We live in the era of the superhero. There’s no escaping it. Our popular culture is obsessed with these figures: go to a cinema on any given week and you can reliably find scenes of musclebound Übermenschen saving the world. Many of these films are explicit about it; others, such as James Bond or Fast & Furious, are superhero fiction in all but name. As Hollywood has flooded the market with these stories, performers have had to bend to this new paradigm’s whims. What does this mean, exactly? Glutes. Pecs. Abs. “Body transformations.” Normal bodies no longer suffice.
In light of this, it is easy to understand why so many suspect the film industry of having a steroids problem. Over the past decade, we’ve seen countless normal men whittle themselves into sinewy adonises for the purposes of this or that blockbuster role. On his podcast this week, Joe Rogan – a man who, it must be said, has a chequered history when it comes to journalistic rigour – accused Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson of using steroids. (Johnson has admitted to dabbling with performance-enhancing drugs in his youth, but has suggested this was a thing of the past.) Rogan levelled a similar accusation at Chris Hemsworth, whose role as the Norse god Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe prompted the actor to balloon into a veritable human Hulk. (Hemsworth’s trainers have denied the suggestion that he used steroids to aid this transformation.) If some experts are to be believed – see, for instance, Vox’s 2021 piece on “the open secret to looking like a superhero” – steroid use is rife among actors.
We can confidently assume that “juicing” does take place in Hollywood. When there is easy access to drugs, a lack of accountability and financial motivation – as there most certainly is with multimillion dollar movie deals in play – it would be naive to believe that steroids would be off the table. (In a similar vein, we all know it would be stupid to presume that cocaine doesn’t still circulate around Hollywood parties, just because the film industry has grown better at keeping its hedonism under wraps.) However, it’s not useful to speculate about such things, as Rogan did on a case-by-case basis, from mere hunches or vibes about a particular actor’s gains. Whether Johnson juiced is ultimately immaterial. Steroids are but a symptom of a greater problem Hollywood faces: a corrosive lack of body diversity on screen.
There have always been actors who were defined by their chiselled bodies – such as Arnold Schwarzenegger (who admitted to using steroids during his bodybuilding days, when his appearance could be characterised as distressingly bulbous). But Arnie was always the exception to the rule, a man whose physicality was so unusual that people eagerly accepted him as a robotic killing machine. Put him in an everyman role like Jingle All the Way and audiences were left scratching their heads. In today’s climate, though? Every A-list male is Schwarzenegger in Jingle All the Way, with his bumpy physique considered the movie-star norm.
If indeed actors are using steroids, there are a number of well-documented health risks, from the increase in the possibility of a stroke to potential cardiovascular problems. But the damage inflicted on its audience may be just as concerning. Hollywood’s problems with body image are often spoken about from a primarily female perspective, and for good reason. But the desire to get hench – and devoting large swathes of one’s free time to lifting weights and choking down protein powders – skews towards men.
There is much to say about the abject lack of body diversity in mainstream cinema. Fat actors are seldom allowed to become stars, and never given the chance to front major blockbusters. This has always essentially been true. But the window of what constitutes an “acceptable” body size for an action star has squeezed even tighter within the last decade. What we are left with is an A-list populated by men who look identical from the neck down, a mafia of indistinct mesomorphs. Part of the reason the whole “Hollywood is just a dozen white guys named Chris” narrative caught on is because all of those actors – Chrises Hemsworth, Evans, Pratt, and Pine – obey the same blandly uniform body supremacy.
Ultimately, even if Hollywood were completely clean of steroids, it wouldn’t make that much difference. Actors already have a wealth of other performance-enhancing advantages at their disposal, from personal trainers and professional nutritionists to luxury gym memberships. Sure, with enough discipline and time, anyone can get jacked. But if you’re looking to become a full-blown vascular behemoth, money and resources are going to make a hell of a difference.
More than this, though, Hollywood’s bombardment of beefcakes provides an insidious life lesson for the children and teenagers who still comprise the modern superhero movie’s core audience. Moral virtue is conflated with physical perfection: brawn reigns supreme. If you ask me, that’s a pretty rotten way to look at the world.