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The benign bullshit of Arnold Schwarzenegger He made himself a parody of masculinity

'What do you do with biceps the size of watermelons?' Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

'What do you do with biceps the size of watermelons?' Jack Mitchell/Getty Images


October 6, 2023   6 mins

I’m not a fan of self-help books. Their prose ranges from dully functional to the equivalent of a hot-breathed salesman prefacing every sentence with your Christian name. Most of these books are based on the experience and expertise of their authors, and on investigation much of the experience and expertise turns out to be false. Still, if any public personality has a claim to write a self-help book, it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger can legitimately call himself a self-made man. He came to the US with no money and an unpronounceable name and a skill that was barely viewed as a skill and had no obvious practical application: what are you supposed to do with biceps the size of watermelons? With fanatical discipline and a lot of personal charm — along with the benign bullshitting the Austrians call schmĂ€h — he parlayed his skill into movie stardom and eight years as the Governor of California; he wasn’t that bad a governor, either. If the US had a different Constitution, he might have become President.

If you watch the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, the movie that first introduced Arnold to a mainstream audience, it’s clear that even as a neophyte he viewed what he did as self-construction. He compares himself to a sculptor. “You look in the mirror, and you say, ‘Okay, I need a little bit more deltoids, a little bit more shoulders,’ so you get the proportions right. So what you do is you exercise and put those deltoids on, whereas an artist would just slap on some clay on each side. And, you know, maybe he does it an easier way. We go through a harder way.”

Schwarzenegger’s gift for canny, accessible analysis is no doubt present in his new self-help book Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life. Judging by the book promo, the tools are rooted in common sense. Have a vision of what you want to achieve, work hard to achieve it, promote yourself whenever you can, reinvent yourself. I wouldn’t argue with any of this (well, maybe the self-promotion), and especially not the last. If Arnold is anything, he’s a dedicated reinventor. Consider the penitential regimen of exercise and nutrition needed to transform a more or less ordinary looking adolescent (he began body-building at 15) into a hybrid of animated athletic trophy and anatomical illustration. Then consider what it took to transform such a person into a movie star.

In this regard, much of his success came from his embodiment of masculinity, or a particular kind of it. Given Schwarzenegger’s staggering proportions, the great knotted wedge of his torso, the arms like thighs and the thighs like trunks, the jaw that might have been designed to crush bones, we should speak of hypermasculinity. The actors who embodied manhood from the Forties through to the Seventies were physically ordinary or extraordinary only in their beauty, such as Paul Newman or the young Brando. John Wayne and Jack Nicholson were actually kind of dumpy. Jimmy Stewart was a weed. It’s true that bodybuilders before Arnold became action heroes — notably Steve Reeves, who played Hercules in low-budget spear-and-sandal pictures — but they weren’t stars. They were barely actors.

If Schwarzenegger began his career as a growling, jut-browed human tank processing over the rubble of his adversaries, he learned to work his size and menace more agilely. Then he learned to work against them. His best acting is in comedies such as Kindergarten Cop, Twins and Junior, in which his character becomes pregnant via an experimental drug. His comedy is the comedy of masculinity placed in milieus where masculinity has little use, and is even a disadvantage. How is a little kid likely to react when a man Schwarzenegger’s size and with Schwarzenegger’s accent asks him “Who’s your daddy?” It’s the comedy of a giant trying to repair eyeglasses with the tiny screwdriver and even tinier screws that are sold as eyeglass-repair kits.

This gameness and deftness with which Arnold parodies his masculinity — maybe all masculinity — actually makes him more masculine. In a post-Freudian, post-feminist age, we’ve learned to be suspicious of men who make too big a deal of their manliness: they’re either closet-cases or sociopaths. Maybe what I mean is that we’ve learned to be suspicious of men who are humourless about it. And, as my wife pointed out, humour is one of the ways men have always made themselves attractive to women (and perhaps to other men). If a couple of guys are chatting up women at a bar, you can tell which one is dominant because he’ll be the one to crack a joke.

It turns out that Schwarzenegger also trained to make a butt of himself. In a recent interview, he reveals that his tutor was the veteran comic Milton (“Mr. Television”) Berle, who bullied him through take after take of a single joke and called him “Nazi”. It is indicative of the humour that offsets Schwarzenegger’s tendency towards self-promotion. (From the same interview: “There’s a schmĂ€h with everything. Sometimes people take schmĂ€h meaning you’re lying, which is not what it is. It’s kind of like, you wrap it up in a more attractive package. In order to sell something you have to have the schmĂ€h”.) But then self-promotion is inherent in the self-help genre. Why would you take advice from someone who isn’t great at what he does — great at life — and how do you know he’s great unless he tells you, over and over and over?

