A Long History of Ogling :: The Real World of Muscle Porn
I edit muscle videos. And I have a confession. I am no longer the muscle fan I once was.
Call it over-exposure, shop fatigue, the busman’s holiday syndrome, what have you. My tiny midtown studio should be a 21st century paradise for a diehard muscle lover, stocked as it is with, I estimate, roughly 800 hours of raw, unedited muscle video footage of hundreds of hugely beefed men. My LAN, an extremely modest HP family classic, is storehouse to thousands of muscle images.
For the true believers of muscle, my little shop is the mother lode. Considering that I am supplying breathlessly awaited video updates to an army of international muscle enthusiasts, one might think that I have plunged headlong into, well, pig heaven.
Hardly. And it wasn’t always thus.
The Birth of Muscle
Bob Hoffman, called the "Father of World Weightlifting" founded the York Barbell Company of York, Pennsylvania, in the early 1930s, and soon after began to publish articles on the benefits of exercise and nutrition. By 1939, physique contests showcasing muscular men (and, not coincidentally, promoting the sale of barbells) began to take place.
In 1940, the classically built, naturally gifted bodybuilder John Grimek, of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the son of Slavic immigrants, emerged an undisputed contest winner with a triumphant physique which would be equally impressive now, 71 years later.
The emerging sport of bodybuilding was sincerely rooted in a quest for strength, health, longevity and personal discipline. While the public may have derided these early ’male beauty contests,’ it was inevitable that new stars, perhaps inspired by Grimek, began to appear on small contest stages and in the strength magazines of Hoffman. Other magazines and competing federations began to appear, with new promoters, like former competitor named Dan Lurie, and a couple of publishing upstarts, the brothers Joe and Ben Weider.
By the end of World War II, in spite of the inevitable territoriality that has always plagued competitive bodybuilding, somehow the name "Mr. America" stuck permanently in the backwaters of American consciousness.
Classic physique fans will recognize the names of yesterday’s champions: George Eiferman, Alan Stephan, Bill Pearl, Steve Stanko, Clarence Ross, and -- of course -- Steve Reeves.
Before Reeves, bodybuilders were rare birds, showcased only in the few competitions, rarely glimpsed on the beaches, and in inexpensive weightlifting and bodybuilding magazines for sale on city newsstands. Ambitious Californian Reeves had no particular talent, but he was a stunningly handsome male animal with hopeful acting aspirations, appearing on Broadway with Carol Channing, on television with Burns and Allen, and even made it into "Athena," an MGM musical with Jane Powell.
While none of these shows was actually much good, it made no matter to bodybuilding. Moreover, Reeves’ appearances forged a new link to the general public - this time through show biz.
Musclemen on the Silver Screen
More mainstream muscle entertainments followed. By 1956, a hit Broadway musical, "L’il Abner" featured a non-speaking line-up of posing musclemen in the show’s eleven o’clock production number. In 1957, Mae West famously scored in Las Vegas in a vanity revue in which she sang "Stout-Hearted Men" to a gang of scantily clad (for the day, that is) musclemen, including Jayne Mansfield’s future husband, the Mr. Universe winner Mickey Hargitay.
Reeves finally scored when producer Joseph E. Levine brought the 1958 Italian peplum mythic muscle fantasy "Hercules" to the American screen. The widescreen mini-spectacle became an unexpected box office hit. Other sword, sandal and beefcake epics followed, most of them cheaply shot and badly dubbed, featuring physique champions like Ed Fury, Reg Park, Kirk Morris and Mark Forest.
Even Tarzan got a makeover. The sleek Lex Barker had replaced swimming star Johnny Weissmuller in the early 1950s. By 1958, the muscle-bound Gordon Scott had taken over, and in the early 1960s, the impressively ripped Mike Henry filled the loincloth.
By the time the platinum-haired ’blond bomber’ behemoth Dave Draper appeared on the sitcoms "The Monkees" and "The Beverly Hillbillies" in the mid-1960s, most of America knew what bodybuilders were -- and what they could achieve with their physiques.
Bodybuilding had long since gone international. The kingpin worldwide professional federation, the IFBB (International Federation of Bodybuilders), founded by the ambitious Weider Brothers in 1946, had become the professional stage that career bodybuilders hoped to make their mark upon.
Bob Mizer, AMG, and Vintage Beefcake
Of course, little of this was lost on the necessarily closeted men of the mid-century. A compelling new standard of male beauty had been created, and it was a swift kick to the subconscious longings of thousands.
Soon after the first bodybuilding contests were staged, the inevitable homoerotic physique art began to appear. Most notable was the studio work of photographer and filmmaker Bob Mizer, who in 1945 founded The Athletic Model Guild (AMG) in his mother’s Los Angeles boarding house. Over the years, Mizer, himself an uncommonly handsome young man, photographed thousands of young bodybuilders, generally posed outdoors or in ersatz studio settings. Photographed singly or in pairs, the images were generally playful, with men in barely concealing posing straps either wrestling or posing for one another.
Mizer successfully endured much along the way, even serving a brief stint in a prison work camp for sending his work, which was generally considered obscene, through the U.S mail. By 1951, Mizer had begun to publish a small beefcake magazine, which he called Physique Pictorial. Mizer’s models included perhaps his most famous discovery, the young Joe Dallesandro, the street hustler who later became an iconic Andy Warhol star.
Today, nearly 20 years after his death, his carefully preserved muscle images and films have been archived and preserved, and are credited as culturally significant. His magazines and catalogues have become rare collector’s items, and his images have been celebrated in a number of serious art gallery showings.
