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The Maenads are in the Gym: Meditations on 80s Fitness Videos

2012 February 8

The followers of Dionysus were called the Maenads – the ‘raving ones’. During worship, and through a combination of alcohol and ritualistic dancing, Dionysus would inspire in these women a state of ecstatic frenzy. So inspired, they would roam in a state of madness, engaging in uncontrolled sexual behaviour, tearing apart animals (and sometimes humans) with their bare hands and devouring the raw flesh.

And so into the Eighties…

During the Eighties, there was a Fitness Craze among the baby-boomers, who ‘from trying to improve society, [in the 60s and 70s…] turned to improving themselves‘. There can be no more evocative symbol of this than Jane Fonda and her striped leotard, although hers was a comparatively straight-edge style compared to some.  Let’s pause to take a look at the opening to Jane Fonda’s Workout (released in 1982). It looks a little bit like a dark and threatening Exercise Cult. Even the music is vaguely sinister:

It feels a bit like that to do the workout. Jane ain’t taking no crap, and the video is punctuated with whoops of enthusiasm and the occasional yelp of pain from her exercise minions – one of whom, Leslie, is even invited down front to sing Jane’s very own personal song, ‘Do It’. Leslie appeared in a few more of Fonda’s workout videos, unlike the the guy in the crop top who looks uncannily like Steve Carrell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. (Alas, there is no YouTube evidence that this guy ever existed, bar a fuzzy image in the video above, so the latter link – with its excellent headgear – will have to suffice.)

Three women in leotards seen from above. They are squatting and pushing their bottoms together.

Go for the burn: Bess Motta's 'Aerobicise'

Speaking of that dude, I’ve never understood if the men in the back row are there as misguided eye candy while you sweat it out, or if they’re intended to demonstrate that the workout is suitable for all genders. Have a think about that one.

Do It Yourself

The ‘New Workout’ was the first of 23 workout videos Fonda released and, apparently, the best-selling home video ever made (17 million copies sold). It’s hardly surprising: the DIY formula was a seductive one for (in particular) many American baby-boomer housewives, who were just beginning to own the new and exciting VCR-machine. Indeed, this exercise-at-home option contrasts curiously with these housewives’ stereotypical Victorian counterparts, all inactivity, crinolines and restrictive corsets. Fashion follows money, so the trophy wives of the 1980s would be as likely to flaunt their husbands’ wealth with lycra, fitness gadgets and gyms as elegant laziness; keeping trim between cleaning the house and nuking something for dinner.

Another explanation is the quality of the workout itself: there’s a pleasing sense of female camaraderie on Jane’s workouts – she’s occasionally ironic, and consistently determined that you should smile while you do your umpteenth set of sit ups (I never knew it was possible for your abs to hurt post-workout, but I was ignorant). At peak moments she shouts ‘Come on! If I can do it, you can do it!’, apparently forgetting that she trained as a professional ballet dancer, whereas we, her viewers, are more likely to be professional slobs. She believes in you!

Running Wild

That said, she’s also MAD – look at the ‘cool down’ section of the ‘Advanced’ workout for evidence. Rumours that she was filming the video on a diet of espresso, ice cream and cocaine remain unconfirmed, but she’s certainly on some kind of drug, even if just adrenaline. She drives her mob onwards, onwards, always onwards, and I always think there’s something vaguely Maenadic about the hoots and howls of pain she elicits from her class.

However, looking at similar videos of the time it seems that such a frenzied approach to exercise was completely normal: in the Canadian TV series 20-Minute Workout (1983-4), the instructions are shouted out by Bess ‘Aerobics Queen’ Motta almost as parts of a ritualistic cowboy song. The overall effect is unsettling, if not completely hypnotic:

Here’s Bess again, in a slightly more extended Aerobicise opus (the original 1981 show, whence 20-Minute Workout was a spin-off). For some reason, at this point she seems to require two versions of herself to work out with simultaneously. It gets very weird from about 2:40 onwards, at which point the line between ‘exercise-at-home cardio workout’ and ‘strangely synchronised proto-American Apparel soft porn’ becomes blurred to say the very least:

Both these are filmed with a pizazz lacking in Jane Fonda’s no-nonsense camerawork and they perhaps explain why, though Bess may have been Aerobics Queen, Jane was the housewives’ favourite. These are so lacking in practicality that they’re almost music videos; and indeed there’s a ‘genuine’ Sexy Workout prototype to compare them with, in the shape of Olivia Newton-John’s 80s cult classic ‘(Let’s Get) Physical‘ (1981).

Here, with a crazed energy akin to Fonda’s – but a sexual energy that’s more Bess Motta – Olivia Newton-John stalks a gym in something suspiciously akin to a thong-leotard. She pushes fat blokes around until they become ripped blokes shining with sweat (who then walk off into the changing rooms hand-in-hand…) – yet, ironically, the video was set in a gym in order to pacify hand-wringers who found the title too sexual.

Thematically and choreographically, this is almost an inverted reworking of the song 1950s icon Jane Russell sings to the US Olympic team in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

I’m not in condition to wrestle
I’ve never trained in a gym
Show me a man who can nestle
And I’ll pin a medal on him

Jane Russell, Ain’t there Anyone Here for Love? (1953)

Here, again, the woman is a kind of Exercise Divinity (note the Greek reference in the murals!), but not yet the Olivia NJ-style fitness dominatrix, just a sexy slavering (and physically passive) male muscle-fan.

The Maenads Today

Many modern exercise videos start from celebrity and work back (Kerry Katona, Davina McCall), but they seem to set out to strip their celebrity fitness instructors of all trace of the divine: Davina (whilst being instructed by a mysterious woman sitting cross-legged in full gym kit just behind her) howls at the exercises (‘They’re really hard!!’), while Katie Price/Jordan’s 2005 effort The Jordan Workout is full of ‘I’m shattered!’, although I somehow doubt working out was the main intention of this particular video, given what Jordan is wearing:

It’s interesting that the camaraderie is still there, but the star is no longer the instructor: instead, you’re ‘sharing’ the star’s expensive personal trainer for the price of a DVD. Perhaps as a result, whereas Jane and Bess are driving you on to ‘better yourself’ (we’ll leave the body fascism issue at the door for brevity’s sake), Jordan and Davina are much more prosaic about the whole thing. They even feel the need to give you a context for their workout: we learn that Jordan made her video because she wanted to be ‘back in her g-string and on the beach as Mrs Andre in just twelve weeks’. And look at how the sex appeal has changed: it’s gone from a kind of primordial Dionysian cult to a bit of a cheeky snigger at Jordan’s knickers.

Conclusions – well, there are strange intersections here between sexuality, female camaraderie and the drive towards fitness. Personally, I reckon Jane’s still the best – and let’s not forget she also has an excellent political record – but I will leave you with this video, made in 1983 by Debbie Reynolds (of Singin’ in the Rain fame): Do It Debbie’s Way.

Do It Debbie’s Way (1983).

The next time I’m fed up down the gym, I am going to fling the dumbbells down in disgust and flounce off, offering as explanation merely: ‘I spent years at MGM making musicals! This is the lousiest exercise I eveeeer haaaad!!!!’

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Miranda permalink*
    February 8, 2012

    Remember Eric Prydz’s “Call On Me” video? That had softcore gym ladies too, if memory serves… apropos of like, nothing in the song at all!

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