In the 1940s and 1950s, at Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach, male and female acrobats and bodybuilders performed stunts and displayed muscular physiques. In 1958, in the aftermath of a sex crime panic, the site was closed. In the following decades a new “Muscle Beach” arose in countercultural Venice. The Muscle Beach phenomenon illuminates the changing meaning of muscles in America, from the conflation of muscularity with homosexuality in the 1950s to the triumph of “hard bodies” in the 1980s. The legitimization of visible muscularity was not a simple process. While the Muscle Beach athletes successfully distanced themselves from the taint of homosexuality by associating muscles with heterosexual glamour, the 1958 scandal reversed this trend and reinforced the stigma attached to muscles. In its second life, Muscle Beach gradually sidelined female weightlifters and glorified the heterosexuality of male bodybuilders, thus reinforcing traditional gender norms and leading to wider acceptance of the male muscular physique by the 1980s.
The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Muscle Beach: Reassessing the Muscular Physique in Postwar America, 1940s–1980s
Elsa Devienne is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Paris Nanterre, France. She earned her doctorate in history from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris. In 2016, she held a fellowship at the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities. Her current book project traces the transformation of the Los Angeles beaches in the twentieth century from relatively untouched natural spaces into artificial playgrounds geared toward the needs and desires of the white middle class.
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Elsa Devienne; The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Muscle Beach: Reassessing the Muscular Physique in Postwar America, 1940s–1980s. Southern California Quarterly 1 August 2018; 100 (3): 324–367. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/scq.2018.100.3.324
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