Doping in Hollywood

For his role in the new movie Southpaw, Jake Gyllenhaal gained 45 lbs (20 kgs) of muscle in six months. Many praised Gyllenhall for his dedication in undergoing this remarkable physical transformation. Few have questioned whether this achievement was aided by the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Some in the bodybuilding community claim that such massive weight gain would be nearly impossible without the use of steroids. For experienced bodybuilders, it is considered an accomplishment to gain 7-10 pounds of muscle in a year “naturally”. Training in combination with taking human growth hormone (HGH) can add 4.6 pounds of lean muscle mass, in three weeks.

Hollywood provides the perfect catalyst for PEDs. Actors sometimes have to gain huge amounts of muscle in short periods of time. Many male leads have abnormally large muscles, giving increased opportunities for actors with such physiques.  Although many PEDs are illegal, there is no drug testing for actors. With large financial resources, many actors are able to acquire a broad range of drugs to help them bulk up. According to one estimate, up to 20% of elite male actors use PEDs, such as growth hormone and testosterone. In 2007 Sylvester Stallone was caught entering Australia with vials of HGH and testosterone.

Yet – the use of PEDs by actors is largely ignored. This is in stark contrast to their use by athletes, which has become a public fascination.  Millions are spent each year trying to catch athletes who use PEDs. Chris Froome’s recent win at the Tour de France was plagued by doping allegations, despite Froome continually passing tests for banned PEDs.

Why this difference in attitude? Is it that we think the use of PEDs by athletes is a greater moral transgression than their use by actors?

There are at least three reasons for holding that the use of PEDs by athletes is unethical; 1) it is unfair; 2) it is unsafe; and 3) it is against the spirit of sport.

The most straightforward reason why the use of PEDs by athletes is wrong is that it is a form of cheating. In addition to being illegal, many PEDs are banned by various athletic codes of conduct. Taking prohibited PEDs gives those willing to break the rules an unfair advantage over those that conform to the rules. This is clearly unethical.

However the use of PEDs by actors is unethical for similar reasons. The non-medical use of HGH and testosterone are illegal. Because some actors gain an advantage from physiques made possible through these drugs, actors willing to break the law have an advantage over law-abiding actors.

Another reason why many find the use of PEDs unethical in sport is because it is unsafe. Some PEDs increase risk of heart attack and other serious health problems. If we value public health, we should aim to reduce harmful uses of PEDs as much as possible. Banning PEDs in sports reduces the incentive for their use, and can therefore be justified by its safety benefits.

But drug safety issues apply regardless of the intended purpose of a drug’s use. The safety risks of PEDs are just as much a reason to be concerned about their use in actors as in athletes. Actors have just as much incentive to push the limits as athletes, given the extraordinary money on offer for gaining particular roles.

The third reason that athletes taking PEDs is often claimed to be unethical is because it is not in the spirit of sport. I believe this is the main reason why many find PED use by actors intuitively different from their use by athletes. Sport is meant to be a test of our intrinsic character. PEDs corrupt this test.  Acting is not a test of our own character, but a test of how well we can adopt someone else’s.

For reasons I don’t have space to outline and defend in this blog post, I find this third reason unconvincing. I believe it is difficult to develop a substantive account that explains why taking PEDs is against “the spirit of sport”. Rather I agree with Savulescu and Foddy (2007), that the primary ethical concern with athletes taking PEDs is safety.

While using PEDs that are banned or illegal is unethical because it is a form of cheating, there is often no good reason to ban perfectly safe enhancing drugs.

If the only reason we should be concerned about PED use in sport is because of their negative health consequences, then there is little moral difference between their use by actors and athletes. We should look more closely at the asymmetry in our attitudes toward PED use by these groups.

 

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12 Responses to Doping in Hollywood

  • Chuck Roslof says:

    Would you also argue that it is unethical for actors to gain or lose a lot of weight for a role, if there are health risks in doing so?

    What do you suggest is the approach filmmakers should take when a role has certain physical requirements? Should they only consider actors who are already “naturally” in the condition the role requires (or close enough to reach that condition “naturally”)—potentially sacrificing quality of performance in the process? Should they strive to work with production timetables that allow actors enough time to reach the required condition “naturally”—potentially increasing costs, which could prevent the movie from even being made? Should they use CG and other filmmaking tools to make the actors look the way the role requires regardless of the actor’s actual physical condition—potentially sacrificing “authenticity” or having to use effects in a way that distracts from the storytelling?

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    There are a fair number of anecdotes and stories about actors going more or less crazy when method acting, and to many they just add to the glamour of the film industry rather than showing the health risks of the practice. No doubt the fact that these actors drive themselves crazy through training is contributing to the view that that this is both something controllable and meritorious. But it seems that hearing that an actor in a particular role did it under the influence of drugs *also* adds to the glamour. People in general seem to think that extreme dedication to acting, eccentricity, and a wild lifestyle all fit with the “spirit of film”. Health risks are secondary in this view, and a certain overconfidence may even be assumed fitting to the social role of the film star.

