Lost in Amazonia

Lost in Amazonia

After a century of repressing or deriding Woman as a symbol of beauty, high culture in the West has suddenly gone over.


After a century of repressing or deriding Woman as a symbol of beauty, high culture in the West has suddenly gone over. Victorian fairies, Pre-Raphaelite nymphs and sirens, Edwardian fashion plates and modern-day pinups smile down from the walls of major museums, and novelists such as Andrei Makine, Philip Roth and Penelope Fitzgerald examine female beauty as a central metaphor for value. Oblivious to Kant, evolutionary psychologists do not hesitate to collapse beauty into feminine allure, which they consider a powerful reproductive adaptation. Meanwhile, feminists excoriate Madison Avenue for reducing women’s faces and bodies to commodities. For aestheticians, these are heady, if complicated, days.

The latest entrant in the field of female beauty only increases this euphoric unease: the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition “Picturing the Modern Amazon” (until June 25). The picturings in question are paintings, photographs, sculptures, comic books, videos and jewelry representing female bodybuilders, those women for whom working out turns symmetry, balance and proportion into weapons of liberation. As the bodybuilder Nathalie Gassel states in My Muscles, Myself, “My muscle has been built to assert its power and presence: its movement indicates my life’s fundamental principles which are to be, to do, to show.”

According to this exhibition, to be a “hypermuscular woman” is to re-create one’s body as a work of art for public display and self-realization. “You are an artist creating a sculpture,” claims Heather Foster. “You put on muscle like clay.” This process involves a double role for bodybuilders that is reflected in the title of Phyllis Bramson’s painting Being Both Object and Subject. Many people would argue that in this respect the female bodybuilder is just a special case of all women, who willy-nilly design an appearance that is taken as their identity. Several images in the show play up the parallel between bodybuilders and more conventionally “designing women,” for example, Deborah Willis’s Untitled, Bodybuilder #14, which suspends the red salon-sculpted nails of Nancy Lewis against the pattern of veins in her gym-sculpted thighs.

“The female masquerade” in the case of bodybuilders, however, is more literal, for it involves an erasure of “natural” femininity and the addition of a synthetic variant. With body fat reduced to 5 percent for competition and steroids coursing through their blood, it takes silicone to give female bodybuilders breasts and “big hair,” makeup and sexy lingerie to signal their femininity. The crudeness of the signs employed inevitably suggests brothel scenes (as in James Salzano’s Hannie Van Aken, NYC) or transvestite parodies (as in Susan Meiselas’s Evolution F)–an off-color aesthetics of nude muscle accented with fetish.

The exhibition stages a curious paragone between the picturers and the pictured as to which, in effect, is the controlling artist. Several of Andres Serrano’s gorgeous photographs of the spectacular Lesa Lewis, for example, cut off her head at the jawline, as if Serrano were appropriating agency for her art to himself. The hypermuscular women at the exhibition opening, in their turn, upstaged the art with their extraordinary presence in the flesh. The curators of the show are old hands at subject-object competition: Laurie Fierstein, a champion bodybuilder who writes about the sport; Joanna Frueh, a professor of art history who is also a feminist performance artist and gym enthusiast; and Judith Stein, a distinguished curator whose sense of empowerment from lifting and pumping gave rise to the exhibition in the first place.

The rhetoric with which these curators surround bodybuilding is the exuberant optimism of liberation, independence and self-actualization. Upon entry into art, however, women’s self-creations cannot help but become, as academic jargon would style it, “a field of contestation.” Through bodybuilding, a woman may turn herself into a work of art, but representing that transformation turns her ambiguous. She may be either a creative agent or a victim of her judges; an irresistible seductress or a pawn of male fantasy; a heroic actualization of female strength or an unavailing compensation for female weakness; a classical feminine ideal or a masculinized freak. Dizzying contradictions like this always result when the “like” in an analogy is suppressed–in this case, when a woman “becomes” a work of art. The curators stress the euphoria of this triumph, but its pathos is inescapable. “I have a kinesthetic response to the real nude,” writes Frueh. “In her presence I am invigorated, my posture improves, I feel my strength and flexibility, my capacity for many powers, my allure. This, I think, is why she moves me to tears.”

