Pain & Gain, global workout culture, and the neoliberal ascetic ideal

by Juan Llamas-Rodriguez

The inguinal crease — also known as the love line, the Michelangelo muscle, or the moneymaker — is a perplexing feature. It refers to two ligaments that originate in a man’s hips and stretch down to his thighs, creating a v-shape pointing towards the crotch area. Attention to this part of the male anatomy skyrocketed after Brad Pitt’s performance in Fight Club (David Fincher, 2005), and since then, men interested in fitness have become obsessed with how to acquire this prized possession. Strictly speaking, all men have an inguinal crease, but it is buried under layers of fat. In order to make these ligaments pop, men need to lower their body fat to 5-8% and constantly work the core muscles to firm up the abdominal area.

The inguinal crease is a unique synecdoche for the project of this article. For one, its emergence as a distinctive physical attribute parallels the rise of global fitness culture. As a feature visible only after the surface levels are stripped out, it is likewise an anatomic metaphor for the base-superstructure relationship between fitness culture and the economic changes of the late 20th century. As well, because it attracts so much male attention, it acts as an index for the struggle over meanings of the white male body in the wake of the late capitalist developments of the early 21st century. The inguinal crease provides the locus from which these three threadlines depart, threadlines that this article tracks in order to take account of what fitness culture and its concerns mean for contemporary power formations. In the following sections, I analyze the film Pain & Gain (Michael Bay, 2013), as well as online workout videos, in order to theorize the emergence of global fitness culture, the role this culture plays in giving a contemporary purpose to the male body, and finally, the ways fitness represents one form to confront the crisis of purpose in the wake of neoliberalism.

The rise of a global fitness culture

Fitness has become a pronounced cultural movement of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. While the 1970s are usually marked as the beginning of the “fitness craze” in the United States, the post-WWII era transformations of daily life already set the stage for this development. Jobs became more sedentary at the same time that exercise environments underwent a makeover from “dark, smelly gyms” to “modern, luxurious-feeling health clubs.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] Soon, public stakeholders such as government spokespeople, non-governmental organizations, and education advocates extolled physical exercise as a central factor in the health status of young people in the nation. Fitness became a distinct way of life, a concatenation of meanings and values promoted by institutions and individuals with varying interests. Fitness transformed into a culture, a configuration of interests and activities around working out — training techniques, diets, motivational mantras — elevated to markers of personal growth and social value. This diverse set of activities has only intensified in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

In the early 2000s in the United States, men spent over $2 billion USD on commercial gym memberships and another $2 billion USD on gym equipment for the home. The paid circulation of the popular magazine Men’s Health skyrocketed from 250,000 in 1998 to 1.8 million in 2005.[2] Personal training became a successful, viable career in the past twenty years; nowadays, Hollywood superstars and Wall Street honchos alike employ personal trainers to design fitness plans around their individual needs.[3] Training techniques, diets, and what is termed the “philosophy of the gym” circulate globally through magazines, online blogs and discussion forums, and international competitions. Images of fit bodies and ideals about body measurements are also manufactured, modeled, and sold on a global market.[4] Industries with global appeal, like Hollywood, increasingly participate in and profit from the traffic in inordinately fit bodies. As a Men’s Journal feature on the state of Hollywood male stardom succinctly put it, actors “simply don't get [their] name on a movie poster these days unless [they’ve] got a superhero's physique — primed for high-def close-ups and global market appeal.”[5]

How did fitness gain such a hold on contemporary society? At its core, fitness culture is emblematic of broader economic shifts characteristic of the late 20th century. In particular, the establishment of a full-fledged fitness industry depended on and mirrored the shift to a service and consumption-based economy.[6] Personal trainers, for instance, are ideal examples of the new working class of the service economy: self-employed, entrepreneurial, precarious.[7] The proliferation of diets, protein shake mixes, special supplements, and even illicit steroids produce a thriving consumption economy around fitness. Likewise, fit bodies yield substantial exchange value. Bulging biceps, defined broad shoulders, and six-pack abs are bought and sold as the ultimate markers of affluence, status, and power.

