Pumping Toxic Masculinity

Pumping Iron is a 1977 documentary about bodybuilding, or rather about Arnold Schwarzenegger winning his sixth Mr. Olympia title. At the time, the documentary boosted Schwarzenegger’s image. I find that fascinating, as I was rather repulsed when I recently watched it. Albeit not by the insight into the world of bodybuilding, but how openly Schwarzenegger talks, even brags about how he manipulates competitors.

Take a look at Schwarzenegger having breakfast with Lou Ferrigno and his parents. Lou’s father was also his trainer.

Schwarzenegger also explicitly says that he’d give Franco Columbu, a competitor he was friends with, wrong advice to have an advantage. Call me naive, but I think these aren’t very good traits, for nobody.

In order not to be vulnerable to any kind of negative impact himself, Schwarzenegger basically shut down his emotions, he explains. To the point that when his father died two months before a competition, Schwarzenegger wasn’t affected by it. Overall, Schwarzenegger’s behavior might be a perfect example of toxic masculinity: Be dominant, be aggressive to win at whatever cost, don’t show feelings.

Schwarzenegger says that he sees these methods as “tools that are available, so you might as well use them”. I’d argue that whoever sees targeted attacks on an opponent’s psyche as “just another tool” doesn’t compete in bodybuilding, but in ruthlessness.

I know there’s smack talk in sports, but that’s a different thing. With yelling and some insult, while not being very classy, there’s a clear understanding of rivalry and what you’re competing to accomplish. Actively branching out and undermining your competitor’s psyche instead is pretty close to plain old sabotage. Mmmh, sweet success! And I thought being a good winner was a plain and simple concept, even easier than being a good loser.

But come on now, this is just me, unfairly judging something that happened 40 years ago with today’s morality standards, right? Well, Schwarzenegger’s behavior mostly seems to be praised for breaking new ground in “psychological warfare”, instead of being identified as what it is: manipulative and shallow.

I am not against being good at something, I am not at all against fair competition. Ferrigno did in fact win the title the following year and I’m not mourning his loss against Schwarzenegger. This 40-year old documentary simply shows a great example of someone who puts success above all else. We all know where this lead Schwarzenegger: Career in acting and politics, belonging to the highest circles of US society. Realizing that the toll this took is a lack of humanity towards others as well as himself, casts this success in a very different light. With all of this out there and Schwarzenegger even bragging about his methods, without being criticized for it, one is hard-pressed to defend the mechanisms by which society awards approval. Also: Yay documentaries!

Pumping Iron is currently on Netflix.