The quest for a better world

David & "Tyler Durden"
David & “Tyler Durden”

Men’s Journal has an expansive story up chronicling the rise of intensive training as a necessary condition for being a leading man in Hollywood today, Building a Bigger Action Hero. But there is a qualification on the “bigger” aspect, as the beau ideal today is not the steroid inflated archetype of Stallone or Schwarzenegger, but the sleek and hungry physique cultivated by Brad Pitt in his iconic role as Tyler Durden in Fight Club. The regimen seems to involve both training to bulk up sufficiently, but perhaps even more critically burn away all the fat so that one’s definition becomes all the more salient.

In modern Hollywood this trend began with the 2007 film 300, which showcased relative unknowns whose bodies were reshaped by trainers into something that could impart the verisimilitude of being warriors born, bred, and trained from their youth as a cohesive unit. With the rise of the “comic book” movie one has seen the decline of marquee leading men, and emergence of a formula which can substitute bodies, with a minimum of charisma required from the actors. The edge then is not on acting chops, but the perfect idealized form, which serves to anchor the action sequences.

The tone of the piece seems clearly disapproving of the trend, and is in line with the thought that the flabbier bodies of leading men from decades past were somehow more respectable and honest. But that too was just a cultural trend. I can’t for example agree with this section:

Six-packs and bulky chests can look freakishly anachronistic in a prestige period picture: It’s not just that Tudor princes and Victorian lotharios didn’t have waxed chests and 12-packs – it’s that almost nobody had bodies like these until the last decades of supplements and fitness science.

If such bodies are freaks of modern science it is peculiar that Michelangelo’s David seems to resemble Brad Pitt in Fight Club. More to the point I remember being struck in 1990 in rural Bangladesh by the cut physique of a young farmer who was attending to his rice paddy. He was small and compact, but his low body fat and constant toil sculpted a form which was not anachronistic at all.

Science allows modern humans to be incredibly wealthy in terms of what we can consume in services and materials. We can make a better version of ourselves, and be the best we can be. Beauty of body and acuity of mind are within our grasp if we could shake off our sloth. Contemporary norms are such as we are told to love who we are, but that neglects the reality that who we could be is within our grasp. The extremities which drive actors to reduce their body fat to 3 percent are not necessary, and may be injurious, but we shouldn’t take from that the lesson that sculpted bodies with definition are somehow a freak artifact of modern Frankenstein science.

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