Fitness culture has gained a global foothold, yet its emphasis on consumption and its intrinsic relation to leisure figure it as a distinctly cosmopolitan culture.[8] The spread of the Men’s Health brand is a perfect example of this. Its reach is substantial, with magazines in over 20 countries across Latin America, Europe, South and East Asia, yet the target audience remains middle to upper-middle class throughout, evidenced by the magazine’s emphasis on buying nutritional supplements, equipment, and plans to achieve fitness goals. The shift into service and consumption-based economies provides a set of “productive forces” that trace and contour the establishment of fitness culture, but it must not be understood as a strictly economic determinant for these changes.[9]

Fitness is not only a class-setting activity, however; it is also a pleasurable one. The purported fun of working out frames it as a leisure activity, thereby disassociating it from obligation and its historical negative connotations of compulsory exercise classes.[10] Working out is now a thing to do for your own pleasure in your free time. Indeed, it attests to this time’s very existence. Yet, as Theodor Adorno already warned in 1953, the ordained pleasures are “no longer pleasures at all, but really the duties as which they are rationalized.”[11] Leisure time activities, rather than providing a respite from work, are increasingly seized by the same rational self-interest that permeates industrious behavior. Despite being marketed as purveyors of self-realization, these activities become requirements for maintaining one’s social status or for climbing the work ladder. Indeed, the fitness paragon of a lean, built, healthy man symbolizes not only the work put into shaping his body but also his class standing as someone who is able to devote the leisure time and economic resources to build this shapely figure.

Working out is thus a particular kind of work. For one, it is paradoxical in that it refers to work done to the body, but it ejects this work’s value outside the worker’s body. In Marxist terms, it alienates the work’s output. The worker’s labor becomes an object that exists outside him, “independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power of its own confronting him.”[12] Susan Willis argues that working out performs the contradictory synthesis of work and leisure, “isolat[ing] the individual for the optimal expenditure of selectively focused effort aimed at the production of the quintessential body object.”[13] Willis concludes that any health benefits acquired from working out pale in comparison with the subjugation endured by conforming to the capitalist dictates of contemporary fitness culture.

Working out also functions as a form of labor. Screen actors, professional athletes, and fashion models, for instance, often consider their workouts as part of their job requirements. Albeit differently inflected, the same could be said of laymen. Despite the increase in so-called knowledge and creative jobs that require less physical strength, these careers still place inordinately strenuous demands on laborers, such as longer workweeks and unhealthy amounts of time sitting down. The sudden popularity of “deskercise,” micro workout routines anyone can perform at his desk in short bursts at a time, testifies to the inherent need for physical activity to maintain productive office workers.[14] At the same time, the withdrawal of state assistance in its citizens’ well-being has led to the commodification of personal health and to the development of a well-oiled fitness industry. Late capitalist development thrives on every set of bench presses and deadlifts performed by its workers in their own leisure time.

It is no coincidence then that the rise of fitness culture has paralleled the establishment of what has been variously called late stage capitalism or neoliberalism. Throughout this article, the establishment of a “neoliberal order” refers to two interrelated, mutually reinforcing factors. First is the global instantiation of policies such as privatization of public assets, deregulation of labor markets, and contraction of democratic institutions. Second is the range of cultural phenomena, including popular media, leisure activities, and consumerist practices, that promote an individualistic conception of human personhood, where self-betterment and entrepreneurship are valorized above community organizing and structural change.[15] Both these factors are present in various forms within the contemporary formation I call global fitness culture: the privatization of health and wellness, the precarity of flexible labor conditions, and the ideology that a fit body indexes self-fulfillment. Fitness thus represents one area where the struggles over meaning and power play out under this neoliberal order.

