Falling into the beautiful trap: the marathon as modern malaise

Upon becoming the first human to run a sub-two-hour marathon at the INEOS 1:59 Challenge in Vienna in October, thirty-four-year-old Kenyan runner  Eliud Kipochoge declared that ‘no human is limited’.  Kipochoge’s stringent training routine and the IAAF’s refusal to recognise the accomplishment due to perceived ‘mechanical advantages’ suggest that modern exercise is in fact structured by limitation,­ yet we prefer to believe otherwise. Two recent films – Paul Downes Collazzio’s Brittany Runs A Marathon (2019) and David Schwimmer’s Run Fatboy Run (2007) – repeat this problematic narrative, despite the former brandishing a progressive feminist critique. The protagonists of these dramedies regain control over their life by exerting control over their bodies. However, what the films trick us into accepting are patriarchal and capitalist values and their destructive rebranding of feminism.  

In Brittany Runs A Marathon, American comedian Jillian Bell delivers an awkward performance as Brittany Forglar, a twenty-eight-year-old greeter at an off-Broadway theatre with a penchant for binge drinking and abusing Adderall. After taking up running due to health concerns flagged by her doctor, Brittany decides to complete a marathon so that people will take her seriously. In Run Fat Boy Fun, British comedian Simon Pegg plays Dennis Doyle, a late-thirties retail security guard with a childish streak and chronic commitment issues. Emasculated by Whit, his ex-fiancés new partner, Dennis participates in a marathon to compete for her affection and prove that he can change. In both instances, running a marathon has less to do with fitness and more with the virtues it signals to others.

Dennis and Brittany choose to exercise outside of the gym, an institution criticised in both films for being contrived and overpriced. Confronted with Whit’s display of manhood after reluctantly accepting his invitation to a spin class, Dennis associates gym-goers with arrogance. Confused as to why people would pay exorbitant amounts for an exercise they can perform outside for free, Brittany ridicules a staff member over the pricing of a gym membership. Together these criticisms make the dangerous assumption that public exercise is natural and thus more virtuous than private exercise. As cultural critic Mark Greif aptly explains in his 2017 essay Against Exercise, the gym-goer may be a ‘solitary evangelist’ but the runner is most insidious because they take proselytising out of the gym and into the public sphere. Marathon-running becomes the optimal platform through which the controlled illusion of an ideal self can be readily perceived as natural.

Intrinsically tied to patriarchal and capitalist values, the virtues associated with this ideal self are embodied by runners that each protagonist envies. Dennis believes his ex-fiancé Libby’s attraction to Whit is due to his wealth and beauty. Offended by his veiled misogyny, Libby describes her ideal man as mature, responsible, considerate and great with their son. Brittany despises her downstairs neighbour Catherine, who she calls ‘money-bags Martha,’ for her wealth and beauty. Despite attempting to break the illusion that on which Brittany’s belief that her life was perfect was grounded, Catherine is chastised for gloating about her addiction and divorce. Unable to confront the illusion for what it is, Brittany believes that her ideal self would be a thin, rich dog-owner with a reputable job, stable relationship and social media fame. These character dynamics reveal that without a form of measurement, modern exercise and its relationship to perpetual self-optimisation would become meaningless. For Dennis and Brittany, running a marathon becomes a ‘get-recognised-quick’ scheme, a way in which they can easily associate themselves with virtues that are otherwise much more difficult to measure and achieve.

Conforming to the patriarchal and capitalist ideal of the nuclear family, both films have an unsettling obsession with presenting divorce as the root of all evil. Brittany Runs A Marathon in particular equates the misfortunes of its characters to the development of antisocial behaviours caused by marriage breakups.

By simply making visible her choice to compete in the marathon, Brittany embodies mainstream feminism’s notion of empowerment as bold and thus morally infallible. At least, in the case of Run Fat Boy Run, Libby acknowledges the gap between the virtues Dennis’ choice signals and the virtues it is most likely to achieve. As cultural critic Jia Tolentino explains in her 2019 essay Always Be Optimizing, trying to become a better woman is as amoral a project as learning how to get better at life under accelerated capitalism. Entrenching the tyranny of the ideal woman by rebranding the beauty myth as self-care, mainstream feminism rewards any visible choice toward personal optimisation as a form of empowerment that should go unquestioned. As Heather Widdow’s aptly explains in her 2018 book Perfect Me, the fact of choice does not ‘make an unjust or exploitative practice or act, somehow, magically, just or non-exploitative.’

Almost immediately after completing the marathon, Brittany miraculously morphs into her ideal self – an idealised mirage of a patriarchal and capitalist self-image that she ultimately shares with her ex-roommate Gretchen. Her earlier criticism of Gretchen’s character now reveals itself as a comparison measured by the marathon. Since Gretchen chose not to run, Brittany is awarded moral superiority, because completing the marathon somehow proves that she has worked harder to achieve their shared illusion and is thus a more genuine person. Trapped between the intersections of patriarchy and capitalism, the feminism of Brittany Runs A Marathon is what Tolentino would describe as a ‘beautiful trap’: by welcoming and rewarding the mainstream it works to ‘ensure that individual success comes at the expense of collective morality.’

Despite his record-breaking event being described as representative of the spirit of humanity which has no borders, only starting lines, Eluid Kipochage was stripped of his title because he revealed the machinery behind the illusion­ of modern exercise. Taking proselytising outside of the gym and into the public, marathon-running has become the ultimate way to signal patriarchal and capitalistic virtues that are otherwise difficult to measure. By simply choosing to run a marathon, mainstream feminism has allowed women to assume a morality that does not challenge the problematic structures it purportedly transcends. The protagonists of Run Fat Boy Run and Brittany Runs A Marathon reveals that only through limitation do we feel as if we are without limits and that to step out of this bind, we must find comfort in showing weakness and asking others for help.

Olivia Bennett

Olivia Bennett is a Melbourne/Naarm-based writer, filmmaker, curator and MIFF 2019 Critics Campus participant. Her practice specialises in the socio-political effects, and intersections between, art and film philosophy, post-humanism, technology and digital media. Olivia completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours - First Class) in Screen and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne and a Bachelor of Art History and Curating (majoring in Film Studies) at Monash University.

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  1. Okay disclaimer: I’ve run two. I found them pretty empowering on a personal level. They aren’t for everyone, but then that’s true of many things. So I agree with the general direction of this as cultural criticism, but I also wonder if this is a bit harsh: “marathon-running has become the ultimate way to signal patriarchal and capitalistic virtues that are otherwise difficult to measure.” Being present in your body and pushing its limits can be a form of empowerment. Do we also need to find ways to acknowledge this somehow?

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