All Sides Get Worked Up Over Study of Aerobics Videos

Times Staff Writer

And you thought aerobics videos were good for you?

Not necessarily, says USC researcher Margaret Morse, who over a period of two years watched hundreds of hours of aerobics videos by such exercise gurus as Jane Fonda, Raquel Welch, Kathy Smith, Debbie Reynolds and Richard Simmons.

She discovered, she says in a newly published study, that nearly all the tapes encourage “passive femininity”; many show women as sexual objects, and some even have a soft-porn content complete with heavy breathing, sexy stares and lingering shots on parts of the body not directly related to the exercises.

Exercise videos, she concludes, may be good for women’s bodies--but harmful to their psyche.


Morse, a 43-year-old assistant professor at the USC School of Cinema-Television, expects her findings to be controversial. And they are, judging from the reactions of some well-known video exercise stars.

“I resent the research,” says Raquel Welch, whose yoga-based tape is a bona-fide best seller. “I think it’s a lot of nonsense.” Steve Rivers, a spokesman for Jane Fonda, matter-of-factly denounced the research as “absurd. Anyone who has spent 10 seconds looking at one of Jane’s videos knows that.”

But several other famous names in aerobics agreed with many of Morse’s conclusions. Kathy Smith, whose videos regularly rank right behind Fonda’s in popularity, says Morse “definitely has a point. When I see exercise videos that have girls puckering, or arching their backs and throwing up their fannies in contorted positions, I find that offensive.”

But Smith maintains that “the majority fall more into the range of trying to be instructional.”


Richard Simmons agrees with Morse’s finding that most videos lower a woman’s sense of self-esteem instead of raising it.

“God played Russian roulette, so not everyone was made to have Jane’s body,” Simmons notes. “I don’t think those people should be judged on the basis of their waistline. This study has some validity.”

The subject of Morse’s research, published this month in Discourse, a journal for theoretical studies in media and culture, might be dismissed as frivolous by some. But aerobics, and aerobics tapes, have become a vital part of American life in recent years.

According to the International Dance-Exercise Assn., based in San Diego, 22 million people nationwide engaged in aerobics in 1986 and 29% of them used aerobics videos. Overall, 15 million tapes have been sold since the first one went on the market, and Fonda’s videos alone have sold 3.5 million copies.


Morse’s study grew out of her own slavish devotion to aerobics videos. But even as she faithfully did the exercises, she discovered that she had mixed feelings about the tapes, and decided to analyze exactly why.

“My attempt was to assess the meaning of aerobics today in our culture, because I feel aerobics is the symbol of the state of women today,” Morse explains.

Her method of research was to take the best-selling videos on the market and to watch them over and over, sometimes as many as 15 times, at normal speed, in slow motion and at fast forward. Then she examined the semiotics, or the visual and verbal symbolism, of each tape.

“I analyzed how I’m being addressed as a viewer, how space and time are structured and how the body is represented, as well as the overall discourse,” she says.


Not surprisingly, Morse found that there were a lot more to the videos than just jumping jacks. She discovered, she says, that many of them laid claim to an openly feminist message, often couched in political rhetoric.

Jane Fonda, Morse says, leads the way by implying on her tapes that exercise prepares people to pursue a healthy activism in other parts of their lives. And Welch subtly claims that people who may not be able to change what happens in the world can effect real change on themselves through exercise.

‘Follow the Leader’

All this would suggest that the videos are progressive in their thinking. Not so, according to Morse. Instead of encouraging women to feel better about themselves, she maintains that many of the videos try to turn them into “weak-willed automatons.” One reason is the way that aerobics videos stress strictly “follow the leader” exercise routines.


“What it all comes down to is that instead of making women more independent in society, aerobics really doesn’t provide the empowerment it promises,” the researcher says.

On this point, Simmons was in total agreement. “There are a lot of exercise videos out there that are for Stepford Wives,” he says. But Welch disagreed. “There is an assumption that a banner of feminism is supposed to be carried into the videos. But I think she’s really searching for something that’s not there.”

But the really damaging aspect of most videos, Morse concludes, is the way they make women feel about their bodies. While women may purchase the tapes with the goal of developing a firmer physique, what they’re really buying is an “oppressive” image of their own bodies, Morse believes.

Emphasis on an Ideal


By presenting all those lithe and lovely instructors, by emphasising all those mirrors, by showing all those curve-revealing leotards, the tapes make it clear exactly what a “great body” looks like.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a great body,” she says. “But there is something wrong with having a great body ideal that’s imposed on us. It tends to make us judgmental about people who don’t measure up. It’s like a moral failure on their part.”

Even Debbie Reynolds’ video--though aimed at the over-40 audience--was, in Morse’s view, “very obviously organized around appearance and presenting herself as a sexual object. The message was: ‘I want my body to be good to look at for other people.’ ”

But Reynolds defends herself. “I didn’t do my tape to diminish women’s feelings about themselves. I did it for women who already feel diminished and want to look a bit better,” the actress says.


Simmons agrees with Morse that the vast majority of tapes present exercise instructors who “look like mannequins--all size 3s.” Smith, however, claims to have spent several weeks asking women what kind of aerobics instructor they wanted to see on videos. “And it was real interesting because they said they would rather look at someone as a role model.”

As for sexiness, nearly all the tapes were offenders, according to Morse’s research. But some stepped over the bounds of good taste in a big way, she found.

‘Playboy Aerobics’

It should come as no surprise that “Playboy Aerobics,” in Morse’s view, has an unabashedly pornographic content. Still, even Morse was shocked when the instructors did a striptease during the routine--and then the camera recorded the nude women exercising in slow motion.


But several “legitimate” exercise videos had a soft-porn content as well, Morse says, claiming that the popular “Sandahl Bergman’s Body,” “20-Minute Aerobics” and “Aerobicize” are openly sexual. She cites “fetish fixation” close-ups of breasts, legs and thighs; instructors with mouths open in alluring come-hither expressions; ridiculously revealing exercise clothing, and camera action that seems to simulate sexual activity.

Smith, for one, says she is “especially sensitive” to the sexual content of many tapes. “These tapes have become the laughingstock of the whole community,” she says. But Smith claims that women prefer her to wear a skimpy leotard rather than a covered-up sweatsuit on her videos. “They say they want to be able to see how I move,” Smith says.

Morse rejects other tapes for different reasons.

Message From Fonda


“I see poses of Jane Fonda sitting on her buttocks with her legs raised in the air in a V,” Morse notes. “On the one hand, that looks powerful. But on the other, it completely immobilizes her and forces her into a submissive posture. The message clearly is ‘I’m powerful but I’m still a woman who needs men.’ ” (Sniped Fonda spokesman Steve Rivers: “Lighten up, lady.”)

Morse also rejected Jacki Sorenson’s tapes because “I personally didn’t like her bouncy little girl image as a role model,” Morse notes.

On the plus side, Morse approved of some aspects of Simmons’ videos because he includes a wide range of body types among his students.

And she praises Smith’s tapes because they present a “new way to visualize” aerobics with camera angles that show the exercise from the exerciser’s point of view and not just from the instructor’s.


So which videos does Morse personally use? Kathy Smith and Raquel Welch. “But I’ll never look like either one of them,” she says with a laugh.