The meanings of muscles

If the maintenance of fitness culture depends on a thriving industry built around it, an industry that has only gotten stronger in the past decade, then every glistening, toned set of abs symbolizes the superstructure of a late capitalist economic order. Nowhere is the connection between capitalist resourcefulness and fitness excellence more pronounced than in Michael Bay’s musclehead romp Pain & Gain (2013). Fitness trainer Danny Lupo, played by Mark Wahlberg, and his two ripped accomplices Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) spend their days at a Miami gym. Although it is his job to help people of all body sizes get in shape, Danny notoriously dislikes the plump yet carefree clients who parade around the health center. “The way to prove yourself is to better yourself,” he claims. For Danny, capital gains should be measured in muscle mass; a person’s worth is tantamount to the effort they exert on the press bench. It is the greatest of injustices that he should be struggling financially despite his physical prowess while his wealthy clients schlump their way to the one percent.

The pristine fitness club where Danny works contrasts with the dingy gym where he works out with his buddies, a spartan setting whose few decorations include an oversized U.S. flag. In this and other scenes, the specter of crumbling U.S. hegemony haunts the film’s narrative of wounded white masculinity and restoration through devotion to neoliberal fitness. For Danny and his accomplices, the solution to their undeserved lower status is to take matters into their hands, and to take from others: they kidnap Danny’s millionaire client Victor Kershaw, take over his assets, and attempt (unsuccessfully) to kill him. The scheme grants them temporary wealth, but it soon dissipates. When the musclemen attempt a second grift, they become victims of their own greediness and carelessness, and eventually get caught by the film’s straight man, a retired detective played by Ed Harris.

Danny’s belief that physical fitness should beget economic gain is partly founded on an understanding of power as bodily constructed, a line of thought not unlike the anatomo-politics that Michel Foucault diagnoses. Foucault argues that, starting in the 17th century, control over life because a constitutive element of the execution of power, and suggests that one of its central tenets was centered on the body. The disciplining of the body encompasses

“the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, [and] its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls.”[16]

That the body should be treated as a machine functioned as one of the fundamental tenets in the exertion of power. These techniques of bodily control were present in all aspects of society and were effectively utilized by various institutions, including economic organizations and the powers that sustained these. Notably, Foucault also dictated that this anatomo-politics served as a form of segregation and social hierarchization, “guaranteeing relations of domination and effects of hegemony.”[17] New forms of power that did not derive from a traditional right of sovereignty found a place in the shape of rights over life, as in the right

“to one’s body, to health, to happiness, to the satisfaction of needs, and beyond all the oppressions or ‘alienations.”’[18]

In the West, this emphasis on the body as the locus of power permeates institutions such as medicine, the military, and manufacturing — but only until recently. Indeed, the emergence of fitness culture parallels the proliferation of neoliberal ideals not only because of the shift toward individual responsibility over health and wellness, but also because of the revalorization of the body in the wake of the so-called “knowledge economy.”[19] As industries predicated on manual laborers leave Western countries, the prevalence of professions with strict physical requirements sharply decreases. Foucault’s theorization of the body as the site of power struggles continues to have purchase in this new economic order, but this residual notion needs to be reformulated once the laborers’ bodies are not immediately involved in the production cycle. Instead, Foucault’s anatomo-politics become not only about power engendered in the managing of bodies but also about the value created in the shaping of these bodies. It is telling that fitness culture carries a distinct class connotation to it since the wealthier classes are more likely to be those who participate in the knowledge economy and thus can repurpose their bodies to symbolize affluence.

There is also a gendered dimension to this repurposing of the body. Anxieties over the meaning of the male body escalate in an economic environment where biological differences are less determining of career prospects. Whereas a time when physical work was predominant provided a (flawed) rationale for a gendered division of labor, the knowledge economy requires no such division. Following Judith Butler’s notion that gender’s performativity always already functions as a regulatory mechanism,[20] the emergence of anatomo-politics centered on the physical might of the body signals a performative reaction to the allowances that, however miniscule, have changed the gender composition of workforces in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Although it is increasingly a culture adopted by all genders, the initial appeal of fitness culture offers for heterosexual white men a new terrain on which to exert power and extract value from their bodies.

