Journalist Danielle Freedman
(From left) Courtesy G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Photo: Lindsay May

The Profundity of Superheroes, Comedy, and Jazzercise, According to Danielle Friedman

The veteran journalist and author of the book “Let’s Get Physical” explains why seemingly shallow subjects can provide deep insights into the past and present.
By Zoe Cooper
March 28, 2022
9 minute read

For most of the 20th century, breaking a sweat was seen as unladylike. Popular opinion considered working out dangerous and de-feminizing for women, who were told that the activity could result in their uteruses falling out. But in the 1960s, a trailblazing group of women began to fearlessly move their bodies, and in doing so, translated physical strength into other forms of power.

Danielle Friedman, an award-winning journalist and a former senior editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast, illuminates the complicated, understudied history of women’s fitness culture, and its relationship to feminism, in her new book, Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World (G.P. Putnam’s Sons). Each chapter spotlights a fitness trend, such as the invention of the barre in the ’60s or jogging as a form of liberation in the ’70s, and profiles their often little-known leaders along the way. Readers learn, for example, about Judi Sheppard Missett, the endlessly sunny founder of Jazzercise, and Bonnie Prudden, a rock climber, mountaineer, and descendant of Davy Crockett who became one of the first exercise instructors on TV. Friedman deftly connects these people and ideas with subjects currently influencing women’s exercise culture, such as beauty, body image, and food.

We recently spoke with the author to learn about some of the sources she consulted during her research, and the other media that keeps her informed and entertained. Friedman’s selections—which include a fondness for comedy and for comic-book superheroes—indicate a firm belief that, as her book demonstrates, seemingly shallow subjects can provide deep insights into the past and present.

How do you start your mornings?

I give my brain at least thirty minutes to wake up while I’m drinking my coffee before I dive into anything that requires much brainpower. I tend to read Instagram first thing—that’s where I get a lot of my news.

Daily go-to reads?

After so many years of working in newsrooms, where I had to be reactive, I’ve really enjoyed being able to set my own media agenda. I don’t visit the same outlets every morning, but I closely follow publications that I admire—The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York magazine, The Cut, and Vogue—on social media. I always like to check The Atlantic, too. I’m a longtime fan of its in-depth coverage of feminism, health, women’s issues, and gender.

What are some of your favorite newsletters?

I’m partial to one called Brass Ring Daily, which was started by journalist, playwright, and productivity expert Kara Cutruzzula, who is a close friend of mine. She calls it a “no-news newsletter.” It’s a very grounded source of motivation for creators, and for people who want to live their lives with intention. I also love Anne Helen Petersen’s newsletter, Culture Study. She writes about so many issues that are relevant to me and my work. She’s absolutely brilliant.

Virginia Sole-Smith’s newsletter, Burnt Toast, is another great one. Virginia is a writer and food activist who talks about intuitive eating, body positivity, and anti-diet culture, and who also co-hosts a podcast called Comfort Food. She has young children, so she often talks about teaching kids how to develop healthy relationships around food and their bodies. She comes at everything from a feminist and journalistic perspective. It’s really smart.

Favorite podcasts?

I was an O.G. podcast obsessive, so my favorites have evolved through the years. Like so many people, I’m a devoted Fresh Air listener; I really enjoy The Daily. But my favorite podcasts are narrative nonfiction ones. I like character-driven podcasts that keep you on the edge of your seat.

I recently listened to, and loved, Welcome to Your Fantasy, which is produced, hosted, and created by Natalia Petrzela. She’s a historian at The New School, as well as a fitness historian. The show is a fascinating and smart investigation into, on one level, the Chippendales phenomenon of the 1970s and ’80s, but also looks at a murder that took place and involved the club. Before that, I listened to Wind of Change, which has to do with the C.I.A. and rock music. It had a lot of the same elements as Welcome to Your Fantasy: a fun, juicy topic approached in a thought-provoking way. I tried to apply some of what I learned from those kinds of podcasts to writing Let’s Get Physical in terms of strategic storytelling and, more than anything, the blending of a high/low mix—of fun, with deeper meaning.

What about magazines?

I’ve witnessed the feminist evolution of certain women’s magazines over the past twenty years, since the birth of Jezebel. When Jezebel launched, women’s magazines had nowhere to go but up when it came to empowering women. From Vogue to Self, I try to keep up with the big features that come out of them. I sort of consider myself a scholar of women’s media to some extent now, because I’ve spent so much time in the archives, tracing the ways in which women’s media has evolved. I’m fascinated by the current state of women’s media, and how there are still, sometimes, mixed messages that slip in.

In terms of other titles, I have a Real Simple subscription. I read it purely for home organization inspiration. I also love Runner’s World. It makes me feel like a part of a global running community. I’ve read it off and on for most of my adult life.

What books are you reading?

I’m currently reading Doree Shafrir’s Thanks for Waiting. It’s about being a late bloomer and how her career and her personal life began to flourish after 40. I turned 40 last year, so I relate. Plus, she’s just a fun, conversational writer. She’s a little self-deprecating, and she comes across as very candid and honest. She also has her podcast, Forever 35, on which she and Kate Spencer have smart conversations about things like beauty products and grooming. I like deep takes on seemingly light topics. The comedian Jessi Klein’s book You’ll Grow Out of It is great as well. She’s a role model for me.

I’m always interested in reading books that cover overlooked chapters of women’s history. So Come Fly the World, a nonfiction book by Julia Cooke about the stewardesses of Pan-Am and the roles they played in international diplomacy in the 1960s, was really absorbing. Next up on my list is Bess Kalb’s Nobody Will Tell You This But Me.

What TV shows are you watching?

I gravitate toward comedy in my TV viewing. I find it to be more of an escape, and more relaxing, than some of my heavier media fare. I recently watched Only Murders in the Building. It’s very meta, because it’s actually a commentary on podcasts like Serial. Like the rest of the world, I very much enjoy Ted Lasso, as well as an unsung treasure: The Good Fight. And I got really into the docuseries The Beatles: Get Back. I loved the glimpses it gave into the band’s creative process, and how it showed the messy aspects of creating something.

What do you read, watch, or listen to for fun?

My husband and I both really love classic movies. There’s The Thin Man mystery series, for example. William Powell and Myrna Loy, who play a married couple on the program, have terrific chemistry, and the films have a surprisingly contemporary humor and edge to them. I also adore certain Alfred Hitchcock thrillers—The Lady Vanishes, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest—for the suspense, the glamor, the action, and the many twists and turns.

A major curveball in my media diet—and this traces back to something that I have bonded over with my dad—is that I have seen every Marvel movie. Some of my favorites include Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and, while it’s not a movie, the television series WandaVision. I found the latter to be both clever as well as a thoughtful exploration of grief.

I like to think about why we gravitate toward the superheroes we do at a given time, and the ways they allow us to work through real-life anxieties by watching them successfully prevent the literal end of the world. Superheroes are a fascinating lens through which to view life.