Pumping Iron II and the Birth of Female Bodybuilding


Who can forget Pumping Iron? The iconic bodybuilding movie which pitted an enviably charismatic Arnold Schwarzenegger against Lou Ferrigno, the man who later became the Incredible Hulk.

A tragic epic of Homeric proportions, the initial Pumping Iron has been credited with helping bodybuilding become a more mainstream sport or at least pursuit, in the eyes of many. Furthermore it became a source of inspiration for hundreds of thousands of gym goers seeking to replicate the muscularity, determination and definition of the men on screen. In short, Pumping Iron helped normalise and accelerate male bodybuilding’s popularity.

But what then of Pumping Iron’s sequel Pumping Iron II, which focused exclusively on female bodybuilding? Why was it made? What impact did it have? And just where can one watch the original?

The Backstory

Though inspired and produced by the same team behind Pumping Iron, the backstory to Pumping Iron II differed quite significantly from its male counterpart. In the first instance, the docu-drama did not centre around the Ms. Olympia but rather the 1983 Caesar’s World Cup. Never heard of it? Don’t worry, no one else has…the Contest was created specifically for the movie.

This stunted the movie right at its beginning. Whereas the original film could hark back to a decade’s worth of tournaments and incredibly physiques, the sequel had to content itself with an artificial trophy. That the title Pumping Iron II was chosen without the complimenting Olympia contest was somewhat irksome for many.

As such, the Tournament somewhat lacked the prestige of the Olympia showcased in the original Pumping Iron. Similarly as this contest was female only, it largely negated the number of male Bodybuilding stars who could have appeared in the movie. Had more male bodybuilders appeared in the film, the somewhat misogynistic reception the documentary endured may have been different. Musings aside, the movie did boast a brief posing appearance from the former Mr. America Steve Michalik.

The Story Itself

Seeking to ground itself largely with gender issues, Pumping Iron II asks what level of muscularity is acceptable for women? The dichotomy between speak, athletic builds and more muscular figures is represented within the documentary itself in the form of Rachel McLish, a bonafide bodybuilder and Bev Francis, an Australian powerlifter invited to compete in the competition.

Throughout the film, viewers are forced to consider issues of gender, sexuality and personal autonomy. Without revealing too much, it’s fair to say that far from subtle, these issues are shunted down the viewer’s throat at every possible turn.

The Reception

Whereas Pumping Iron has been credited with reviving or mainstreaming male bodybuilding, the same is not true for Pumping Iron II. There were two reasons for this. In the first instance, the documentary was criticised for its deception. As viewers of the documentary will undoubtedly figure, the hands of the director Charles Gaines are all over this work.

One small but significant instance came during the judging rounds of the Caesar’s World Cup. Seeking to demonstrate the supposed disinterest exhibited by males in the sport, Gaines depicted Oscar State soundly asleep at the judging table. There was only one problem with this clip. State was asleep backstage following the prejudging rounds and not during the judging itself.

While this may seem trivial, upon the movie’s release in 1985, State had passed away and could thus no longer defend himself. Cue Ben Weider furiously denouncing Charles Gaines and the movies’ integrity. Similarly the rivalry between the two protagonists McLish and Francis has been seen as entirely artificial.

In the second instance, owing to the movie’s overtly feminist tones, the movie’s reception was perhaps somewhat stunted. Though credited with inspiring individual female athletes to join the sport of bodybuilding, the general public tended not to embrace the movie in the way they had with Pumping Iron.

In any case, the movie is a seminal bit of bodybuilding history and if you’re interested in checking it out, look no further than below!

As always, happy lifting!

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