Schwarzenegger’s self-promotion has always seemed heaviest when he is talking about his political career — though, unlike other political self-promoters, he actually matches his claims with political action: see his fleet-footed response to the 2007 wildfires that swept Southern California. Other times, it’s not clear what the didactic purpose of his political career is. Consider his decision, against medical advice, to be sworn in for his second term as Governator with a broken femur. I wouldn’t listen to anybody who told me I should attend a long public ceremony while standing on a recently broken femur, even one that had been bolted back together. To his credit, I don’t think Schwarzenegger has ever said that. But I also don’t think Tony Robbins actually said that his fans should walk on fire, yet it was something he did at his “seminars”, and a number of attendees tried it. (They sued him after they were badly burned.)

But who hasn’t made a few mistakes? If you want a self-help book written by someone who hasn’t made any, that leaves you with the Bible, the Qu’ran, the Vedas, and the Buddhist sutras. And look how well people follow their advice.

Judging by the material already published, I suspect the contents of Be Useful will be unexceptionable, and probably as good as any advice can be that isn’t given in person, by somebody you know who isn’t a god or a saint (or maybe a chatbot). Yes, we’re talking about an actor who became famous for wise-cracking as he pounded someone’s face to jelly and, before that, for declaring (in Conan the Barbarian) that the best thing in life is “to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women”. But we’re also talking about a tough but warm-hearted gym trainer who reads Nietzsche and the Stoics. He’s demanding. If your reps are half-assed, he’ll make you redo them. But he understands failure; he probably even sees the value of it. “Good job, dude,” he’ll tell you. And you’ll be grateful.

Sometimes his leniency is frustrating. I’m thinking of the speech he gave to the American public after January 6. It was an affirmation of American values and a warning against fascism, delivered by someone whose own father had fought for the Third Reich. That’s what makes it so moving. The speech, however, was notable for its refusal to denounce individuals apart from the coup-leader-in-chief. To me, that’s its one failure. The violence the former president inflicted on our nation was abetted by thousands of allies and followers. They should have been called out. But I’m writing as someone whose father was driven out of Austria following that country’s annexation into Greater Germany. Schwarzenegger’s father may have been in the crowds that cheered Hitler as he entered Vienna; he would have been wearing a swastika armband, since he belonged to the SA.

But Schwarzenegger’s forbearance may speak to an essential sweetness of character. A man can have such a character even if he makes a fortune playing a killing machine or sexually exploits women. Maybe what I mean is really childlikeness. The Governator (one can’t really speak of him as the former Governator, can one? It’s unlikely there’ll be others) gave his January 6 speech using a prop that he invoked as a metaphor for democracy. It was the sword from Conan. In a recent promotional video, he uses the same sword to slice open a carton of the new books. Even grown men love their toys. And as schmĂ€h, it’s priceless.


Peter Trachtenberg is an American writer and author of The Book of Calamities.

tshakti

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Don Lightband
Don Lightband
9 months ago

Dude kind of died for me when in one spectacularly solemn blast.of blowhard, he announced that the Jan 6 2021 invasion of the Capitol building by glorified yahoos was the *equivalent* of Kristallnacht Nov 1938..

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
9 months ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

Not in terms of violence, but in terms of political intent.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
9 months ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

Yeah, by the hundreds of feds who were tasked with making a common place protest into a riot.

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
9 months ago

Why did none of the Yippie ’60,s protests turn into riots ?

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
9 months ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

The US has 120 guns per 100 people, the most by far, several times above the next large countries, close to 5x Switzerland.

The “deplorables” who did Kristallnacht 2021, were likely to have even more personal guns than the average American.

If there was intent – how come they didn’t find guns on those supposed trying to overthrow the US government?
Or killed zero people, unlike BLM rioters and contrary to initial claims?

Or maybe they decided to abandon Trump and start following Ashoka, Buddha and Gandhi that day, all of a sudden?

Dominic A
Dominic A
9 months ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

“The US has 120 guns per 100 people, the most by far, several times above the next large countries, close to 5x Switzerland”
Which is precisely why, when in the USA, I will not wander from public tracks, and move slowly, calmly when talking to police, etc. I can’t imagine what the Jun 6th crowd thought was going to happen if they stormed the citadel, chanting for the hanging of Pence, and with the express intent of preventing Congress from certifying result – all of which Trump agreed with, and telling them to ‘fight like hell’, and ‘stop the steal’. Not the brightest people, a pathetic insurrection, but under the law you don’t get many if any points off for incompetence. Trying to rob a bank with a banana under your jacket, or writing the ransom note on the bank of your mother’s checkbook still gets you convicted; and liable to be shot – “it was only a banana”, ‘I’m a fool’, ‘I was only joking about robbing rob the bank’, or ‘the thieves were actually policemen in mufti’ is not an effective defence.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
9 months ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Five people died that day or after the riot, all because the trump cult members wanted to destroy our proud record of the peaceful transfer of power. They were all a disgrace and tried to overturn our democracy. They destroyed very old portraits and smeared their feces on the walls—for someone else to clean up. There is no defense for what they did, which is why hundreds of them went to prison.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
9 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Not five, more like several thousand people died that day, all over America.
None of them were killed by the Trump supporters, and if police had shot BLM supporters in the back the way they murdered that woman, there would be a tsunami of outrage.

