Allen Guttmann
Volume 6.2
Casper / Reed
Costa Lima
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Sports, Eros, and Popular Culture 1

The Problem
When Greek men and boys journeyed to Olympia to compete in the great panhellenic festival that honored Zeus, when Greek girls ran races at the same site in honor of Hera, both participants and spectators seem to have understood that athletic bodies, observed in motion or at rest, can be sexually attractive. Most of the ancients acknowledged and celebrated the erotic element in sports. In modern times that same element has been feared, deprecated, and denied. Indeed, it has been customary to deplore rather than to affirm sports' sensuality and their ability to entice, excite, and sexually arouse participants and spectators alike. In the Victorian era, a number of medical experts complained that the craze for the newly invented bicycle was a thinly disguised desire for the illicit pleasures of masturbation. It was charged that the bicycle seat induced "priapism."2   The presidents of evangelical colleges warned ominously that football games were orgiastic affairs more fit for pagan haunts than the groves of academe. In 1892, the Wesleyan Christian Advocate complained that the violent game unleashed "the lower impulses of the physical man" and allowed young males to "find their pleasure in mere sensual energy." 3  When Senda Berenson introduced basketball to the young women of Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, the only man allowed in the gymnasium was the president of the college, a man whose age and dignity were thought to neutralize any danger that he might be erotically aroused. When the Australian press reported positively, in October 1907, on "the brown skinned specimens of manhood" and the "bronze Venuses" that were to be seen on the beaches and in the surf, there were immediate protests against "heaps of sprawling men and lads, naked, but for a nondescript rag around the middle."4  In 1933, Sunny Lowry swam the English Channel and was berated as a "harlot" because she exposed her bare knees.5  A year later, Cardinal Rodrigue Villeneuve of Quebec, condemning the "pagan" cult of the body as manifested in sports, bemoaned the rampant concern for "hysterical strength, sensual pleasure, and the development of the human animal." Meanwhile, his European colleagues thundered Episcopal anathemas against female gymnasts who performed before mixed audiences.6 

Vulcana. Todd-McClean Collection.






Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. Movie Still Archives.

In response to the recurrent charge that sports are a sensual if not a satanic indulgence, most athletes and spectators have defended their passion as if the pleasure they derived from sports had no connection whatsoever with human sexuality. As one says in today's "postmodernist discourse," eros was erased from the athletic text. In reply to heated allegations of sensuality, ingenuous lovers of sports have offered cool denial. Whenever outraged religious traditionalists have called attention to the erotic appeal of the human body at play, high-minded progressive reformers have blandly expatiated on the benefits of sunlight, fresh air, and unencumbered movement. In 1921 the journal Die Freie Turnerir showed off its new logo—a youthful nude. The editors of the periodical dedicated to women's gymnastics meant her to represent "a free maiden, with a joyful sense of her strength and her trained body, whose nakedness is unashamed because it is natural." 7  When confronted with clerical accusations of pornographic intent, German physical educators professed injured surprise: "For us," wrote the editors of the Arbeiter-Turnzeitung, "nudity is beauty, joy, and purity." This kind of wholesome nudity was not, they emphasized, erotic.8  Countering similar allegations of prurience, a contributor to Sport im Bild announced in 1928 that sports participation actually dissipated "the mists of the erotic" that had enveloped German women. Thanks to sports, women were "cleaner, more free, fresher."9 

In the United States, YMCA workers, physical educators, and coaches have gone beyond mere self-deceptive denial. In response to the critics' exasperated insistence that sports can quite obviously be an occasion for erotic play, enthusiasts for sports have propagated the modern myth that a heated contest and a cold shower divert or diminish adolescent sexuality. At best, they may even extinguish it. In response to charges of voyeurism, spectators enamored of sports have proclaimed their chaste appreciation of "thrills and spills" and "all the moves" (except the erotic ones). When sports historian Richard Mandell mentioned to a group of American Olympic coaches in 1972 that there was "a suggestion of the erotic" in men's and women's gymnastics, they became as nervous as ninth graders viewing a film on sexually transmitted diseases.10

When an erotic element is too blatantly present to be overlooked, the customary reaction of the proponents of sports is promptly to condemn it. In an essay sharply critical of "the sexualization of female athletes in sport media," Donald Sabo and Michael Messner emphatically denied that men perceive real athletes—as opposed to television's fantastic fare—"in traditionally erotic terms." On the contrary. Real women athletes

    are too busy competing to pose; too caught up in the physical and mental demands of the game to engage in sexual innuendo; too independent, animated, and obviously three-dimensional for men to reduce them readily to sex objects. It is simple brain work for a traditional male to sexually objectify a wiggling cheerleader; a fully extended female smashing a volleyball does not erotically compute. 11

Very recently, however, at least a few scholars have begun to ask some candid questions and to challenge some orthodox views. Why, wonder historians Elliott Gorn and Michael Oriard, are sports ignored in the academic debate over the history and social significance of the human body? After all, "power and eroticism meet most conspicuously in the athletic body—Florence Griffith-Joyner's, Greg Louganis's, or Michael Jordan's."12  Why have historians "tended to retreat nervously from the erotic attractions of the male body"?13  Why have those who are in love with sports been reluctant to examine their passion? The answer, presumably, is that the admission of simple facts acknowledged thousands of years ago is blocked because the topic of eros and sports is obviously, for many if not for most modern coaches, athletes, and spectators, a taboo. To mention the topic is to cause them embarrassment. Like the timid lover in T. S. Eliot's "Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," coaches, athletes, and spectators murmur, "That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant at all."

