Pain & Gain within the fitness industrial complex

Pain & Gain participates in a broader network that connects the fitness and entertainment industries, a set of connections best exemplified in the trend of promoting Hollywood blockbusters with branded workout routines. Superhero franchises have been the quickest to adopt this advertising technique, fomenting competing ideologies about their actors’ superhuman physiques and the attainability of these physiques through commodified training regimes.[26] Even blockbusters whose narratives have no direct link to the promotion of workout culture follow this trend, as in the case of The Legend of Tarzan (David Yates, 2016). Despite the film’s star Alexander Skarsgard continually bemoaning the unpleasantness of his workout regime, the film’s marketing centered on the extraordinary physique the actor attained to play a man from the jungle and on the means for replicating such a body. Ironically, the promotional video “Tarzan Challenge,” which features celebrity personal trainers Nick Hounslow and Teri Ann Krefting demonstrating a series of exercises on a jungle-themed set, ignores formal conventions of the training video such as performing an entire set of exercises in real-time.[27] [open endnotes in new window] In failing to deliver a workable workout routine, the video betrays its exclusively promotional nature. The contradiction between pain and pleasure, and between extraordinary bodies and the ordinary means to achieve them, becomes a structuring ideology for the fitness industrial complex.

Focusing on Pain & Gain allows for a sustained examination of the rise of global fitness culture as tied to mainstream Hollywood productions and of the function of working out as neoliberal ascetic ideal. Michael Bay’s feature provides a unique entry into these concerns because, even as it allows for instances of critique, the film remains tied to the celebration of fit bodies and of its star actors, particularly Mark Wahlberg. Late in the film, during a climactic scene where the protagonists attempt to chop the bodies of a former investor and his wife, Danny and Adrian strip down to their underwear to perform the messy procedure. As the mobile camera follows Danny back and forth between the body parts and the tools, it continuously catches glimpses of Danny’s underwear, the white Calvin Klein trunks that Wahlberg is known for promoting. Michael Bay’s predilection for multiple camera setups at various angles across the 180-degree line results in the centering of Wahlberg’s back and underwear throughout the sequence even as his character moves around frantically. The film retains a fascination with the actor’s body and its commercial appeal despite the purported separation between him and the fictional character he plays. Further conflating the star appeal with the film is the fact that the Blu-ray release of Pain & Gain includes a discount coupon for Wahlberg’s line of nutritional supplements, MARKED.

It is hardly surprising that the rise of a fitness industrial complex would thrive in unison with big-budget media productions. Hollywood productions are not merely the creators and distributors of these new fitness ideals; they are also subject to and dependent on the commercial practices that result from this cult of fitness. Positioned at the intersection of the fitness and entertainment industries, screen actors function as promoters for both industries through their performances, their participation in promotional campaigns, and their own lifestyle, extensively detailed in glossy magazines and online forums[28]. The narrative of the perfect body delivered by the fitness industry, where “the body can be moulded, sculptured, and trained into perfection,” is perfectly compatible with the entertainment industry’s traffic in exorbitant beauty and body standards.[29] Such ideals are equally normative across industries: fitness magazines’ promotion of an athletic, well-built, white, and healthy man apes the generic mold established for Hollywood actors.

White muscles have always been laden with ideologies of power and aspirations of greatness. Richard Dyer, for instance, argues for the continuities between bodybuilding and mainstream cinema representations as paragons of white masculinity. Noting the references in these activities to classical antiquity and to the “California lifestyle” — an emphasis on health, leisure, and naturalness — Dyer concludes that Hollywood productions glorify the ideal body of whiteness as hard, achieved, wealthy, hairless, and tanned.[30] The examples Dyer evokes include early cinematic depictions of Tarzan, muscleman romps centered around a male star, and the mid-20th century peplum films focused on heroes from classical antiquity — all examples that the early 21st century resurgence of fitness culture tied to Hollywood productions remakes. In the muscleman romps and peplum films, Dyer notes a tension between the ideologically charged images of the strong man (as colonialist or fascist, respectively) and the white working class anxieties into which these films tapped. In evoking the muscled white hero, these films implicitly reinforced the greatness of (masculine) whiteness, even if — or precisely because — this evocation was marked with the histories of white hegemonic sites of power.