    This does not show that the practice is moral, of course. It might show that our sociocultural construction of what a practice is about based on stories about it may bias intuitions in such a way that we easily overlook some things that otherwise would have been regarded as morally salient in another, objectively fairly similar domain. Athletes are supposed to follow a rather ascetic ideal, making PEDs stand out, while the actors are not expected to be ascetic and PEDs are hence just a part of the Hollywood story.

  • doctor with womens health says:

    this shows that our sociol cultural construction of what a practice is about based on stories about it may bias intuitions in such a way that we easily are is overlooked

  • Chris Gyngell says:

    Thanks for the responses.

    Chuck – I’m not necessarily saying that it is unethical for actors to take PEDs- just noting that it can be difficult to defend differences in our attitudes toward athletes and actors. I think Anders makes some good points and I pretty much agree with what he says – the different lifestyles of each industry may partially explain our attitudes. (though it’s not immediately clear to me why taking PEDs is inconsistent with an ascetic ideal, in contrast to say taking recreational drugs.) Likewise, I agree with Doctor – sociocultural factors are biasing our attitudes here.

  • Matheus De Pietro says:

    How would those criteria work in regard to plastic surgeries? They might not be illegal, but many procedures are unsafe, and all of them provide unfair advantage over other actors – either because attractiveness is subconsciously associated with positive qualities, or because one’s appearance really does have more importance in the film industry.

  • Jan Narveson says:

    I’m somewhat inclined to disagree with Gyngell. In athletic competitions, using PEDs is unfair for the reasons he says; the sport adopts the restrictions because of health considerations essentially, and given that it has adopted them, then one who competes under the aegis of rule-governed competition is cheating.

    However, in Hollywood, many roles do not benefit from PEDs; their relevance is highly selective, and actors do not have to pursue the particular roles that might benefit a lot from taking them. Even though it is (I assume) a health risk, it seems to me one that actors should be allowed to take if they want to pursue those roles. Whether it is advisable for particular actors is of course another matter altogether.

  • Eric Chwang says:

    Sorry I’m stumbling on this post late.

    Chris, I think you missed the fundamental reason that we should ban athletic doping: athletic doping is an arms race. Acting isn’t competitive in the way sports are (we care about the quality of the actor’s performance, not about how many other actors he beat for the role), so the same rationale does not apply, or at least it applies much less fully.

    See my 2012 article on this, “Why Athletic Doping Should Be Banned”, Journal of Applied Philosophy 29, 1: 33-49, for more details:

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-5930.2011.00547.x/abstract

    I don’t talk about acting there, but I do talk about similar activities, such as musical performance.

  • Louis McAster says:

    Interesting stuff. Having seen the movie I can’t help but think that this is a clear-cut case of then ends not justifying the means. It’s terrible.

  • Eric Chwang says:

    My proposed answer is that we care about the competitive aspect of sport (who beat whom), whereas we care about the objective qualities of an actor’s performance, not the details of how he might have beat out other actors for the role.

    Athletic doping should be banned because it leads to an arms race scenario, where every athlete has to do more and more harmful things just to stay competitive. The same argument doesn’t apply to actors, because acting isn’t competitive.

    See my 2012 paper, *Why Athletic Doping Should Be Banned* (Journal of Applied Philosophy 29, 1: 33-49) for more. I don’t talk about acting there, but I talk about performance enhancement for musicians (who often take prescription drugs to calm themselves before a big performance), which raises similar issues.

  • Spencer says:

    If the actor or athlete is willing to take performance enhancing drugs and knows that it will not harm them in any way shape or form then it should be up for them to decide. Just by stating that PEDs are illegal and never should be used will not stop or convince anyone to stop using them.
    Especially from the actors point of view using PEDs shouldn’t be a moral question to ask oneself if they are ready, willing, and able. By all means they should be aloud to take them to be fit for a role that they are assigned as long as it does not negatively effect the body in any way.

  • Dylan says:

    I don’t believe PEDs should be banned for actors. A lot of the time is isn’t a competition for rolls in big blockbuster films. The writers normally have a certain actor in mind that is guaranteed the role. Like the article says they are normally on a strict deadline to get jacked and they can’t do it without PEDs. Its not necessarily cheating when looked at in that perspective. In the end it is for our entertainment, would the “Rambo” series be the same if Sylvester Stallone? No. The actors also have the choice to not use them since they can be harmful and try to bulk up naturally or they can turn the role down.

  • Dylan says:

    I don’t believe PEDs should be banned for actors. A lot of the time is isn’t a competition for rolls in big blockbuster films. The writers normally have a certain actor in mind that is guaranteed the role. Like the article says they are normally on a strict deadline to get jacked and they can’t do it without PEDs. Its not necessarily cheating when looked at in that perspective. In the end it is for our entertainment, would the “Rambo” series be the same if Sylvester Stallone? No. The actors also have the choice to not use them since they can be harmful and try to bulk up naturally or they can turn the role down.
    It is a very controversial topic and can be argued both ways but my stance on it is to let it be for the time being.

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