The Body Politic

Weighing In on the Modern Amazon

Amazons, says Laurie Fierstein, a bodybuilder and social activist who is one of the show's curators, have always been "rendered invisible within our culture because they depart from the gender norm. The response to this particular female image has always been one of lust and dread, fear of a woman who has built a body consciously and painstakingly. There's a cultural need to vanquish the Amazon. She's a powerful creature who needs to be destroyed."

But, let's face it, how puissant is a cartoon? How truly subversive of cultural norms? According to Fierstein, a "muscular woman is a metaphor for a powerful woman," a fact borne out by . . . what? Wonder Woman? The cult of Xena? The New Museum show's wealth of drawings, photographs, videos, sculptures, and comic books by artists from Matthew Barney to Louise Bourgeois valorizes Woman as an overwhelmingly physicalized presence. And that's a good thing. But it's not exactly new iconic territory. And any unease elicited by strong-girl imagery is probably outstripped by a comforting sense that, in the form of the bodybuilder, woman is right where she's always belonged: static, posed, and objectified. As critic Susan Bordo writes, "To reshape one's body into a male body is not to put on male power and privilege. To feel autonomous and free while harnessing body and soul to an obsessive body-practice is to serve, not transform a social order that limits female possibilities." The same sentiment was once expressed with some pathos by Lenda Murray, the phenomenally muscular Ms. Olympia who—even after attaining female bodybuilding's pinnacle six times—found herself reduced to hawking fitness tights and fending off scripts for cheesy movie roles. "I don't want to just look into the camera," said Murray, "and growl."

Betty Moore: "As far as I'm concerned, anyone can look at me and tell I'm a woman."
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Betty Moore: "As far as I'm concerned, anyone can look at me and tell I'm a woman."

A bodybuilder's "too muchness," as manifest in "Picturing the Modern Amazon," is "still considered extreme, excessive, a deviant behavior," as Fierstein says. It's grotesque. And the grotesque body is no more welcome outside the freak-show precincts than it was in Vulcana's day. "One of the things we explore [in the show]," explains Fierstein, "is the body being celebrated in its largeness, taking up space, pushing itself in public space." But the public transaction doesn't compare with the anguished private one, where we all take refuge from a puritan culture's obsessive insistence that we fetishize and package ourselves.

"I am now seeing a very big picture," says Susan Bordo, "in which men and women alike are being drawn into a kind of everyday obsessiveness about their bodies. It gets associated with freedom and taking space, but it's obsession."

Betty Moore wakes every day at 3:30 to be in the gym by five. She eats a full meal every two and a half hours and is generally in bed by nine. "Bodybuilding changed my life in major ways," she says. "Now everything revolves around my training. I eliminated so much. I don't socialize at all. I train, I work, I prepare my meals, and I go to bed. That kind of sets you apart from everyone. People have a stereotype that he or she is a musclehead and they don't have anything else going on. I don't have a social life, but that doesn't mean I'm stupid. I'm focused. Doing this is the most important thing to me, so it's all totally worth it. It's a strange life, but I love it."

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