The politicization of Peloton

In this week's edition: Snapewives, Antifa invasions, white supremacists, Airbnb nightclubs and spin class politics

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The drama began in Jenn Sherman’s October 4 Yacht Rock class. For the uninitiated -- and “uninitiated” is a deliberate word choice here, because the fervency of some Peloton fans can give it the aura of a benign cult -- Sherman is a popular, straight-talking spin instructor for the internet-connected fitness bike Peloton. Sherman is known for being candid. A little crass, even. (Recently, she took to Instagram Live to scold one of her 100,000 followers for complaining about the frequency of f-bombs in her classes.) But in that fateful early October class, Sherman made an offhand joke about Covid-19 that would test her employer’s leniency.

“I can handle coronavirus taking down the White House,” she said, “but I cannot handle coronavirus taking down the NFL, okay?” 

The class shortly disappeared from Peloton’s platform, just as the company’s CEO, John Foley, promised a disgruntled conservative rider that Peloton would remain an apolitical, “inclusive” space. Meanwhile, within the sprawling, incestuous and deeply fascinating (!) universe of Peloton-adjacent Facebook groups, many riders were … flatly outraged. 

What right did this woman have to complain about the politicization of Peloton, they demanded, when she uses the leaderboard tag #Trump2020? (Leaderboard tags allow riders to segment off into affinity groups; they generally tend toward the banal, like #PelotonMoms or #sweatingforthewedding.) 

Speaking of leaderboard tags, Sherman’s defenders argued, didn’t Peloton just banish a bunch of QAnon ones? And hadn’t they hosted all those Pride rides, donated money to racial justice groups, and otherwise talked a pretty big game about several issues on the left-hand side of the culture wars ledger? Hell, instructor Cody Rigsby recently panned abstinence-only sex ed at great and hilarious length during class, while Christine D’Ercole has dedicated entire rides to Ruth Bader Ginsberg. (“Push through these two 4-minute threshold sets,” she wrote on Facebook, “the way RBG pushed through the resistance.”)

“EVERYTHING that Peloton has been for the past few months is political,” wrote one representative Redditor. “BLM, LGBTQ rights, none of that exists in a non-political bubble.”

Full disclosure: I am a member of the Peloton cult, which is probably one of the reasons I followed this drama with enormously interest. Pre-pandemic, I even frequented a very inconvenient and overly precious gym for the sole purpose of taking recorded classes.

But outside of my personal interest, I also think that, rather like the ill-fated and much-politicized SoulCycle before it, the culture of Peloton is independently fascinating in a way that, say, Flywheel (RIP!) isn’t. If you ever wanted to see the personified id of America’s suburban middle class, you could do far worse than a country-soundtracked “Arms & Intervals” at 6:30 a.m.  

See, Peloton has positioned itself as the cure to a host of especially American, upper-middle class ills: the inability to claw any personal time from demanding professional schedules; the desperation to “escape” or “relax”; the need to squash every possible component of personal well-being (physical, emotional, social) into a tidy, bite-sized package. It will surprise absolutely no one to learn that Peloton’s target customer is a high-earning, 25- to 64-year-old suburbanite with kids. Roughly three-quarters of all leaderboard names -- the aliases riders choose for themselves -- seem to contain the words “mom,” a wine varietal or a high-powered profession. 

But despite riders’ shared love for pinot noir and higher education, there is some strife in Pelotonland. In contrast to its one-time rival, SoulCycle (which ran afoul of fans when former CEO Stephen Ross hosted a fundraiser for Trump), the company appears to have adopted an uneasy — and plausibly deniable — brand of progressive politics. Instructors cannot officially discuss politics in class; in August, Peloton also barred political chatter from its official Facebook groups. But CEO John Foley also trumpeted the donation of $100 million to racial justice initiatives over the summer, donates pretty generously to Democrats himself, and allows instructors to opine on obvious culture-war triggers, from the importance of wearing masks to the aforementioned RBG and abstinence. 

To give you an idea exactly how thin of a tightrope Peloton is walking -- and it is vanishingly thin! -- the company’s chief content officer told the New York Times this summer that it backed its instructors’ vocal support of Black Lives Matter because racial justice is a matter of “civil rights” ... not “politics.” (As if — some members have pointed out in Peloton Facebook groups — civil rights have ever existed in some sort of sacred, apolitical vacuum.)

But maybe Peloton can attempt this contorted dance because that’s also how some major portion of their (upper-class, suburban) membership sees social issues: not as concrete political realities, reasons to mobilize or vote, but as abstractions for the long arc of history to solve. Tellingly, a common complaint in online Peloton communities, whenever this debate rears up, is that riders shouldn’t have to be confronted with the world’s unpleasantness when they’re enjoying an “escape” on their pricey fitness equipment.

Meanwhile, those users most inclined to see racial justice, mask-wearing or LGBT pride as problematically political — a.k.a., the conservative ones — are out there writing open letters on Facebook and getting Yacht Rock classes taken down. 

Peloton: It really is a microcosm for America!!

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If you read anything this weekend

  1. This clear-eyed explainer of how the 1619 Project opened a new and baffling front in the 2020 culture wars. I’ve personally had a hard time following the back-and-forth on this, and I found this deeply reported feature really smart and helpful. [Sarah Ellison / The Washington Post]

  2. This sharp, alarming interview with Talia Lavin, who spent months infiltrating a series of white supremacist forums. First off: Are there truly people who are this articular in spoken conversation?! “ “I wish I had a bouquet of solutions to present to you”? “Toothless Cletus in his mother’s basement”? Either way, tons of crucial insights here (& also in this excerpt from Lavin’s forthcoming book) into the very worst among us. [Maham Hasan / Vanity Fair]

  3. This rich unpacking of this summer’s “Antifa invasion” of Forks, Washington. Author Lauren Smiley retraced the steps of the viral and completely unfounded rumors that caused a town to terrorize a family of “hippie campers” in their midst. [Lauren Smiley / Wired]

  4. This nuanced examination of the meteoric rise of Instagram’s The Shade Room. It’s become a cultural behemoth on par with TMZ, even amidst allegations of harassment and homophobia. [Michael Blackmon / Buzzfeed]

  5. This batshit revisiting of mid-aughts “Snapewife” communities. Nothing I can say will do this justice, so — just trust me. [Ashley Reese / Jezebel]


And now for something completely different


Postscripts

How to make this winter suck less. Why Facebook can’t fix itself. Ken Bone got a New Yorker mini-doc and Sohla El-Waylly got the E. Alex Chung profile treatment. The new and improved Internet pantry. Thank God for Great British Bakeoff. Behold: the girl skaters and the moss bros of TikTok.

How Butterball’s preparing for pandemic Thanksgiving. The kids are potentially not all right. Congressional scholars are rethinking “free speech” in light of, you know … this dumpster fire. The online forums that investigate “illness fakers.” The Excel wizards that sleuth out spreadsheet mistakes. Last but not least, two reads on Airbnb: its illegal suburban nightclubs, and its “gold rush” upstate.


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— Caitlin