Set in the early 1980s in San Diego, California, Physical (Apple TV+, 2021−) dramatizes the emergence of aerobics on videotape, a prescient chapter of media history that promised to transform female viewers into the masters of their bodies, lives, and futures. Although not a feminist critique, the series is an exploration of the vicissitudes of a self-empowerment. As media technology has become more interactive, the message that women can achieve an Instagrammable body by following the self-help regimens of modern-day Sheilas has become even more pervasive—and insidious. At a time when empowerment is sold on T-shirts and technologies of the self are peddled by countless influencers, Physical offers a genealogy of these taken-for-granted realities. An overdue tribute to a form of mass culture that is usually not taken seriously, even in media circles, Physical offers the unsettling possibility that self-empowerment has become the cause of women’s problems, not their solution.

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