Schwarzenegger remains on the syllabus

The bodybuilder and governor-elect is grist for research, scholarly obsession

Ideas: Arnold 101

October 12, 2003|By Alan Zarembo | Alan Zarembo,Los Angeles Times

SANTA FE, N.M. -- Standing before a roomful of fellow Ph.D.s, Louise Krasneiwicz wears an untucked shirt -- a multihued collage of musclemen and "championship" banners. Perched on a chair near her podium is a poster from Flex magazine featuring a bare-chested Arnold Schwarzenegger from his bodybuilding days.

"We think that Arnold Schwarzenegger's extensive influence and remarkable presence in late 20th-century American culture has gone beyond inspiration, hero worship and entertainment," she tells the captive audience at the School of American Research here, where she is a research associate.

Many of the social scientists listening take notes.

Schwarzenegger has been many things in his life: immigrant, weightlifter, action-movie star and now governor-elect of California. A lesser known role has been academic study subject.

For the last two decades, Krasneiwicz, a cultural anthropologist, and her intellectual partner, Michael Blitz, the tenured chair of "thematic studies" at John Jay College in New York, have examined his role in popular culture.

To the bewilderment of some peers, they have collected hundreds of articles and advertisements with references to Schwarzenegger, attended the bodybuilding competition he sponsors, even taped the sounds inside his restaurant bathroom. They have also watched his 30-plus movies dozens of times -- including rare finds like the 1980 TV drama The Jayne Mansfield Story, co-starring Loni Anderson (Arnold played Mickey Hargitay).

It has been a pursuit so consuming that they regularly dream about their subject -- and have posted more than 150 of those dreams, ranging from the bizarre to the erotic, on their Web site (www.sscnet.ucla.edu / ioa / arnold / arnoldwebpages / arnold.htm).

Avowed postmodernists, the researchers say the point of their collection is not to quantify Schwarzenegger's influence as a cultural icon -- though they do contend that his importance far exceeds that of any other living celebrity -- but to arrive at some vision of America.

"We're not really interested in studying him as a person but as a reference, a point in our culture," Krasneiwicz says.

Blessed by Arnold

She has many examples. An issue of Lingua Franca includes an article called "Terminating Analysis," a profile of the "Schwarzenegger of Freud-bashers." An automobile advertisement declares that "The Dodge Viper is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of sports cars." A Time magazine piece on pectoral implants proclaims the "Schwarzeneggerization of society." A Los Angeles Times piece on HIV research refers to the "Arnold Schwarzeneggers of science."

In other words, the references go far beyond weightlifting or Hollywood. Schwarzenegger has become "a prototype of power, influence, connection, of getting things done," Krasneiwicz says.

She and Blitz were fellow doctoral students at the State University of New York at Albany in the mid-1980s, the same era that "Hasta la vista, baby" joined the American lexicon. Schwarzenegger became a bridge between their disciplines (anthropology and English), the topic of a long-running conversation and the cement of their friendship.

By 1990, Krasneiwicz had moved to UCLA and Blitz to John Jay, and their interest in Schwarzenegger had become a mild obsession.

Los Angeles, of course, was the ideal place to observe the man himself. Krasneiwicz often spotted him: pulling into traffic in his Hummer; in a neighborhood pumpkin patch with his wife, Maria Shriver, and their children; at a Santa Monica shopping mall shooting a scene for Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Schwarzenegger's domain, of course, extends far beyond California. In 1991, Krasneiwicz and Blitz flew to Columbus, Ohio, for the Third Annual Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic, a bodybuilding competition. There they employed the classic anthropological technique of "participant observation," paying $50 each to join a long line of fans waiting to take Polaroid photographs with Schwarzenegger.

Watching the people swarm around Schwarzenegger, they realized that he was more than a celebrity. One woman who had been injured in a car accident thanked him for her recovery.

Their Arnold sensors on alert, the academic pair kept hearing more Arnold references. After her son was born in 1995, Krasneiwicz started noticing references in children's videos. In one featuring construction equipment, the talking machines had Schwarzenegger accents.

"He's like mold that grows everywhere," says Blitz.

Why Schwarzenegger?

It would be easy to dismiss the academic duo as mere Schwarzenegger fanatics. After all, there are dozens of fan Web sites devoted to him. But have those fans published book chapters titled "The Replicator: Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Great Meme-Machine"? Or presented a digital video called "The Ur'borg: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Inhabitants of Post-Humanity" at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association?

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