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Diagnostic Spectatorship: Modern Physical Culture and White Masculinity

Denis Côté’s 2017 film Ta peau si lisse opens on the domestic routines of bodybuilders.[1] One man (bald, bearded, tanned) spreads moisturizer on his thighs, calves, and pectoral muscles before putting on jeans and selecting from an array of nearly identical, bright-colored T-shirts and running shoes. Another man (younger, paler, and sporting a buzzcut) weighs, then microwaves, portions of ground beef and white rice. In the next scene, he lifts weights in a basement. His loud, controlled breathing evidences exertion, as do his protuberant veins and occasional grimace. In one shot, where backlighting reduces his body to a silhouette, his mother shows up in the window, gardening, indifferent to her son’s mundane display of strength (fig. 1). A third, tattooed man, too, shows signs of strain, such as heavy, nasal breathing, but he is not exercising. He is gazing at his phone while eating a breakfast that includes a pharmacy’s worth of supplements. His body seems trained to respond even to banal tasks, like swallowing a pill or engulfing a piece of avocado, as though they were Herculean feats (fig. 2). A fourth cast member, who as an Asian Canadian is the only one who does not present as white, is resting in a massage chair with his eyes shut. The friction of his skin against the artificial leather scores a duet between two rhythms: the chair’s mechanical pulsing and the man’s meditative breathing, made visible by the vibration of his chest (fig. 3).

Man lifting weights, still from Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté
Fig. 1. Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté (Canada: Art & Essai, Close Up Films, 2017). Courtesy of Art & Essai and Breaking Glass Pictures.
Man's face, still from Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté
Fig. 2. Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté (Canada: Art & Essai, Close Up Films, 2017). Courtesy of Art & Essai and Breaking Glass Pictures.
Man sitting, still from Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté
Fig. 3. Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté (Canada: Art & Essai, Close Up Films, 2017). Courtesy of Art & Essai and Breaking Glass Pictures.

Ta peau si lisse follows six main subjects: five bodybuilders and one wrestler, all men. The film takes place somewhere in the Province of Quebec, in suburbs just as anonymous as the cast members. These cast members are listed in the credits, and a quick online search suffices to match the names to the faces, but in the film itself, the subjects are devoid of identifying attributes.[2] Dialogue is kept to a minimum, and conversations revolve around training and performance. The only source of conflict—the men’s emotional withholding—is also what prevents conflicts from gaining dramatic momentum. The subjects are cut off from us: we do not hear what they are listening to when they wear earphones, which they often do. Likewise, we do not see the world through their eyes. The distance that separates us from the cast members is especially palpable in one uncanny scene where the bodybuilder we observe is wearing a virtual reality headset while standing in his driveway (fig. 4). Unable to reach their interiority, we encounter these subjects as surfaces. In search of signs of effort, control, or relief, we examine their peau si lisse—their “skin so soft,” a hairless and exposed skin, a skin that perspires and respires.

Man in driveway, still from Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté
Fig. 4. Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté (Canada: Art & Essai, Close Up Films, 2017). Courtesy of Art & Essai and Breaking Glass Pictures.

This essay advances a two-pronged argument: first, that the bodybuilding techniques depicted in Ta peau si lisse perform a gender and racial self-fashioning rooted in the physical culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and second, that Côté’s film indexes the afterlife of what we may call, based on theories of modernist anatomical interpretation by Harold B. Segel, Mark Whalan, and Anne Anlin Cheng, diagnostic spectatorship. As spectators, we look for epidermal and respiratory cues, participating in a form of visual diagnosis that combines cinematic scopophilia (the fetish of watching and being watched) with what I term spirophilia (the fetish of the respiring skin), calibrated as they are for the male to-be-looked-at-ness of modern physical culture. By casting a medical gaze, we come to detect a white masculinity constructed through an enduringly modernist mode of physique posing and its transmogrification of identity and personality.

