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Epistemology of the Locker Room: A Queer Glance at the Physical Culture Archive

Chow, Broderick D.V. (2020) Epistemology of the Locker Room: A Queer Glance at the Physical Culture Archive. Contemporary Theatre Review Print ISSN 1048-6801 Online ISSN 1477-2264, 31 (1/2). (In Press)

Abstract

The physical culture movement began in Europe and America the nineteenth century and was a precursor to today’s forms of fitness and exercise. It also encompassed a mediascape that included popular theatre, magazines, collectible photos, and advertisements. According to many traditional historical accounts, this scene of mainly male-identified embodied practice is ‘closeted’. The practice of muscle building and bodily cultivation constructs a heteronormative and hegemonic masculine ideal while at the same time serving as a hidden or secret site for gay desire.
I argue that the concept of the closet (encompassing notions of hiding and outing) obscures the ways in which physical culture has challenged and queered rigid binaries of gender and sexuality from its origin. Through this trope, the locker room is re-framed as a public site of male homosociality and a closeted site of male homosexuality. In contrast, this article takes the ‘epistemology of the locker room’ – a site of semi-public exposure, relationality, competition, and shame – as an approach to the twentieth century archive of physical culture, a problematic set of documents in which physical culturists perform a heightened, theatrical self-presentation. How might such a conceptual shift to ‘partial exposure’ enable us to re-read the lacunae in the archive that have often been considered ‘secretly’ queer? ‘Outing’ archives, here, is an action that marks the way in which the embodied practice of physical culture was not a secret but openly queer history, in which exceptional and extraordinary performing bodies invented new modes of sociality.

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