The Demise of American Muscle and the Few Who Want Its Return

The 1980’s were the glory days of hypermasculinity. Stallone, Van Damme, Schwarzenegger, and their cohorts couldn’t wait to rip off their shirts to save the world. It was a time when you could settle an issue with an arm wrestle. But these days have long gone, and while a small number of steroid junkies still live for its revival, their efforts have landed American muscle in the background of reality television shows, like Jersey Shore, that are more of a punchline than a punch up hit.

The push for its comeback is no more evident than in Stallone’s upcoming movie, The Expendables, which is said to be a revival of ’80s flicks and stars Stallone, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis — just to name a few. Growing up with my eyes glued to these action movies, I have to say I’m slightly excited to relive my childhood up on the silver screen; but only in the same way Adam Sandler found the humor in sticking a grown man back in elementary school in Billy Madison. At some point, the time has passed.

But while movies like this may be a childish thing for our culture, it may also be answering just what society is asking for. Michael Kimmel, a sociologist, depicts in his book, Guyland, an entitled generation where men thought the world was theirs, but they awoke to a much different reality when women began moving up in the workforce and many of their privileges they once felt were inherited, had now gone missing. But it is this confusion, Kimmel says, that is causing guys to take an extra decade to grow up and become men. Movies, like The Expendables, could likely help fill that void by re-establishing hypermasculinity as a dominating force.

Paul Solotaroff is one man who was caught up in the masculine ideal of the glory days, that is now recognizing the downward effect it had on his life. He is a contributing editor at Men’s Journal and Rolling Stone, as well as the author of his new memoir, The Body Shop — which details his obsession with bodybuilding and weightlifting in the ’70s that tore his body apart, led to him becoming a stripper, and signed him up for lifelong health problems.

Recently, in an interview with Salon, Solotaroff opened up and discussed some of the changes in muscle he sees today. For instance, yoga has replaced lifting as a healthy alternative, which he describes as for the better.

Muscle is no longer the kind of freakish totem that it used to be. You don’t have to be an iron head to get noticed anymore — I think there are lots of muscular guys who don’t lift weights. Yoga muscle is the real elixir these days. If anybody’s a pimp these days, it’s the guys who are at the front of classes at Crunch who have that long, really dense, righteously earned muscle from doing four and five hours of postures every day. I think that’s really healthy, because that’s really useful. My muscle is useless. It’s much more grown-up muscle, more about inhabiting your body intelligently as a man rather than still doing what I do, which is carry around this adolescent fantasy of masculinity.

He also details what he sees as the cause of this change:

Well, muscle got so commodified in the ’90s — action-flick stars, massively built ballplayers and the gorgons of professional wrestling — that it stopped being a freak show and became a lifestyle, or the adjunct, at least, to one. Where once it was the banner of blue-collar macho men, suddenly wealthy men were flocking to gyms and putting on size like a pair of British wingtips. They got what Schwarzenegger was selling all those years — that muscle, properly packaged, radiates power. And when women of style stopped being repulsed by brawn and found that they actually liked it, the stampede was on at high-end health clubs and the mass-market chains. The owners of Crunch and Equinox should send Ah-nuld a monthly check — not that the bastard needs it.

Some of it is probably cyclical. You go from the kind of wispy Williamsburg paradigm to its polar opposite and then back again. In this country we go from electing a Bush to an Obama. These cycles used to have 20-year arcs. Now the oscillation is much faster. I also think they’re much more fractional. I think there’s one body style that rules the day in Brooklyn, and then another in Bayonne, and a third in Short Hills. I just feel that everything now is so segmented so we’re really living three generations at once.

As for popular culture, Solotaroff sees muscle culture taking over in sports:

If you really want to talk about what’s happened in muscle culture, the place you really have to turn to is sports. We took muscle out of the comic books and we put it on the football field. All you’ve got to do is go to ESPN classic or MLB where they’re constantly showing games from the ’50s and ’60s. Look how skinny and skeletal those guys who threw a ball and swung a bat were and flash forward to utility infielders in the last generation. It’s like we’ve populated sports with a new species. We got rid of all those gifted but hopeless losers with their 175-pound frames and the natural cutting motion of their fork ball and replaced them with these 6-foot-6-inch mastodons who routinely throw 95 in the seventh inning. Sports became less about beauty, grace and the human consequences of athletic endeavor; it became this Roman spectacle in which the fantasy was right there in front of us.

Solotaroff discusses his generation around the time of Arnold Schwarzenegger:

We all came out from the same paradigm, I think. We all came out of this lonely boyhood fantasy of what constituted manhood that had been bubbling up for 20 years. It all grows out of this subliminal idea that America was suddenly this muscular place. We’d won the war. America as a superpower is only an idea that’s 50, 60 years old. We don’t really become this kind of military empire until the age of Eisenhower, the tipping point being winning the Second World War and doing so by ramping up this enormous military-industrial complex on a shoestring — people bringing in their pots and pans to make fucking Howitzer rounds and build submarines. But we did it. And the America that comes out of the Second World War is an enormously prosperous, proud and expansive place where everything is possible.

Solotaroff also discusses muscle as a way he could prove his masculinity and be recognized by his father. In addition, he discusses how the use of steroids makes other drug use inevitable as a way to balance out its high strung effect.

With problems like Solotaroff described, we must ask ourselves if an American muscle revival is really necessary. We can think back on the glory days for a fond memory, but anything else, does us no good. Mira Nair, Indian movie director, said, “I know what it’s like to be in one place and dream of another. I also know what it’s like to feel that nostalgia is a fairly useless thing because it is stasis.” Stallone can push for its comeback as much as he’d like, but with all the progress towards the quiet strength of the new-and-improved masculinity, I doubt many wish hypermasculinity to be more than a punchline on a reality TV show poking fun at a culture in which we once lived.

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