Reinventing Race and Gender in Modern Physical Culture

Ta peau si lisse’s end credits explicitly inscribe the film in the lineage of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Western physical culture. The names of cast and crew members appear alongside footage from William K. L. Dickson’s 1894 Sandow, a series of short Edison Studios films that feature the muscleman Eugen Sandow (figs. 5 and 6). The juxtaposition reframes Ta peau si lisse, this chronicle of present-day suburban ennui, as haunted by, and eerily in sync with, early cinema’s representation of physique posing. Segel reports that the modernist preoccupation with physicality coincided with a widespread disenchantment with intellectual culture at the turn of the century.[3] Physical culture gurus like Sandow and Bernarr Macfadden became cultural and entrepreneurial icons: they founded popular magazines and journals devoted to well-being and training, lectured across the world, and established institutes where their ideas could be studied and practiced.[4] Bolstered by the middle class’s passion for sports, a generally greater openness regarding sexuality, and the avant-garde’s fascination with primitivism, modern physical culture soon permeated art.[5]

Credits still from Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté
Fig. 5. Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté (Canada: Art & Essai, Close Up Films, 2017). Courtesy of Art & Essai and Breaking Glass Pictures.
Credits still from Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté
Fig. 6. Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté (Canada: Art & Essai, Close Up Films, 2017). Courtesy of Art & Essai and Breaking Glass Pictures.

For instance, Whalan finds that the modernist writer Jean Toomer’s novel Cane, published in 1923, relays Macfadden’s belief that “recreating the body [is] a method of recreating one’s identity, building up as a way of building over.”[6] In Toomer’s novel as in Macfadden’s work, physique posing promises what Whalan calls a “liberation from biological determinism, or . . . ‘racial legibility’”; it posits the sculpted body as more significant than motives or origins to the constitution of social identity (“Taking,” 608). Physical techniques of self-reinvention appealed to Toomer in life as well as literature in part because he sought to interfere with his own racial encoding; by the mid-1920s, he would refuse to be publicly identified as African American. Physical culture did not undo racialization, but rather traded one vector of racialization for another, granting Toomer access to a whiteness defined by the ability for self-reinvention. That race existed in the eyes of the beholder, so to speak, was nothing new.[7] The novelty and allure of physical posing were that it allowed subjects to manipulate, up to a certain point, the racial diagnoses that were formulated about them.

In addition to retaxonomizing race, modernist-era physical culture constituted an arena for gender differentiation. Turn-of-the-century physical culture intensified the gender binary delineated by institutions like medicine and the life sciences, in addition to making the diagnosing of gender difference a part of spectatorship. As a counterpoint to Sandow and Macfadden’s masculine aesthetic, we may look to the dancers Loïe Fuller, Isadora Duncan, and Ruth St. Denis, whom Segel credits for making dance a subject of art in its own right in the modernist period.[8] These dancers, who were, in some cases unwittingly, figures of fascination for early cinema, not only cast a new light on the female body but, as Jacques Rancière writes in a meditation on Fuller, they revolutionized the “sensible fabric of experience” with respect to femininity, creating conditions where “the sensible milieu of existence and the form of community [. . . obeyed] one and the same principle.”[9] In physical culture, masculinity became hypermasculine (chiseled, asocial, static), and femininity became hyperfeminine (serpentine, communal, dynamic).

Côté’s film recapitulates modernist-era physical culture and its management of race and gender. As with Toomer, in Ta peau si lisse, the whiteness of physical culture’s image of masculinity is ratified, rather than challenged, by the presence of a nonwhite figure (in this case, the Asian Canadian cast member). The film presents this individual’s ability to access white-dominated spaces of physical culture as a corrective to his estrangement from domestic gatherings. In a dinner scene, he appears out of sync with his extended family. He eats a different, high-protein meal alone, at the kitchen counter. Later, at the main table, he soliloquizes about his training objectives. His family members remain unresponsive. Toward the end of Ta peau si lisse, he is inducted into a family of a different kind. A school bus picks up the cast members one by one. They sit apart and stay silent. No longer at odds with romantic partners or family members expecting emotional expressiveness, the men are united by their withholding. When they arrive at a rural cottage, the presence of a different outsider, a white male wrestler, reinforces the assimilation of the only person of color into the otherwise all-white, homosocial circle. The wrestler watches from afar as the bodybuilders trade compliments. Though apparently stronger than his counterparts, he does not exhibit the same bodily definition. His exclusion has to do with his unwillingness to use the bodybuilding techniques that his fellow cast members deem vital to the production of an ideal of white hypermasculinity—an ideal that, as both Whalan’s essay and Ta peau si lisse show, can use the bodies of people of color as its vessels.

