The public perception of bodybuilding is currently defined by the idea of warped masculinity – a heteronormative activity exclusively for men who take more steroids daily than they have braincells in total. It’s not entirely clear how media representation of bodybuilders has, in the past few decades, gone from presenting them as idealised men to cultural laughing stocks (with Michael Bay’s 2013 film Pain and Gain being the most prominent example of them firmly being the butt of the joke), but T. Cooper’s documentary Man Made is set to send stereotypes back in the opposite direction.
Playing at this year’s Outfest, Man Made directly challenges the ideals of “traditional masculinity” inherent in the sport, showing how for the transgender men who bodybuild, this is more about presenting their truest identity to the world rather than a drug-enhanced self improvement scheme. From the opening moments, Cooper introduces us to an eclectic group of trans men, all of whom have come to participate in the sport through different backgrounds; their tales equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. The documentary may have some minor flaws – but that doesn’t detract from its power to move you.
The film follows the lives of a handful of men gearing up to compete in Trans FitCon, the world’s only bodybuilding competition for transgender individuals. We have Dominic, who took third place in last year’s competition and is returning following surgery to remove his breasts; newcomer Rese, estranged from his family and left homeless as no shelter can safely take in a trans man; Mason, who overcame mental health issues via bodybuilding and now competes in “mainstream” tournaments as well as Trans FitCon; Kennie, a pre-op trans man struggling with a girlfriend who is starting to see him as a man, and Tommy, a trainer who is starting to share his trans status with the world.
As you can probably guess with a film tracking so many different personal stories at once, some receive more time onscreen than others. But they all feature enough to be able to shoot down any preconception that there is one universal transgender experience; Dominic and Mason both have loving families, whereas Rese has been shunned by his immediate family and left to live with his grandparents, while Kennie’s acceptance is tempered by a disastrous turn of events in his relationship. The social complexities of the issues raised by each subject are simplified in order to focus purely on the human effect – the reaction of each individual and their wider families. The film is at its best when it regularly sidesteps the entire bodybuilding premise altogether, in order to focus on the different personal stories that have led each subject to this moment.
Of course, as mentioned above, this is tempered somewhat by some stories being featured more extensively than others. Tommy doesn’t feature as predominantly in the documentary as the other participants, which means his happy emotional resolution doesn’t hit quite as hard as the joyous highs and devastating lows in the other arcs. This is only a minor issue considering just how much the film manages to integrate you into these characters’ lives and leaves you moved as you slowly witness important moments in their history – Mason’s encounter with Ellen DeGeneres from an old stand-up tape he revisits is a quietly profound example. Not every story leaves the same impact, but the ones that do are unforgettable.
Man Made isn’t exactly a “feel-good” documentary, but it provides enough uplift and humanism to counter the darkness. T. Cooper has managed to find the inherent humanity in the bodybuilding sub-culture, and found a diverse mix of men who don’t conform to our ill-advised stereotypes associated with that world – and more importantly, helped offer a look at a transgender experience rarely captured on film.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Man Made Films