When nineteenth-century Anglicans touted "muscular Christianity," when YMCA workers invented basketball (1891) and volleyball (1895), when Pope Pius XII decided in 1945 to affirm the value of modern sports, critics became proponents, but there was no sudden acceptance of an erotic element in sports. Protestant and Catholic converts to sports seemed suddenly to become blind to the sexual dimensions that were anathema to their clerical predecessors (and to many of their contemporaries).

Ironically, once the mainstream churches took to celebratiing the joy of sports, to constructing basketball courts, and to establishing church-related sports leagues, a number of secular critics, mostly neo-Marxists, began to deplore the "sexualization" of sports by capitalist society. Some of the more ascetic critics seem to have resurrected Tertullian'

Eugen Sandow. David Chapman Collection.
s indictments of the Roman arena as the site of idolatry and perversion. Drawing on Freud as well as Marx, they blame sports, defined as "the capitalistically deformed form of play,"14  for the psychological "castration" of the male athlete and for the deterioration of his sexuality into sadism, masochism, narcissism, exhibitionism, and homosexuality. Critics have also condemned sports because they enhance a female athlete's heterosexual attractiveness and thus increase her "erotic exchange-value."15   (The greater the value in the sexual marketplace, the more extreme the exploitation.) A number of radical feminists have added their charges to the indictment. While admitting that some women have benefited from sports and from the fitness fad, Nancy Theberge nonetheless alleges that programs promising enhanced attractiveness represent "not the liberation of women in sport, but their continued oppression through the sexualization of physical activity." 16  For Theberge as for Sabo and Messner (for whom female athletes did not "erotically compute"), the assumption behind the charge of sexualization is that the physical activity in question is not inherently sexual.

In short, the more or less unproblematic recognition of athletic eroticism by the pagan cultures of classical antiquity stands in sharp contrast to the hostile comments, the "erasure," and the confused obfuscation that have characterized most modern discussions of the phenomenon. Why has this been so? Why has this topic been a taboo among lovers of sports? Whatever may have been the case two hundred years ago, when industrialization imposed a new spatial and temporal discipline upon factory workers, I doubt that modern hypocrisy about human sexuality is the result of capitalism's alleged need continually to repress, sublimate, and exploit the instinctual self. The contrast between ancient openness and modern reticence has much more to do with the Protestant ethic than with the spirit of capitalism. As Pierre de Coubertin pointed out in an essay entitled "De la volupté sportive" (1913), "It is infinitely probable that the animosity the early Christians unleashed against athleticism was due precisely to the fleshly satisfaction which sport represented as well as that 'pride in life' pursued by sportsmen and denounced by the Holy Writ."17  A moment's thought should convince anyone that Coubertin was correct. Today's emergent realization of an erotic element in sports is related to twentieth-century Christianity's relative loss of cultural influence rather than to a faltering in the expansion of the multinational corporation. If capitalism were the explanation for the suppression of eros, as Herbert Marcuse averred in Eros and Civilization (1955), we should now feel the taboo more intensely than ever. In fact, what we have witnessed in the last quarter century is capitalism's eager exploitation of the economic potential of eros in sports as in every other sector of our increasingly hedonistic culture. As Alphonso Lingis remarks in Foreign Bodies (1994), late capitalism depends on bodies "whose cupidity is heated up by advertising [to] serve as the pyres upon which an excess production of industrial commodities is destroyed."18

The Evidence
Ironically, twentieth-century popular culture has been increasingly full of evidence of the erotic element that most scholars, educators, athletes, spectators, and sportswriters continue to deprecate or deny.

Capitalism has provided us with a tradition of commercial exploitation. A century ago, Australian playwrights inserted boxing matches into plays whose plots had nothing whatsoever to do with pugilism. 19   In this country, John L. Sullivan's lack of dramatic talent did not prevent him from earning more on the theatrical stage than he did in the ring. He flexed his biceps, chopped wood, rescued fair maidens from improbable dangers, and stammered his way from coast to coast.