I would be willing to bet that the tears have a less empowering origin. The male bodybuilder Samuel Fussell has written that he “became a bodybuilder as a means of becoming a caricature. The inflated cartoon I became relieved me from the responsibility of being human.” Female bodybuilders, in contrast, claim that the “inflated cartoon” they create is their way of becoming human, a difficult paradox, indeed. “Picturing the Modern Amazon” dramatizes as powerfully as any art the intolerable contradictions in women’s experience and the desperation with which some search for a way out. The show would rise to the level of tragedy if it were not pervaded at the same time with the deflating breezes of the ridiculous. As Judith Stein observes, the major difference between a bodybuilder and an artist is that “one pumps iron, the other, irony.”

The sources of this irony are manifold. Anything as extreme, hyperbolic and at the same time apparently earnest is bound to inspire humor, and everything about these female bodybuilders reads like a double-entendre or a camp subversion. Even the typefaces in the catalogue shift from modern sleek to comic-book chunk to romantic filigree in the course of a single title. The “muscle hussy” costumes look like a cross between stripper gear and the undersized tatters of the Incredible Hulk. The bodybuilders’ “window performance” suggests the “performance art” of prostitutes in Amsterdam’s red-light district. Circus strongwomen are called “understanders,” not because of their feminine empathy but their position at the bottom of human pyramids; understanders such as Pudgy Stockton and Dunlap Kaan hoist their husbands over their heads, a feat particularly pleasurable to Amazons.

Over and over, traditional poses display the female body to untraditional effect. When a bodybuilder puts her hand on her hip, she shows off not her breasts but her biceps. The first female bodybuilder with a man-scale physique, Bev Francis, mugged girlie poses in the 1985 documentary Pumping Iron II: The Women, to make fun of the pressure on competitors to look feminine. The demure bondage victim comes in for similar parody in Bill Dobbins’s photograph of Laura Creavalle dressed in a few strips of leather, her arms locked in stocks, her eyes lowered, her toes pointed, her muscles bulging.

Female bodybuilders always appear to be quoting men as they strike poses from classical sculpture or superhero comic books. Renée Cox, for example, photographs Heather Foster with helmet, gun and thigh-high leather boots in front of a wall-sized flag; Nicole Eisenman draws The Largest Woman looming over the viewer. Yet the bodybuilder’s steel-hard muscle and taut skin find a female analogue in the pregnant belly and lactating breasts, and the hoarse breathing of the bench press sounds like nothing so much as childbirth panting. Samuel Fussell experienced his built physique as oddly feminine: a nonfunctional appearance of strength–useless, ornamental and masking vulnerability. In a similar gender reversal, Pumping Iron begins with Arnold Schwarzenegger in ballet class practicing poses in front of a mirror.

In certain respects, female bodybuilding seems no more liberated than fashion modeling. Indeed, the group poses in competitions suggest fashion shoots and chorus lines, and models and bodybuilders share an obsession over fat, firmness and “look.” If they are “artists,” they are artists of the body. But of course, the aesthetic in each case is utterly different. The exhibition catalogue makes this point by juxtaposing a photo of the rope-veined Laura Binetti with one of Twiggy standing among mannequins. The model, abnormally tall and thin for a woman, inhabits verticality; the bodybuilder, typically short or average in height and astonishingly wide with muscle, is horizontal. The ethereality of models implies an escape into aristocratic sublimity; bodybuilders are rooted to the earth, plebeian morlocks. Until the recent fitness craze, models’ flesh-lined skin hid any signs of functionality in the body except those connected with sex. For female bodybuilders, the absence of a fat screen and the hyperdevelopment of muscles and veins exposes the machinery of the body, and the darkly tanned skin over muscle and blood vessel evokes nothing so much as a flayed carcass. The model looks helpless and weak but at the same time flawless, invulnerable; the bodybuilder looks overpoweringly strong but “ripped,” exposed. The model’s smooth surface covers hidden depths; the bodybuilder’s “solid lean meat,” claims Marcia Ian, contains no space at all. Muscle “connotes exteriority, the exteriority of the phallus.”

