Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Whole Lotta Rosie: Rascal Studies

One of the provisions in the will of Professor Philpott Pennypacker (see FMS passim) was the establishment of a fund whose purpose is to provide grants to those wishing to "undertake studies that explore female bodybuilding or female bodybuilders". The first six beneficiaries of the fund were announced in 2014, and FMS is delighted that today we are able to bring you extracts from one of the resulting Master's theses.

The author of the work, entitled "She's Not Like Everybody Else - The Otherness of the Female Bodybuilder", is Dirk van Twisk, a 35-year-old female muscle head from Rotterdam, who took a year's sabbatical from his job as an insurance broker to do his Master's in the Department of Sociology at London's Queen Mary University.

In this series of extracts from his Master's thesis*, Dirk examines the "gender atypical worldview of the female bodybuilder" through the lyrics of Rosanna Harte's "Peeping Tom", her 2014 collaboration with Electro Swing maestro Jamie Berry.

PEEPING TOM, lyrics by Rosanna Harte, female bodybuilder

There's a Peeping Tom sat outside my window
He's been there for days
And now it's only gotten gotten on to Sunday
And I think it's time to play
Cos there is nothing more that I like
Than to be seen
Open up your eyes real wide
Cos Peeping Tom I've got a big surprise

So I slide across my hood
And what do I see?
Sure as hell the Peeping Tom is looking at me
So I simply accidentally carelessly
Drop my dressing gown for him to see
So Peeping Tom keep on looking at me
Peeping Tom tell me what do you see?

In popular culture, the character known as "Peeping Tom" first appears in 18th century accounts of the Godiva story, a legend dating back another 200 years, of Lady Godiva, an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who rode naked – only covered in her long hair – through the streets of Coventry to avoid paying a tax imposed by her husband. Tom, who some sources identify as a tailor, is the only one of the townsfolk who disobeys the decree that forbids the people from watching Godiva during her ride, and as a result is either put to death or immediately struck blind depending on the source.

Out of this story, "Peeping Tom" became a by-word for a voyeur, literally "one who looks", a person (thought to always be a man) who derives sexual excitement and/or pleasure from observing the private - usually naked or sexual - activity of others.

But whereas in the Godiva story Tom is ultimately the victim of his desire to watch, in more recent times, Michael Powell's controversial 1960 film "Peeping Tom" added another aspect to the concept of the voyeur in the popular imagination. The film's main character is not only compelled to observe but also to film his young female victims in their moment of death, giving rise to the idea of the Peeping Tom as a predatory, bloodthirsty male - not simply a sexual deviant, but one who is to be feared.

In the psyche of the female bodybuilder as revealed in Rosanna Harte's lyrics though, Peeping Tom is neither the victim of the Godiva story nor the threatening presence in Powell's film. Unlike Godiva, the female bodybuilder does not forbid Tom to look, but encourages him. And unlike the women murdered on screen by Powell's damaged character Mark Lewis, there is absolutely no vulnerability about her at all.

Within the first few lines it has become clear that to the female bodybuilder, the Peeping Tom is no threat. "He's been there for days", she tells us, but his presence engenders none of the customary fear in this female. Instead, he is a playmate, or more accurately, a plaything, in a game she controls. In this game ("time to play") it is not the one who looks but the one who is being looked at who dictates all the rules.

It is the muscular female, not the Peeping Tom, who decides when and how she will expose herself to him. The choice of Sunday for the when is interesting. Perhaps it is simply the day she has no training to do, her day of leisure, the day she reserves for her "play" time. But the choice of the traditional day of Christian worship, the day when God rested, is, I believe, highly significant. Perhaps this muscular female is claiming the day for a very different kind of worship. Fans of female bodybuilders, and female bodybuilders themselves, have incorporated much of the language of religion into their sub-culture. The women are "goddesses", or - as in the title of one major female muscle admiration website - "muscle angels". Their fans "adore" them, and crave and often pay large sums of money for the chance to physically "worship" them.

Either way, this muscle goddess wants to have her forbidden fun on the very day when the tradition in her native (Christian) culture dictates that she should be on her best (moral) behaviour. So once again here is the female bodybuilder refusing to abide by - or simply ignoring - the conventions of the society in which she operates.

Despite its title, this song is not ultimately about voyeurism at all, but exhibitionism. "Simply, accidentally, carelessly" the female bodybuilder reveals herself to the peeper, not for his enjoyment, but for hers, because, as she tells us in the song's key line, "there is nothing more that I like than to be seen". Tom, in stark contrast to his Godiva story namesake, is not ordered to look away, but to open up his eyes "real wide". There's no mention of anything equivalent to Lady Godiva's long hair, nothing to cover any part of the muscular female's body. Why would she have anything on under her dressing gown? This is full exposure. And as she reveals all, it's her unconventional yet undeniably female body that provides the "big surprise".

"Tell me what do you see?" is her repeated question. Does he have an answer? Does she even want one? Whoever he is, in these fifteen lines, Peeping Tom has nothing more than a passive role to play. The muscular female merely requires him to "keep on looking". He may be dumbstruck but - in another subversion of the Godiva story, or at least one version of it - he is not to be struck blind. But while he seems to be powerless, like Mark Lewis' victims in Michael Powell's film, his presence is, I would argue, necessary. Without him, there is no one to exhibit to, no one to admire her. Without him, there would be no game, and she would have no playmate/plaything.

To recap then, the female bodybuilder, in this case Rosanna Harte, aka singer/songwriter Rosie Rascal, is able to subvert societal norms not only with her physical form, but also with her entire outlook. And this subversion runs in opposition not just to the society which is contemporary to her, but also to its entire cultural history, whether the pop culture of more recent times, or the legends of old.


* Today's images of Rosie are not part of van Twisk's thesis (which, just in case you were in any doubt is completely made-up) and were chosen by FMS simply for your viewing pleasure as accompaniments to the (ficticious) text quoted here today.

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