Sullivan's path must have crossed a number of times with that of Eugene Sandow, the German-born weightlifter and body-builder who was perhaps the first claimant of the title, "the World's Most Perfectly Developed Man." Although his Institute of Physical Culture was located in London (1897), Sandow also lifted and posed in the United States, on the European continent, and in the Far East. In the theaters of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and many other cities, female members of the audience "responded enthusiastically to the strongman." For the privilege of a private backstage performance, women were asked to donate $300 to charity. At one of these highly charged shows, Sandow took a

    woman's gloved hand in his own and ran it slowly across the muscle in question. Apparently, this was too much excitement for the delicate creature, for she suddenly paled and staggered back. She was only able to gasp, "It's unbelievable!" before emotion got the better of her.20 

She swooned. Anonymous admirers sent Sandow flowers and famous courtesans like Caroline Otéro, who included the Prince of Wales among her many royal conquests, attempted to seduce him. In the bedrooms of their Newport mansions, dazzled maidens kept photographs of Sandow, nude except for the traditional fig leaf. (Photographs were, in fact, the basis for the modern cult of body-building.) 21  What Anthony Comstock and other vigilant defenders of Christian morals thought of Sandow's public display of sexy musculature, enhanced by an ithyphallic sword, is not on record. (fig. 1) Comstock did, however, do his best to thwart physical culturist Bernarr Macfadden's highly publicized quest for America's most perfectly developed woman.22

A generation later, female hearts fluttered at the sight of the legendary Bronko Nagurski, a Bunyanesque hero who laid down his ax in order to achieve greatness as a football player at the University of Minnesota and then with George Halas and the Chicago Bears. To supplement his income, Nagurski became a professional wrestler. "Hollywood," reported the Minneapolis Journal, "went gaga" at the sight of his physique.23  The producers offered him a chance to move from the ring to the screen, but he spurned their proposals. When Rudolph Valentino died, Tony Sansone, the epitome of erotically charged athleticism, "a seductive and swarthy Pan," was asked to replace the deceased film idol, but he too refused the chance.24 The film moguls eventually discovered an athlete eager to exploit the opportunities Nagurski and Sansone rejected. Johnny Weissmuller, an Olympic swimming champion, was chosen to play the role of Tarzan to Maureen O'Sullivan's Jane because the producers at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer believed correctly that he had enough sex appeal to entice millions of women to the box office. (fig. 2) The producers stripped him of his Olympic swimsuit, wrapped him in a loincloth, and filmed his African adventures. Between 1932 and 1948, MGM and RKO cast Weissmuller in twelve Tarzan films. The dream-merchants knew exactly what they were doing. Swinging from vine to vine (accompanied by a friendly chimpanzee), Weismuller thwarted savage plots and captivated civilized hearts. Katherine Albert, reviewing Tarzan the Ape Man in Photoplay, marveled that "a lad who had never been in a picture before, who had been interested in nothing but swimming all his life, and who frankly admits he can't act, is the top-notch heart flutterer of the year."25 

Producers and directors who transmuted athletes into movie stars were also adept at reversing the process. They touted the athleticism of their actors. Douglas Fairbanks, for instance, "was marketed as a virility symbol and fitness fanatic." His daily schedule, which included boxing, wrestling, running, and swimming, was "as strenuously publicized as his screen career."26

Theatrical promoters also recruited female athletes for popular entertainments, some of which were as tacky as burlesque shows. The Police Gazette sponsored boxing and wrestling matches for lightly clad young women and French cabarets lived up to their lurid reputation by providing even more exaggeratedly sexual contests. Max Viterbo, for instance, recalled a 1903 visit to a boui-boui on Rue Montmartre. Although there was music to mollify the waiting crowd,

    the room was wild with impatience. The stale smell of sweat and foul air assaulted your nostrils. In this overheated room the spectators were flushed. Smoke seized us by the throat and quarrels broke out.... [A] lubricious gleam came to the eyes of old gentlemen when two furious women flung themselves at each other like modern bacchantes—hair flying, breasts bared, indecent, foaming at the mouth. Everyone screamed, applauded, stamped his feet.27

Sandow's feats of strength were imitated by a number of women, the most famous of whom may have been Kate Roberts, an Irish girl who performed as "Vulcana." Among her achievements was hoisting a 120-pound barbell to her shoulders and then lifting it overhead with one hand. She appeared, flexing and observing a very impressive right arm, on the cover of La Santé par les Sports. (fig. 3)

Turn-of-the-century boxers, wrestlers, and strongwomen performed primarily for working-class spectators whose preference in women was for the oaken rather than the willowy. By the Twenties, a number of entrepreneurs sought to profit from the erotic appeal of female athletes more respectable than "Vulcana" or "Sandwina." Sports clothes became an important part of the apparel industry. Whether or not one accepts Valerie Steele's dicta that "the concept of beauty is sexual in origin" and "the meaning of clothing in general and fashion in particular is also erotic,"28 there is no reason to doubt Anne Hollander's somewhat less sweeping claims about twentieth-century fashions. In Sex and Suits, she asserts that "the erotic force of female bodily movement and bodily surface, and of clothes that not only showed them but emphasized them, were at last publicly acknowledged by fashion."29  No one better illustrated this than France's Suzanne Lenglen and America's Helen Wills, two champion tennis players who were "clearly attractive, erotic women." They, like Amelia Earhart, were promoted with "an undertone of explicit...sexuality." Lenglen, wearing sleeveless outfits, colorful sashes, and a kind of turban, set fashions. Her appeal "lay precisely in the way she fused athletic ability with heterosexual allure. With her unusual dress and dancelike movement, she pioneered an ideal of the female body as physical and actively erotic."30   Lenglen's matches drew an unprecedented number of spectators. Her match against Helen Wills is remembered as an encounter between "the goddess and the American girl."31

The Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, which did much more in the Twenties than the colleges did to sponsor serious sports competition for young women, borrowed a gimmick from commercial promoters and staged beauty contests at national championships in women's basketball. The players were the contestants. "The depiction of athletes as beauty queens sent physical educators into a rage."32  The female physical educators who controlled women's sports at the high-school and collegiate levels were equally horrified by the shorts and jerseys worn by basketball players like the Golden Cyclones, whose team, on which Mildred "Babe" Didrikson played, was sponsored by Employers Casualty insurance company. (The uniforms boosted attendance from under 200 to some 5,000 a night.)33  The properly middle-class leaders of the Women's Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation, which effectively controlled scholastic and collegiate sports, routinely denounced "abbreviated costumes," especially when worn in the presence of male spectators.34   They condescended to working-class women, like "Ida the Industrial Girl," who snapped the bonds of middle-class decorum.

    She wants strenuous athletics, jazzy music, snappy dramatics or musical comedies, thrilling parties, not for the benefit she will receive, but because she will show off to good advantage before an audience of the opposite sex.35

In the eyes of the Women's Division, the sports spectacles staged by the Amateur Athletic Union and by industrial leagues were little better than peep shows.

In the Twenties, the German film-maker Arnold Fanck produced several "mountain films" starring the very athletic Leni Riefenstahl. Although they too were tempted by the box-office potential of athletic women, Hollywood producers were at first surprisingly hesitant to recruit them. The Australian swimmer Annette Kellermann, the "Diving Venus" who was said to have had the world's most beautiful body, starred in The Daughter of the Gods (1916) and "staggered" America, but producers were reluctant to ask other female athletes to perform before their cameras.36  Tennis star Helen Wills, whose classical facial features seemed perfect for the cinema, was "the object of romantic infatuation for tens of thousands of young men"; not for the scrutinizers of her screen test. They concluded that "her limbs were too developed and her body lacked the petiteness so necessary for film success."37  The United States, it seems, was not quite ready for a cinema goddess whose arms had been described, in Collier's, as "pistoning-columns of white muscle." 38

That was 1927. A decade later, producers were emboldened enough to experiment with another beautiful athlete, Eleanor Holm, the American champion swimmer from the Olympic Games of 1932 who became a cause célèbre in 1936 when her shipboard carousing caused her sudden expulsion from the Berlin-bound Olympic team. Playing Jane in Tarzan's Revenge (1938), Holm splashed about seductively while another Olympian, decathlete Glenn Morris, beat his muscular chest and gave voice to what has to be heard as a mating call. A third Olympian, Sonja Henie, combined athletic talent with a conventionally pretty face and skated her way from Chamonix to Hollywood. Reviewing her performance in a musical, Thin Ice (1937), Variety raved about "a flash of winter lightning, a great combination of muscle and music."39   After Henie came a series of figure skaters whose figures allowed them, like her, to glide gracefully into show business. Indeed, Henie was followed by so many champion skaters that Tenley Albright's religiously motivated decision not to join the Icecapades seemed quirky.

The erotic appeal of figure skating can hardly be overlooked. The costumes are designed to accelerate the spectator's pulse and the choreography is accompanied

Mariel Hemingway from Personal Best. Movie Still Archives.
by music that runs the gamut from nineteenth-century romanticism to the latest hit on MTV. By the Eighties, when Katarina Witt performed to the music from Carmen, it was impossible to pretend that the skater's athleticism is purely athletic or that aesthetic responses can be neatly separated from erotic ones. Nor was Witt the only skater to emphasize her sexual attractiveness. "No skaters ever danced like Britain's [Jane] Torvill and [Christopher] Dean on Valentine's Day in Sarajevo.... In their 'Bolero' routine, they took ice dancing out of the ballroom and skated it deliciously close to the back seat of a parked car." 40  In the journalistic melodrama of Nancy Kerrigan versus Tonya Harding, the former was type cast as the virginal beauty while the latter, who had appeared in Playboy, was characterized as little better than a slut. That was not the sort of contest that Pierre de Coubertin had in mind when he revived the Olympic Games in 1896, but it was unquestionably popular. The skaters at Lillehammer attracted the largest television audience of the 1994 games.

By the seventies, censorship of the arts had diminished to a trace element in the chemistry of European and North American cultures. Film-makers were free to indulge the public's appetite for the exciting combination of eros and sports. In the series Rocky I (1976) through Rocky V (1990), an extremely muscular Sylvester Stallone poses and punches his way through a succession of increasingly implausible boxing matches. Referring to Stallone, among others, Yvonne Tasker comments in Spectacular Bodies (1993) that the world-wide "box-office success of the white male bodybuilder as star has been one of the most visible aspects of recent American action cinema."41   Tasker argues that the cumulative effect of films like Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980) has wrought a gradual redefinition of the image of masculine identity. In fact, gradual redefinition seems now to have accelerated into "a seismic shift in male body image." In "The Beefcaking of America," Jill Neimark meditates on the results of a survey conducted by Psychology Today: "In movies, heartthrobs from Alec Baldwin to Keanu Reeves are seen shirtless, with rippling pecs and lats; on fashion runways male models in skin-tight tanks and jackets unbuttoned to flaunt washboard bellies pace before cheering crowds." Neimark concludes that we are witnessing the emergence of a single standard for male beauty: "a hypermasculine, muscled, powerfully shaped body—the Soloflex man."42   Samuel Fussell agrees: "Muscles are the latest props of the dandy."43

