For/Agaist Feminist Resistance: Article by Niall Richardson

Niall Richardson journal article titled, Flex-rated! Female bodybuilding: Feminist Resistance or Erotic Spectacle (Journal of Gender Studies 17:4, 2008) offers two contrasting views on female bodybuilders, as outlined below:-

(1) Praise;
(2) Dismissal

Praise is about feminist resistance to traditional ideas of femininity. This view is also shared by post structural feminists. It is also a challenge to traditional female iconography or stable sex/gender continuum.

Dismissal is about “muscle worship” or doing homage to some supreme muscle “goddesses”. The living body sculpture is a strange form of sexual fetishism and erotic spectacle.

Richardson quoted academic literature on hyper muscular female bodybuilder’s opposition to traditional patriarchal ideas of femininity. However, critics quoted by the author reckoned the images of feminine iconography, eroticism and fetishism, as depicted in commercial e-media were accepted as erotic spectacle or dismissal of resistance. The commercial paid views were acts of sexual desire, short of coitus. Whether it is read as praise or dismissal, it depended on interpretation of context and the way it was coded in the representation or reception. The author elaborated that bodybuilding was a sport about weight resistance training, specialized high protein low carbohydrate diet, and anabolic drugs. He pursued by quoting experts that women could be strong and densely muscular, and as such, it poses challenges to biological and gender divide. The malleability of the body affirms that the body’s gender has performing effect and has flexibilities. Quoting Coles, Richardson wrote that gender was a kind of impersonation or imitation. Competitive bodybuilding demanded female athletes to transgress their feminism and yet maintain some feminine traits (breasts, hairstyles, adornment). Richardson did not explain why the flex hyper muscles were “love making vaginas” to their worshippers when they already possess normal biological organs. These female bodybuilders transform their bodies into “anthropomorphized phalluses”, that means to surrender their real biology for imagined images. This female athlete trained so hard not to offer resistance to patriarchal system but to inspire male fetishism and sadomasochism in order to allay their worshippers’ Freudian castration anxieties. They “flex their muscles even harder” to turn the sport into pornography for doubtful benefit, except eroticism. The pleasure of the female bodybuilder is the ability to control every voluntary muscle of the body in the mind-body link. Quoting academicians again, the author maintained that the superior mind represented masculinity whereas the” unruly body” with their menstrual cycles is coded as “bestial” femininity. The stresses of keeping up with the image of sexual goddess eventually break down, as observed in the relationship between worshipper Charles and body goddess, Aurora. Fashion expert theorized about the dialectic of clothes for bodybuilders, best to be clothed in partial rather than full nakedness for seduction. To gain respectability, IFBB (International Federation of Bodybuilding) stated new clothing and costume regulations on on-off stage appearances.

Despite this, strip tease shows continue to gain popularity, and female bodybuilders easily fall prey in the shadowy representation of sadomasochism, as witnessed in the figure of dominatrix. She is always in control, “feared and obeyed” by her male “slaves”. A detailed description of the act of sadomasochism was then described. However, the female bodybuilder differs from the dominatrix, for she has to maintain her muscles from atrophy. The bodybuilder requires constant hard training, strict nutrition and medication to maintain her body construction or “naturalness” of built. She “overpowers” and “humiliates” her worshippers in “acts” or “fixes”, by constant teasing. Popular psychology maintains that a male masochist visit a dominatrix to seek relief from patriarchal pressures and to enjoy the bliss of passivity when normally he is always in control in his work. Yet the arguments proceed that such subjugation provide opportunity for worshippers to regain lost control, and power, simply by requesting the dominatrix to “unmask” herself, or stop or change her pretence by prior consensual agreement. The author cautioned that it would “too simplistic” to reckon these “sexualized display were mere erotic spectacle, as there were other erotic spectacles around and abound .It is to be reminded that sexual taste and activities varies across individual appreciation. What is fascinating to the author is muscle worship challenges conventional queer and narrow definition of hetero-erotic. There are other alternative ways of sexual pleasure beyond gender based power relationship and hetero sexual penetration. These female bodybuilders push their bodies to almost absolute physical limit to achieve recognition in a male dominated sub-culture and gendered body.

