Pumping Iron II: The Women – Challenging the Ideals of Femininity

Last night, I watched Pumping Iron II: The Women after recommendation from Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu of 8limbs.us. She shared it on her Facebook page with the following message:

“We just watched “Pumping Iron 2: The Women” and there are a few levels upon which to recommend this movie. First and foremost is how keenly it illustrates and explores the glass ceilings women encounter as athletes/sex symbols with such a narrow and limiting scope to each of those labels. Bev Francis, the potential game-changer, is just amazing to watch. And secondly, this movie is from 1985 and so it has some truly amazing 80’s style, music, terrible “sexy workout” performances, and hair… lots and lots of permed hair. (“Pumping Iron” with Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno is also worth a watch.)”

I have to echo Sylvie’s sentiment. After watching it, I opted to share it on the Under the Ropes Facebook page but while writing a caption for the post, I realised that I had so much to say about it that it would better to write a blog post. This seems slightly off-topic in comparison to what I usually write about, but I think that the ideas shown in this film affect women across all sports. 

The film, released in 1985 and based on the book Pumping Iron II: The Unprecedented Woman, follows several female bodybuilders in the run-up to the World Cup Championship at Ceaser’s Palace in Las Vegas. It begins by focusing on Rachel McLish, a reigning bodybuilding champion who seems to be the poster girl for female bodybuilding. Other competitors gush about how much they look up to her and how they’ve always dreamt of competing next to her. She is also a self-confessed ‘powder-puff’. Her sleek yet defined look seems to be what the industry are looking for in a female bodybuilder. McLish is portrayed as the kind-of villain in the story, coming across as a generally unlikeable character (although I imagine that this is mainly down to editing) and attempting to bend the rules of the competition.

Rachel McLish

The focus then shifts to Carla Dunlap, who was the most captivating character for me. She is the most graceful both in her movements and in her words, the physical side being a result of a history of synchronised swimming (there is rather hypnotizing scene of this in the movie). We see her verbal grace in various scenes, where she comes across as very articulate and well-spoken in her arguments for the sport and femininity. Early on in the film, she vocalises her dismay that the competition judges are looking for ‘some marketable piece of action’. She also mentions a newcomer to the competition who is the most muscular woman that she’d ever seen, with ‘muscularity that most men wish they had’. Cue Bev Francis, an Australian powerlifter who holds many world records, including being the first woman to bench press over 300lbs. She certainly doesn’t disappoint,  sporting by far the most impressive physique of all of contestants and of anyone the sport had ever seen. She is nothing short of incredible, not only because of her striking build but also in her dedication to take the sport above and beyond its limits.

Bev Francis

Bev Francis


Carla Dunlap

Carla Dunlap



Bev Francis and Rachel McLish





As the film progresses to the competition, we see the judges become increasingly irritated by Francis’ presence. She poses an obstacle for them because she challenges their definition of what is feminine and aesthetically beautiful, and therefore forces them to re-affirm how the competition should be judged. We hear them complaining that contestants must still look ‘feminine’ and not be ‘too muscular’.  They talk about ‘clearing up the definite meaning of the word ‘femininity”, saying that they are looking for someone who has the right amount of ‘aesthetic femininity’ while having the ‘muscle tone to show that she’s an athlete’. One judge objects, stating that there should be no limit to how far a woman can go in any particular sport. He illustrates this by asking if ‘the skiing federation should tell female skiers that they could only ski so fast’ before going on to ask ‘who are we to say what looks like a woman and what doesn’t?’, which provoked laughter from the men around him. The rest of the panel counter his views by saying that they are ‘protecting the sport’, with one closing by saying ‘women are women and men are men. There is a difference and thank God for that difference’. Eugh.

By today’s bodybuilding standards, Bev Francis’ physique might not be anything out of the ordinary, which shows how she changed the sport for women. However, in the 80’s and the early days of women’s bodybuilding,  it was considered grotesque and freakish. To me, it was awe-inspiring. Rachel McLish, whose strong yet slender build is more akin to what might we see in today’s figure bodybuilding competitions, was instead the favourite to win. (I’m going to spoil it for you now, so skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know!) In fact, neither of them won. Francis makes it to the final round but places last in that category and 8th in the entire contest, while McLish places slightly higher. Instead, Dunlap takes first place and the $25,000 prize. Many of the audience are outraged by the decision, booing as Francis was handed her eighth place prize (which she later said that she was happy about because it meant that the crowd was with her). Her physique was by far the most developed and impressive, yet she remained virtually unrecognised by the judges.

It seems outrageous that even in a sport where muscularity is praised, a woman can be criticized for it simply because she is a woman. Bev Francis pushed the limits of the sport. In fact, she blasted past them, showing the judges a body that they’d never seen before on a female. This is something that should have been admired, not criticized. However, the male judges were insistent on keeping the sport within their own limits of aesthetic, feminine beauty and refused to acknowledge the incredible feat that Francis and achieved by creating the body that she did. Was this because they were unable to sexualise it? Were they threatened by it? Either way, Francis’ extremely muscular build was offensive to their idea of femininity and she was penalised for it. This is just one illustration of the restrictions and sexism that women face not only in sport, but in general.

