Pumping Iron II: The Women – The Markers of Gender and The Problems of Definition

Earlier this week I watched “Pumping Iron II: The Women,” a counter-part of sorts to the Arnold Schwarzenegger versus Lou Ferrigno docu-drama from 1977, focusing on the 1975 IFBB...

Earlier this week I watched “Pumping Iron II: The Women,” a counter-part of sorts to the Arnold Schwarzenegger versus Lou Ferrigno docu-drama from 1977, focusing on the 1975 IFBB Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions.  “Pumping Iron II: The Women” focuses on the 1983 Caesar’s World Cup, a competition that is staged for the film and introduces the Australian phenom Bev Francis, a former Power Lifter making her debut in the US female body building competition circuit.  The drama and intrigue of the film is whether Francis’ other-worldly physique, which tips more toward male bodybuilders than the small, moderately muscular (“muscles as curves”) builds of the female bodybuilder scene at that time, can change the game of how female bodies are judged. The entire remarkable film can been seen above.

From Roger Ebert’s 1985 review of the film we get a glimpse of the strangeness these women’s bodies incited, in contrast to today when the majority of these contestants look like fitness models more than “bodybuilders”:

the idea of women with big muscles is still a little strange. Spending some time with the stars of “Pumping Iron II: The Women” at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I was struck by the reactions they inspired from people on the street, who stopped, turned and stared at these women with broad shoulders and huge biceps. Until the last few years, crowds at Cannes have traditionally been drawn by women with exaggerated feminine physiologies; now here were women from the covers of muscle magazines, and the French, usually so blasé, simply did not know how to react.

At first sight, there is something disturbing about a woman with massive muscles. She is not merely androgynous, a combination of the sexes like an Audrey Hepburn or a Mick Jagger, but more like a man with a woman’s face. We are so trained to equate muscles with men, softness and a slight build with women that it seems nature has made a mistake.

The impulse is to reject muscle-women as freaks, and that is probably going to be the first reaction of the audiences for “Pumping Iron II,” a companion to the original “Pumping Iron,” which made Schwarzenegger a star.

(Note also that Audrey Hepburn and Mick Jagger are cited as examples of androgyny – by today’s standards Hepburn’s tall, thin, small busted frame hardly stands out as “boyish” and Jagger’s thin build and wiggly dancing is lost in the wash of “hipster chic” male waifishness.)

Emma Thomas, a female Muay Thai fighter training and fighting out of Bangkok, wrote a wonderful post on her impressions of watching “Pumping Iron II: The Women” on her blog “Under the Ropes.”  Emma writes:

As the film progresses to the competition, we see the judges become increasingly irritated by Francis’ presence. She poses an obstacle for them because she challenges their definition of what is feminine and aesthetically beautiful, and therefore forces them to re-affirm how the competition should be judged. We hear them complaining that contestants must still look ‘feminine’ and not be ‘too muscular’.  They talk about ‘clearing up the definite meaning of the word ‘femininity”, saying that they are looking for someone who has the right amount of ‘aesthetic femininity’ while having the ‘muscle tone to show that she’s an athlete’. One judge objects, stating that there should be no limit to how far a woman can go in any particular sport. He illustrates this by asking if ‘the skiing federation should tell female skiers that they could only ski so fast’ before going on to ask ‘who are we to say what looks like a woman and what doesn’t?’, which provoked laughter from the men around him. The rest of the panel counter his views by saying that they are ‘protecting the sport’, with one closing by saying ‘women are women and men are men. There is a difference and thank God for that difference.

This is a pivotal scene in the film and one that feels less staged than other portions of the “docu-drama,” which is obviously partially scripted.  But the arguments between the old officials, who represent the “old view” in about every possible way, and the younger judges who question “what is feminine?” is the question of the whole movie.  This scene is mirrored by an inexplicable scene at Caesar’s Palace before the competition, where the competitors are in their bikinis and soaking in what appears to be both a hot tub and a fountain, discussing what’s to be done about this Bev Francis creature.  One woman, with a blonde updo and southern drawl, argues that it’s her “philosophy” that “women are women” and that means that too much muscle (in a bodybuilding competition!) is a departure from real femininity.  Another woman counters, with a quiet British accented voice, that the process of bodybuilding is unnatural – it’s a sculpting process of building one’s body toward one’s own design and none of these bodies are “natural” – so why place limits on it?  She argues that Bev Francis has simply taken this a step further than any other woman.