The language the body speaks for model and bodybuilder may be different, but both use their bodies to speak for them. One wonders what is wrong with their tongues. There is a story that Dustin Hoffman prepared for the torture scene in Marathon Man by not eating, sleeping or bathing for days. When he came onto the set in this pitiful state, Laurence Olivier observed, “But Dustin, acting is so much easier.” One wants to say the same to these women who starve, drug and exhaust themselves day in and day out, giving up “normal” life for their art. Speaking is so much easier. Complain a little. Rail against the situation of women in this gender-challenged, family-failed, female-oppressing, love-starved world. Maxine Hong Kingston may invent a “woman warrior,” but she gives her the power to express her anguish in words: “Nobody supports me at the expense of his own adventure…. no one supports me; I am not loved enough to be supported. That I am not a burden has to compensate for the sad envy when I look at women loved enough to be supported. Even now China wraps double binds around my feet.”

After millennia of double binds on female bodies, it seems that some women can speak only bodily. Kingston reveals the revolutionary logic of their painful display in her woman warrior, trained with all the rigor of a bodybuilder. “We are going to carve revenge on your back,” say her guardians, and she welcomes the message. The bodily marking of a woman may be unavoidably ornamental: “If an enemy should flay me, the light would shine through my skin like lace.” However, this ornamentation is not powerless, but a mighty weapon. “I saw my back covered entirely with words in red and black files, like an army, like my army.” And with this army of words written on her, the woman warrior assembles a real army to avenge the injustice of the ages.

This theme of body marking is one of the staples of feminist writing in our day. Andrea Dworkin’s “song of myself” is a “flesh poem” that male oppression cuts into her body. The slave girl Sethe’s back in Beloved is scarred by a whipping and then transformed into a “chokecherry tree” through the imagination and kindness of a fostering woman. The point is to do the marking oneself rather than suffer it at the hands of others. And so the “muscle definition,” the “ripped” flesh, the veins “like an anaconda that winds around a granite boulder” are supposedly proud marks of self-assertion. Barbara Zucker’s steel tracery of a muscled back might as well be Sethe’s chokecherry tree, and likewise the muscle outlines beaded onto Amelia Lavin’s Tigress. Tattoos and piercings speak too, as in Deborah Willis’s Nancy Lewis, but muscles and veins are the bodybuilder’s true eloquence. No pain, no gain. It makes us cry, perhaps, but we might wonder whether it is ultimately an effective rhetoric. Will it turn into words and then armies?

Such is the tough triumph of the Amazon myth itself, which like everything else in this exhibition is fraught with grotesquerie and contradiction. Robert Graves reports that the Amazons were offspring of Ares and Aphrodite, war and beauty. Tracing descent through the mother, they fought and ruled while their men kept house. The limbs of boy infants were broken accordingly, to insure domesticity. Unhobbled, Amazons were said to have opted for another injury, cutting off one of their breasts. “One half pure woman, one half pure warrior,” John Barth explains cheerfully in his postmodern rewrite of mythology, Chimera. The mastectomy aided archery and created solidarity among the sisterhood.

As the exhibition presents it, to reassert the Amazon is to reassert the matriarchate, woman begetting woman and passing on strength and self-determination as part of an empowered, male-disdaining legacy. The ancient Amazon myths spawned Rosie the Riveter, Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Xena the Warrior Princess and Kingston’s “white tigers.” According to the organizers, “the ‘modern amazon’ is presented as a culture with a history, as a dazzling and transgressive current phenomenon, and as an avatar of the future.” She is the Magna Mater, “mother, chieftain, champion,” and her images assembled in this exhibition are the remnants of an unacknowledged matrilineage. As often as not, however, these picturings suggest discontinuity in female history. Kathleen Gilje’s Comtesse d’Haussonville, Restored (1996), for example, shows an Ingres beauty standing before a mirror, oblivious to her reflection, which is a Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of the bodybuilder Lisa Lyon. Here, women’s past and present may meet in the mirror, but they do not match; not every sister is an Amazon or, more accurately perhaps, not every male artist has depicted strong women. And of course, the meaning of matriarchy differs from culture to culture. “The complexities of defining such heightened displays of strength, femininity, and womanhood,” according to Carla Williams, “are further compounded within the boundaries of a matriarchal culture in which black men’s lack of power is deemed the fault of strong, ‘castrating’ black women.” Matriarchy is no simple matter.