In The History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that sexuality became an object of fascination because “power delineated it, aroused it, and employed it as the proliferating meaning that had always to be taken control of.”[21] Power necessitated the emergence of sexuality as a category in order to exercise control. Such centrality is not unlike that administered to fitness a century later. Fitness, in its new formulation as a culture around the neoliberal body, is “an effect with a meaning-value.” That is, the ever more defined abs of a certain class of fitness enthusiasts stand as signifiers of a new global economic order, one that redefines personal responsibility as physical prowess, working out as leisure, and the discipline of the body as the symbol of success.

Yet, this is only part of the picture. Understanding the economic milieu wherein fitness culture arises may provide context for these developments, but as Stuart Hall argues, the economic cannot provide “the contents of particular thoughts of particular social classes” nor can it “guarantee for all time which ideas will be made use of by which classes.”[22] The investment in fitness, the valorization of a fit body, and the distributive management of the practices undertaken to produce this fit body certainly illustrate much about what is at stake in late capitalist formations. But there is also an individual component to these formations. In order to further illustrate the work that fitness does in contemporary society, we must account for the multiple meaning-making practices occurring in the formation of this culture.

Language proves a generative starting point in this regard. In popular parlance, a person who spends an unusual amount of time at the gym is called a gym rat or a gym bunny. Depending on the context, the distinction between these two terms is often negligible, but some definitional purists will set it as such: while both spend a great amount of time working out, gym bunnies do so for the sole purpose of sculpting their body in order to show it off. Gym bunnies are into working out for aesthetic reasons, for pure vanity.

In Pain & Gain, Anthony Mackie’s character Adrian aptly exemplifies this stance. He has no discernible skills beyond his work out. He is almost single-handedly concerned with gaining muscle mass by any means necessary. His dependence on steroids transfers the phallic signification from his now permanently impotent penis to his perpetually bulging biceps. Gym bunnies get a bad reputation for being solely focused on appearance rather than functionality. Yet, for them, fitness has a clear albeit narrowly defined goal. Gym rats are less purposeful. Working out is an end in itself, but it is not a goal. Ultimately, the difference between gym rats and gym bunnies turns out to be the meaning assigned to the action of working out by the person performing it.

Meaning undoubtedly shifts across time. Friedrich Nietzsche argues that the entire history of a thing — a custom, a practice, an object — is akin to a “continuous sign-chain of ever new interpretations and adaptations” whose causes are not necessarily related to one another.[23] Indeed, the emergence of fitness culture results from a change in the general meaning for the action of working out, from a niche activity reserved for athletes, soldiers, or bodybuilders to something everyone (of a certain class) should do. The form of any one thing may fluctuate over time — resistance-based, outdoors workouts shift to machine-based, indoor practices — but in many ways it remains a similar sequence of procedures. The meaning attached to these forms, however, is much more fluid. Nietzsche argues that these meanings are

“only signs that a will to power has become master of something less powerful and imposed upon it the character of a function.”[24]

Despite conceptualizing fitness as a “way of life,” as a newfound type of culture, it is also imperative to consider that this culture contains multitudes. Working out remains a “multiaccented practice,” where power struggles are best analyzed as instances of agents fighting over control of a practice’s meaning.[25] Different wills to power place different purposes to the action of working out, such as personal betterment, labor productivity, aesthetic embellishment, or health strengthening. Tracing these different meanings, as well as the function they perform for different wills to power, sketches more widely the importance of fitness in the current moment. Still, the question remains why working out attracts so many disparate yet forceful purposes. Pain & Gain allows us to trace one such direction of wills.