The current nexus between global fitness industries and mainstream entertainment furthers these ideological implications of white muscles with working class anxieties about hegemony at the same time that it evokes the new economic moment in which both industries thrive, or what has been previously defined as neoliberal capitalism. In the next two sections, I argue that fitness is both symptomatic and emblematic of the crisis of purpose in neoliberal times. Following the secession of religion and science to economics as the avenue for transcendence, neoliberal ideals stand as the marker for the fulfillment of human purpose. Rising from these economic shifts, fitness culture presents the exemplary embodiment of these ideals and hints at the effects that result when these ideals eventually fall apart.

Fitness as a neoliberal ascetic ideal

In Pain & Gain, Danny’s attachment to working out as a source of personal fulfillment is also related to his predilection for attending sessions with motivational speakers. Early in the film he attends a seminar run by a man called Jonny Wu, played by Ken Jeong. Set against a banner with the words “Get Off Your Lazy American Ass,” Jonny berates his audience for failing to want to act, as if merely desiring something was tantamount to having it. The motivational speaker is a caricature of countless grifters who promise that fulfillment is merely about calling things forth. His ideological implication that it is in the individual where sole responsibility for fortune or misfortune lies is summarized in his mantra, “Get a goal. Get a plan. And Get off your ass.”  The manipulator sets his sights on Danny, an impressionable gym rat eager to find direction, hovers over him despite their height differences, and forces him to yell that he is a do-er. Framed in a long shot where the motivational speaker and the musclehead are the only two people standing, Danny’s celebration that he is a do-er underscores his belief that he is a unique individual even as the chants in unison from the crowd reinforce that he is merely one amongst hundreds of other easily impressionable audience members.

Belief is an operative word in the relationship the antiheroes of Pain & Gain have to their workouts. “I believe in fitness,” proclaims Danny in the opening lines of the film. Danny’s belief system is fitness because he founds his morality on strict fitness ideals. Fitness is a religion of sorts, in purpose if not in practice. But a Collegehumor video titled Cross Fit for Jesus takes Danny’s statement to the limit. Mocking the now ubiquitous model of the fitness training infomercial, Cross Fit for Jesus presents a longhaired man nicknamed JC who explains that, although he did not begin carrying a wooden cross by choice, he soon realized that his “biggest burden was also his biggest opportunity.”[31] In the same self-affirming tone characteristic of both fitness infomercials and televangelists, JC sells the idea that his patented, 100% mahogany holy cross is the perfect equipment for achieving all your workout goals. Religion provides the meaning for working out in this parodic video. Clips of various people exercising with this wooden cross constitute what JC calls the “divine calorie burning experience” of his program. Everyone’s cross to bear becomes a literal cross, one that can render visible results on your physique. Extending Danny Lupo’s purported belief in fitness, Cross Fit for Jesus further illustrates the parallels between religion and fitness.

Part of this parallelism is formal: the video takes advantage of the peculiarly similar methods of selling fitness routines and religious conversion on television. First person testimonials convey the narrative of the advertisement. Shots of the extraordinary individual performing feats the audience can only aspire towards are intercut with flashing text reminding this audience of the urgency to action. “Call Now” becomes a rallying cry that mandates subservience to a just-in-time logic characteristic of neoliberal capitalism. These similarities at the level of form are not coincidental. Televangelists’ and fitness gurus’ methods operate in similar ways because they offer similar products. By appealing to either transcendental concerns and divine guidance or material concerns and bodily regiments, these television merchants sell instructions for everyday life. They promote not only techniques for how to conduct oneself, physically or spiritually, but also reasons why one should choose to do so. In short, they provide meaning to the individual’s life.

