Fifty years later, our culture has, broadly speaking, moved on. Homosexuality is increasingly normalized, and the muscular frame of the bodybuilder, once considered a form of gender deviance, has since become the male ideal—most visible in the multi-billion-dollar industry of preternaturally jacked superheroes. Globally, the fitness industry itself is now worth close to $100 billion a year.
And yet, despite these important shifts, bodybuilding has, in many ways, become more anxious and, in turn, more silent about its relationship with homosexuality. Today, male bodybuilders, dripping in machismo, trade in euphemisms to discuss one another’s bodies. As the academic Jeremy Strong observes, contemporary argot “avoids many of the terms of reference and evaluation which circulate in relation to women’s bodies,” which “structures a permission (a permission normally denied) to look at the male body.” Nervously skirting around language that might be inferred to carry a homosexual desire, bodybuilders compliment their peers, idols, or adversaries using terms like “’mirin” (short for “admiring”) or else qualify their praise with the linguistic handwashing of “no homo.” In this way, bodybuilding continues to assert a strong divide between (appropriate) heterosexual and (inappropriate) homosexual modes of gazing at the body.
I saw the link to this essay on Arts & Letters Daily a couple days ago. I didn’t click on it then, because I figured I could already tell by A&LD’s brief précis and the fact that it was published in The Baffler that it would contain nothing new or interesting. Today, I was bored enough to disregard the wisdom of my Wednesday self, proving that we don’t always get wiser with age. The whole thing is like this — stale clichés presented as subversion, garnished with the usual academic jargon. How does anyone muster up the enthusiasm for this charade anymore?
…Bodybuilding simply remains no place for same gender attraction. Other than Paris, there are and have been vanishingly few openly queer male professional bodybuilders (including Chris Dickerson, who won the 1982 Mr. Olympia title). Of course, the inhospitality of professional bodybuilding as an environment for gay competitors is a product of a latent, swirling gay panic, which has led not only to a disappointing crisis of representation within bodybuilding (disappointing because, although a disproportionate number of gay men enjoy bodybuilding as a pastime, they are woefully underrepresented in the professional domain), it also disavows what is potentially politically exciting about the sport. That is, freed from the limiting grasp of homophobia, understanding bodybuilding as a pursuit requires acknowledging and accepting that men gazing desirously at the bodies of other men— one man hoping to possess the physique of another man in some capacity— is not the exclusive preoccupation of queer men but, rather, is a universal phenomenon. The line between wanting to be or wanting to fuck someone is unclear and unstable.
The time is long overdue for the world of bodybuilding to acknowledge the queerness of its historical foundations and its internal dynamics—the love and appreciation of the male form between and amongst men. Should a straight bodybuilder— the very pinnacle of heterosexual masculinity—admit his admiration for male muscularity, exactly nothing world-ending or corruptive would happen: he would not wither or shrink, lose competitive advantage in the sport, or be otherwise altered in any way. And yet, such an occasion would indeed be welcome and profoundly altering: not only opening up bodybuilding as a field unafraid of queer participation but publicly demonstrating that even the very manliest, the most macho, the heterosexual-est of men are, well, a little bit gay.
Yeah, yeah, yeah; as Apocryphal Oscar Wilde famously said,”Everything is about sex except for sex, which is about power.” Freud is dead, but his malignant shadow still blights the intellectual landscape. Oh, well. Rednecks called me gay when I was a teenager for having long hair and slightly-androgynous clothes, so it’s nothing to me if leftist academics want to get in on the fun and imply that lifting weights makes me a closet case. More disturbing is the monomaniacal obsession with making leisure activities into politics by other means. Who but a commissar-in-waiting talks about a sport being “potentially politically exciting,” an oxymoron if ever there were one? And what kind of stunted soul thinks that, one, a “crisis of representation” could ever be a phrase to use in earnest, and two, that what we really need is more political sloganeering and grandstanding in athletic events?