Many, including myself, have highly anticipated the release of The Game Changers. It’s the first time that anyone has ever broadcast the breadth of vegan athleticism to the public. But the sold-out theater I attended seemed to be filled with extant vegans or otherwise nutritionally-conscious individuals. I heard laughter, shock, and noises of agreement in the appropriate places.
As well as nutrition, the film also takes on the link between meat and masculinity. It does this explicitly once. Schwarzenegger dubs over a montage of fast-food commercials, describing how in his glory days his bodybuilding peers ridiculed anyone who followed or even suggested a plant-based diet. He then states that this ridicule came from the outdated concept that to be masculine, one had to eat meat.
I am happy that they noted this issue. But as a scholar of this topic, I wished that they would have talked about this relationship explicitly at more length. There are, however, more implicit references to this relationship woven throughout.
The Game Changers links masculinity to strength
At first, the film focuses on endurance athletes. It includes Scott Jurek, an ultra-marathon runner, Morgan Mitchell, an Olympic 400M champion, and Dotsie Bausch, an eight-time cycling champion (The Game Changers 2019a). These individuals are awe-inspiring in their own right by accomplishing superhuman feats. We follow Jurek, for instance, throughout the film as he attempts a world record time for traversing the entire Appalachian Trail.
But James Wilks, producer, narrator, and mixed martial artist, laments that these people are “too lean.” “We need some muscle!” he implores. To remedy the situation, Wilks introduces people like Patrick Babouman, who breaks a weightlifting world record during the documentary. He also brings out Nimai Delgado and Mischa Janiec, both professional bodybuilders. They reassure men that you can “eat what oxen eat,” in the words of Babouman, and still look like one (The Game Changers 2019a).
Proving that one can build muscle on a plant-based diet is essential. But where The Game Changers misses the mark is in maintaining the iron grip that strength has over masculinity. Yes, being lean and healthy is all well and good, the film states. But don’t worry: you’ll still be strong and, most importantly, look strong. The striving of men for all-encompassing strength, in and outside the physical realm, is one of the primary drivers of harmful masculinities. Men always trying to maintain strength results in anger and depression when they inevitably can’t keep it up, dick jokes aside (though, as we’ll see later, it’s not really a joke in this film). These feelings can then manifest itself in destructive behavior to oneself and others, especially towards women.
Some may argue that the intended audience of the film were athletes and not men in general. The end goal of many athletes is strength. Therefore, how could a message ensuring that be harmful?
But the documentary is not only intended for athletes. The message communicated throughout the film is three-pronged:
- A plant-based diet is healthy for athletes, so it can be healthy for you.
- Omnivorous diets do not ensure strength, and plant-based lifestyles can support strength and healthy athleticism. The tagline on the homepage communicates as such: “A revolutionary new documentary about meat, protein, and strength” (The Game Changers 2019b).
- Bonus round for men: Plant-based diets don’t make you a weak pussy. In one segment, a urologist gathers data on nocturnal erections from three professional football players. Consuming plant-based protein instead of the animal-based protein resulted in more and longer-lasting erections while asleep. If this doesn’t speak to men’s anxieties revolving around the effect of vegetables on their manhood, I don’t know what does.
Although the film has many juicy details for athletes, the filmmakers undoubtedly intended a wider audience. However, The Game Changers ultimately perpetuates the link between being a man with being strong to the detriment of all.
It’s telling that one of the only pieces from a major media outlet to come out so far is from Men’s Health. The author warns to be wary of the movie’s claims. Their fact-checking is important. But the tone is that of antagonism rather than that of qualification (Kita 2019).
Lack of female representation exacerbates regressive masculine stereotypes
I watched The Game Changers with a friend of mine. As a vegan athlete, the message inspired her. But she also complained about the lack of female representation in the film.
She’s right. Five out of the thirty-six cast members listed on the website are women (The Game Changers 2019a). Two of those five are athletes. Both of those female athletes were not in strength-based sports (cycling and running, to be exact). There were eight male athletes from both strength- and non-strength-based sport. Put another way, the documentary represented women a fifth as much as men in a non-diverse way (there is hardly any room for diversity in two spots anyway).
The lack of female representation is depressing enough. (To add insult to injury, another female athlete, the surfer Tia Blanco, had a spot in the opening night bonus material after the main feature). But it also helps to enforce the link between strength and manhood. Giving women in strength-based sports screentime would have eroded this relationship. It would have made strength more gender-neutral and obtainable for all genders.
Perhaps the filmmakers just couldn’t find any women who fit this description. But because women make up the majority of vegans and vegetarians, I have my doubts (Asher et al. 2014). There are, indeed, quite a few female strong vegans (Thanks to Great Vegan Athletes for bringing it to my attention!). I’m sure at least a few of them would have loved to have been a part of the documentary.
There is also an interesting tidbit that the filmmakers glossed over in the film. One of the anthropologists cited in the movie * discussed the role of women in early human’s food acquisition (The Game Changers 2019a). He cites how women often gathered a large percentage of plant-based foods for their communities, even sometimes the majority (see, for example, Kaplan et al. 2000). However, the meat and dairy industries peddle a caveman myth. It’s essentialist masculinity, masculinity rooted in faux-biology, used to keep a hold on the American food market (and, may I add, to perpetuate the patriarchy).
The film needed to be made. But it is not the solution. The deconstruction of one’s toxic masculinity and, thus, the disassociation of it from strength, is a gradual process. The Game Changers is the first step. It challenges the link between meat and strength. It unequivocally proves plant-powered beefcakes are possible. And it already seems to have made some men think; my dad, who also saw the film with me, left without saying a word about the movie. Clearly, he had something on his mind.
The next step is gender-neutralizing strength so that men don’t have to corner the market on it anymore. We are all strong, and we are all weak, regardless of our diet.
* I believe it was Richard Wrangham, chair of biological anthropology at Harvard.
- Updated section on the lack of strong female vegan athletes, which included a link to a list of them by Great Vegan Athletes.
Asher, Kathryn, Che Green, Hans Gutbrod, Mirna Jewell, Galina Hale, and Brock Bastian. 2014. Study of Current & Former Vegetarians & Vegans: Initial Findings. Faunalytics.
Great Vegan Athletes. 2019. “Strong Vegans.” Great Vegan Athletes. Retrieved September 18, 2019 (https://www.greatveganathletes.com/category/strong-vegans/).
Kaplan, Hillard, Kim Hill, Jane Lancaster, and A. Magdalena Hurtado. 2000. “A Theory of Human Life History Evolution: Diet, Intelligence, and Longevity.” Evolutionary Anthropology 9:156-185.
Kita, Paul. 2019. “This New Documentary Says Meat Will Kill You. Here’s Why It’s Wrong.” Men’s Health. Retrieved September 17, 2019 (https://www.menshealth.com/nutrition/a29067926/the-game-changers-movie-fact-check/).
The Game Changers. 2019a. “The Cast.” The Game Changers. Retrieved September 17, 2019 (https://gamechangersmovie.com/cast/).
The Game Changers. 2019b. “The Game Changers.” The Game Changers. Retrieved September 17, 2019 (https://gamechangersmovie.com/the-film/).