A campfire scene further highlights the whiteness of Côté’s pastoral. One night, a white cast member relates a dream or hallucination during which he was visited by “an African goddess.” The other men giggle, and one of them asks, “Were you excited?” The exchange echoes Cheng’s argument that modernist engagements with Black women were often refracted through white male fetishes.[10] The cast members of Ta peau si lisse greet the arrival, under a mythologized, fetishistic form, of a Black female figure within their social perimeter with a mix of anxiety and titillation. The “African goddess” is made to personify at once a primitivism deemed desirable and the constitutive outside to the white male sociality of physical culture.

Scopophilia and Spirophilia

Ta peau si lisse ought to be understood in the context of a modernist fascination for skin catalyzed by events like the advent of cinema. Cheng recounts that in the early twentieth century, the human skin accrued a new “sediment of signification” (Second Skin, 8). Medical advancement, mechanical reproduction, philosophical discourse such as Taylorism, and technological innovations such as photography and film forged “a fantasy about a modern, renewed, and disciplined body” (8). Concurrently, psychoanalysis “multiplied and restricted” the boundaries of the human body, simultaneously literalizing and distorting the body/mind split (8). Amid these transformations, modernism became “obsessed with ‘skin,’ its imperfection and reproduction in a wide range of discursive and practical spheres and in a startling array of materials” (8).[11] Cheng describes raced skin, specifically, as a surface onto which histories of objectification as well emerging concepts of matter as mutability became legible (12). Her method of reading the epidermal surface proves especially insightful in the case of Côté’s film. By treating the minute vibrations of the cast members’ “skin so soft” as symptoms that reveal something about physical labor, discipline, and self-reinvention, we end up processing white masculinity as a pathology.

By focusing, and inviting us to focus, on the cast members’ bare skin, Ta peau si lisse investigates white male to-be-looked-at-ness. Here again, Côté takes his cues from late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century physical culture, in which, as Anthea Callen writes, “narcissistic, voyeuristic and potentially homoerotic pleasure was . . . given legitimacy both in artistic anatomy and the new overlapping domains of sport and hygiene.”[12] The pleasures of looking and being looked at amount to what Laura Mulvey, in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” calls “scopophilia.”[13] But in yoking maleness and looking, as well as femaleness and to-be-looked-at-ness, Mulvey does not account for the scopophilic dynamics of modern physical culture.[14] Ta peau si lisse, then, amends Mulvey’s theory by drawing on a modernist tradition wherein men’s status as objects of contemplation does not threaten what Mulvey has influentially termed the “male gaze” (“Visual Pleasure,” 715).

I concede that Côté’s film articulates a partial phenomenology of female spectatorship. The film indeed features women who make aesthetic and athletic judgments about men’s bodies, alternating between instructions for adjustments and expressions of satisfaction. In one scene, the youngest of the bodybuilders, wearing a cyan Speedo, poses on a small stage set up in a backyard corner (fig. 7). He is in competition mode. His girlfriend fills in for the absent judging panel by dispensing advice: “Don’t forget your thighs”; “Don’t forget to smile.” Visibly annoyed, he nevertheless puts on a robotic smile. In another scene, we catch a different cast member smoke on a balcony. His girlfriend scolds him: “It doesn’t make sense for you to smoke. Why don’t you pose for me instead?” “What do you want me to do?” he asks. She calls the shots: “Double biceps, facing forward. Suck in your belly. Yeah… Triceps, in profile. Suck this in. Yeah, that’s good. Ok, double biceps facing backward.” A dog is sniffing around, unbothered by the pageantry.

