Clap, Punch, Kick. Physical is a harsh lesson in internalised female misogyny and the conditioning of female self consciousness.
A review of the new Apple TV+ show
I must admit I had a very visceral response watching the first six episodes of Physical. I was quickly transported back to my early childhood where the punishing and restrictive mentality of personal athletic betterment was relentlessly pushed out into the popular culture zeitgeist of the late 80’s - early 90’s. An issue that hasn't left but quietly established itself as the norm of personal female self-empowerment. If, you are a millennial who was reared during this conception of dysmorphic, diet culture toxicity, watching this will be nothing short of an uncomfortable trip down memory lane and for everyone else it will serve as a confronting reminder that there is still a lot of work to do in challenging these beliefs.
But challenge we should, as it is this icky response to feminine self-hatred that seems to be the most compelling takeaway from creator Annie Weisman’s (Desperate Housewives, Dead Like Me) new show. Set in 1980’s San Diego, Physical which was released last month follows Sheila Rubin played by Rose Byrne, an obsessive housewife who struggles to regain control over an eating disorder while balancing the pressures of her life and relationships around her. After manipulating her way into a position as a local mall aerobics instructor she begins to see her bitter self-loathing pay off in dividends, in what works out to be a razor edge battle over her private shame and her redemption to replenish her depleted family finances that have been affected as a result.
Physical, isn’t by any means a dramedy masterpiece, it's actually hard to see how it falls into either category of comedy or drama too easily. Instead, it feels more like a missed opportunity for growth, especially given the current position of post #metoo self-reflection. The difficulty here is how blithely the narrative glides over delicate issues of female shame, guilt and fear. If at first we feel concern for Sheila and her venomous mental gymnastics, this very quickly wears thin as little is done to explain the root cause of her personal trauma. This is a big departure from Byrne’s most recent role as the trailblazing feminist icon Gloria Steinhem in Mrs America, a woman who coolly pioneered equal rights, freeing women from the chains of the patriarchy. Here she is a neurotic slave to her role as a wife and mother, loyal only to her bodily obsession. The point of Physical gets a bit murky and it begins to feel more like a painful exercise in testing one’s own personal self-worth and mental agility.
But we should consider this adverse reaction a necessary splash of cold water to the face of our female conditioning. What Weisman does well is shed some light on the role of judgement and the constant hamster wheel comparison that plagues the inner female psyche, one we see regularly play out now on social media. In an early review of the show, Variety called Byrne’s character “a woman both of her time and radically ahead of it. She is relentlessly self-conscious in a manner that suggests both “Greed is good'' appetites and the Instagram age”. This statement seems to ring true of our current experience of idealised self-esteem, where for better or worse our actions are often undercut with motivations of robotic and insincere displays of solidarity to secure our own self-worth. As such we are all a little too comfortable 4in posting obligatory love heart eye emojis to our friend’s Instagram feeds in the clever guise of a noble gesture, despite the fact that underneath there is an undercurrent of very real and normal competitive envy.
Sheila isn’t noble but still attempts to fulfill this duty, saying all the right things in an attempt to save face to those around her. But the veil is thin at best and leaves a bad aftertaste, especially when it seems there is so much for her to be grateful for. The sunny disposition of the show's surfside setting only adds further insult to these ideals. But the visuals at least give some heft to an otherwise quite simplistic plot. The growing decay of Sheila’s mental health is slowly fed to us with up-close and highly nauseating spinning camera work and the violent imagery of mashed up food on faces. This is something that Weisman makes a clear point of. The creator expressed in an interview with the New York Times her own personal experience with having an eating disorder and the need to address the real brutality of secret female humiliation, an area that she sees has been otherwise watered down on TV.
There is something inherently masculine in the gaze here, emotions are seen as a display of weakness and can be used as a weapon at will. This is most apparent in the scenes with Sheila’s only female companion Greta, a fair weather friend from the preschool playground played by Deirdre Friel, who is the delicate, warm hearted foil to Sheila’s self-serving aggressor. Greta cries in her car, Greta feels remorse for her housekeeper, Greta openly discusses her husband’s possible philandering, Greta is overweight. But Sheila continues to straddle an existence that strongly supports the separation of her feelings from her apparent reality. This emotional compartmentalisation only compounds as the show progresses. She is in a tiresome battle to secure power in a world where female agency is restrained in a bubble of misogyny, and where she enables men at the expense of her own security. Falling on her sword in an act of preserving the male ego is second nature and felt in every exchange with her weak-willed, environmentalist husband played by comedian Rory Scovel.
If the masculinisation of femininity wasn’t born in the 1980's, it was certainly celebrated in flamboyant exuberance here. The pink lemonade, speed concoction that Sheila’s aerobic “bottle blonde skank” counterpart, Bunny (Della Saba) forces down her throat is the solution to her failed athleticism and more broadly, the cure to her illness of petty female weakness. This uncomfortable scene where Byrne’s character is seen guzzling down the performance enhancing drink after having passed out from physical exertion seems perfectly set up as an allegory for our collective female rage slowly bubbling to the surface. Pretty on the outside but spiked with something more poisonous. Unfortunately, we are still trapped in this mindset with her, a sadistic cycle that can only be wholly expressed through the manic burning off of calories, strobe light like endorphins and overt displays of sweaty physical virality.
This non-stop merry-go-round of self-hatred and constant comparison really packs an exhausting punch by the time the sixth episode rolls around. From this standpoint, we would be best left to view Byrne’s character as a flawed anti-heroine, perhaps even a feminist in her own right, one that we could be liberated in accepting, as she like us is the realistic and ugly embodiment of everything we pretend we don’t tell ourselves. More potently what it shows is how we have been upholding an existence of duality, to maintain the status quo for the betterment of the lives of those around us at the expense of our own sanity.
You can stream the first six episodes of Physical now on Apple TV+.
Production: Executive producers: Annie Weisman, Alexandra Cunningham, Becky Clements, Rose Byrne, Craig Gillespie, Liza Johnson, Stephanie Laing