Patton, C (2001) '"Rock Hard" Judging the Female Physique', in Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Vol 25, 2: 118 - 40.
There has long been an argument about judging standards for women's body-building competitions, and this tells us something about gender and its connection with judgment and pleasure. In particular, judging in body-building 'was intimately linked with the worries about the nature of women's bodies, about... sport, and about the ethical value of self reconstruction' (119).
The lack of clear judging criteria must raise doubts about women's body-building as a sport. It retains important elements of a spectacle. This in itself causes anxiety for male spectators. Male acknowledgment of the erotic charge in looking at female bodybuilders raises the possibility of 'homoerotic responses to spectating male athletes' (120). This problem became more apparent given the widespread coverage, on US cable television, of body-building. One solution to this dilemma has involved a splitting of the female body -- a sporting body and a more conventional female body -- as depicted in the classic photographs of women competitors in a well-known female body-building magazine. Representations of female bodybuilders in Mapplethorpe, in a pornographic video, and in a documentary are also analysed.
Body-building is clearly both sport and spectacle, even for males. The sport requires spectacular posing, for example, and it has become common to choreograph this in both male and female versions. Musical accompaniment does differentiate, however, with 'classical music and heroic gestures' for men, and 'popular dance moves to snappy, aerobic class tunes' for women (121). Prize-money also varies considerably. The professional bodybuilders' body can appear to be too grotesque to yield revenue in the form of advertising, modelling or sponsorship.
Women's participation was initially resisted on the grounds that women would be 'harmed by competition or defeminised by training' (121). The development of large muscular women's bodies seem to raise doubts about these biological arguments, however. Differences in judgment and standards remained, illustrating important questions about gender -- should a woman's body be developed intentionally?
Also involved was the notion of the pleasures that male spectators take in spectating, and this was revealed in debates about sport and spectacle. Differences between jouissance and plaisir are involved here [and the two are summarised, 122 - 3] It is spectacle that produces jouissance, an immediate identification, regardless of subjective judgment. Body-building involves a 'highly codified performance of agony', a story of pain, endurance and pleasure [and Barthes on professional wrestling is cited here -- spectators feel the pain of the competitors]. Sport produces plaisir as a result making shrewd judgments about performance and applying objective standards. Many sports combined both, and sports have varied in the emphasis placed on both -- for example, the beauty of swimming was emphasised in the 1992 Olympic Games (123).
Nevertheless, male spectators find it difficult to combine these two sources of pleasure. Dyer is cited on the anxiety induced by homoeroticism. Subjective judgment is clearly a way of stabilising this anxiety, but paradoxically it requires an even more close look at the body of the performer. Nevertheless, the need to judge is a way of avoiding homoerotic tension. When watching women, it is very different, and erotic gazing at spectacle can intensify heterosexual identity. 'In fact, judging gets in the way' (124). However, a double standard of femininity remains. [here, Patton illustrates the dilemma by reference to fans' comments in letters to body-building magazines, 125 - 6]. Thus women performers can also be recognised as achievers, as intelligent.
Women's spectatorship also raises interesting possibilities, including 'the possibilities of homoerotic imaginings for female fans and readers' (125). There are other complications, so that female spectators, and even performers can take pleasure from 'watching male fans watch women competitors' (125), although there is a hint that this is another way of managing homoerotic anxiety for women [and also hints of Mulvey on the dilemmas of the female spectator]. Women can even see themselves as objects in magazine photographs, unrecognisable to themselves, as a way of dissociating themselves from 'the supposedly narcissistic gaze which many view as the sine qua non of body-building' (126).
Women's body-building magazines commonly offer split representations as a solution, using the classic visual conventions to depict competitions. This enables objective discussion of the '"rock-hard" aspect of the sport body without apparent concern for sexual innuendo' (126). However, they also feature representations of the competitors as 'innocent and fresh-faced girls who seem to have accidentally produced their specialized shape' (127). The hard work involved is denied, and 'wholesome good looks' are stressed. The pictures also show women dressed erotically -- ironically, dressed up compared to their posing kit -- in order to 'reinscribe... [the competitor]... as the... girl-next-door' (127). This also helps male fantasies involved in spectatorship, overcoming the problem that the woman is largely undressed when she appears in public -- 'redressing her... enables the male spectator to recover his fantasy of her on dressing for him alone' (127). Nevertheless, the shots of girls with muscles remain ambiguous, alluding to transsexual male models --'one wonders how heterosexuality can survive' (127).
