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What Makes WWE Click?

The epitome of professional wresting, WWE is an intersection of performance and sport

If you smell what The Rock is cookin’…

As a child, I could never smell what The Rock was cooking. Why does a wrestler, a huge man with Brahma Bull on his underwear, need to cook? Then I asked a friend one day and he told me The Rock cooks because his mother is always sick.

“He wrestles and then he goes home and cooks food for his sick mother,” he told me. “He’s a really a nice guy.”

I felt good about The Rock then and he remained my favorite World Wrestling Entertainment Superstar till after a few years, when Shawn Michaels, the Heart Break Kid, took his place. And though HBK was a “sexy boy” (his entrance music by Jim Johnston said he was no boy toy either) he could last in the ring for hours, bleeding from all directions, holding his fort amidst a shower of slaps, punches, flying kicks, drops, chops, busters, and whatnot, till he emerged in the end to deliver a mind-numbing kick to the jaw, called Sweet Chin Music.

I liked others too, like Goldberg, Rob Van Dam, and Kane, who always wore a mask until one day during a match against Triple H, he was unmasked to reveal a burnt face. That day, another mask was removed — the same friend who had informed me of The Rock’s secret some time ago revealed that matches in the World Wrestling Entertainment (then: Federation) were fixed.

NO! This was not cinema — this was supposed to be real. But the blood, I asked? Surely that was real?

“Blood,” he said with an ominous chuckle, “that could easily be made to flow these days.”

That was the end of my four-year love affair with professional wrestling. I formally quit watching WWE in the autumn of 2003 but later, when my friends informed me Kane was killed in the car parking area of Madison Square Garden, I returned to it for a few months only to abandon it again, this time for real. And this did not happen only with me. Almost all my friends, excluding a couple of wannabe body-builders in my class, quit watching wrestling around the same time. We were disillusioned by its contrivance, its falsehood — something which was not a sport had pretended to be a sport — but as the years passed, this feeling of betrayal gradually wore off. Wrestling will never be the same again — I had accepted that.

One thing continued to puzzle me, though. What I couldn’t get my head around was that when we, barely teenagers, had discovered and discarded the truth of WWE, why did young and middle-aged men love it so much? Did they not realize they were being tricked? Or was there something else they knew, something impossible to know unless you were actually there?

Roland Barthes, in his essay “The World of Wrestling,” which appeared in Mythologies (1972), treats professional wrestling as a demystified cultural form. He celebrates it as the “true” form, arguing:

The public is uninterested in whether or not it is rigged because it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle — what matters is not what one thinks, but what one sees.

In that sense, modern professional wrestling is like a theatrical performance — there is a stage, there are actors, there’s costumes, lights, music, drama. But while the narrative in a theatrical performance is self-enclosed, in modern professional wrestling it is episodic, deeply intertwined with the real life of the wrestlers. One of wrestling’s most significant traits is its ability to blur reality with fiction, to be able at times to tread the middle path of uncertainty.

And yet, it is not only that. It is, after all, wrestling, and therefore a sport, though unlike most legitimate sports, it’s constituted not only by who-beat-whom, but also who-did-what and why-did-they-do-that. The context in wrestling is history mixed with an episodic moral drama — week after week like a soap opera — which remains out of the sphere of conventional sport.

In the contemporary world, with so much media attention given to athletes of all sports, their personal lives get entangled with their sports identities, but even so it cannot match the level of theatricality that is inherent in the nature of professional wrestling. Sharon Mazer, in her essay “The Doggie Doggie World of Professional Wrestling,” sees wrestling from both sides of the looking glass.

At its worst, a wrestling performance is an over-simplistic display of male bravado and vulgar social cliches. But at its best, wrestling is a sophisticated theatricalized representation of the violent urges repressed by the social code, of the transgressive impulses present in the most civilized of people.
(Eva Rinaldi)

Professional wrestling, then, is an intersection of sport and theater, partially parodying both forms of entertainment. It is not bound by the limitations of either form and therefore is free to manipulate the audience by seeking contrivances, but also repudiating them if need be. The wrestlers have to both wrestle and perform, and the most popular (not best) wrestler is one who can do both things well, for the real test of a wrestler’s stardom is his ability to get the spectator worked up. To be a good professional wrestler, one needs to be loved or hated, but not ignored.

From the beginnings of modern American wrestling, the wrestler had to be a showman to make a living. As a result of their day-to-day dependence on spectator response, professional wrestlers were, and remain, showbiz entrepreneurs who fought each other for spectator and promoter allegiance as much as for victory in the ring.

