Is there more to professional wrestling than perhaps we think? Recent convert and Macho Madness Syndrome sufferer Adam Hofmeister gives us his thoughts on the joy of staged violence and whether it deserves its low status.
It is impossible to deny that violence is a fundamental part of human existence. Every culture has been formed on it and attempted to understand and represent it via artistic expression, whether it’s through the horrific paintings of Goya, the bloody plays of William Shakespeare, or any of the depictions of scenes from the Bible. But enough about all that angsty, teenage nonsense; I’m going to talk about wrestling.
Wrestling is a strange sport, in that it’s also a bizarre and overblown form of theatre as well. And perhaps this amalgamation is why I, a man who has spent his life avoiding any form of sport, have become quite taken by it of recent. I will shamefully admit that I have spent almost my entire life looking down on it as trash for drooling morons: loud, obnoxious, ridiculous entertainment that makes us worse off. As a child, I never understood why it was so popular (being the delicate flower I am) and the kids who liked it all picked on me. I never wanted to be Stone Cold Steve Austin; I wanted to be Sam Neill in Jurassic Park, because I loved dinosaurs more than performing a DDT on my classmates.
This all changed when I returned to Norwich recently to catch up with friends. I found myself thrown headfirst into a world of spandex, steel chairs, elbow drops, raucous music, and pain: it was the weekend of Wrestlemania 31! And by the end of it, I felt like I’d been accepted into an amazing universe; a comically beautiful world in which two men can climb to the top of a ladder to grab a dangling suitcase and then head-butt each other off of it and ageing icons can slap each other repeatedly in a bid for revenge. But what was it this time that had never appealed to me before?
It was mostly the sense of community I experienced as being part of a bar of drunken fans braying for staged blood, cheering the underdog, and booing the villains (or sometimes the heroes who had lived too long). A society that I had never been a part of, but now was. It was exhilarating to be able to shout and cheer with others at a basic, but intensely satisfying, level. It was like a film, but with more of a collective spirit.
Of course wrestling is fake; that is all part of its very rough charm. The moves are choreographed and the events planned in advance. It is the ability of the performers and the promoters to make it seem otherwise. Therein lies the art. After all, it’s not always the result that lingers, it’s the journey, as is the case with almost every narrative. If two talented wrestlers can stage a battle in which it feels like you’re seeing duelling warriors going down to the wire, it doesn’t matter who wins, only that they put on a show you will remember.
Some wrestlers, such as Mick Foley or Terry Funk, go further in building this tension. They spent their careers seeing how far they could push their bodies to the limit for their craft, to make their violence an art, to shock the world with the impressiveness of their physical expenditure.
Others, recently Adrian Neville, use wrestling to showcase jaw-dropping gymnastics that marvel the audience. And there are those who are simply excellent performers and adept masters of crowd psychology, such as Jake “the Snake” Roberts, or the Exorcist spider-walking cultist Bray Wyatt. It is these showmen that make me truly love wrestling.
Often this brilliance is lost in the cultural sphere, and all that remains is the machismo and the fold-up chairs. But I guarantee you, if our darling Benedict Cumberbatch violently defecated into a soggy cornflake box for two hours straight, he would be adored by the internet and the cultural world at large because of who he is and represents: the upper class, classically trained actor giving Oscar bait performances.
Yet, a single chilling and introspective address from Bray Wyatt will never be taken as the excellent performance that it truly is. Why is that? It is clear that the class connotation for wrestling is that it is a low culture phenomenon (an idea that I was brought up with) for ‘carnies’. Cinema and television have drilled into us the stereotype of the average fan. And whilst wrestling may appear gauche and tacky to outsiders (Shawn Michael’s theme music is testament to this), the commitment by the athletes to their craft, and the respect for the fans who put them there is often inspiring. There is no restraint, no decorum, no need to worry if the Guardian will condone it. It is joy unbridled, and it will not be co-opted by the elite any time soon. It belongs to us: the rowdy mob.
That aside, I am not going to state that depicted violence is completely harmless because, needless to say, after leaving the bar we play fought in the street and one person woke up with blood running out their ears (I would argue that the alcohol was more to blame here than Mr McMahon’s business).
What I am going to state though is that violence is prevalent in any culture, which means that art can come from it and be expressed through it, in the same way that the actions or consequences of love, depression, happiness or envy can be used to create art. I’m fairly sure one of the reasons that wrestling gets a rough ride is because it doesn’t use violence to make any political or philosophical points (though some wrestlers have pontificated on the matter), and it isn’t known for its subtlety. But wrestling certainly engages us with that feeling of violence within ourselves, toying with our sensibilities, and often making us feel engaged with the brute that rents our souls occasionally.