Mizer was not alone. Other physique photographers and artists emerged, at first in tentative cottage industries, and their influence and popularity also grew. Dozens of homoerotic pulp magazines appeared, with titles like Young Adonis, Demi-Gods, Beach Adonis, Muscle Boy, and even Muscles a Go-Go. The work of photographer Bruce Bellas, better known as Bruce of Los Angeles, paved the way to the careers of Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber. The blatantly pulp-fictionalized muscle erotica of artist George Quaintance may have inspired the iconic Tom of Finland’s thousands of explicit, exaggerated drawings of fantasy muscle sex.
For the timid and the closeted, the images of these new superheroes were most likely to arrive by mail, discreetly wrapped in brown paper. However, post-Stonewall, with the changing era and the advent of a new tolerance matched by the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on what constituted obscenity, collectors -- and muscle fans -- grew bolder.
Gay Men Hit the Gym
As out and proud gay men began to make their way into the gyms in the 1970s, some determined to build for themselves the fantasy bodies they had long secretly admired. The AIDS pandemic of the 1980s may have further boosted this desire. In any event, by the time Arnold was ominously announcing onscreen that he’d be back, thousands gay men had already been enthusiastically pumping up for years.
Bodybuilding hit the gay mainstream with full force. If gay men had ever been burdened by the necessity of the closet in the past, now many were ready to show themselves as "real men," and for some, this meant building bigger muscles.
Meanwhile, longtime-closeted muscle fans also timidly began to come out. It was one thing to acknowledge publicly to friends and family that one was gay; it was an extra step for an out-and-proud gay man to acknowledge to his new buddies or partner that he was also lusting for musclemen. Nevertheless, as the numbers of men with carefully sculpted physiques began to grow, the legion of naturally shy true believer fans also grew bolder.
Bodybuilding competitions, formerly the province of fellow lifters, supportive (if occasionally appalled) family members, promoters, muscle magazine publishers and photographers, began to be attended by gay fans. Many of the gay men in the audience were built just as solidly as the men onstage were, and some were training partners of the competitors they came to cheer.
Other fans, who might not sport the same daunting physical statistics but might be men of some means, came to admire, and, just occasionally, test the waters to sponsor muscle protégés, or attempt to schedule "private shows."
Gay beaches across the nation bloomed with hundreds of casually strolling men proudly displaying their bulging, gym-built physiques.
In 1978, the annual IFBB Night of Champions Bodybuilding Competition began a run of more than 20 years, starting out at Town Hall, and moving after a few years to the Upper West Side’s Beacon Theatre. While hardly a gay circuit event, the high-profile professional show nevertheless drew a sizable crowd of gay fans, who came to both admire the massive men onstage, and chuckle just a bit at the unintentional humor of the campy production. For years, the elegant, private, invitation-only after party catered dinner, hosted by a serene host in a luxury apartment nearby, and regularly attended by many of the competitors, became one of the hottest tickets of the season.
In Greenwich Village in 1985, Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatre Company scored with a widely attended Off Broadway hit, "Salammbô". A steamy ersatz Babylonian tragic spectacle out of Flaubert, and mined for camp and laughs, the great cross-dressing star Ludlam starred as the Virgin Princess, surrounded by a phalanx of "barbarians", eight huge musclemen in leather loincloths who posed, grunted, carried spears, and -- just occasionally -- delivered lines. Mostly culled from the hardcore Sheridan Square Gym one block away, the enormous 200 pound-plus beefcake boys filled Ludlam’s tiny stage, requiring careful blocking and direction onstage and off, just so they could all fit.
One of the biggest laughs of the evening came when, in response to the general roared outcry by the barbarians for "Wine, Women, and Song!" one of the younger musclemen timidly requested if it could just be "wine and song." The critics sniffed, but the gay audience applauded wildly. The show ran for months.
By 1994, the Gay Games in New York City featured a Bodybuilding Competition. Bodybuilding as a popular gay sport had arrived, subculture within a subculture. While many gay men derided the big boys, often referring to them as "Body Nazis," there was no question of their prevalence as national circuit parties and dance floors were swollen with their muscles.
The New Generation of Muscle Fans
Fashions change. By the late 1990s, younger gay men came of age that had not been influenced by the body culture of the 1970s and 1980s. While health club attendance didn’t quite fall off, gradually a new physical ideal that prized slender symmetry, flexibility, and aerobic health became the new body standard. Spinning classes, yoga and lightweight workouts replaced the grueling heavy lifting on the gym floor.
Over time, the hugely muscled gay man, for the most part, went the way of the dinosaur.
But what of the legion of muscle admirers? For the hardcore audience, the line had been crossed, and nothing else would satisfy the private longings. The true muscle fan is not so easily dissuaded, and as the virtual world grew in variety and complexity, bodybuilding went back underground to satisfy the cravings of those who could pay nominal monthly fees for membership to specialized muscle websites.
In 2011, the Internet offers dozens of muscle fan websites and blogs closely following the careers, competitions, and just occasionally, the explicit images and video clips of today’s bodybuilding bulls. Anyone with a halfway decent DSL connection, the time and inclination to trawl online, and armed with a credit card, can download an impressive home library of videos and images of grinning, pumping, and flexing bodybuilders.
This is to say nothing of the half-dozen live cam muscle websites.
In short, if muscle entertainment today could be compared to recreational drugs, then no muscle enthusiast needs to look very far for his fix.
Meanwhile, what about me? Wasn’t I one of those hardcore fans once upon a time?
There’s a young man I see at the gym sometimes. Dripping wet, he’d probably weigh 145 pounds. His arms are slender, his torso long and lean. He has awesome abs.
He is SO hot.
In Part 3, Bob reports on today’s muscle webcam sites, with contributions from IFBB Professional Bodybuilder Rodney St. Cloud, who is building his own online muscle empire.
This article is part of our "Sex." series. Want to read more?
Here's the full list»