Feature films starring female athletes have been less successful at the box-office, but the list of Hollywood's athletic heroines includes Susan Anton in Goldengirl (1980), Mariel Hemingway in Personal Best (1982) (fig. 4), Jamie Lee Curtis in Perfect (1985), Geena Davis in A League of Their Own (1992), and Meryl Streep in The River Wild (1994). Linda Hamilton, who played alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the two Terminator films (1984, 1991), trained for a year in order to create the body required for this role. "A central focus of the film is on actress Linda Hamilton's strong physique. In fact, the first image of [her] is of her developed biceps, the shot backing to show [her] working out."44 

She uses her physical strength to escape from unjust imprisonment and, eventually, save the world. On the basis of this role, Hamilton "quickly acquired a cult following" among lesbians.45  "Unmuscled heft is no longer as acceptable as it once was," writes Susan Bordo. "Even Miss Soviet Union has become lean and tight."46 

 John Fiske's observations about televised sports also apply to feature films. The mediated spectacle differs from the spectators' in situ experience. In sports, as in other filmed "masculine narratives," the temporal pace is routinely slowed during moments of intense action.

    Slow motion is celebrate and display the male body in action, to produce a sense of awe by making the physical performance appear beautiful. The male body in televised sport does not consist merely of brutish muscularity, but is aestheticized.

Fiske is wrong to limit the effects to the male body, but he is right about slow motion. In televised sports coverage as in action drama, slow motion functions "to eroticize power, to extend the moment of climax." 47   Like slow motion, television's close-ups intensify "the erotic theatricalization of the athletic body."48  Margaret Morse notes perceptively in "Sport on Television" that this is one context where "the male a legitimate object of the male gaze."49 

And the female gaze as well? An Australian media specialist, Beverley Poynton, is unabashed about her voyeurism:

    What attracted my interest [to Australian Rules football] were the [televised] images of male bodies. Here were barely clad, eyeable Aussie male bodies in top anatomical nick. The cameras follow their rough and tumble disport with a relentless precision, in wide-angle, close-up and slow-motion replay.

For this female sports fan, the choreographed spectacle is "lyrical, flagrantly masculine and erotic." One can safely infer that the producers of ABC's "Monday Night Football" agree. They screened a music video in which two members of the female rap group Salt N' Pepa performed a variation of their hit song, "Whatta Man," while the camera focused on a pair of football players working out. The video was clearly an instance of "the sexual objectification of the male athletic body."50

While Hollywood and the world's television networks were enthusiastically relearning the profitable lesson of the Tarzan films, magazines devoted to fitness and sports proliferated. Since Bernarr Macfadden began to publicize the gospel of muscular hedonism in Physical Culture in 1899, periodicals like Shape and Flex are hardly a novelty, nor was it unprecedented that many of them were targeted for both male and female readers. (In 1932, ten of the twelve covers of Macfadden's Physical Culture pictured shapely women actively engaged in sports; Macfadden "frankly admitted the sexual energy implicit in body work."51 ) Japan has its own version of Strength and Health, in which the Japanese text is accompanied by photographs of European and North American body-builders. (This is very much in line with the Japanese penchant for using blue-eyed blondes in cosmetics advertisements.) Similar journals appeared at European kiosks. Two German publications—Sport und Fitness and Sportrevue—quickly achieved a combined monthly circulation of 250,000.52

In the eighties, editors of general-circulation periodicals quickly hopped aboard the fitness express. Consumer culture seemed suddenly to have lost its last inhibitions and to have become obsessed "with the notion that the body is a vehicle of pleasure and self-expression." Everywhere one looked, there were "images of the body beautiful, openly sexual and associated with hedonism, leisure, and display."53  People and the New York Times Magazine both investigated body-building in the spring of 1980. Psychology Today weighed in with "Iron Sisters" (in which Lisa Lyon asked, "Why should muscles be considered masculine?"). 54   Mainstream women's magazines became daringly explicit about sports and bodies. In the April 1980 issue of Vogue, Mariel Hemingway posed with weights and urged other women to follow her example. Glamour's article on women's body-building (October 1981) included photographs of muscular women "pumped" and flexed. In April of 1983, Cosmopolitan crowed that female body-builders are "shapelier, firmer, sexier!" Meanwhile, in France, Marie-Claire and Elle were almost as quick to present images of trimmed and toned female bodies that conformed to the new "canons de beauté." 55   Writing in Magazine Littéraire for January 1986, the French man-of-letters Michel Tournier asserted,

    Muscular women are by no means masculinized—not at all. The athletic woman who develops her body and its muscles has a totally feminine beauty.... There's nothing more beautiful than the female athlete. 56