This is not to say that there isn’t anything sinister to wrestling, such as the patronising attitudes to and depictions of female wrestlers. Two of the most prominent female wrestlers of the present, Paige (from Norwich!) and the recently retired A.J. Lee have made great efforts to shake the traditional Diva image of being either “crazy”, or a “bitch,” and instead focus on what they want to do in the first place: wrestle.
Whilst WWE in the 1990s made an effort to move female wrestling away from the neglected, damsel-in-distress era of Ms Elizabeth with wrestlers like Chyna, whose body image served to show that not only could women wrestle, they could kick arse at it, the Diva roster were still primarily billed as eye candy. Sadly, due to backstage politics and arguments, she retired in 2001, taking a lot of the progress with her.
With Chyna’s departure, business carried on as usual (her later career in porn led to a WWE amnesia of her achievements), and only in recent years have the aforementioned wrestlers began to receive the praise that their male counterparts had from the get-go. Disgustingly, they still get paid less (partly the reason for Lee quitting), and receive even less screen time (one RAW diva match lasted a mere thirty seconds in what is a three hour show).
There is also the issue of the often xenophobic portrayal of foreigners, in which American wrestlers adopt the folk wisdom of “nationalism when they do it, patriotism when I do,” and heel characters find ways to subvert the commonplace morality and politics of the USA. Throughout the history of wrestling, there have been numerous characters who have been depicted as (or are) foreign e.g. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the Iron Sheik, and most recently Rusev.
Rusev is portrayed as a bull of a man, aligned to the Russian Federation and focused on crushing the United States. His constantly abused manager, Lana, (again, another damsel, albeit an “evil” one) often draws heat from the crowd by either insulting America or applying incredibly bad taste e.g., referencing the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shot down over Ukraine. Tasteless, but a heel needs to be hated, and therefore loved because of their villainy, and everything that Rusev and Lana spit into their mics is comedic troll gold.
Naturally, Rusev’s feuding partner is John Cena, a gushing icon of American sentimentality, and possibly the most hated man in WWE. The reason for such is that he’s the WWE’s Superman…if Superman looked like a Play-Doh Mark Wahlberg. I dislike Cena for his patriotic Boy Scout attitude, and thus I always side with Rusev, out of a hilarious kind of anti-American Exceptionalism spite.
My first taste of Rusev was during Wrestlemania, when he entered the arena via tank, whereas Cena’s entrance was accompanied by a screen showcasing Ronald Reagan, George Bush, fighter jets, flags and eagles (the boos were deafening in the very left wing area of the bar in which I was seated). Interestingly enough, Cena’s fanbase are primarily young children, so whilst the match was tense and entertaining, I couldn’t help but feel perturbed at the propaganda I was witnessing. There were, of course, nationalistic rivalries in the 1980s, between Hulk Hogan and Volkoff and the Iron Sheik, but whereas that is now viewed as a wonderfully kitsch (if very un-PC) product of its time, having a villain in the present who exists only to drum up anti-Russian fervour leaves a very bad aftertaste, even if it is someone as talented a heel as Rusev.
So, in spite of these grand flaws, there is a beauty to this violent, bloody, sweaty, and often hilarious world. Like all mediums and art forms, it is to be called out for its issues and not dismissed as “mindless entertainment.” But I do not watch wrestling so that I may try to legitimise it in the eyes of my peers. I watch it for those moments that will be framed in my memory and give me that kick of joy every time.
When Mick Foley falls 16 feet through the air from a cage and the audience goes wild; the comedic beauty of a Randy Orton RKO; when the underdog you were rooting for, but didn’t expect to win, wins; when Roddy Piper manages to insult an entire city in just a few deft words one time, but stands up for fans against mocking journalists at another. It’s the same beauty people see in a well-scored goal, or the crescendo in a symphony. Yes, the comparisons to classical arts such as ballet are probably clichéd, but both mediums are stunning in their own dichotomous ways. And both take gruelling (and often painful) amounts of work to ensure artistic success.
Perhaps it is a stretch to call it an art, but I have never followed the style of aesthetics in which if something stirs desire, be it hunger, anger or lust, it’s no longer art, but satiation. If political art can rouse anger, it can rouse action. If the violence enacted in wrestling can prompt a feeling of strength, or a reconnection with the violence in us all so we can healthily disperse it, I fail to see how it isn’t a form of art.
There may be a time when wrestling gets its “video game moment,” in which a medium stops being seen as garbage, and enters an era where it can be assessed critically as its own form of expression. If this happens, I hold faith that the fans won’t be as petulant and embarrassing as some of the rabid dogs of the Gamergate era have been. But perhaps wrestling doesn’t need approval from on high. Perhaps wrestling is just for us.
– Adam Hofmeister 01/05/2015