Man flexing on platform, still from Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté
Fig. 7. Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté (Canada: Art & Essai, Close Up Films, 2017). Courtesy of Art & Essai and Breaking Glass Pictures.

Yet, the foregrounding of male objects of desire in Ta peau si lisse does not exactly invert Mulvey’s diagram. Female spectatorship does not solidify into a female gaze, but rather constitutes a supplement to the male scopophilic loop. Tellingly, Ta peau si lisse culminates with a pastoral devoid of women. The film’s arc suggests that the ultimate setting for the appreciation of male physique is homosocial. In this space, the subjects making aesthetic judgments have first-hand knowledge of the training required to become the objects of such judgments. Throughout Ta peau si lisse, the male cast members document their own progress. They take copious selfies, examine the snapshots, and take a few more (fig. 8). As a work of docufiction, a documentary genre wherein the director establishes the conditions for something worth filming to happen, Ta peau si lisse reminds us that its subjects are relentlessly crafting and curating their own images. The self-documentation on display, much like the male-only pastoral, constitutes a feedback loop wherein men occupy double roles as subjects and objects, simultaneously looking and being looked at. Self-documentation authorizes self-diagnosis. By examining themselves and each other, cast members discern and validate their own gender and racial self-styling before we, the spectators, are asked to do so.

Man taking selfie, still from Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté
Fig. 8. Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté (Canada: Art & Essai, Close Up Films, 2017). Courtesy of Art & Essai and Breaking Glass Pictures.

The gaze conjured by Ta peau si lisse is above all medical or, in so far as it does not require technical expertise, pseudo-medical. Côté zooms in on the ways skin interfaces with its environment, be it through breathing, through friction, or through its availability as an object of contemplation. As we watch, we read the cast members’ skin for symptoms from which we might extrapolate information. Because the subjects do not partake in the kind of emotional expression that would grant us access, or at least make us feel as though we had access, to their interiority, we engage in diagnostic spectatorship: the kind of detailed interpretation I modeled in the opening of this essay. We pay attention to labored breathing, drops of sweat, or twitching—those signs that enable us to deduce that subjects are experiencing pain, pushing their limits, or nearing exhaustion.

The skin is a porous and moving surface. We apprehend the skin of onscreen subjects through their breathing, and their breathing through their skin. The film experience afforded by Ta peau si lisse is therefore defined not only by scopophilia but also by spirophilia—an interest in, and appreciation of, respiration. Just like the modernist epidermal fetish, the respiratory fetish invokes dynamics of race and gender. As Lundy Braun recounts, the popularization in the nineteenth century of the spirometer, an instrument for measuring lung capacity, established whiteness as the scientific standard for “aliveness” and rationalized the oppression and enslavement of people of color on the basis of their failure to meet this arbitrary standard.[15] Cinema, which, as Edison Studios’ Sandow makes explicit, was born alongside modern physical culture, is not exactly a spirometric device, in so far as it does not assess lung capacity. But cinema does use closeups, long takes, and other techniques to allow spectators to measure variations in the intensity of breathing. This is particularly true of silent cinema, in which a hand pressed to the chest or exaggerated exhalation enjoins us to notice the breathing we cannot hear.[16] Through the rise of cinema, the measurement of breathing as a heuristic for race and gender spilled over into mass culture.