Surveying the British scene, Jennifer Hargreaves—another unusually acute observer—concluded that, although "muscularity has been associated with masculinity, it has now become a [generally] glamorized and sexualized condition."57   John Updike has written as good a one-line summary of the transformation as we are likely to find: "Diana the huntress is a more trendy body-type nowadays than languid, overweight Venus."58

In recent decades, exercise manuals have flooded the market. Jane Fonda, who first attracted attention as the leggy astronautic heroine of Barbarella (1967), took to barbells and became better known as an icon of forty-year-old fitness than she had been as teenaged temptress. Videocassettes followed the manuals in such numbers, and with such physically attractive demonstrators, that uncritical viewers were tempted simply to sit before the TV and gawk at Sugar Ray Leonard, Martina Navratilova, O. J. Simpson, and company. "The body," writes an observer of contemporary German life, "is now the jewel; clothes are merely the setting."59

Comic books, which are a staple of popular culture, have always encouraged ninety-seven-pound victims of bullies on the beach to imagine physical transformation. ("Charles Atlas did it; you can do it too.") In the first comic books, Clark Kent became Superman. His muscles of krypton made him invulnerable, invincible, and—in the dazzled eyes of Lois Lane—irresistible. Today's children are beguiled by similar images of herculean men—and superhuman women. Wonder Woman, once an athletic anomaly in a comic strip world where Blondie and Tillie the Typist were the norm, now has company. Germaine Greer has expressed amazement at the women who "prowl through thriller comics." Clouds of hair swirl about their heads, "the musculature of their shoulders and thighs is incredible, their breasts [are] like grenades, their waists [are] encircled with steel belts."60

The first images of Wonder Woman were inspired by tennis champion Alice Marble; she advised the cartoonists that Wonder Woman's star-spangled tennis dress be replaced by shorts—the better to reveal her muscular legs.61   The televised Wonder Woman, played by Lynda Carter, was never as popular a heroine as Krystle (Linda Evans) and Alexis (Joan Collins) Carrington, but she has had her devoted followers. In a list of favorite entertainers named by a group of one hundred twenty-eight schoolchildren (grades 3, 6, 9, and 12), Wonder Woman received more votes than Elvis Presley and almost as many as Bugs Bunny. 62   Perhaps it was her ability to perform extraordinary feats of strength while her breasts "seemed constantly poised to burst forth from their Playboy bunny-type container."63

Advertisers have rushed to sponsor televised displays of the athletic body and to have their products endorsed by prominent athletes. Coca-Cola led the way in the Thirties and Forties with advertisements picturing Johnny Weissmuller, Jesse Owens, Helen Madison, and Alice Coachman (all Olympic champions).64  More recently, sponsors have been eager to pay huge sums of money for the right to picture Jim Palmer in his underwear, Bruce Jenner on a Wheaties box, Michael Jordan lofted by a pair of Nikes, Dorothy Hamill as a Breck girl, and Kristi Yamaguchi with a milk mustache. (Some kind of ultimate was reached when Faberge advertised its perfume with pictures of Margaux Hemingway executing a karate kick.) Bernard S. Owett, senior vice-president of the J. Walter Thompson agency, announced that Madison Avenue wanted models with muscles because "athletic women are beautiful and sexy."65  The issue of the marketers' trade journal in which Owett was quoted appeared with a flexed Lisa-Lyon-look-alike on its cover.

The manufacturers of exercise equipment are too clever to promise their readers a shot at Wimbledon or to guarantee a place on the Olympic team, but they do insinuate that the purchase of a Nautilus machine, a Nordic track, or a set of chromium-plated dumbbells will—if used according to the printed or videotaped directions—produce "buns of steel" and all the other attributes of the ideal physique. The message is clear and it is beamed at both men and women. You cannot realistically hope to become a champion athlete, but you can at least look—and love—like one. Medical experts assure us all that moderate exercise improves the body's circulatory system and reduces our vulnerability to cardiac arrest, but five minutes in the supermarket checkout line ("Firmer Thighs Will Attract His Eyes!") are enough to persuade anyone that a desire for longevity is not the only thing that motivates us to diet and exercise.

The assumption behind the advertisements for commodities as different as barbells and perfumes is that images of taut muscles and tight bodies will weaken a consumer's resistance and loosen his or her purse-strings. The most obvious materialization of this assumption may be Fox Television's popular weekly show, American Gladiators. Extremely muscular men and women, who have obviously spent innumerable hours "pumping iron," compete in a series of unique physical contests. Dressed in a variety of skimpy science-fiction outfits that accentuate different parts of their anatomy (e.g., women's thighs, men's pectoral muscles), the contestants wrestle, batter one another with padded poles, swing from rings, climb a cushioned pyramid from which other contestants try to hurl them to the floor, scale a wall under the same adverse condition, race up inclined treadmills that roll them backwards if they weaken, endeavor to knock or to pull each other from elevated platforms, and compete in a number of other newly invented sports, most of which allow for the ample demonstration of physical prowess and the generous display of secondary sex characteristics. The women, who seem invariably to be blonde if they are not African Americans, compete in exactly the same sports as the men. When not competing, the male and female contestants smile, gyrate seductively, flex and swagger. It is difficult to imagine a more egregious assertion of the erotic element in sports. It is difficult to imagine how anyone, at the end of the twentieth century, can fail to acknowledge that the Greeks were right about the erotic possibilities of the athletic body.

