In the dog days of this past August, when many Americans were on vacation and few were going to the movies, The Hollywood Reporter quietly published an article about the use of steroids in Hollywood. Apparently, those ripped physiques you’ve been seeing at multiplexes this summer are not the work of nature alone. The article by Tatiana Seigel included interviews with several athletic trainers of A-list movie stars, some of whom went on the record and others who remained anonymous due to the sensitive subject matter. Here is the takeaway:
With its fountain-of-youth promise, HGH [Human Growth Hormone] quietly has become the substance of choice for Tinseltown denizens looking to quickly burn fat, boost energy and even improve complexion. The drug costs up to $3,000 a month. Taken along with steroids ($50 to $150 per month), to help build muscle, the results can be startling.
Hollywood trainer Happy Hill, who has helped sculpt Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Phillippe, estimates that some 20 percent of actors use PEDs [Performance Enhancing Drugs] to bulk up and define. “HGH is on the scene now more than ever before,” says Hill, who frowns upon PED use and stresses that none of his clients partake. “It’s hard not to use. Some people, especially the older ones, are looking for that perfect gym body, and they want a shortcut.”
You might think that this would send shock waves through the industry, but actually, the use of PEDs in Hollywood has been known and largely accepted for decades. Actors have admitted past steroid use to little or no controversy. Sylvester Stallone admitted using HGH as recently as 2008. Charlie Sheen recently acknowledged that he used steroids to bulk up for 1989’s Major League.
But the evidence presented in THR, along with a quick glance up at a movie screen these last few summers, suggests that actors are juicing far more than they have in the past. Sure, Arnold Schwarzenegger, an admitted steroid user, was a mega-star thirty years ago, but he was the exception, not the rule. The most famous action stars of that era were Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson; although they were certainly fit, no one is mistaking either of them for bodybuilders.
The average-sized action stars are now few and far between. In fact, let’s compare by looking at the actors who played the same roles onscreen then and now. The scrawny Michael Keaton was good enough for Batman in 1989, but by the 2000s, the masses demanded a muscle-bound Christian Bale, who gained 109 pounds to play the Caped Crusader. In 1978, Christopher Reeve was fit enough to be called Superman, but he would certainly be squashed like a bug by Henry Cavill in the 2013 version.
None of this is to suggest that Bale and Cavill used PEDs. In fact, as I will note later in this post, there is solid evidence that Cavill did not. But one thing is clear: Hollywood is demanding bigger bodies and larger muscles for their male heroes, making it inevitable that some will turn to steroids to get an advantage. If we accept the premise that HGH is on the rise in Hollywood, it raises a number of important questions, such as: What should we do about it? Do we need testing? Should Congress intervene? The best way to answer these questions is by comparing the use of steroids in Hollywood to its use in professional sports, which has had to deal with this question for decades.
How Steroids in Movies is Similar to Steroids in Sports
The lack of concern over the use of steroid use in Hollywood is surprising considering how riled up everyone gets about its use in professional sports, particularly baseball, football, and cycling. Baseball went through the worst of it after users Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivated the nation with their PED-enhanced pursuit of Roger Maris’s home run record in 1998, but even after Congressional hearings and a tougher testing policy, problems remain. The superstar Alex Rodriguez is currently appealing an unprecedented 211-game suspension for steroid use, and reigning MVP Ryan Braun recently admitted using. Meanwhile, steroid testing is consistently a contentious topic in the NFL, particularly in this era of concern over traumatic brain injury; the larger the player, some say, the more likely he is to cause a concussion. Cycling has perhaps taken the greatest single hit, as their most high-profile athlete Lance Armstrong fell from grace after vehemently denying and then admitting steroid use.
In both arenas – Hollywood and sports – steroids are used to give people a physical edge in a fiercely competitive industry. The potential damage to their bodies is real, but the reward is huge: fame, fortune, and lots of endorsement opportunities. For young people who, by nature, think of themselves as invincible, the long-term risk must be easy to shrug off. How else to explain why these individuals who rely on their body for their livelihoods are willing to take such risks?
