NOTAtalia Portman Arms. It is now impossible to say these three words in a normal voice. Since the first images of the star appeared in Thor: Love and Thunder, no one really knows what to do. Everyone is bewitched. Here is an example of a response set from Twitter: “Filling out passport documents. Religion: Natalie Portman as Mighty Thor. “I won’t write hot bullshit on Natalie Portman’s arms.” And “Natalie Portman punch me in the face please”. (I mean sure, but did you see the guns? She would literally kill you.)

For her role as Jane Foster in Taika Waititi’s sequel, Portman said she was “asked to get as tall as possible” – and she was. According to her trainer Naomi Prendergast, she did 90-minute workouts at 4:30 a.m. for 10 months to achieve the physique. Something Portman says was “really fun.” But again, she’s an Oscar-winning actress. She drank the protein shakes. She lifted weights. And she has the guns. And, in fact, doesn’t that make sense? Finally, we have a superheroine who looks like she can throw giant hammers at bad guys’ heads.

That the reaction was so celebratory is intriguing; when it comes to physically strong women, this is usually not the case. The You Look Like A Man Instagram account documents the rude things people say to women in athletics. “Leave the staff to the men,” “looks like you’re sweating bacon grease,” “good luck with arthritis,” and “guys don’t want to date their dads” are a few choices. In the late 2000s, Madonna was ravaged for her muscular arms, with celebrity gossip site TMZ variously describing them as “veinous corpse arms that make your blood run cold” and “terribly muscular arms.” [that] seem to have been reassembled with the bone remains of a dead cow”. Women are generally not allowed to transgress the model of ideal femininity. Madonna, of course, committed the double sin of being both physically strong and in her 50s.

There is precedent for Natalie Portman’s weapons. When Linda Hamilton first appeared on screen in Terminator 2, the first photo we see of her Sarah Connor is of her glowing, tense, bulging biceps as she performs pull-ups on a metal bar. Her physical appearance, so different from women’s bodies in 1991, makes moviegoers gasp. The love for Portman’s arms, however, comes at a time when attitudes toward female strength are changing. More and more women are practicing weightlifting; there are 32.4 million posts under the #girlswholift hashtag on Instagram. There are several reasons why it is adopted: in addition to helping to build muscle, it improves your cardiovascular, bone and joint health. Gunnar Peterson, Khloe Kardashian’s personal trainer, recommends weightlifting as the best way to lose weight.

“Muscle pays for the party,” he says. “Muscle burns all the time. Lifting weights means, post-workout, you burn calories at this higher rate than you would after direct cardio training. Even the least likely Spice Girl to wear a bra sport does: “I’ve always been a little scared of weights, but it turns out I like them. I even have these special gloves to wear! Victoria Beckham recently said Grace.

And yet, in terms of cultural representations of strong women, the fascination always seems to be drawn from the fact that they remain so rare. Or, as Holly Black writes in Elephant magazine: “The term ‘feminine strength’ is loaded… physical strength is an accepted facet of male gender roles, but it’s still surprisingly difficult to find equivalent female counterparts”. Sometimes it borders on fetishization. When Barack Obama left office, vogue marked the occasion with a “farewell to the impeccable arms of Michelle Obama”. Her “surreal” arms “grew to represent so much more than her personal dedication to fitness: they were also a physical reminder of her ability to roll up her sleeves and get things done” – apparently.

A woman’s appearance remains the number one sign of her worth for much of the world. It’s a fact that women keep winning Oscars for “looking ugly” – gaining weight for roles or burying their faces in prosthetics. The world wrings its hands when celebrities like Adele and Rebel Wilson lose weight. A woman with muscular arms is a curiosity, but as long as she is beautiful, it is fine. She upsets the accepted model of femininity without undermining it in the most fundamental way – by becoming unattractive to men. In that sense, let’s be honest – Portman’s arms are basically very good marketing.

And there is a danger in that. Women are already navigating a world saturated with Instagram-ready versions of feminine ideals. The quest to emulate them is both costly and futile – in Naomi Wolf’s 90s feminist classic, The myth of beauty she writes: “Ideal beauty is ideal because it does not exist; the action resides in the gap between desire and gratification… This space, in a consumer culture, is lucrative.

The problem? Capitalism and patriarchy are a deadly combination. The endless quest to create a perfect version of ourselves has only been amplified by social media, which gives its users the illusion of autonomy by feeding them expensive trends. In her essay “Always optimize”, the New Yorker Writer Jia Tolentino describes the tyranny of life as a woman under late capitalism, stuck on a hamster wheel pursuing a rigid ideal. Barre classes — an expensive, effective, painful and results-oriented form of exercise — can make women feel good for the wrong reasons, she suggests. “What’s really good is getting yourself in shape for a hyper-accelerated capitalist life.”

Linda Hamilton in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”

(StudioCanal/Shutterstock)

But what if our changing relationship with the female force became a way to break free from some of these things? Writer Casey Johnston got into weightlifting after realizing it could “get strong much easier and faster than I ever could have imagined; and that lifting weights might be the most fun and rewarding form of exercise I’ve ever tried.” In one of her columns Ask a Swole Woman for (now continued on her It’s a beast Substack newsletter), she gives liberating advice to her readers. We want to know how to lose weight; Johnston rephrases the question. She writes, “What I want for you is a kinder, more generous, more expansive goal than the ‘lose weight’ that the world keeps trying to give us.” If you follow her philosophy, becoming physically strong can be about claiming your own agency and taking care of yourself, in a culture that pushes women in other ways.

This sense of meaning and empowerment is echoed by Poorna Bell, author, journalist and forceful. She recently won Sports Performance Book of the Year 2022 for Stronger, his memoir on his journey to be able to lift twice his own weight. She wrote on Instagram that “powerlifting isn’t just a sport to me, it’s a metaphor for life. And it gave me reason and purpose in my body, in a world that is striving to deprive me of both”.

In fact, Portman would agree. “To have that reaction and be seen as great, you realize, ‘Oh, it must be so different, traveling the world like that,'” she said. first time in my life.” In a world where women’s bodily autonomy is no longer guaranteed, this seems almost radical.

‘Thor: Love and Thunder’ is in theaters now.