And that, for me, is the crux of it.  The conceptual idea of bodybuilding is that one is using weight training to sculpt muscle and build a body by inches.  If you watch the original “Pumping Iron,” you’ll enjoy a lengthy scene in which Arnold Schwarzenegger is describing how he cannot add one inch to his chest without having to add an inch to his biceps and shoulders and back, etc., etc., because he’s already built himself to be proportionately perfect.  This isn’t an accident – this is the result of perfect calculations.  Which means, to these judges and society in general, masculine and feminine are mathematical facts.

Why this scene is so interesting is that it is blocked out as a male sexual fantasy of a bunch of beautiful women in a hot tub, but the dialogue is arguing whether or not femininity is tangible – the size and number of muscles a woman can sculpt into her body and still be a woman before she starts to lose the intangible “femininity” that is, ostensibly, inherent.  Does that even make sense?  If your philosophy is that “women are women,” then how can a woman be a man by adding muscle?  What this sentiment, which is repeated several times over in the run-time of the film, causes me to think is that there are “markers” for masculine and feminine, rather than a state of being.

Repeatedly in the movie we see the women working out at the gym, pulling cables and pressing weights together, donning spandex outfits and faces full of 80’s makeup, complete with groaning, moaning soundtrack that could easily be mistaken for a soft-core porn soundtrack.  These women aren’t doing what men do, they’re doing what men imagine women do.  When Bev Francis is working out she does strain – she does groan a little bit in one scene – but by and large her workout looks like she’s working out, whereas most of the other women look like they’re working out for a camera.  That’s not a horrible thing.  I’m sure this film, complete with a full nude  group shower scene, is attempting to sexualize these women in a way that purposefully works counter to the – at that time – strangeness of their physique.  How better to show that women are not men than to cast them in a sexual light?  Francis, however, is not included in these moments.  She doesn’t wear dance attire at the gym and she doesn’t wear makeup.  She just works out.  None of these women, including Bev Francis, would be “mistaken” for men by any stretch.  But the other women’s decision to play up their femininity by using “feminine markers,” such as long, permed hair, long painted nails, lots of makeup and low-cut tops with high-cut shorts, etc., actually works to demonstrate the ways in which persons who fit within the “cis female” gender norm are still, to some degree, in drag.

This is illustrated beautifully in the actual competition, where the women are instructed to wear bikinis of a solid color, no texture or shine to the fabric, and no padding in the cups (something the reigning queen and unmistakeable villain of the film attempts to cheat, twice).  Obviously the idea is that the bikini does not work to enhance any part of the body or dazzle the judges by being overly fancy, but only to function as the smallest piece of clothing possible to cover the private parts and reveal the greatest area of each competitor’s physique.  Male competitors, too, wear tiny bikini underwear, which is not – at least in American culture – a very masculine style.  It’s just supposed to show as much as possible while still being descent.  But these female bodies, most of which are sculpted with modest muscle and look, for the most part, like dancers’ bodies to the contemporary eye, are not the body type that the bikini is designed for.  As a “marker” the bikini triggers the brain’s association with soft, curvy, voluptuous bodies of pin-ups – not the hard bodies of athletes, male or female.  The tiny triangle cups that cover the breasts lie pretty much flat against pecks, not breasts, and so this “marker” that triggers the mind to think about breasts now triggers the mind to acknowledge the absence of breasts. (Absent in the 1980’s competition is breast augmentation, which appears to be pretty standard in today’s female competitors.)  It works to masculanize the body without the brain even realizing it.  So all the other “markers” must be strongly feminine, like the hair, nails, makeup and soft choreography.

see her 4 minute performance above
Bev Francis, who has what I consider the most elegant and beautiful choreography of all the contestants included in the film, worries aloud that one of the poses she strikes was “too masculine.” – her beautiful performance and reaction can be seen above. It’s a pose reminiscent of Tarzan or any other masculine icon, a kind of apish flexing of the chest and shoulders by rolling them forward and clenching the fists in front of the stomach.  It’s an action – a pose – it’s not a state of being; but it works as a “marker” for masculinity just as a hand on the hip that’s cocked to one side is a feminine pose, one not many men would choose to strike in a competition of maleness.

