The video screen shows a nerdy 30-something white man wearing dark pants and loafers, anxiously standing alone on a football field. Suddenly he starts running away, quickly and awkwardly. The viewer soon sees why, for the unathletic loner is being chased by a young male football player in full protective gear. The pursuer easily catches up with his prey and mercilessly sacks him. There is a thud and a gasp, followed by laboured breathing. This scenario is repeated again and again, with slight variations. The caption beneath the work by artist Joe Sola explains that it was made in 2001 to reveal the ‘choreographed failure’ of masculinity and sport. I applaud Sola’s willingness to endure physical pain for his art, taking up a passive, even humiliating role. After all, I can relate.
Failure is part of weight training in an obvious way. When the body refuses to do another rep despite every effort, there is a fascinating mind-body disconnect. I realize that I am supposed to reject the Descartian heritage and not think in such binary terms but why pretend? I love muscle failure, especially when I am training shoulders. My muscles disobey me, causing my arms to hover in mid-dumbbell press. Then failure is resplendently visible for me and everyone else to see. The other day I tried to increase my 5 sets/6 reps of incline chest presses from 70 to 80 pounds. On the third set my muscles refused to budge and eye candy #3 had to help me lift the bar and put it back on the rack. ‘That’s a lot of weight’ he said approvingly before his cell phone rang and he strutted way. A slight bonus but I was still pissed. ‘Mother fuck!’ I hissed once he was out of ear shot. Yet I was pleased with my body for its noncompliance (a word used by a certain sleep apnea doctor when my partner returned his Darth Vader oxygen mask, declaring it to be ‘bullshit’). Feminist Figure Girl is not about attaining complete control of my body; it is about inevitably failing to do so.
I think bodybuilding competitions are essentially about failure. As far as I can tell they are not about winning per se, but include pushing the body to its limits, learning about what it will endure, and seeing how it will react to different supplements and foods. I will most certainly lose my figure competition and might even come in last, for I am not the fittest girl at the gym (at least not yet), though I do triumph in the ABSolution class. I have a crazy-ass strong core and if you doubt me I hereby challenge you to a side plank contest. With one leg hovering in the air of course. I am not an athlete and am not attractive in bodybuilding terms, that is, in a conventional way, with even, plain features, like Jennifer Aniston. I am not sure why she is consistently named among the most beautiful people in the world, when any woman from Ethiopia is 100 times better looking in my opinion. Luckily figure and bodybuilding contests are about setting goals and improving, testing and learning. Competitors like to do research and so do I.
Failure is good for the soul and I need more of it. In all other aspects of my life I am what you might call a ‘good producer.’ I out-publish most people. I get grants. Tony Soprano would call me a ‘good earner’ too, before chopping off my head and discovering my toupee. I perform well in the classroom, delivering complex material in a succinct fashion, though I loathe any demands that I be a nurturing professor. Such demands are regularly made of female faculty, and this smacks of sexism as well as of nostalgia for a chubby, warm, grade 3 teacher named Mrs. Cobbold. Sorry kids, emotional labour falls outside of my job parameters. Too bad most of them have seen ridiculous Hollywood movies, like Lions for Lambs, which features Robert Redford as a California college professor who sits around in his office waiting for students to drop by so that he can engage them in lengthy conversations about the meaning of life. What a useless, lazy asshole. I tried to watch this film once on an airplane, but I could not stomach it. Do you know what that kind of behaviour would get a real professor at a real university? Fired! But I guess all professions are misrepresented in the media. We are familiar with cops who drink, teachers who sing, nurses who steal prescription drugs, and moms who grow pot in the basement. How likely is that?
I need to cultivate my masochism. To be precise I need to develop my reflexive or secondary masochism, the kind that turns primary sadism back upon the self. And yes I did spend my entire first year of graduate school reading Freud. What a life changing activity that was, though I am not at all interested in dream analysis. Those John Lithgow nightmares are easily explained, and luckily he is fully clothed in them. Still, he has a pretty good ass for a man of his age, don’t you think? If you have not yet watched Season 4 of Dexter you should be prepared to savour Lithgow’s naked butt cheeks more than once. Maybe the director of NYPD Blue was involved in choreographing the fourth season. I’m ready for my close up Mr. Bochco. Well, after I do a few thousand more hack squats. Who knows what fresh humiliations await me.
Interesting post. I do however think you are confusing failing and failure. Pushing your limits as you did in the chest press is failing but definately not failure. The goal is to push yourself to the “point of failing” – you did that so you succeeded. As you state you were temporarily pissed that you weren’t able to complete the set, then pleased that you reached the goal, sorry but this sounds nothing like failure.
The artist that you mentioned at the top of your post set himself up to fail. He had no chance, he deliberatly put himself in harms way – didn’t know what the outcome might be injury wise. He took a risk. I question whether weighlifting/bodybuilding constitutes risk taking, i know there is potential for injury, but if you pay attention to your form and ask for help when you neeed it, risk is minimized.
Can you truly have failure without risk? Is not being the “best” at something failure? We are all limited in every capacity – intellectually, physically etc. There will always be someone better at whatever we endeavour to do.
Doing well at something (but not winning) that we excel at or have a keen interest doesn’t feel like failure unless you are solely focussed on wining the prize / cup.
I guess for me a “less than ideal outcome” is not failure – a complete reversal of what one set out to do is failure. I think the nuturing professor who tries to counsel a vulnerable student and despite her effort the student, drops out, flunks out etc. might experience failure in a profound way.
Thanks Chris. It’s true that muscle failure is a goal. I think that wearing a speedo and getting oiled up to display oneself on stage is
pretty risky though, don’t you?
I say more brave than risky. More about overcoming own’s own insecurities, exposing yourself for critical review in way that you aren’t used to take a trememdous amount of courage but it seems different that risk taking… What can one lose my doing this? I am not saying one is better or more noble than the other, just different.