Allen Guttmann



(1)  This essay is based on material from chapters 1 and 5 in The Erotic in Sports, by Allen Guttmann © 1996 Columbia University Press. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

(2) James C. Whorton, Crusaders for Fitness (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982) 318–19.

(3) Andrew Doyle, "'Foolish and Useless Sport': The Southern Evangelical Crusade against College Football" (unpublished paper, 1994). See also William R. Hogan, "Sin and Sports," Motivations in Play, Games and Sports, eds. Ralph Slovenko and James A. Knight (Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1967) 121–47.

(4)  Douglas Booth, "Swimming, Surfing and Surf-Lifesaving," Sport in Australia, eds. Wray Vamplew and Brian Stoddart (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994) 236–238.

(5) Jennifer Hargreaves, Sporting Females (London: Routledge, 1994) 128–29.

(6) Jean Harvey, "Sport and the Quebec Clergy, 1930–1960," Not Just a Game, eds. Jean Harvey and Hart Cantelon (Ottowa: U of Ottowa P, 1988) 74. See also Jan Tolleneer, "Die Belgische Katolieke Turnbond," Voor Lichaam & Geest, eds. Mark D'hoker, Roland Renson, and Jan Tolleneer (Leuven: Universitaire Pers, 1994) 130–31.

(7)  Sigrid Block, Frauen und Mädchen in der Arbeitersportbewegung (Münster: LIT-Verlag, 1987) 333.

(8)  Gertrud Pfister, "Demands, Realties and Ambivalences—Women in the Proletarian Sports Movement in Germany (1893–1933)," Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal 3.2 (Fall 1994): 53.

(9) Franz Blei, "Wandlung der Oberfläche," quoted in Frank Becker, Amerikanismus in Weimar (Wiesbaden: Deutscher Universitäts Verlag, 1993) 320–21.

(10) Richard Mandell, The Olympics of 1972 (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991) 123.

(11) Donald Sabo and Michael A. Messner, "Whose Body Is This?" Women in Sport, ed. Greta L. Cohen (London: Sage, 1993) 18, 22. My disagreement on this point implies no lack of respect for the important work done by Sabo and Messner.

(12) Elliott J. Gorn and Michael Oriard, "Taking Sports Seriously," Chronicle of Higher Education 24 March 1995.

(13) Margaret Walters, The Nude Male (New York: Paddington Press, 1978) 14.

(14) Ulrika Prokop, Soziologie der Olympischen Spiele (Munich: Hanser Verlag, 1971) 21.

(15) Christine Kulke, "Emanzipation oder gleiches Recht auf 'Trimm Dich'?" Sport in der Klassengesellschaft, ed. Gerhard Vinnai (Munich: Fischer, 1972) 101.

(16) Nancy Theberge, "Sport and Women's Empowerment," Women's Studies International Forum 10.4 (1987): 89.

(17)  Richard D. Mandell, The First Modern Olympics (Berkeley: U of California P, 1976) 69.

(18)  Alphonso Lingis, Foreign Bodies (New York: Routledge, 1994) 128.

(19)  Wray Vamplew, "Boxing," Sport in Australia, eds. Wray Vamplew and Brian Stoddart (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994) 41.

(20)  David L. Chapman, Sandow the Magnificent (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1994) 59, 75. See also Gabriella Reece and Karen Karbo, Big Girl in the Middle (New York: Random House, 1997), which emphasizes the combination of athleticism and sexuality in beach volleyball.

(21) Richard Cashman, Paradise of Sport: The Rise of Organised Sport in Australia (South Melbourne: Oxford UP, 1995) 79.

(22) Jan Todd, "Bernarr Macfadden: Reformer of the Feminine Form," Journal of Sport History 14.1 (Spring 1987): 61–75. On the nineteenth-century German body-building culture that produced Sandow, see Bernd Wedemeyer, "Body-Building or Man in the Making," International Journal of the History of Sport 11.3 (December 1994): 472–84.

(23) Minneapolis Journal: quoted in Kevin Britz, "Of Football and Frontiers: The Meaning of Bronko Nagurski," Journal of Sport History 20.2 (Summer 1993): 116.

(24)  Kenneth R. Dutton, The Perfectible Body (New York: Continuum, 1995) 138.

(25)  Donald J. Mrozek, "Sport in American Life," Fitness in American Culture, ed. Kathryn Grover (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1989) 39.

(26)  Mike Featherstone, "The Body in Consumer Culture," The Body, eds. Mike Featherstone, Mike Hepworth, and Bryan S. Turner (London: Sage, 1991) 180.

(27)  Françoise Laget, Serge Laget, and Jean-Paul Mazot, Le Grand Livre du sport féminin (Belleville-sur-Saône: SIGEFA, 1982) 112.

