be a man (his first book is even called The Way to Live). But if physical culture came from the theatre then the manly ideal it built seems like not just “acting”, but bad acting.

Photos from George Hackenschmidt’s scrapbooks (photographer unknown) The George Hackenschmidt Collection, HJ Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports, University of Texas at Austin.
Photos from George Hackenschmidt’s scrapbooks (photographer unknown) The George Hackenschmidt Collection, HJ Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports, University of Texas at Austin.

Performing masculinity

As much as the physical culture movement might wish to forget its association with theatre, it presents an opportunity to think differently about being a man. On the surface, thinking about a “theatrical” nature of masculinity sounds like American philosopher Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity: Butler saw gender as the socially constructed set of behaviours in everyday life that define and comply with social norms.

But “theatre” does not just mean “performance.” Being theatrical implies a conscious attempt to convince an audience to suspend its disbelief in something that is not real, rather than unconscious compliance to social norms. Things like props and costume are employed to help. But the attempt to convince often fails, even (or especially) when it’s trying hardest.

“Posing” and “showing off” is usually seen in a negative light. But seeing fitness culture as a theatrical performance of gender demonstrates that the ideal of the strong, muscular, athletic male is not natural but socially constructed, as are the values we attach to it. While the muscular male body sometimes symbolises military power, national strength, and aggression (as in Nazi Germany), a bodybuilder on stage poses for the attention of the audience, whose validation can produce other meanings. Extreme theatrical expressions of men’s fitness, such as bodybuilding or strongman contests, are therefore not unlike drag – a performance that Butler would argue exposes the degree to which gender is culturally scripted. Only in this case, it’s men playing at being men.

So presenting manly ideals on a stage as entertainment exposes them as cultural scripts rather than as an expression of some authentic “toxic masculinity”. I believe that by presenting them in their original context as entertainment these scripts are robbed of their power – and with this in mind I recently directed the Dynamic Tensions Physical Culture Show at Kings College London’s Anatomy Museum.

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The Dynamic Tensions Physical Culture Show, at Kings College London’s Anatomy Museum, October 13, 2017. Filmed and edited by Alexandros Papathanaiou.

Featuring performers with an athletic background (strongman, bodybuilding, wrestling, rugby and weightlifting), the performance staged “masculine acts” of physical culture, while emphasising other subtexts such as injury, ageing and friendship. It aimed to present a different perspective on bodies that often signify aggression, violence and narcissism. While theatre strongmen, bodybuilders and wrestlers may be responsible for the physical ideal associated with a masculinity that desperately needs to change, remembering their theatrical origins helps us see past the stereotype.

Physical culture can have many positive effects (aside from health), like building friendship and community among people who might not otherwise meet. Gyms used to scare me, but they are not so different from the theatre stages and rehearsal spaces where I found community in my youth. Like theatres, gyms are full of people working on presenting something to the world, each with a different motivation and story.

Broderick Chow, Senior Lecturer in Theatre, Brunel University London.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.