Physical Education or How An Olivia Newton-John Music Video Saved My Life

In the video for her 1981 super-hit Physical, Olivia Newton-John intermittently shares the gym with tanned jocks and sweaty plus-sized guys. One or both of these scenarios might be part of an Olivia-fantasy but ultimately it doesn’t matter. At the end of the video she changes for tennis then returns, our assumption being that she will partner up in every sense with her pick of jock. Or jocks plural. It’s a sex positive song after all.

But twist, the jocks are couples and leave hand in hand. Unlike what would have happened in all other media at the time, Olivia doesn’t judge them for walking away together. She’s not baffled or disgusted. She doesn’t even look disappointed but that’s because, double twist, when Olivia‘s actual partner appears from the doorway it’s one of the bigger boys. Olivia’s cheeky look to the camera indicates she’s not settling, she’s got a type and he ticks her boxes. As someone whose choice would have been another of the larger lads I could relate.

I was fourteen when I first saw this video and it was a revelation. This was not the first time I had seen gay men in the media. Homosexuals had popped up on television dramas and sitcoms, in documentaries or movies. But they were always portrayed negatively. They were villains, or pitiful simps, always viewed through a disapproving lens, held up as curios, things to be mocked and hated.

But for the first time in my life I saw gay men presented as something other than negative. These men weren’t villains or pitiful. They weren’t being derided or harassed. They were unembarrassed. Unapologetic. Proud. In love. They simply were.

For the first time in my life I had hope. Hope that there were happy gay men out there, men who weren’t afraid to love openly. Hope that out there was a place I could feel so free and safe that I could hold another man’s in public. Hope that there were Olivias who would accept who I was unconditionally, who would look upon my love as routine, ordinary, normal.
It would take me another four years but I would find that place. But without Physical, waiting for that time would have been that much harder. Without Physical, I may well have given up hope. I may well have given up on life.

Looking at the video today I can’t help but get hung up over the fact that the gay men are stereotypes, that the treatment of the bigger guys is mostly undignified. But I also see a piece of supposedly fluffy pop culture that had an immense impact on a fourteen-year-old who, after this moment, would never again be ashamed to be gay.