But neither is motherhood simple, especially for a bodybuilder. “Now when I was naked,” observes Kingston’s woman warrior, “I was a strange human being indeed–words carved on my back and the baby large in front.” In the exhibition catalogue, the hypermasculine Bev Francis grimaces during a power lift, but on the facing page she smiles pacifically, surrounded by husband and children, her muscles, veins and bone ridges softened by fostering flesh. Can these two selves coexist in the same picture? Sarah Van Ouwerkerk’s remarkable photograph of Jennifer Greenbaum’s daughter lovingly leaning on her mother’s tensed leg implies that Amazonian motherhood may not be a contradiction in terms, though the absence of the mother’s face is disconcerting. Mary Ellen Mark, in contrast, shows a stony-faced bodybuilder hoisting a barbell over her head, oblivious to her 3-year-old daughter below. Hypermuscularity may not be incompatible with maternity, but even women artists are struck by the challenge of combining the two.

The most persistent fact about Amazons, however, is that all the myths end in defeat. Achilles bested the Queen of the Amazons, Penthesilea, in battle and then was so overcome by her beauty that he raped her corpse; his fellow soldiers dishonored her body, subjecting the double effrontery of female strength and allure to a double punishment. Shakespeare’s playfully skeptical marriage comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, celebrates the wedding of Theseus to the Amazon Hippolyta, whom he has recently conquered. John Barth’s Bellerophon in Chimera defeats and ravishes the Amazon Melanippe but then redeems himself by making her his muse and scribe–no doubt a consolation as he saw it. For Robert Graves, the vanquishing of the Amazons is disguised history. “The victories over the Amazons secured by Heracles, Theseus, Dionysus, Mopsus, and others, record, in fact, setbacks to the matriarchal system in Greece, Asia Minor, Thrace, and Syria.” Perhaps they do, but maybe this repeated story is simply a favorite male fantasy. Unlike Judith or Delilah or Salome, an Amazon fights men fair and square, disdaining guile and sex appeal for honest brawn. She is a worthy opponent for a man who enjoys a good fight, and heroes generally do. The preordained prize seems all the sweeter when the hero has to work so hard for it.

The battles of modern Amazons pit one against the other, appearing to leave men out of the picture. “To be, to do, to show.” But showing–there’s the rub. Display is tied to judgment and less rule-governed forms of voyeurism. Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of “Picturing the Modern Amazon” is the utter incompatibility between the bodybuilder’s stated motives and the public’s reactions to her art. She sees display as a means to dominance, self-realization and artistic triumph. She is an “aesthetic-erotic self-creation,” says Joannah Frueh, cultivating a “severe voluptuousness of form” and “fulfillment in carnal thingness.” She is Umberto Boccioni’s sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space: all form, all primitive force and abstraction. The audience, under the circumstances, matters not at all: “In the final arena, there will be no judges,” Fussell quips, “only witnesses to…greatness.” Nathalie Gassel reports her thoughts as she poses: “Ha! One more, one more, in front of those looking at me with their gluey eyes, wanting to feel me. So let them touch this hard body, so let them touch it and understand my muscle’s determination to turn into steel. I know what they want. They tell me of their desire to be under my influence, to be enslaved by me.” Tina Lockwood’s photograph of Jan Tana–pumped, greased, flexing, with an imposing shadow rising behind her–expresses this desire to prevail without resistance.

But this is the wish of a naïve artist, woman, competitor: to enthrall, seduce, dominate without opposition. “Nobody needs criticism, only appreciation,” as Gertrude Stein put it. We all understand this desire, but it turns the critic into a presumptuous irrelevance and ignores the fact that art and love and competition are in the last analysis forms of communication. The bodybuilder needs an audience as much as she needs a gym. No matter how uncomfortable she may be with the “direct personal scrutiny by others,” as Steve Wennerstrom calls it, the hypermuscular woman offers herself to judgment at every turn. Leslie Heywood goes so far as to argue that female bodybuilding assuages the “hunger for visibility, the hunger for the kind of meaningful life that powers late-twentieth-century culture…. the contemporary sense of being in America, masculine or feminine, might be summed up not by ‘I think therefore I am,’ but rather by ‘I have an audience, therefore I am.'” The path from Descartes to Berkeley to Warhol is clear: To be is to be perceived, and fifteen minutes, covered in body oil, might be just the ticket.

