Two on One: “Picturing the Modern Amazon”

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Two on One


by Ed Forgotson Jr. and Laurie Stone


THE SETUP: A few weeks ago, Ed Forgotson Jr. and Laurie Stone attended the opening of “Picturing the Modern Amazon,” an exhibition on female bodybuilders, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City (catalog available from Rizzoli). They watched, rapt, as a few of the women featured in the exhibit, like Andrulla Blanchette and Christa Bauch, glistened and flexed in the museum’s street-level windows, attracting a large crowd of passersby.This week in Two on One, Forgotson, a New York-based documentary producer, and Stone, theater critic for The Nation, exchange thoughts on femininity, body image and the world’s buffest women.

LAURIE STONE: I was attracted to the show because I’m interested in extreme behaviors, the ways people defy traditional limits and boundaries. Lisa Lyon was probably the first woman bodybuilder I’ve ever seen, in the Mapplethorpe photos. She blew me away. She was beautiful, and she made female muscle — and the image of strength it represented — very sexy. What attracted you to the show?

ED FORGOTSON: My motivations for seeing the women bodybuilders exhibit are pretty base. I think women’s muscles are sexy. I’m not so much of an ass-man or a breast-man as I am a glutes-man, pecs-man, biceps-man. Ever since I was about twelve, I’ve been turned on by the look of sleek, oiled and sinewy women’s bodies. Just when the old hormones started kicking in, I saw these fantastic women (on an episode of Real People), and now I get a rush of pleasure every time I see one squeeze out a pose. What were your impressions?

STONE: The space was crowded and I couldn’t see much in the window, but I looked at the women walking around in the museum, at their near nakedness and the way they dealt with being stared at — very easily. They liked it, were used to it. It strikes me that that much muscle is a kind of clothing. The muscles are what they wear, a kind of armor. Nakedness doesn’t make them seem vulnerable, as it would a person who is soft and has parts that are pendulous. It was exciting to see them up close, because they are so willed and strange, women who have made themselves look indistinguishable not only from men but the strongest, most muscular men. These bodies — whether you look at them as social statements, or performance art about the body, or sculptural forms — were so much more compelling than any of the art on the walls, though I did enjoy the archival pictures of strong women from the past as well as the cartoons and fantasy images. As to the erotic attraction you have to women’s muscles, is the blurring of sex-identities part of the turn-on?

FORGOTSON: It depends on what you mean by “blurring the sex identities.” All too often, people dismiss female bodybuilders as being little more than men in drag. Now there are some cases where it’s fair to play Austin Powers — “that’s a man, man!” But for the most part, that’s just a cheap shot. In my eyes, there is something very feminine about these women precisely because of their muscles, not in spite of them. Maybe it’s because I don’t define “femininity” by a woman’s weakness, passivity or conformity. When a woman becomes very muscular, it reflects a certain boldness of spirit. The women bodybuilders I fell for back in the early 80’s were only about as muscular as today’s beach volleyball players or aerobics models — and they seemed huge back then. Now look at the famous shot of Brandi Chastain: she’s pretty buff. And that’s pretty much mainstream now.

STONE: It’s a different proposition to be attracted to a buff volleyball player and an enormous female bodybuilder. All the women at the museum as well as those depicted in the photographs blur the boundaries between what a man and what a woman look like. They change the way we view bodies in general. It used to be that muscles and weight-lifting were thought of as unfeminine — and threatening to masculinity — whereas now we have gotten used to thinking of women’s muscles as sexy. That blurring is scary to some people, because it says that gender images aren’t fixed or natural but fabricated. When I think about having sex with a muscular man, part of the appeal of his body is the visible symbol of strength. I find it exciting and reassuring to think that my aggression can be contained by this person. I won’t be able to overwhelm him. I wonder if you feel that with strong women. I think with an artist like Robert Crumb, who is open about his hostility toward women, the hypermuscular women he draws are so big and strong that nothing he imagines doing to them can cause much harm. I wonder if, for some men, the hypermuscular woman is a safe ground on which to enact feelings of violence. It’s interesting that you say the muscles arouse tenderness in you. Does it have anything to do with enjoying the notion of surrendering to someone who is very strong?

FORGOTSON: Do I like muscles because they make it safe to enact violence against women? No, that’s Crumb’s own fantasy, although I’d guess from the violence expressed in a lot of the art in the show, he’s not alone. For me, a woman’s muscles display her ability to absorb and dish out sex. Rough sex can have a degree of violence to it, but it’s more about letting yourself go wild. Frailty puts limits on how far you can go. Having power over your own body ultimately translates into having power over your sexuality. If you extend that line of reasoning, a powerful body is a sexy body — male or female. Plus, yes, I’ll admit I’ve got an attraction for a woman who could do as she pleases with me.

STONE: What strikes me about both hypermuscular men and women is that the entire body seems to represent a sexual organ: it’s engorged and veiny and pared down to pure meat without fat — a penis, in a sense. I enjoy thinking of my own leanness and hardness — to the degree I have these qualities — as something insertive. The body can cut through crowds.

FORGOTSON: As I’m sure you know, the clitoris gets its own little erection too . . .