bev flex

All that is to point out that muscles themselves seem to be “markers” for masculinity in our culture.  A woman can be muscular, but she mustn’t be too muscular.  She can flex those muscles, but she mustn’t flex them in this particular, “male marked” pose.  A man can wear a bikini bottom, but he mustn’t do so while also posing in a “feminine marked” manner.  Men are not men and women are not women, but rather we all perform a combination of agreement and contrast to those categories by picking and choosing from socially recognized “gender markers.”  A woman who looks like a woman can wear a number of masculine marked characteristics without raising any flags – she can wear both femininity and masculinity as drag with the assumptions always falling to the side of being female.  But a transvestite who is donning all gender markers for femininity suddenly fails to “pass” when one of the masculine markers appears.

I wrote about this in a post about female Muay Thai fighters attempting to “pass” in a male sport (for readers who don’t know I’m a western women training and fighting Muay Thai in Thailand full time for the last two years):

Female Muay Thai fighters are in a very real way cross-dressing, wearing the mantle of masculinity to perform a sport which epitomizes it.  I don’t know that there are any women – and I mean that I believe there to be none, rather than that I simply can’t conjure an example – who “pass” in Muay Thai.  We are all women doing Muay Thai and none of us is indistinguishable from the aura or esteem of a male fighter.  This is my experience.  So instead we are all this in between thing, the exaggerated or insufficient expression of something that no matter how strongly we feel in ourselves is not the inherent way in which we are perceived.  And so our performance is judged on what we are trying to be; and far more than the physical movements themselves it is the fear of our gestures giving us away as imposters that can ultimately betrays us. (From “Act Like It – Confidence in a Performance Culture”)

I contend that Bev Francis is not trying to be a man, but is rather being judged harshly for not trying hard enough to be a woman by countering her male markers with a mathematical balance of female markers.  To a large degree the policing of femininity is mostly making certain that women don’t get “too close” to maleness.  Take for example the policing of femininity in female athletes competing in the Olympics by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body of track and field, who use testosterone level of female athletes to determine whether or not they are allowed to compete.  Keep in mind two things: 1) these women’s testosterone levels are being compared to “average” women, who are not high-level athletes and rigorous training can raise testosterone levels naturally; and 2) men who have higher than average or lower than average testosterone are not barred from competing in either case.

Such criteria illustrate how femininity is quantified not by female markers, but rather that female markers are simply the absence of male markers.  There’s male and not male.  If you’re too close to male, you’re not female – a double negation.  Men have muscles, women have less muscles – ergo, too many muscles means too close to masculine.  Even our medical jargon uses “presence” to mean male and “absence” to indicate female when explaining chromosomes and even hormones in utero: the presence of testosterone will produce male embryos and the absence of testosterone will result in female.  In the 1960’s female Olympic athletes were paraded naked in front of a panel of medical judges who would determine their sex based on visual inspection.  Presence of male attributes = male; absence of penis or testes or male attributes = female.  If this sounds severe, consider that the IAAF has reintroduced an expert medical panel to determine the sex of athletes, led by:

 Dr. Myron Genel, an endocrinologist who serves on the IAAF’s expert medical panel, says the hormone test is complicated.

Some athletes may have excessive levels of hormones, but their bodies do not benefit from them — most are insensitive to the extra hormones circulating in their system — so the expert medical panel must conduct a clinical examination.

The tell-tale signs are illustrated graphically in the IAAF rulebook, a sliding scale on everything from sexual organs to lower back hair and breast shape. (From “The Star” June 8, 2012)

Just to be clear: the presence of excessive hormones (i.e. testosterone; nobody cares about estrogen or progesterone) may not actually have any effect on performance to benefit the athlete.  Therefore the rulebook uses a “sliding scale” (i.e. subjective, although codified in a rulebook) visual inspection to determine male markers such as what sexual organs look like, if the female athletes have masculine levels of body hair and visual judgement of breast shape.  Very scientific.  Very similar, in fact, to the kind of theoretical scale of femininity upon which the contestants in “Pumping Iron II: The Women” are judged – havingthe right amount of ‘aesthetic femininity’ while having the ‘muscle tone to show that she’s an athlete’.”