In Ta peau si lisse, the motion of the bodybuilders’ skin betrays the fantasy that their construction of white masculinity involves, making its grotesqueness apparent.[17] This is not to say that Côté approaches his subjects with cynicism. Following Susan Stewart, I use grotesque as a technical term to refer both to the spectacular grotesque, wherein the body, seen as a whole, comes across as an aberration, and to the carnivalesque grotesque, which underscores the productive capacities of isolated body parts.[18] Both scales of the grotesque are on display in Ta peau si lisse. In medium and wide shots, male bodies, bursting at the seams, seem out of place. Scantily dressed, the cast members rehearse poses, flexing and smiling mechanically. Staged in empty backyards and plain hotel rooms, the spectacle is an anomaly. Moreover, the magnification and amplification of respiration and friction make the body grotesque by exaggerating individual parts and functions. Extreme closeups, accompanied by the carnival sounds of loud breathing, chewing, and massaging, expose us to the minor gestures and adjustments on which the image of hypermasculinity hinges. By reviving the gender and racial self-fashioning of modern physical culture, Ta peau si lisse prompts us to diagnose white masculinity as held together, ever so precariously, by a respiration at once controlled and hyperbolic.


[1] Ta peau si lisse, directed by Denis Côté (Canada: Art & Essai, Close Up Films, 2017).

[2] To avoid remedying this anonymity, I have chosen, in this essay, to refer to the cast members in the broadest way possible. I describe one subject as Asian Canadian because the film does not divulge his specific identity. Likewise, when I write that other subjects present as white, it is in the absence of knowledge regarding their actual background. Preserving the cast members’ generality is necessary to the project of this essay, which is to consider how spectators come to apprehend onscreen subjects only through the magnification of skin and breath.

[3] See Harold B. Segel, Body Ascendant: Modernism and the Physical Imperative (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 1.

[4] See Segel, Body Ascendant, 4.

[5] See Segel, Body Ascendant, 204.

[6] Mark Whalan, “‘Taking Myself in Hand’: Jean Toomer and Physical Culture,” Modernism/modernity vol. 10, no. 4 (2003): 597–615, 604. Whalan argues that Toomer is best understood as a successor to Macfadden. “Macfadden’s career was marked by incredible entrepreneurial energy, total belief in his own carefully developed systems of holistic health, and a humorless inflexibility which led him to extreme views on certain social and political matters,” Whalan writes; “All of these factors bear striking resemblance to the career of Toomer” (599).

[7] For instance, Miriam Thaggert and Adrienne Brown center technologies of perception (photography, the novel, the skyscraper) in their accounts of constructions of Blackness in the first half of the twentieth century. See Miriam Thaggert, Images of Black Modernism: Verbal and Visual Strategies of the Harlem Renaissance (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010) and Adrienne Brown, The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

[8] See Segel, Body Ascendant, 80–81.

[9] Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, trans. Zakir Paul (New York: Verso, 2013), x, 109.

[10] For instance, Cheng asks of Josephine Baker’s banana skirt, “And if we think about those bananas as also signifying colonial commerce and its rapacious appetite (for it was in the 1920s that banana plantations were being promoted as a supplement to and replacement for the sugar plantations in the French Antilles), then what exactly is being consumed in this dizzyingly layered scene, where the object of enjoyment is a prized but easily bruised ‘exotic’ fruit masking the black female lack masking the black dick masking the hunger of the white imperial phallus?” (Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker & the Modern Surface [New York: Oxford University Press, 2011], 45).

[11] Maud Ellmann, too, ties the fascination with skin of the early twentieth century to psychoanalysis as a “modernist fiction” (The Nets of Modernism: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Sigmund Freud [Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2011], 10, 13). Specifically, for Ellmann, anxieties about fractured subjectivity converged on the navel, at once net and hole, connector and void. Both Cheng and Ellmann notice, in their skin readings, the emergence, along with psychoanalysis, of models of subjectivity, self, and identity that are not premised on the expression of interiority.

[12] Anthea Callen, Looking at Men: Anatomy, Masculinity and the Modern Body (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 63.

[13] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 711–722, 713.

[14] “The determining male gaze,” Mulvey writes in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” “projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (715, italics in original).

[15] See Lundy Braun, Breathing Race Into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

[16] I am grateful to Rachel Kyne for offering this observation and providing insightful notes on this essay.

[17] Thanks to one of the anonymous readers, to whom I owe part of this formulation.

[18] See Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 107–108.