Editor’s Note: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela (@nataliapetrzela) is an associate professor of history at The New School and the author of the book “Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture” and the forthcoming “Fit Nation: The Gains And Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession.” She is the co-host of the “Past Present” podcast and host of the podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
“Should we take another ride?” a handsome older man asks suggestively of the younger redhead seated beside him on a couch in a softly lit room. She looks intrigued by what sounds like a come-on, but the camera pans out to show his-and-hers Peloton bikes poised behind the sofa.
This scene opens the latest advertisement for the connected home fitness brand. In a twist that suggestively blurs the line between fantasy and reality, the ad is a direct response to the debut episode of “And Just Like That…” the reboot of HBO’s “Sex and the City,” which concludes with that silver-haired gentleman, Mr. Big (Chris Noth), dying of a heart attack after completing his thousandth ride with his favorite instructor, Allegra (real life Peloton instructor Jess King, his comely companion on the couch). HBO Max, like CNN, is part of WarnerMedia.
The commercial sprang to life to resurrect Big mere days after his demise raised such a Peloton-related furor that a member of the company’s health and wellness advisory council gave a statement to the press making the medical science-based case that Big’s bike didn’t actually kill him.
This now-viral ad and the alternative ending it presented (in which Big seems very much alive) sent a prestige-television-watching, Peloton-riding subset of the population into a frenzy, mostly praising the brand’s savvy in speedily spinning a damning storyline into brand-burnishing gold. A Peloton spokesperson said in a statement the ad was meant to “reinforce the narrative that Peloton and cardiovascular exercise are good for you, and help millions of real people lead long, happy and healthy lives.”
This tizzy and the conversation it has inspired shows just how clever an advertising strategy this is. From a historical perspective, it also illustrates how intertwined fitness is with our need for personal transformation and how powerful the specific fantasy of exercise as an erotic act has long been. Peloton’s apparently edgy publicity play here – selling exercise as an avenue to eternal sexual youth for men – has longstanding historical precedent and exhibits quite conventional gender politics.
Peloton as cultural phenomenon
The ad skillfully but cruelly picks up on the teasing between Carrie and Big about his innocent crush on Allegra, a figure whose distance and two-dimensional existence on a piece of workout equipment renders her less threatening than an actual woman at the gym might be. The sting is in the unsubtle suggestion that happily ever after – even heaven – means endless spin classes with a hot instructor half your age, not growing old with the wife who viewers of … “And Just Like That…” had just witnessed weeping and bereft, and who “Sex and the City” fans know has shed many tears over Big’s womanizing.
This imagery is jarring and disappointing, given Peloton’s solidly progressive record in an industry that is often anything but, and because the ad seems to confirm the anxieties about female aging that overwhelmed so much of the first episodes of a television series that was, after all, originally created to center women’s friendship and sexual adventure, especially when they bucked social norms.
Looking back at Peloton’s last viral ad, in December 2019, shows how much the brand’s cultural position has changed. A 30-second spot about a woman getting a Peloton as a Christmas present from her husband enraged the internet back then: at the husband for pressuring his wife to work out under the guise of a gift, at the wide-eyed, already slim woman gamely going all-in on a “wellness journey,” at a culture that rewards rich strivers with expensive fitness toys and enviably spacious homes to put them in. Yet when a Peloton cardiologist commented Big’s death was not due to exercise, but a cigars-and-steak “extravagant lifestyle” likely offset by exercise, few pointed out a pricey home bicycle might be reasonably understood as further evidence of this Wall Street investor’s extravagance rather than its antithesis.
It’s clear that for many, the pandemic has allowed Peloton to shed its primary image as an accoutrement of excess. Owning a Peloton (or a much more affordable app subscription) very quickly became a more culturally acceptable – and even virtuous – way to exercise without venturing out to a gym and potentially endangering public health in pursuit of one’s own. The stock soared accordingly, and even once it leveled off these unsustainable peaks, the most popular instructors have ascended to a new echelon of mainstream celebrity.
The icons do more than boast hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers; they’re featured in People Magazine spreads about their engagements and new babies and on “Dancing With The Stars.” Interestingly, the brand’s many Facebook groups had long revealed a more economically and racially diverse membership base than projected by the brand’s sleek showrooms in New York and Los Angeles, but these mainstream media hits confirmed and embedded Peloton as a veritable cultural phenomenon.
This cultural recognizability comes from a pandemic that tethered relatively privileged remote workers not only to stationary bikes but to streaming networks and social media feeds that reinforced and amplified each other. But it’s also a result of evolving attitudes toward exercise and what it promises, and to whom, long in the making.
