Starring Rachel McLish, Bev Francis, Carla Dunlap, Kris Alexander, Lori Bowen, Lydia Cheng, Steve Michalik, George Plimpton, Randy Rice, Clark Sanchez, Steve Weinberger
Directed by George Butler
Expectations: Moderate. This will be an interesting re-watch, as I saw this a bunch of times growing up.
Like the competitors it portrays, Pumping Iron II: The Women is a slimmer version of its male counterpart. It successfully replicates the struggle of the previous film, between one “good & honest” bodybuilder and one “villain” bodybuilder. In reality, I’m sure it was much less emotionally charged than it appears at times in the film, and because of the fictionalizing done in Pumping Iron I was constantly watching for similar instances in this film. Due to this, Pumping Iron II actually feels even more fabricated and questionable as a documentary, but that shouldn’t discredit it, just like the previous film.
The film focuses mostly on four of the competitors, but two are clearly the stars of the show. There’s Rachel McLish, at the time the most successful female bodybuilder and responsible for bringing a lot of attention to the sport for females. She has something of a more defined model look, which is to say that she maintains her feminine physique while achieving quality muscle tone. She was the crossover star of the sport, perfect for magazine covers to interest all who gaze her way.
Pitted against her by the film is Australian Bev Francis. She was known as “the world’s strongest female,” and was originally a power lifter. The film documents her first foray into professional bodybuilding competitions, and she is also the focal point of the documentary’s major theme: How much is too much when it comes to women’s bodybuilding? Should a women that has achieved an incredible level of muscle mass like Francis, so much that she resembles a male bodybuilder, be discredited or have points off for this, or is she the ultimate representation of what females can do in the sport?
The competitors have a couple of conversations amongst themselves about these very questions, and even they can’t decide. It’s hard to say if it is too much anyway, as everyone’s opinions of beauty and femininity are different. There’s no real equivalent to the question in male bodybuilding that I’m aware of either, so I inherently feel that the question should be thrown out in the interest of allowing each competitor to present themselves however they’d like to.
The filmmakers do not present any spoken viewpoints of their own, but I have a clear feeling that they prefer the more traditional feminine body type, even though they cast Bev Francis into the underdog, good character. I say this because nearly every scene of the females working out or posing feels a little too lingering, a little too glamorized. To put it simply: there are lots of sensual close-ups of glistening bodies in tight-fitting leotards, and more than your normal share of ass close-ups. Oftentimes, it felt as if I accidentally slipped in a Playboy video.
On top of that, those conversations I mentioned between the competitors about the ethics of women’s bodybuilding all occur in highly unlikely, sexualized situations. After a hard day of pumping iron, three of our female weight trainers relax with a hot shower, soaping up their nude bodies in slo-mo while they discuss their thoughts on what constitutes too much training. A similar, later conversation takes place at the Caesar’s Palace hotel in an outdoor pool. It feels strange to watch these feminist-leaning discussions under such traditionally sexualized situations, and it is in these moments where I feel the director is exerting his power over the film. Based on my understanding of how Pumping Iron was made, it would be completely plausible to assume that the director heard a few of the girls discussing the topic and asked them to recreate the scene for the camera… in the hotel’s rooftop pool under the stars. This definitely discredits the scenes a bit, but regardless it is still very interesting to hear everyone’s opinion on the subject, especially as they are fellow competitors. It feels like they, if anyone, should be understanding, but yet there are those who feel Francis is gross and well beyond what she should be.
The female posing routines are much different than the males’ as well. Male routines are fairly stationary with the guys striking nice poses gracefully, trying their best to replicate ancient, classic statues. Female posing routines (at least here) are much more rigorous and closer to dance routines. Each girl creates their own individual style, through the use of music and posing rhythmically along with it. Where Bev Francis wisely chose a synth version of Also sprach Zarathustra to highlight the grandeur her body demands, other competitors went for things like high-energy rock songs. This makes the competition much more personality driven and lends an entirely different air to the film.
Pumping Iron was about the hows of a bodybuilding competition, while Pumping Iron II: The Women is more about the whys. It’s not as good of a film, as its runtime is padded with a little too much competition footage and slo-mo shower scenes, but it’s still a very interesting and engrossing film.