But just like the Amazons of old who fought men on male ground, this self-creation through audience approval is a recipe for disaster. The novelist Katherine Dunn sees right through it in her brilliant fiction Geek Love. If you try to be beautiful it is because you want to be loved, and that puts you under other people’s power. Instead of the Greek ideal you must substitute the Geek ideal, presenting yourself as if you could not care less how others see you. Is the exaggerated physique of the bodybuilder the answer? No, “technical, illustrative, and predictable.” Perhaps a “flayed, emaciated cadaver” might do the trick. But no again: “Classic and totally predictable.” The “answer” for Dunn is amputation and other willed self-deformations, with lobotomy the ultimate route to P.I.P.: “Peace, Isolation, Purity.” Perhaps the artists in the show who depict headless bodybuilders have this goal in mind.

As soon as the bodybuilder submits to judgment, she falls victim to fantasy and desire. The International Federation of Bodybuilding long insisted that competitors not look hypermuscular, since women would not be attracted to the sport if it made them appear unfeminine. “We don’t want to turn people off,” say the judges in Pumping Iron II; “we want to turn them on.” Women, the theory goes, are turned on by female bodybuilders either through narcissistic projection or lesbian attraction. However, the more typical audience for woman warriors is young boys, or men who enjoy masochistic titillation: R. Crumb’s Frightened Little Man in the Land of the Vulture Goddesses. Some men, like Achilles, fancy women who offer a rousing skirmish before succumbing. Gay boys and men, in contrast, might identify with the purported invulnerability of warrior women. As Michael Cunningham’s “Dream Girl” describes her: “She wasn’t regular. She wasn’t a ‘normal’ girl but she wasn’t a girl posing as a boy, either. She wasn’t even a tomboy. She was herself. She was potent and tenacious; she was butch and femme; she felt deeply and fought hard. She was heroic and, like many heroes, lived a solitary, defiant life. Like many heroes, she could hardly have cared less about satisfying the dictates of conventional taste.”

It is geek love all over again, adoration of those who couldn’t care less and who show their indifference through an aesthetics of disdain: Joanna Frueh’s “Aphrodite/Amazon” with her “monster/beauty.” The failure of this alleged invulnerability is apparent in Louise Bourgeois’s St. Sebastinne. As with Serrano’s photos, the bodybuilder’s head is omitted, for the speaking body is as oblivious to women’s brains and emotions as the most blatantly sexist pinup. The body is pure surface, a contour map of protuberances and hollows, and as such, it also resembles a target for the arrows of observers. If medieval art imaged love as the exchange of barbed eye beams, in St. Sebastinne the arrows indicate no mutuality of scrutiny and promise nothing but victimization and pain. Here hypermuscularity becomes a new form of martyrdom.

Perhaps no work in the exhibition interprets the contradictions of the modern Amazon more clearly than Judy Chicago’s Arcanum in Shades of Gray. It consists of a lamination of glass sheets on a base, with the outlines of female bodybuilders incised into them. If you stand in front and look through, you see a scrambling palimpsest of hulking figures with multiple arms, legs, and breasts, like a hypermuscular Indian goddess. Every change in viewing position realigns the sheets of glass and increases the impression of vigor and motion. On the base of the sculpture are the words “Picturing Modern Amazons.” In addition, each pane has two words at the bottom. Read across, the words are: “Female” and “Power” on one pane; “Body” and “Pleasure” on the next; and “Building” and “Perversion” on the last. Read from front to back, the left side produces “Female” “Body” “Building”; and the right “Power” “Pleasure” “Perversion.” These heterogeneous judgments are visible only by looking between the panes–into the “arcanum” of the artwork. Otherwise, the image conveys only the official face of women’s bodybuilding: strength, energy and assertiveness as unambiguously positive values. The reality, however, lies in the shades of gray.

The gods offered Paris a choice among feminine Beauty, Strength and Wisdom, and we all know which he chose. But his mistake lay not in preferring Beauty but in accepting the premise that the three virtues were separable, indeed mutually exclusive. The old circus poster of the strong lady calls the lie to this assumption, heralding the marvel of “Strength and Beauty” in a single female form. If we could only return Wisdom to the mix, we might end up with something resembling a woman.

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