In their use of parody, both Cross Fit for Jesus and Pain & Gain underscore the purpose of working out explored in this article. Working out, I contend, performs nowadays what Nietzsche diagnosed as the function of the ascetic ideal. Whether it is of the divine or scientific variety, Nietzsche proposes that the ascetic ideal represents man’s adherence to capital-T Truth. The will to truth is “faith in the ascetic ideal itself,” or the belief that there is some higher meaning that one can ascribe to Truth. The ascetic ideal is Nietzsche’s way of explaining why people adhere to certain regimens of behavior and understanding. By following a particular religion, or a certain scientific method, or (more recently) a specific economic order, people are able to make sense of their existence, including their daily routines, decision-making, and belief systems. The ascetic ideal’s adherence to a higher Truth is tied to a striving for meaning: broadly, life’s meaning, but particularly, meaning for life’s suffering. Nietzsche’s contention is that humans’ response to the struggles of living is to search for a meaning to attach to this suffering. An ascetic ideal becomes compelling because, at its most basic, it offers people a way to rationalize the angst of everyday existence. Although the forms of attachment may change over time, people “will rather will nothingness than not will.”[32] Finding a purpose, whatever it may be, is preferred to doing without meaning.

Fitness stands as one iteration of the ascetic ideal in the era of late capitalism. If the reigning paradigm for our times is that of neoliberalism, of market logics permeating all institutions of society,[33] then fitness allows for the targeting of meaning for a particular sector of people. For one, fitness culture is a symptom and consequence of neoliberal changes. As well, the work in working out reframes the purpose of the body and physicality in the wake of the knowledge economy. A former academic turned mechanic suggests that “the greater sense of agency and competence [he] always felt doing manual work’ contrasts with the ‘sense of uselessness’ endemic in ‘other jobs that were officially recognized as ‘knowledge work.”’[34] This return to manual labor is not for everyone, but as the explosion of 24-hour gyms reveals, knowledge workers at all levels increasingly seek to include physical work into their daily routines. As I argued earlier, the meanings attached to working out may vary, but the consistency lies in that, once exercise has been packaged as an individual responsibility, there must be some meaning attached to this work beyond its material results. In Pain & Gain, Danny’s belief in fitness symbolizes that his physical power accounts for his self-esteem and his sense of purpose. Even more explicitly, the parody video Cross Fit for Jesus hammers the point that the physical suffering resulting from carrying a wooden cross should amount to something, which in that case is well-defined shoulders and core muscles.

Loss of meaning and the turn to violence

Nietzsche holds that we cannot separate strength from expressions of strength, “as if there were a neutral substratum behind the strong man, which was free to express strength or not to do so.”[35] How someone or something is awarded its status of being is only through the actions he undertakes. There is no such substratum behind the strong or weak man; rather, the strong or weak-willed actions define what type of man one is. For Nietzsche, there is no being behind doing: ‘“the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed — the deed is everything.”[36] The protagonists of Pain & Gain are nothing if not parodic inversions of Nietzsche’s “doing behind being.” They believe themselves to be strong men on account of their physical abilities and deduce from these that they are strong men in other areas of their life. In their role as the buffoons, these men belie the contradictions of fitness as an ascetic ideal. Workouts may provide meaning for these characters, but it is a meaning that cannot compensate for the many other ways they are lacking. Their mistaken equation of fitness strength with economic clout becomes evident as their multiple get-rich schemes come tumbling down.

Once the riches from their first kidnapping and attempted murder run out, the men hatch yet another ill-conceived grift to maintain their newfound luxurious lifestyle. The meeting with a potential investor for this scheme functions as a primal scene for Danny and his accomplices, a moment of recognition that they were always in over their juiced heads. The sequence alternates between two settings within Adrian’s home: the weight room, where Danny attempts to negotiate with the investor; and the living room, where Adrian and Paul entertain the investor’s wife. Although Danny was once convinced this deal would proceed smoothly, he soon realizes that the investor thinks very little of him and wants to shut him out of the dealings. Danny’s pleas that they have a “special skill set” contrast with shots of Adrian and Paul doing pushups and flexing their biceps, displays of physicality meant to amuse the investor’s wife. Danny’s insistence that they are accomplished businessmen is simultaneously undermined by his accomplices’ antics, proof of their inability to have a conversation without devolving into primal demonstrations of physical power.

