Director: Christopher Bell
Writer:Christopher Bell, Alexander Buono, and Tamsin Rawady
Cinematographer: Alexander Buono
by Jon Cvack
The oughts might have been the golden era of documentary filmmaking, as the cheap technology allowed any individual with a camera and a little bit of funding to tell the story they wanted to tell. I had known about Bigger, Stronger, Faster for a long time, with my friend frequently mentioning the film during conversations about steroids, saying how he doesn’t have a problem with them. Having just read the book "Baseball: Between the Numbers", which contained an essay by Nate Silver about the data behind steroid use, and how it doesn’t really make much of a difference to “big and strong” players like Barry Bonds, but really only for the middle-lower class players, I was interested in checking out the subject.
The film is told in that Michael Moore style of rapid editing, in some ways honoring the cinéma vérité style of constructing a narrative based on the information provided by the subjects. It starts with narrator Christopher Bell, a former high school athlete, who follows his brothers who are both taking steroids; with one hoping to become a professional wrestler, and the other struggling to be a record breaking powerlifter. The film is very much focused on the idea of Male Body Image, where in contrast to women who are told to be as skinny as possible with busty features, men are told to gain mass and muscle, in order to come ever close to the archetypes of alpha-maleness - epitomized by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Hulk Hogan, and others. The problem is that while these men embody the spirit of what is Manly, professing the benefits of exercise and taking care of yourself, they also used steroids in order to achieve their success, demonstrating that basically, in order to acquire such success, you need a competitive advantage against others, as there’s only so much the natural body can achieve without assistance.
The overarching question is why do steroids receive such a bad reputation when used by only a handful of individuals, with very little lethality or harmful side effects; especially in a nation that condones so many other drugs that are equally, if not more harmful? As Bell demonstrates, America wants its athletes to win; we are a competitive nation by design, and we often shun those who are defeated and celebrate our greatest athletes who push their bodies to the utter limit. We don’t criticize kids who take amphetamines for ADD and the edge it gives them; we don’t criticize individuals who need Xanax or other anti-anxiety medications who experience extreme nervousness or anxiety; and we don’t criticize our air force pilots for taking supplements that increase their focus when in flight (though most people probably don’t know this). So why are athletes the ones who receive the bulk of criticism, going so far as Congress hosting hearings on steroid abuse in order to try and quelch the problem, castigating the athletes for their use?
In a brilliant scene which I think Bell knocked out of the park, he interviews a man whose son died, which he attributes to steroid use. After hearing the evidence, Christopher asks the father if there’s not a degree of hypocrisy in criticizing steroid use amongst professional athletes, who are participating in games in arenas where they sell alcohol that causes far more deaths per year to which the father remains silent about. The father gives a mumbled and unclear answer, mentioning something about how because alcohol and other prescription drugs are presently legal that it’s insignificant.
We often hear endless stories about women who are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve the perfect body, even if it means causing harm to themselves. But there’s little discussion about the problem of male perfection. In another great scene, we see how the male body’s ideal has progressed over the years, with a doctor holding up action figures throughout the last three decades, with the first GI Joe looking like a scrawny male figure and slowly evolving to become bulked up with arms larger than their heads and veins sticking out, showing boys that this is the ideal they should strive for. We see that the entire workout supplement industry has revolved around this point, which is exempt from FDA approval, meaning that consumers have no idea what they’re taking, and should make you extra cautious given that other nations have banned many of the supplements the states allows to be legal. We see how the before and after photos are often done on the same day, using a mixture of tanning, shaving, posture, and photoshop to show how greatly you could improve in order to sell you the latest supplement.
And so the conundrum is posed - until we redefine what a successful male athlete is, in which a person can be appreciated for their abilities given their natural bodies, rather than celebrating the biggest, strongest, and fastest, there will always be those looking for competitive advantage. Because if they don’t look to synthetic supplements, then they’re not just more likely, but very likely to fail in the pursuit. It was heartbreaking to watch Christopher’s brother, who essentially did everything he could, including steroids, to achieve his dream of professional wrestling. As silly as it initially looks, you realize that this man was essentially trying to follow in the footsteps of all those we idolize. He moves to California, hoping that his chances for discovery would increase, even though his body’s aging, long past its prime, and the possibility is dwindling. We see as his wife remains at his side, but even Christopher asks how long he expects the dream chase to last.
Should people take steroids? Not necessarily. However, the science about their danger is flawed and selective, never really demonstrating the benefits they have for those who need them. But if an athlete feels like it will help them to achieve the body that they need for success, then that is their choice. What we need to do is much more difficult, and that’s redefining what success is. Until we no longer celebrate and revere the biggest and the strongest as the ideal version of athleticism and Maleness, then people will find ways to use steroids in order to achieve them. But that would force Americans to take a hard look at what they view as success - perhaps by looking to intelligence and creativity as more honorable pursuits, but then you wonder what drugs would be arrive that would benefit those with these raw and natural abilities. The alternative to appreciate people for who they are with what they got, and unfortunately, I just don’t ever see this happening. So long as greatness makes for ostensibly great lives, then people will aspire for such.
BELOW: The idolatry of Buff Males
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