- Strong dir. by Julie Wyman
Just before the 2012 Summer Olympics, Conan O’Brien tweeted a joke about Olympian Holley Mangold’s weight. He predicted that “350 lb. weight lifter Holley Mangold will bring home the gold and 4 guys against their will.” The tweet relies on two heterosexist assumptions: (1) that Mangold’s weight makes her unattractive to men and that she would need to resort to rape in order to find sex and (2) she is so strong and manly that she would overpower four men. O’Brien was called out for the offensive tweet, and a lively online discussion about gendered social norms, oppression, and privilege ensued. That same week, the documentary film Strong! quietly debuted on PBS.
Produced and directed by Julie Wyman, Strong! addresses these issues and more. The ambitious film explores the complicated intersections of weight and health, as well as the highs and lows of elite sport. The film filters these topics through the life of Mangold’s predecessor, Cheryl Haworth, who burst onto the scene when she won the super heavyweight national championship at fifteen years old. She won eleven consecutive national championships and is a three-time Olympian, winning a bronze medal at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games and placing sixth in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.
Through a combination of archival footage and over two hundred hours of filming, Strong! traces Haworth’s athletic success and the inevitable decline of her lifting career. Wyman filmed Haworth over several years, following her from her birthplace of Savannah, Georgia, to the United States Olympic Training Facility in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she trained for the 2007 World Championships and 2008 Olympics. This resulted in a film that richly illustrates the complexities of life as an elite competitor in a marginal sport.
Haworth is affable, gregarious, and endearing. In the film’s initial scenes, she seems not to take the project seriously. However, as the film develops, the audience begins to see that behind her joking façade lies a woman who thinks deeply about her sport and the social expectations of femininity. For Haworth, body size and strength are inextricable. As she argues, “mass moves mass.” But not even weightlifters can escape cultural ideals, as Haworth sees women continually attempting to move down weight classes while the men are trying to move up. Ultimately, she says, “There’s no such thing, in this culture, as being big and strong and being totally accepted as a woman . . . no matter how much you could kick everybody’s ass.”
To illustrate these points, Wyman artfully juxtaposes weightlifting scenes with scenes of Haworth and her teammates driving around in her much-loved car, shopping for clothes, and cooking meals together. These contrasting environments succinctly capture the contestation over femininity, masculinity, strength, and sport that many sport historians have explored. The raw sounds of weights slamming and lifters grunting punctuate the visual effects of women lifting nearly twice their body weight overhead. Artistic, slow-motion sequences of women lifting and training in synchronicity provide an alternative ideal of [End Page 93] beauty. And yet, those same powerful, precise, and beautiful bodies are reduced to the “plus-size” moniker as Haworth and her teammates try on ill-fitting clothes at the local shopping mall.
Wyman uses the uncertainty of injuries and life after lifting to structure Haworth’s story and to discuss body size, health, and beauty. Interviews of Haworth confidently discussing how useful her weight and size are for weightlifting are edited together with footage of successful lifts at the height of her career. Furthermore, she discusses food as fuel and how healthy she feels during this period of success. By contrast, Wyman edits footage of Haworth’s missed lifts, injuries, and search for a career after lifting, together with interviews where Haworth’s confidence wavers, saying that she feels unhealthy and wants to lose weight. It becomes clear that her size and power are necessary for weightlifting but detrimental to her life off the platform.
The film is at its best when illustrating the effects of fat-shaming cultures and demonstrating...