(28)  Valerie Steele, Fashion and Eroticism (New York: Oxford UP, 1985) 5.

(29) Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits (New York: Knopf, 1994) 136.

(30)  Susan K. Cahn, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women's Sport (New York: Free Press, 1994) 47, 50.

(31)  Larry Engelmann, The Goddess and the American Girl (New York: Oxford UP, 1988).

(32)  Cahn 79.

(33)  Bill Cunningham, "The Colonel's Ladies," Colliers 97.28 (23 May 1936): 60–62.

(34)  Mabel Lee, "Sports and Games," Recreation 23 (July 1929): 223. Lee was, however, by no means personally insensitive to the attractiveness of female athletes; see Nancy B. Bouchier and Marla Steiner, "The Politics of the Physical," International Journal of the History of Sport 11.1 (April 1994): 10.

(35)  Ethel Bowers, "Giving the Girls a Chance," Recreation 26 (April 1932): 15–16.

(36)  Richard Fotheringham, Sport in Australian Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992) 181. Esther Williams played the role of Kellerman in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).

(37)  Engelmann 299, 305.

(38)  John B. Kennedy, "Little Miss Poker Face," Collier's 78 (18 September 1926): 10. Cahn observes in Coming on Strong that the reference to whiteness was an attempt to soften the shock of a visible triceps (212).

(39) Leslie Halliwell, Film Guide, ed. John Walker (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) 1092.

(40) Daniel Pedersen, "'To Finish on a High,'" Newsweek 123.8 (21 February 1994): 47.

(41) Yvonne Tasker, Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema (London: Routledge, 1993) 73. Among the athletes to appear on the screen in feature films were Jim Brown (The Dirty Dozen, 1967), O. J. Simpson (Capricorn One, 1978), Kareem Abdul-Jabar (Airplane, 1980), Bruce Jenner (Can't Stop the Music, 1980), and Shaquille O'Neal (Blue Chips, 1993).

(42)  Jill Neimark, "The Beefcaking of America," Psychology Today 27.6 (November–December 1994): 34–35. This ideal, however, seems to be more popular among men than among women.

(43)  Sam Fussell, "Bodybuilder Americanus," The Male Body, ed. Laurence Goldstein (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994) 43.

(44)  Molly Merryman, "Gazing at Artemis," Women, Media and Sport, ed. Pamela J. Creedon (London: Sage Publications, 1994) 310.

(45) Tasker 3.

(46)  Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight (Berkeley: U of California P, 1993) 103.

(47)  John Fiske, Television Culture (London: Routledge, 1989) 219.

(48)  Gert Hortleder and Gunter Gebauer, "Die künstliche Paradiese des Sports," Sport-Eros-Tod, eds. Gert Hortleder and Gunter Gebauer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1986) 12.

(49)  Margaret Morse, "Sport on Television," Regarding Television, ed. E. A. Kaplan (Los Angeles: University Publications of America, 1983) 45.

(50)  Beverley Poynton and John Hartley, "Male-Gazing," Television and Women's Culture, ed. Mary Ellen Brown (London: Sage Publications, 1990) 150; Nick Trujillo, "Machines, Missiles, and Men," Sociology of Sport Journal 12.4 (1995): 417.

(51)  There is a fine sequence on Macfadden in Laurie Block's documentary film, Fit: Episodes in the History of the Body (1991), from which the quotation is taken.

(52)  Anne Honer, "Beschreibung einer Lebens-Welt—Zur Empirie des Bodybuilding," Zeitschrift für Soziologie 14.2 (1985): 134.

(53)  Mike Featherstone, "The Body in Consumer Culture," Theory, Culture and Society 1.2 (1982): 18.

(54) Charles Gaines and George Butler, "Iron Sisters," Psychology Today 17.11 (November 1983): 67.

(55) Luc Boltanski, "Les usages sociaux du corps," Les Annales 26 (1971): 224, 227–28.

(56) Claude Bérard, "L'impossible femme athlète," Annali 8 (1986): 195.

(57)  Jennifer Hargreaves, Sporting Females (London: Routledge, 1994) 161.

(58) John Updike, "The Disposable Rocket," The Male Body 9 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1993-4). On the fitness craze, see Benjamin G. Rader, "The Quest for Self-Sufficiency and the New Strenuosity," Journal of Sport History 18.2 (Summer 1991): 255–66.

(59) Heike Egger, "'Sportswear': Zur Geschichte der Sportkleidung," Stadion 18.1 (1992): 146.

(60) Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971) 202.

(61) See Block's documentary film, Fit (1991).

(62) Janet C. Harris, Athletes and the American Hero Dilemma (Champaign: Human Kinetics, 1994) 33.

(63) Susan J. Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (New York: Times Books, 1994) 217.

(64)  "Coca-Cola: 'Parrainer, c'est avoir la foi,'" Olympic Magazine 4 (November 1994): 28–31.

(65)  Barbara Mehlman, "Changing Shapes Change Attitudes as Women Define an Image of Themselves," Madison Avenue 25 (June 1983): 69.

© 1998 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.