The sport of competitive bodybuilding among women has been around for years but only in the 80s has it come of age. In the past promoters always favored the lightly muscled look of athletic and graceful women, and the sport came across as a sort of glorified beauty contest. Now as more women are developing their muscles by power lifting, this aesthetic standard is being questioned: shouldn't the sport be based on real tests of muscle?
That is the source of contention in Pumping Iron II: The Women written by George Butler and Charles Gaines, who were also behind the 1977 film on men's bodybuilding which made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star. In this quasi-documentary, they follow four of the main contestants through training and their participation in the 1983 contest at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The women are very different in their backgrounds, personalities, musculature, and views of the sport of bodybuilding.
Rachel McLish from Los Angeles has already won many contests. She has the gently muscled look so appealing to other women interested in entering the sport. Despite her natural beauty and her born-again Christian faith, this competitor uses every trick in the book to play to the judges even to the extent of breaking the rules to try and gain the winning edge.
Bev Francis from Melbourne, Australia, holds many world power lifting records and possesses a body with highly defined muscles in her thighs, shoulders, stomach and chest. She wants to take the sport to the limit and, consequently, is the center of attention and controversy at the contest.
Carla Dunlap from Newark, New Jersey, is the only black woman in the competition. She reveals a physical grace developed from years of gymnastics and synchronized swimming. Carla comes across as the most articulate spokesperson for the sport.
Then there is newcomer Lori Bowen from San Antonio, Texas, who idolizes Rachel McLish and dreams of winning the competition so her boyfriend who dances go-go can leave his job and be with her more often.
The film captures the excitement of the showdown between these women and others in Las Vegas where the dazzle of the environment seems to accentuate the performance dimension of bodybuilding. The judges and the audience face the same questions: what criteria should determine who wins: symmetry? definition? big muscles?
Pumping Iron II: The Women is an entertaining and provocative survey of a sport at the crossroads. In the last analysis, the film invites viewers to consider the continuing evolution of the concept of femininity.