Alastair Blanshard: Look beyond abs for measure of Hercules' masculinity

A buff Dwayne Johnson, in  Hercules, has won a host of male admirers. 
Men tend to have selective admiration for Greek statues. Photo / Getty Images
A buff Dwayne Johnson, in Hercules, has won a host of male admirers. Men tend to have selective admiration for Greek statues. Photo / Getty Images

Who wants to be Hercules? Judging by the huge amount of internet interest in the diet and fitness regime of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, professional wrestler and star of the latest Hercules film, the answer seems to be almost every male aged 14 to 30.

Certainly, if the demographic of the audience for the screening I attended is indicative, the appeal is broad. We were a diverse bunch. Some thin and reedy, others looking like they could have been Dwayne's body double. The only thing we had in common was that we were almost all men.

And we were hungry. I've never been at a film where so much food was put away. Yet it seems appropriate that the arrival of the latest incarnation of this hero should have been welcomed by a chorus of consumption because it is through food that we have the best chance of imitating Hercules.

We live in the age of protein. Thanks to revolutions in the commercial production of meat combined with the presence of relatively cheap shakes, powders, and bars, we can consume protein in a purity and density that is historically without parallel.

Looking like Hercules is a possibility for more men than at any other point in human history. Previously, there was something freakish about bodybuilding figures. Now that opportunity is within our grasp and the consequences of this revolution are something that we need to tackle.

With the possibility of looking like Hercules comes burdens and anxieties. Incidents of body image problems among adolescent boys continue to rise. Psychiatrists are seeing increasing cases of "bigorexia", a term coined to describe the variety of psychological problems associated with the pressure to look muscular.

Teachers are reporting escalating problems with steroid abuse. Ordering diet supplements seems to have replaced porn as man's favourite illicit online activity.

All of this would have surprised the Greeks. When they carved their statues, they knew they were fantasies. They represented unattainable ideals.

Look closely at a Greek statue and you'll see the fantasy unravel before your eyes. The muscles are often unnaturally grouped. Pectorals hang without the abdominals to support them. Lines are carved in the marble with only a cursory attempt to replicate underlying anatomy.

Thanks to an ab-blaster anybody with dedication and 3 per cent body fat can look like the front of the Greek statue. But I defy anybody to achieve a back like a Greek statue, where preconceptions about symmetry often mean muscles are found in impossible combinations or abdominal lines don't fade out at the hips as they do in nature, but actually continue round to meet the spine.

We are also rather selective about how we admire Greek statues. I know a number of men who've expressed a desire to have the stomach of a Greek statue. But I know none who has wanted to have its genitals.

The fad for imitating Hercules is not new. From antiquity onwards, emperors, generals, Renaissance princes, and French kings have attempted to appropriate Hercules' mantle.

Yet, in all these cases, it wasn't his body they were imitating, but his virtues. It was his courage, his fortitude, his preference for a life of struggle and pain instead of an easy comfortable existence that they admired.

One of the significant advances in this latest Hercules film is that he is accorded an inner life. He is not a mindless thug. The bloodshed and carnage that he leaves in his wake comes at a cost.

He is plagued by guilt. The black dog that snaps at his heels is depression, not Cerberus.

When Hercules begs the Gods to let him be a good husband and father, he touches on a profound truth. That seems to me the real challenge of being man, not how to achieve a six-pack.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Alastair Blanshard is deputy head of ancient history at the University of Queensland.

The Conversation

- NZ Herald

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