The same ambiguities appear in a famous body-building film (Pumping Iron II: The Women). The narrative turns on a contest between a heavily developed female body builder and a more feminine type, with the latter as heroine. In fact, it was the former that triumphed in the sport, and disgust turned to admiration for the sacrifice and self-mutilation involved.
Making women fashionable is another way to mediate anxiety, and was found in female athletics as well, as in the 1992 Olympics. However, ambiguity arises here too, since the jewelry and hair styles worn by athletes, especially black athletes also refer to 'race and class strata' as well as conventional femininity (128). Further, fashionable clothes break with the view of black women as somehow closer to nature. Thus there is no simple reading, and what the viewer sees in erotic looking at black athletes 'is open to wide variation' (129). The ambiguities of covering female athletes were also seen in paradoxical complaints about unwomanly Chinese female gymnasts, and the highly muscular East German swimmers [discussed in some interesting detail 129 - 30 -- both discourses also clearly implicated condemnation of communist regimes and fears about a threat to American womanhood]. Again the result was an 'incitement to look, look, and look again at the bodies of female athletes' (131), not only directed at spectators, but at fellow athletes who were invited to look closely at their rivals in changing rooms. This is 'the rationalisation of looking as policing' (131).
This was also extended as a result of the early scandals about steroids in body-building magazines. -- in particular, people were urged to look at signs in the face. Steroids for males were condemned, but steroids for females attracted hysterical condemnation for exceeding the natural and crossing 'into the unspeakable' (132). One ironic consequence might have been to stimulate lesbian interest in watching female athletes.
A pornographic parody of Pumping Iron (Pumping Irene) also featured female bodybuilders and gym-users, and encouraged fantasies about strong women [it is described in some detail 133 - 4]. Here, the story involves treating sexual malfunctions of various kinds, restoring 'a natural nonneurotic sexuality' (133). Women are taught how to develop their own sexual pleasure in lesbian encounters with female bodybuilders. In effect, this involves 'a woman's accommodation to marriage' (133). Married women are urged to find ways to enjoy heterosexuality, often by 'engaging in more sophisticated deceits' (135) [not faking orgasm, but secretly masturbating during sex]. However, 'the female viewer is allowed to indulge her homoerotic desires or wallow in narcissistic identification' (134) showing the possibilities for the active female viewer even with pornography aimed at males.
Mapplethorpe produced a collection of photographs of a female body builder, and these illustrate well the early uncertainty and initial male anxieties. Mapplethorpe offers contradictorily masculine and feminine images, and even portrays the subject 'in gay male codes' (136), representing her as having 'an infinitely mutable body' (136). If anything, the male transvestite is still the dominant visual form, however. Nevertheless the accompanying text implies that there would be a number of females interested as well, and 'one series of the... photos became enormously popular within lesbian culture, losing their reference to body-building and gay male photographic cultures' (136). Again, women have actively read and reconstructed the image. Even these small reinterpretations can produce a 'dramatic shifts in the meaning of gender' (137).
Males have resolved anxieties in watching female body building in the way suggested above. Women's spectatorship has undoubtedly increased, however. Has this led to 'a new space for women's resistance to and in formerly male visual codes?' (137). Well developed women have appeared outside the narrow field of women's body-building. Strong women are visible in a number of sports domains. However, there is still no full equality especially in pay, and spectators 'still find male and female bodybuilders grotesque' (138). Nevertheless, there is no longer a fear that strong women will turn into men -- split representations of the kind mentioned above have managed this or at least displaced it. Overall, 'the long cultural association of muscle with men has been substantially challenged' (138), at least from the production end -- the problem now lies with any spectators who may wish to reassert gender differences. At the very least, 'the many women across America who pump iron for fun are also free to look differently at one another' (138).
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