Can You Be Too Buffed?

Alan Bostick says:

I’ve been thinking about Nicolas Cage in Ghost Rider, which I saw just over a week ago.

Cage is an actor who alternates between heavy-duty action-hero roles (as in Con Air) and more serious, thoughtful parts (e.g. Bringing Out the Dead or Adaptation). Ghost Rider is not a serious and thoughtful movie — it’s an adaptation of a B-list Marvel comic.

As a contemporary action hero, Cage needs to present a buffed,muscular physique. The paragon of the genre is seven-time Mister Universe and known “juicer,” i.e., steroid-user (Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film Adaptation has one unintentionally funny moment when Cage, playing out-of-shape screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, did a shirt-off scene, trying to look fat and out of shape. He’s hunched over, sort of hiding his washboard abs. Nice try, Nick. Where’s that Hollywood movie magic when we need it? (How tall was King Kong?)

One way I exercise is by lifting weights. I enjoy how it makes my body feel. One effect of my years of weightlifting has been that I have added substantial muscle bulk to my frame. I like how working out makes my body feel, and I like the resulting strength it has given me. The experience of gaining muscle bulk was transformative experience, largely positive, in a way that’s worth an essay on its own. At the same time, though, bodybuilding seems misguided to me, and I find its aesthetic to be grotesque. The bodybuilding ideal looks to me like a body that has been flayed, the skin and fat removed to show the muscles beneath.

Just as the women of Hollywood do not look like real women, the men of Hollywood do not look like real men. I remember noticing, when I first saw The Empire Strikes Back in its original release in 1980, that Mark Hamill, playing Luke Skywalker training to be a Jedi under Yoda’s tutelage, showed what looked to my eye then as remarkable muscle development in his arms and shoulders. Since then (and since I took to weight training myself) I realized quite how many of the men in the movies were buffed and toned. Even Actors’ actors like George Clooney, Tobey McGuire, Matt Damon, and so on, have that look. I imagine that the great actors live with the fear that the next job might go to someone who might not act as well but whose physique looks good enough to make up for it.

I now know, from my experience of weight training, that the visual ideal of manliness as propagated in the media takes extraordinary determination, attention, time, and effort to approach. The ordinary man in the street doesn’t come close. Even the man who works out in the gym multiple times weekly only loosely approximates the ideal — and not even loosely if he is a “hardgainer,” someone who gains relatively little muscle bulk through weight training. To get there, one has to cross the line to obsession, and (if one isn’t blessed with the right metabolism) resort to risky artificial aids such as steroids.

Cage has a shirt-off scene in Ghost Rider, too, just out of the shower and in front of a mirror. His torso and arms have the grotesque, alien appearance of the hypermuscular bodybuilder, looking as if they were drawn by a pulp artist more fond of muscles than knowledgeable about human anatomy.

In that scene, Cage does not look healthy to my eye. Without any direct knowledge, I imagine that he too, was juicing. His body doesn’t seem to have an ounce of fat. Indeed, througout the film I was noticing how gaunt and haggard his face appeared.

Now maybe this is an example of Hollywood movie magic at work. After all, Cage was playing Johnny Blaze, a damned soul whose head transforms at night into a flaming skull. Or maybe he was cast for the part because of his gaunt appearance.

But seeing him in the role, particularly with the scene with his bare torso, was watching someone who I believe was doing damage to himself in the service of trying to attain an arbitrary and unnatural ideal of manliness.

The effect is that he doesn’t represent that ideal so much as serve as an unconscious parody of it. He looks like a cautionary tale: If you overdo it and pursue the image rather than pursuing health and well-being, you could wind up looking like me.

As a man, and especially as a heterosexual man comfortably partnered in long-term relationships, I don’t have the social pressure on me to look great in order to attract and keep a mate. “I don’t see people like me on the silver screen” is a different experience from “If I can’t make myself look like that, I will fail in my life and be unable to find happiness.” I’m not, by a long shot, the only man seeing these images over and over and over.

Nicolas Cage, weightlifting, body+building, steroids, juicing, Ghost Rider, body image, men, masculinity, Body Impolitic

2 thoughts on “Can You Be Too Buffed?

  1. Alan makes a good point. I think the “pumped up sexualization” if I may twist the bodybuilding phrase a bit, of our role models (primarily celebrities and movie actors), has the tragic effect of making women, and increasingly men as well, feel unworthy of intimacy because of not meeting an unrealistic ideal.

  2. I’m currently in the middle of reading The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine by Shigehisa Kuriyama, and it’s exactly the book you want to read–it’s got extensive material about how the west got to be so muscle-centered (until a century ago, Chinese didn’t even have a word for muscle).

    It isn’t so much an “everything you know is wrong” as “everything you thought you knew is much more contingent than you ever guessed”.

    Chinese diagnostic pulse-taking isn’t about the heartbeat and a lot (all?) of it isn’t about the circulation of the blood.

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