Of course, young people are not invincible, and steroid use is associated with everything from increased risk of diabetes and heart disease to liver damage and cancerous tumors, not to mention mood swings, rage, and, perhaps worst of all, a psychologically crippling addiction. Since most PEDs are not illegal, responsible adults should be able to choose for themselves whether they want to use them, but their actions have a larger impact on society that must not be ignored.
Both athletes and actors are high-profile role models, and their actions – and especially their physiques, in our image-obsessed society– set a standard that young, impressionable adolescents accept as the norm. According to the article, more and more teens are using steroids: “A 2012 study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that teens are using steroids and muscle-enhancing substances at higher rates than previously thought. Nearly 6 percent of boys in the survey reported using steroids, while the rate among girls was 4.6 percent.” Teens, it should be noted, are more likely to suffer side effects from PEDs than adults.
How Steroids in the Movies are Different
Still, while I am concerned about a society that implicitly celebrates steroid use, my outrage over the use of PEDs in sports goes deeper than that. It’s about a system of exploitation between corporate entities and the underclass – poor Latino immigrants and black urban males in baseball and football, respectively – who must consistently perform at extremely high levels without injury or risk being returned to their poor communities. For them, steroids are not a choice; they are a way out. But few of them actually succeed. While some of these athletes do become superstars and transcend their class, the vast majority are tossed out of the sport at a young age with a broken body and few professional skills. Their choice to use PEDs does not constitute a well-reasoned decision; it is simply the best of several bad options.
This is not the case in Hollywood, where steroid use, it seems, is less systemic. Instead, they are used more sporadically by actors who want to bulk up for certain parts, which is certainly less dangerous to the user than sustained, long-term use. The THR article also notes that they are more often used by actors approaching middle-age and trying to keep up with the young, buff actors who want their roles. It’s hard to feel too bad for a millionaire who chooses steroids to protect his superstar brand, but the impact on society is the same: a ripped, bulked-up physique becomes the standard to which young men feel they must aspire, and for most men, such a standard is unachievable without steroids.
What We Can Do
It seems that steroid use in movies does indeed represent a threat to society. As much as we don’t want adolescents idolizing movie stars for the choices made in their personal lives, we live in a celebrity-driven culture that shows no signs of shifting its priorities.
So what can we do about it? Does Congress even have the authority to ban steroids from Hollywood? Officially, no – not since film was defined as “free speech” by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952. But they didn’t need to legally ban the use of steroids in baseball in order to change its trajectory, even though they could have done just that under the Commerce Clause (baseball is considered “interstate commerce.”) Instead, they held high-profile hearings, hauled major baseball stars up in front of television cameras to scold them, and eventually shamed Major League Baseball into the adoption of tougher testing policies.
Congress could use the same strategy with Hollywood and force them to self-regulate. They’ve done it in the past, like when Congress threatened to regulate violent and sexual content in movies in the 1920s. This led Hollywood to create the Production Code, in which studios submitted their movies to an industry censorship board before release. While the Production Code is largely considered as a black stain on the movie industry – a socially acceptable form of censorship, but censorship nonetheless – it remains an example of how Congress can influence Hollywood practices.
Still, they probably won’t, at least not with the Democrats in power. The current Democratic party has fostered a close, mutually beneficial (read: $$$) relationship with Hollywood that paid dividends for the movie studios last year when the public was looking for a scapegoat after the dual shooting rampages in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut. At the time, questions were raised by many, including from within the industry, as to the impact of movie mayhem on real-life bloodshed, but these questions went mostly unanswered. Both Obama and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy made empty promises to do something substantial about the use of violence in movies and video games. In the end, Obama only ordered a $10 million CDC study on the causes of gun violence, and Leahy did not invite a single representative of Hollywood to testify at his high-profile hearings.
But whether Congress acts or not (and they won’t), Hollywood can and should self-regulate. Warner Brothers, for example, insisted on approving Henry Cavill’s training regimen early in pre-production of Man of Steel; other studios should adopt similar practices for all their productions, especially the high-profile, tentpole variety. They are, however, unlikely to do so unless further pressure is applied, and Congress remains the best mechanism to do that. The only other option is for people to vote with their dollars and stop buying tickets for movies with muscular, shirtless men.
And that makes getting Congress to act sound easy.