copyright 2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018

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.

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] 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.


1. Shelly McKenzie, 2013. Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America (Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas, 2013): 10. [return to text]

2. Shari L. Dworkin and Faye Linda Wachs, Body Panic: Gender, Health, and the Selling of Fitness (New York: New York University Press, 2009): 71.

3. The organization American Fitness Professionals and Associates was founded in 1994, but personal trainers are not unionized or organized systematically, a telling feature of how this career already emerged under a neoliberal framework. See http://www.afpafitness.com/afpa-mission-and-education

4. Jesper Andreasson and Thomas Johansson, The Global Gym: Gender, Health, and Pedagogies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014): 13.

5. Logan Hill, “Building a Bigger Action Hero,” Men’s Journal, 1 May 2014.

6. Roberta Sassatelli, Fitness Culture: Gyms and the Commercialisation of Discipline and Fun (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011).

7. See Jennifer Smith Maguire, “Fit and flexible: The fitness industry, personal trainers and emotional service labor.” Sociology of Sport Journal 18 (2001): 379– 402; Jennifer Smith Maguire, “The personal is professional: Personal trainers as a case study of cultural intermediaries.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 11.2 (2008): 211-229.

8. P. Jain, “Fitness secrets of Bollywood stars.” Men’s Health India, 1 November 2010.

9. Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory.” New Left Review 1.82 (1973): 6.

10. McKenzie, Getting Physical, 10.

11. Theodor Adorno, The Stars Down to Earth (New York: Routledge, 1994 [1953]): 103.

12. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” In The Marx and Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker. (New York: WW Norton and Company, 1978 [1844]): 74.

13. Susan Willis, A Primer for Daily Life (New York: Routledge, 1991): 57.

14. Sohail Al-Jamea, “A Workout at Work.” The Washington Post, 6 September 2011.

15. This summary is adapted from the discussion of neoliberalism pursued by Jeremy Gilbert, “What Kind of Thing is ‘Neoliberalism’?” New Formations 80 (2013): 7-22.

16. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978): 139.

17. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 141.

18. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 145.

19. Walter W. Powell and Kaisa Snellman, “The Knowledge Economy,” Annual Review of Sociology 30 (2004): 199-220.

20. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 2011): 6.

21. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 148.

22. Stuart Hall, “The Problem of Ideology: Marxism Without Guarantees,” In Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, edited by David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (London: Routledge, 1996 [1986]): 44.

23. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals (New York: Vintage Books, 1989 [1887]): 77.

24. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 77.

25. Valentin N. Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986 [1929]): 23.

26. For more on this, see Juan Llamas-Rodriguez, “Working Out as Creative Labor, or the Building of the Male Superhero’s Body,” in Arrow and Superhero Television, edited by Cory Barker, James Iaccino, Myc Wiatrowski (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017): 61-77.

27. Warner Bros. Pictures, “Tarzan Challenge,” YouTube, May 23, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5L4-w9WJTnM

28. Heather Addison pursues a similar argument about the implication of the entertainment industry in selling ideal bodies through more avenues than just its audiovisual materials. See Heather Addison, Hollywood and the Rise of Physical Culture (New York: Routledge, 2003).

29. Andreassson and Johansson, The Global Gym, 141.

30. Richard Dyer, White (London: Routledge, 1993): 148-150.

31. Cross Fit for Jesus by The Kloons can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=1q31CCDVdas

32. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 162.

33. Aihwa Ong, Neoliberalism as exception: Mutations in citizenship and sovereignty (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006): 6.

34. Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (New York: Penguin, 2009): 17.

35. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 45.

36. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 45.

37. Dyer, White, 10.