STONE: I don’t find hypermuscular bodies of either sex especially sexy. I think for both sexes huge muscles obscure secondary sexual characteristics. Women lose their breasts because they don’t have enough body fat. Men’s penises look small in relationship to their thighs and chests. In the cartoons, there is very little sex. Mostly the figures battle, or strut, or pose. We don’t see sex organs. There’s very little humor either. I liked Marnie Weber’s collage “The Competition,” because I thought it was funny. It shows all these humongous women striking bodybuilding poses on jagged rocks. They have on animal heads, and in the audience little furry bunnies are watching. The piece expresses what I feel about the radical reshaping of women’s bodies, that it gives rise to all sorts of fantasies. To me, hypermuscular bodies not only suggest sex organs, they seem to be presenting the insides of the body worn on the outside — the fact that we see sinew and all the outlines of the body as if skin and fat have been flayed away. I think there’s a blending of flesh and the inanimate, too, in that the figures strive to resemble marble statues or suggest a fusing of flesh and machine, cyborgs of sorts — especially in some of the cartoons. Or a blending of animal and human. That’s where I think these bodies are sexiest, in that they seem beastlike, libidinal, expressing something powerful and maybe dangerous. In her catalog essay for the show, bodybuilder Natalie Gassel talks about the excitement of feeling “swollen with blood” and imagining subduing her lovers as willing prey. She likes the idea of carrying around a slender, compliant male. Maybe this connects to your fantasy of mating with an Amazon.

FORGOTSON: “A slender, compliant male” — hmmm. Now this is getting interesting. But it’s not merely the sexual experience I crave. On an intellectual level, submitting to an Amazon actually represents the surrender of my mind to her body. The ancients always attributed all the bestial aspects of humanity to women, and when you’re a modern man, confronted with a woman whose body is so big and powerful, it’s an overload of sensation and symbolism — from a real person standing in front of you. So if the Amazon represents both a regressive (primitive animal body) image as well as a progressive (liberated intelligent woman) image, what can you make of her? The collage “The Competition” is a great expression of the bewilderment I feel. So much of the art responds to the Amazon by mocking, attacking or submitting to her. None of these responses is particularly satisfying. I’m drawn rather to the images that are less loaded with meaning, the ones in which the muscularity surprises you, such as the rear view of Kay Baxter. You see her skirt blown by the wind, and at first she looks like a little coquette. But then you notice that her calves are bulging out and her sun dress is draped over those powerful shoulders.

STONE: I like looking at my own muscles. I build muscle for aesthetic reasons, though I’ve also become stronger by lifting weights. As far as my own autoerotic fantasies go, though, I’m excited by the idea of my body as a woman’s body, as opposed to a man’s body or an androgyne. I’m small and slender. I was interested in Laurie Fierstein’s body because she is short and yet she has pumped herself into a block of muscle. Some drag kings I’ve met have encouraged me to cross-dress — adopt the facial hair, the body language and so on — and try passing as male. I’m not attracted to the trip. I tell myself it’s because I have more power in the world as a small sexy woman than as a small, slender male. But I don’t think this is the reason: I like looking female, but I also like my butch qualities, like swaggering and tough-mindedness. Still, if I had the time to devote to my body that bodybuilders do, I would like to have larger muscles, muscles that might even repulse some people. The image of a hard exterior makes me feel less like a soft, undefined thing that can spill over with needs. Even so, with men, I’m much more likely to win with my brains than my body.

FORGOTSON: Brains always win over brawn! Again, it’s a female bodybuilder’s mind that’s really interesting. Amazons aren’t born, after all, they’re made. They’re exercising a terrific will over their bodies. But for what? Certainly not the money or the popular acclaim — because there seems to be very little of either. I assume that part of their motivation is to be sexually desirable.

STONE: Judging from the interviews in the catalog, their motivations and fantasies are quite varied. I think your wish that they want to make themselves into sex machines is charming, but I doubt it’s the deepest desire in all of the women. As we’ve both pointed out, many don’t seem to be interested in sex but rather the mirror and the spectators. I think sexiness comes from looking like you want to be touched. These women express something closer to “look but don’t touch,” the message we get in museums. Have you ever had sex with a very muscular woman?

FORGOTSON: No. I guess they don’t hang out in the same bars as I do.

STONE: What do you fantasize it would be like?

FORGOTSON: I’d like to see if I could pleasure one of these women to the point where her strength melted away, and then watch her build herself back up and throw all her power into our sexual exchange.

I knew one woman who competed in bodybuilding contests, and I remember that she was afraid that if a man were to have sex with her while she was dieting for contests, he might feel he was sleeping with a man. It was almost comic that such an imposing woman was prey to such a simple insecurity. But these women are terribly concerned with the reaction they get from others. Why else would they get up on stage and pose? Why else would they flaunt their muscles? Throughout the evening at the New Museum, a huge crowd — all men — stood on the sidewalk outside, pressed up against the glass, and the female bodybuilders posing and preening inside knew we were all there to see them.

“Picturing the Modern Amazon” will be shown at the New Museum through June 25. Museum window performances will be repeated on May 20 and 27 and June 3. Call the New Museum at 212-219-1222 or visit its website for more information.

©2000 Ed Forgotson Jr. and