The sequence formally renders the out-of-control spiraling in which the protagonists find themselves. In order to show the action across both settings, the camera constantly moves in a circular direction around the room, often passing next to the characters. When it seems the camera is about to approach a wall, it instead “travels” through a hole in the wall into the other room. These motions figure the developments within both settings as a continuous spiral, dizzying the spectator just as the protagonists’ actions become even more desperate. The emphasis on the cracks on the wall as conduits for these circular motions also reinforce the emotional state the main characters are in as their best laid plans begin to fissure and crumble.

The parodic clash throughout this sequence reaches its acme when, in a burst of anger, Danny kills the investor with a weight plate. Once his self-confidence — thus far tied to his physical might — is destroyed, the very object of his self-assurance becomes the weapon for his lashing out. Danny’s will to succeed suffers when it is exposed as nothing but a sham, revealing that his equating of economic acumen and physical fitness was a tragic miscalculation. It is precisely this emphasis on wills to power that elucidates the struggle for meaning over working out. Danny Lupo believes in fitness because it provides a standard for his life and it directs his will towards clearly defined, easily measured goals. However, fitness turns out to be a faulty standard on which to found his business acumen. While Danny’s will remains unflagging almost throughout the entire film, his continuous attempts at forcing his way to a better economic position eventually get him and his friends thrown in prison.

In White, Richard Dyer warns that among the problems with “looking at whiteness” lies the risk of fueling a “fascist chic,” a reactionary attempt to reinstate, or make a show of reinstating, while male power.[37] Dyer’s warnings just as resonant twenty-five years later, including the resurgence of a new fascist chic and a series of waves of nationalist discontent against the effects of unequal distribution in global economic processes. Nativist racism and the political forces that thrive on it are not new nor exclusive to the West, and their implications reach further than popular media representations. Analyzing global fitness culture’s implication in the traffic of white bodies as exemplaries of neoliberal asceticism may therefore not deliver pragmatic solutions to such pressing concerns. Still, this analysis provides an aperture from which to diagnose the forms, symbols, and affects of a particular direction of wills at this historical conjuncture. Pain & Gain gestures at the neoliberal conditions of possibility for global fitness cultures, at the attachments that fitness could have for populations that imagine themselves as disenfranchised within this new economic order, and at the violence that erupts when such attachments are found to be misplaced. The film remains invested in the aura of fitness as aspirational, as evidenced by its fascination with its muscled stars and its participation in a growing entertainment-fitness industrial complex. At the same time, because of its implication in these broader networks, the film also offers superstructural evidence of the various cracks in these interlocking economic processes.

Indeed, it is a physiological maxim that one cannot shape a specific part of the body exclusively. Muscle building can be managed by performing exercises designed to target one set of muscles, but fat is allocated across the body so working out one specific area does not translate into losing fat therein. Genetics also affects how body fat is distributed and how muscles can be toned. Yet, the single most sold fitness mantra is that any one regimen or machine will definitively rid your body of belly fat, or form your six-pack abs, or shape your thigh gap. At its most commodified, fitness is often full of false hopes and misguided techniques. These tales of misplaced aims bring us back to the inguinal crease, a much sought-after feature that can only be targeted tangentially. It therefore remains virtually unattainable, available only to those with the leisure time, disposable income, and discipline to pursue it — as well as genetic good fortune. This physical trait stands as an index of the rise of a global fitness culture, as a metaphor for the multiplicity of meanings attached to working out, and as a lightning rod for the direction of wills to power in the advent of late capitalism. Finally, it also represents the struggles to combat aimlessness of purpose amidst the global changes at this conjuncture, such as the efforts to reinsert physical work into everyday life and to provide a purpose for the white male body in the knowledge economy. The inguinal crease is ultimately less an effect than a symptom, an epiphenomenon of the structural and meaning-making mechanisms that remain in flux as the 21st century unfolds.