Pumping Iron II: The Women forces you to consider what you believe femininity to be and whether or not there are any boundaries to it. To many, a woman who possesses any qualities that might be defined as ‘masculine’ subsequently becomes less feminine. To me, that’s silly. Whether or not a woman is perceived as somewhat ‘masculine’ by society, she is still a woman, she is still feminine and her femininity should never be questioned just because of how she expresses it. I see Bev Francis as a pillar for females and female athletes. In this film, I saw her as an incredibly strong, brave and determined woman who pushed the envelope. She didn’t compromise her femininity, she enhanced it.

Bev spent the rest of her bodybuilding career working to gain recognition in the form of a first place championship title, apparently attempting to conform to the judges criteria by trimming down her ‘hypermuscular’ physique. Unfortunately, this worked to her disadvantage in the 1990 Miss Olympia contest, in which she was given second place after the more muscular Lenda Murray (here’s a Youtube video of that very moment). You can read more about that in Women of Steel: Female Bodybuilders an the Struggle for Self-Definition and Critical Readings in Body Building. Bev Francis seems to represent the struggle that women face as a result of the world’s view of femininity and the restrictions it placed on it, which begs the question -why should women be prevented from reaching their full potential because of someone else’s opinion of how feminine they may or may not be? In female bodybuilding, a feminine appearance is judged, but does the same go for a masculine appearance in male bodybuilding? I don’t know enough about the sport to say, but in researching this, I came across this great article, Muscularity Challenges Feminine Ideal, which makes some excellent points. There are now bikini and figure bodybuilding competitions, which focus on definition rather than mass, and in which contestants wear high-heeled shoes and jewellery and must leave their hands open rather than clenched when posing.

As well as the controversial femininity issues that this Pumping Iron II: The Women presents, it also has some other great qualities that I couldn’t go without mentioning. The first is just how inherently eighties it is. As you would expect, it’s full of spandex, make-up (blue eye-shadow?!), massive hair and some fantastically eighties music. In the first ten minutes of the film, you see one of the competitor’s boyfriends sporting a rather snazzy crop top and mullet combo. One contestant even incorporated a moonwalk into her routine, that’s how eighties this movie is. These factors alone are enough to make it enjoyable for me. However, one strikingly obvious point of the movie is that it is clearly somewhat scripted, which makes you unsure of to what level it’s supposed to be a documentary. In fact, the entire contest was created purely for the film. There were also several slightly uncomfortable (yet amazing) scenes, including a ‘sexy shower scene’ and a ‘sexy swimming pool scene’. Of course, there was no shortage of ‘sexy workout scenes’, too. That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed this film and thought it was fantastic overall. Give it a watch and let me know what you think!

Read Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu’s post, Pumping Iron II: The Markers of Gender and the Problems of Definition

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6 thoughts on “Pumping Iron II: The Women – Challenging the Ideals of Femininity

    • Agree on all points made – I was a Powerlifter back in those days & Bev was truly an Icon – for 2 years I had the privaledge of training alongside Bev at Melbourne Uni

      My brother came to a comp once & we were sitting 5 rows back from Bev, Gael Martin (her shot putter friend from Iron 2) & Pam Matthews (javelin training partner)

      He said he couldn’t see what all the buzz was about Bev – I just looked at him – a little confused as to what he was on about

      He added ”well you can see Bev is very strong & lives in the Gym – but she’s not so big & you can clearly see she’s a girl”

      I just looked at him a little dumfounded at his comment & turned focus back to the comp when my brother added

      ”so who’s that guy with Gael & Bev”

      I just smiled – somewhat relieved that his powers of perception were intact – informing him

      ”the guy is Bev & the girl you thought was her is 65m Javelin Thrower Pam Matthews”

      This woman walked a brave & truly unique pathway – training 5 hours a day while working a full time job as a school teacher – travel & eating made that a 15 hour day

      Anyway back to your review – the only thing Rachel had that was bigger than Bev when they stoid side by side in that opening pose down – was her hair

      Agreed there was a lot of scripting but also some biting reality & when Rachel gradually broke down – bit by bit as Pose by most musclar pose – the audience just hooted for all of Bev’s & muted out for hers

      Not often a world champ is forced to cry in competition – but Bev’s confident & truly awesome presence on stage – really blew away, both Rachel & the Audience

      The camera’s picked up all of that emotion

      As you say it was a 3 decade old time capsule – interesting movie & a great review



  1. Pingback: Pumping Iron II: The Women – The Markers of Gender and The Problems of Definition | Mixed Martial Arts

  2. Pingback: Pumping Iron II and the Birth of Female Bodybuilding – Physical Culture Study

  3. Great post – you are an excellent journalist! The movie highlighted the laughable ineptitude of the old-school judges (not only stumbling through their misogynistic attitudes, but also displaying an embarrassing inability to use a calculator on their way to picking a winner). As you stated, there are now separate bodybuilding competitions, with some emphasizing muscle definition and form over size. This is the case for both men’s and women’s bodybuilding, which is better for the sport because it clarifies the judging parameters for each competition class. The movie demonstrated the strong need for this evolution of the sport so that women like Bev Francis with amazing athletic gifts (both genetic and hard-earned) could compete on a level playing field without prejudice impacting the outcome.


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