Using the career of the first modern body builder, Eugen Sandow (1867-1925), as its point of entry, my dissertation mapped the intersecting cultural forces that associated the muscular male body with ideal masculinity between 1889 and 1920. While scholars have examined marginalized gender expressions and sexual identities, they have paid less attention to the historical formation of modern normative masculinity. The emergence of what we take to be an unchanging normative physique has its roots in the pressures brought to bear on middle-class British men at the height of the empire’s power, when the values of capitalism, class, race, and gender were articulated through the authoritative discourses of science and the persuasive powers of visual culture and the periodical press. Normative masculinity, however, is neither stable nor transhistorical, but culturally constructed.
Confronted with the potential for degeneration revealed by evolutionary theory, middle-class Victorians used body-building to confirm their conceptual connection to the imperial power represented in ancient Greek and Roman statuary, and, at the same time, to assert their racialized and classed differences from both colonial subjects and labouring fellow citizens. Sandow’s body-building system directly appealed to the ideological values of middle-class men while obscuring the production of their muscles through commodity fetishism. Once body-building rhetoric framed muscled masculinity as normative, its opposite, neurasthenic masculinity, could be defined by the medical community, thus wholly sealing normative masculinity within the scope of purportedly objective science and medicine. Body building promised the neurasthenic a cure that would return him to the heteronormative, middle-class mode of masculinity.
Focusing on Eugen Sandow’s career in performance, visual culture, and print, this dissertation examines the role of the periodical press in shaping the historical development of modern masculinity. An interdisciplinary work, Making the Modern Man: Eugen Sandow and Muscled Masculinity, uses archival material to examine how representations of the strong male body accrued meaning as they circulated in serial fiction, essays, advertisements, live performances, and film. I reground the muscled body’s status as the ideal cisgendered physical expression for middle-class men in popular culture rather than nature, exposing how the ideal body became normative and thus a disciplinary force in the twentieth century.’