Chris Shilling and Tanya Bunsell’s article, The female Body as a Gender Outlaw, not only dismisses the idea of female bodybuilder as feminist resistance, but also shout aloud at them as “disgusting” sexual deviant group, deserving condemnation by all. The co- authors regard female bodybuilders are not alone in transgressing gendered interactions as transsexuals or lesbians. Female boxers, bouncers and soldiers are also all multiple transgressors for they have “polluted” gender norms, “aesthetically, kinesthetically and phenomenologically” .These female bodybuilders have excesses of muscular and deviant actions, excesses of dietary consumption, and excesses of drugs (anabolic steroid, testosterone and growth hormone). They are stigmatized, considered gender outlaws and cause “moral panic” and “collective conscience” by their looks and posture. I think such criticism appear excessive, but not unreasonable for those who hold on to strict gender divide. Most importantly, muscularity is more than a ‘visual marker “to signal man’s dominance in the social and cultural arena. Far from being an erotic spectacle, they encounter social sanctions, face social inconveniences in daily interactions, and without making real significant impact on feminine resistance on patriarchal ideas on femininity. The sad thing is they are unprepared to make adjustment to achieve their initial goal.

Nicholas Chare article, Women’s Bodybuilding: Towards a Radical Politics of muscle, queried whether female resistance must occur on conspicuous “marked contrast”, instead of subtle and obvious change. This was evident in the first generation of female bodybuilders, who were “ostensibly fit bodies”, yet emanate youthful feminist look. Fitness gets the female athlete into shape, whereas excessive work-out distorts her shape and interrupts the life style, complicated by pain, power and financial promises or penalties. The paper quoted Castelnuovo and Guthrie conception of two forms of resistance. Both “reverse resistance” and “resistance as freedom” were inspired by Foucault. The former is resistance within power relations, whereas the latter is “breaking out of the discourse” that links sexuality to identity beyond gender stereotypes .Chare wrote that bodies only exists through the functions of power, and, in turn, it is power that enables the bodies to be perceived as either good or bad. The body of hyper muscular woman is endless performance at the edge of dismemberment of body parts. The body is paired and fragmented into body parts in the work-out. Muscles per se are meaningless outside the context and coding in representations, unless the female bodybuilders are willing to produce counter-hegemony via her contest.

In “Flexing the Tension of Female Muscularity”, Lex Boyle noted IFBB’s ideals on balance between gender muscularity and feminine sexuality. The current shifting trend is due to gains made by feminine resistance in civil-right movement and experiences over the decades. A female athlete must be fit and muscular (perfect symmetry, even proportions and acceptable muscular size, as stated by Andra), and yet possess graceful femininity. Her biological sex, gender and heterosexual identity must remain intact, and able to enjoy hetero-sexual relationship, or, I may be allowed to add, even “normal” lesbianism, not extreme enough to cause what Kate cautioned as “moral panic”, but her own personal choice and expression of gender freedom.

Today, with changing political, ideological and social paradigm shift, there is a declining trend for professional female bodybuilding. The professional trade is dying. Feminist resistance to hegemonic patriarchal ideology is fought not via exhibition of body muscles alone, but gain through political power. Normal sex appeal, rather than abnormal erotic spectacle or sick sadomasochism, is now gaining popularity.

Richardson’s research article assumes that there are only two available choices (praise for feminine resistance or dismiss as erotic spectacle) that existing academic literature wrote on female bodybuilders. These females transgress not only gender hierarchies and hegemonies, but also sexual, technological and medical as well. Their resistance to cultural ideas of femininity is not well elucidated in her long article. Perhaps participating in the sport in a dominant male game is an initial form of resistance. These female bodybuilders believe they are putting up shows against the patriarchal system against feminism; in fact, they conform to it without realization. Worst still, they transform themselves into strange erotic spectacle for certain groups of male worshippers. Richardson wrote about feminist resistance without exploration of the power (politics, social and economics) inequalities that were inherent in the bodies. However, the author has rightly stated that interpretation of the images of female bodybuilders is dependent on perception and perspective of the context coded within the representation.


1.Richardson,Niall(2007)Flex-rated!Female:Bodybuilding:feminist resistance or erotic spectacle?Uni Sussex, UK
2.Shilling,Chris El al (2009) The Female Bodybuilder as a Gender Outlaw.Qualitative Research in Sports and Exercises.Vol 1 Issue 2 pp 141-159
3.Chare,Nicholas (2004)Women’s Body Building: Towards aRadical Politics of Muscle, LIMINA,Vol.10 cited 10-11-2012
4. Boyle,Lex(2005)Flexing the Tensions of Female Muscularity: How Female Bodybuilders Negotiate Normative Femininity in Competitive Bodybuilding.Women’s Studies Quartely, Spring2005pp 134-149.
5.Female Bodybuilders Free Term Essay. cited on 22-11-2012
6. Longhurst,Brian(2008) Introducing Cultural Studies, 2nd Ed. Chap 8.Pearson Longman.
7.Free Encyclopedia:, Politics: Re-conceives the Body cited 10-11-2012

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