However, the performance of the wrestlers is the not the only reason for wrestling’s wide appeal. As argued by Mazer, wrestling brings out the violent urges of civilized people in a safe environment, thus acting as a kind of communal stress buster.

It is the unique relationship between the spectator and the wrestler that accounts most for wrestling’s popularity, especially in the United States. Irene Webley, who revisited Barthes’ essays 14 years after the publication of Mythologies, argues that wrestling derives its drama from the tensions produced by the moral and ethnic coding of the wrestlers. A thrilling match is one which “allows the crowd to participate in a ritualized confrontation between good and evil, a participation made more intense by the possibility of identifying with the characters of the wrestlers.”

But any criticism which reduces wrestling to its theatrical element runs the risk of missing the form’s more complex contours. Wrestling, like other sports, has its own rules. Rules are supposed to be followed, but if the dramatic tension in a certain situation makes them redundant, then wrestling — being the unique form it is — allows the wrestlers to break them, which is unthinkable in conventional sport. There is no moral victory in conventional sport — the loser remains the loser, and the winner takes all — but in wrestling, the actual loser in the ring might be the one who is morally victorious, while the winner might remain unappreciated, like a poor player in conventional sport. It is this peculiar ability of modern wrestling — derived from theater and sport, then manipulating both forms — that makes it such a popular spectacle.

The fascinating part is it does not derive more heavily from one style than it does from another, and its ability to fuse all styles into one mass spectacle is a testament to its success. Like Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater, there is an announcer in WWE who addresses the public directly and talks about the show’s schedule. But whereas Brecht used the announcer to constantly remind the audience of the theater’s artifice, and thereby alienate the audience from the reality of the scene, in WWE the announcer draws the audience in.

The artifice of WWE is never underlined, and yet it is so obvious that it resembles Brecht’s kind of theater. The contrivance stares you right in the face. The deception is evident, and cannot be missed. But while Brecht wanted his audience to think, Vince McMahon would be happy if his audience drinks beer and flashes hand-drawn placards at the camera.

(Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)

WWE is also a developed form of the Theatre of Cruelty — first theorized by French dramatist Antonin Artaud — even if it is unintentionally so. There is confrontation and violence and blood on stage, all a part of the grander narrative. It adheres to Artaud’s philosophy — by blurring the line between reality and fiction, it is able to break the false external reality.

The Theatre of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theater a passionate and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigor and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood. The cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid.

It reads like a statement directly out from the WWE manifesto — as if professional wrestling is justifying its very existence.

Along with borrowings from modern theater, WWE incorporates a number of elements from traditional forms of theater:

  • it uses stock figures like the harlequin and the jongleur
  • it is almost always a variant of the Elizabethan morality play with a “good guy” against a “bad guy”
  • it employs the use of masks and disguises
  • it brilliantly manipulates and parodies the contemporary social stereotype
  • and it makes use of the carnival in its carefully orchestrated, meticulously elaborate action

The reason, then, for the mass appeal of this hybrid form cannot be traced to a reductionist understanding of professional wrestling. Any analysis must ensure an understanding of its relationship to both sport and theater, must locate the phenomenon of wrestling in the wider context of modern socio-cultural anthropology, and it must seek to do so by treating professional wrestling not with derision, but with the sincerity that any legitimate theatrical genre demands. Mazer, in her essay, has attempted to uncover the overarching reason for its popular appeal, remarking,

By creating, sustaining, and then resolving the friction between performers and spectators, the wrestling performance simultaneously incites and controls the release of everyday frustrations in a safe, socially sanctioned space. The community’s rules are only apparently violated, the violence is represented rather than actual, and the social fabric is reinforced by the event’s formal structuring of communally held assumptions. The promoters make money, the wrestlers satisfy both athletic and exhibitionist urges, and the fans are not invisible in the dark, but are directly catered to throughout the performance.

Now, years after I quit watching professional wrestling, and living on the other side of the globe, the contrivance which made me quit has driven me back to the form. Not that I will sit and cheer for Batista “The Animal” or Triple H again, but the sophistication of the machinery, the modus operandi of the form, is something that demands attention, and therefore, deconstruction.

Professional wrestling, at least in the United States, is a microcosm of American society. And that is perhaps why I — part of a different culture and unfamiliar with the nuances of American society — had given up watching professional wrestling on the grounds of it being fake nearly fifteen years ago; while older men back in the States have continued to enjoy and live the spectacle not bothered by the form’s innate deception. Not because they didn’t know the truth, but because that’s what’s unique about professional wrestling and the WWE.

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