My Own Experience With Markers

I happen to be a muscular woman.  It’s not a conscious decision or purposeful effort on my part, I just build muscle easily and the way my body is makes the muscle tone very visible.  I do not lift weights to look like this – I wouldn’t know how to sculpt myself if I wanted to, other than the obvious “do situps for abs” type of knowledge.  My physique is very, very unusual here in Thailand, especially when I’m just walking around town and outside of the context of my sport.  Even when I step into the ring there is a noticeable murmur from how my muscles look.  While I don’t believe I would ever be mistaken for a man, my visage is absolutely a departure from Thai constructs of femininity.  So much so that I cannot think of a single female Thai fighter (other than Phetjee Jaa, who is only 12 years old) who has a muscular build.  Male Thai fighters make a big deal about looking like a fighter, which means a six-pack and strong shoulder muscles.  Female fighters, however, seem to consciously avoid getting muscle tone and definition, opting instead for the female marker of softness.  It’s one thing to fight Muay Thai and take part in a male dominated and strongly masculine-associated sport and art, but it would be quite another to do so while also looking masculine with defined muscles.

In the US I’m notably “small.”  I’m short and petite, which isn’t completely unusual in the US, but it somehow is noticeable enough that my size defines me to friends, acquaintances and strangers alike.  In Thailand I’m not small.  When I walk around the streets or the mall I encounter women (and some men) who are significantly smaller than I am – just absolutely tiny persons – and yet I’m still categorically defined as noi (“small”) by Thais.  The difference, to me, is that when I see Thai women my same height they are altogether petite with thin arms and legs and tiny waists that, from the back, seated on a motorbike at a red light in front of me, look like the bodies of pre-teen children.  But they’re often university students.  I stand out – a lot – with my comparative bulk, the width of my back and shoulders and my big muscles (bigger, actually, than some of the women competitors in the 1983 Caesar’s World Cup in “Pumping Iron II”) just in the way I take up space.  If soap opera stars and celebrity models and singers are anything to go by for what idealized female form is in Thailand, femininity is in the soft, curvy bodies.  Models in magazines are by no means “realistic” to the average female form, but the “heroin chic” thinness of western haut couture is noticeably not popular here, in media.  In either case, whether the western ideal of thin or the Thai ideal of soft, femininity is not hard, does not take up space, and is not associated with (visible) physical strength.  In October of last year I fought against the number one contender for the WMPF world title at 48 kg.  I walk around at 47 kg and this woman most certainly cuts weight to make 48-49 kg.  In actual body weight as well as physical size, this woman is bigger than I am.  I won that fight on points and afterwards her coach was quoted in the national Muay Thai news publication as saying that his fighter had lost because I was yaigwaa (“bigger than”).  This is simply factually untrue but it’s interesting because it illustrates how my body, how my visible muscle in contrast to softness, is perceived.  Of course there’s a degree to which her coach is saving face and presenting excuses for his top fighter’s loss, but he’s not just grasping at straws or making things up.  My physical build has “markers” associated with bulk, size, and most likely maleness that indicate advantage over the feminine markers of undefined softness.  So much so that male fighters can actually get unspoken “credit” for their physiques – a defined, six-pack donning, towering westerner can be technically inferior to an out-of-shape Thai opponent and yet look better to the judges for it.  But how does that work for female bodies?  Should women “look like women” in a male sport?  Or should we simply not look like men?

In passing, ironically enough, Thailand now known for its highly feminine, universally-desired women,  before the early part of the 20th century was thought by Europeans of as the land of “ugly”, muscular women who failed to possess enough feminine markers to distinguish them from Thailand’s men – it was a land of androgyny. Finding itself in a complex commercial and political situation (the threat of colonization) Thailand took on a project of “self-civilization”, forceably changing the appearance of its population through decades of law, edict and reeducation. If interested you can read about it here in this through 50 page paper: Performative Genders and Perverse Desires – A Bio-History of Thailand’s Same Sex and Trans Gender Cultures – Peter Jackson (full PDF)

And for a truly wonderful interview with Kellie Everts, considered by many to be the pioneer of (and more importantly a champion of and for) female bodybuilding from the 70’s, check out “Campaign for Women’s Bodybuilding”

Pumping Iron II: The Women

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Gendered ExperienceMuay Thai

A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay


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