“destroyed very old portraits and smeared their feces on the wall”
Even assuming that was true, that just means a tiny number of a large crowd behaved obnoxiously.
Firstly, that’s not “insurrection”.
Secondly, by that thinking, all “muslims” should be judged based on terrorist attacks and grooming gangs and should be locked up en masse.

Chris Hume
Chris Hume
9 months ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

I hadn’t realised the June 6th people intended the destruction of the Jewish people. Unless you’re just making things up?

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
9 months ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

Note this was after he told everyone “screw your freedoms” the summer before.

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
9 months ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

He used Steroids & most of his money
comes from supplements he sells to the Chinese wimps.

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
9 months ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

They broke into our house .
Any gun nut knows you can shoot the perpetrators
when they are on the inside of your home.

Forrest Lindsey
Forrest Lindsey
9 months ago

I always like Arnie’s movies; escapist comic book epics with humor and self-deprecation. His politics are a mixed bag, but as with anyone, you take the good with the bad. The author sums up his larger-than-life story fairly well but dwells too much on his father’s Naziism. How long should a son or daughter pay for the sins of their fathers?
As is usual, the liberal fiction that January 6th represents a national horror is prominent, as is the obligatory denunciation of Donald Trump. Apparently, the assumption we should all believe in, is that we were all wrong to support and enjoy President Trump and to instead, denounce him and ourselves – and believe with messianic intensity that the conduct of the 2020 election was flawless, unbiased, uninfluenced and everything should have marched forward exactly on schedule, without any investigations or interest.
We go what we deserved, didn’t we?

James Sullivan
James Sullivan
9 months ago

“…If you want a self-help book written by someone who hasn’t made any, that leaves you with the Bible,…”
Have you READ the Bible? It’s chock-full of people making horrendous mistakes. Just read Ecclesiastes – it’s Solomon’s lament over a life of mistakes.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
9 months ago
Reply to  James Sullivan

He hasn’t read the bible. But hes heard of it.

james elliott
james elliott
7 months ago
Reply to  James Sullivan

He said “written by”.

Jackson Ramseur
Jackson Ramseur
9 months ago

Still waiting for a single journalist to accurately contextualize the Other Day which will live in Infamy. The Ahnold stuff was good

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
9 months ago

“The violence the former president inflicted on our nation was abetted by thousands of allies and followers.”

Dutch to Dillon: “It’s all bullshit! All of it!”

0 0
0 0
9 months ago

Arnie was primordial soup of the Gigachad meme. The public image he pushed and roles that reflected them in his movies were positive. He played epic masculine heroes that care about those he was loyal to, fought for things they care about, fought against imposable and achieved epic deeds while doing so, as well as the importance of pushing one self to ones limits. The roles he played were traditionally masculine but positive, which made them good role models to emulate despite being exaggerated and unrealistic, because you wont reach the moon trying to achieve them, you’ll end in the stars trying to do so. He inspired a lot people to get into bodybuilding in that regard, and inspired a lot professional bodybuilders. Which makes his films all the more relevant today when both manhood and masculinity under attack by leftist degenerate social arsonists, and there a shortage strong male role models pop culture these days, and pop culture is very hostile towards such things. Plus I cant but admire how successful he is, started as poor immigrant from Austria, became a very successful body builder, parlayed that into movie career, and from that, a political career. Got give credit were it do, and he earned it.

Last edited 9 months ago by 0 0
R Wright
R Wright
9 months ago

Retched a bit at the obligatory ‘January 6’ bit. No it is not like 9/11.

Nardo Flopsey
Nardo Flopsey
9 months ago

I surmise that if the author of this piece wrote a manifesto, it would be entitled “Be Careful!”

Caty Gonzales
Caty Gonzales
9 months ago

Reminds to me re-watch Bill Burr on Arnie. Again.

james elliott
james elliott
7 months ago

“But who hasn’t made a few mistakes? If you want a self-help book written by someone who hasn’t made any, that leaves you with the Bible, the Qu’ran, the Vedas, and the Buddhist sutras”

Correction:

It leaves you with the Bible – possibly the Vedas, and probably the Buddhist sutras.