The eroticizing of exercise
Of course, fitness has long promised eternal youth, first to women who were an easy mark for products and services that reassured (or threatened) potential clients that if they just carefully followed the 300 instructional illustrations in one 1961 volume, for example, they might survive turning 30 without becoming matronly and unattractive.
Mercifully, this messaging evolved somewhat over time. By the late 1960s, Lotte Berk, foremother of the barre craze, was teaching exercises such as “Naughty Bottoms” or “The Prostitute” as a way for women to enhance their own sexual pleasure, and a decade and a half later, Jane Fonda’s aerobics instructor emphasized how fitness made women feel “energy-packed, healthy and sleek” whether or not they had a “perfectly proportioned body.” Yet the idea that exercise is an avenue to achieving a narrow aesthetic ideal of beauty and youth – assumed prerequisites of sexual desirability – has endured and only become more entrenched as an expectation of modern womanhood.
Gay men bought and sold fitness products packaged with similar promises of aesthetic transformation. In the 1950s, physique magazines published images of scantily clad muscular men, and under the pretense of an interest in bodybuilding, gay men could connect more freely than possible in public spaces where both racial segregation and homosexuality were vigorously policed. By 1980, men’s gyms often explicitly advertised fitness and sexual swagger as intertwined – one Houston chain featured its nude locker rooms in a magazine spread, though clarified that actual sex was “emphatically not permitted” given the negative effect of such notoriety on the community.
Selling straight men fitness was a bit more difficult. Since the 1920s, exercise enthusiasts combated the assumption that exercise was effeminate by aggressively emphasizing how it would make men more sexually energetic and attractive to women. Bodybuilder Charles Atlas’ chronicles of how exercise transformed “97-pound weaklings” into strapping men who proudly strode down the beach with girlfriends on their bulging arms were a staple of the midcentury comic books read by teen boys. When then-Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson suffered a heart attack in 1955, his wife advised women concerned about their husband’s cardiac health to play “tricks” to make attention to diet and exercise seem more masculine, such as likening calorie counting to “following World Series scores” or “fighting every pound as if it were a political opponent.”
It didn’t hurt that some of the most popular exercise instructors were curvaceous young women who dressed more suggestively, and were more unapologetically physical than many mainstream television personalities at the time. Debbie Drake, known as “the most gorgeous calisthenics teacher in the country,” taught exercise on a syndicated television show in the 1960s, unfailingly donning a collared leotard and bullet bra. So many men tuned into her program that (male) journalists snickered about their motives, but when the entrepreneurial Drake discovered “men watch her syndicated program just to ogle,” she set about designing a men’s routine.
These efforts helped mainstream the idea working on one’s physique was a sign of normal male sexuality, not deviance. In 1983, Rolling Stone declared health clubs “the new singles bars” in a cover story soon adapted into a feature film set in the Sports Connection, a Los Angeles health club so well known for its dating scene that people called it the “Sports Erection.”
And since sex sells, the mainstream fitness industry has not shied away from blurring the boundary between eroticism and exercise itself. “My motto isn’t ‘Be Healthy,’” said gym impresario David Barton, but “‘Look Better Naked.’” His clubs first served a predominantly gay clientele, but by the early 2000s, luxury clubs such as Equinox effectively sold the same sensibility as a rationale for membership.
The latest Peloton ad brings this eroticization of exercise to one of the fastest growing gym-going demographics – Americans over 55 – but one who rarely get fitness marketed to them as a path to sexiness. This dynamic absolutely reflects ageist assumptions about sexual viability, since exercise for older people is often packaged loftily, as serving noble goals like lifting your grandkids or living long enough to attend their graduation, a sort of liberation from superficial pursuits of a slim waist or sinewy biceps.
But as much as this latest ad upends the typical marketing strategy and tone, it still leaves us in a reactionary space. The stars of this sexed-up fitness fantasy are an older womanizer and the youthful object of his affections, a coupling that doesn’t challenge assumptions about sex and desirability so much as position them atop a stationary bike. Carrie and her friends are completely absent, ostensibly still grieving.
I didn’t love the 2019 hyper-productive wellness mom; the look of this macho sexual conquest version of the Peloton fantasy appeals to me even less. Still, I know firsthand the Peloverse offers a range of experiences and sensibilities so broad that I could make it to my thousandth ride without having to embrace social norms I find distasteful. The persistent attitudes and assumptions about sexuality, gender and aging that gave rise to this phenomenon in the first place, however, will be harder to dodge.