“If you take a thing apart or modify it, there are certain aspects which must remain intact for it to retain its identity. Without certain parts, it becomes something else.”- Jack Donovan, The Way of Men
So it’s a lazy Sunday evening, I did my dishes and tidied up for a bit, and I must admit: I don’t feel like being productive. I feel like hunkering down in front of my big silly TV to let the clown and puppet show melt my brain just a little bit more when it occurred to me- it’s a pay-per-view Sunday, brother!
The pro-wrestling pay-per-view Sunday was a highlight of my childhood. Months of intricate story lines, peppered with plot twists, met with my own, personal, mental preparation for the big day which would ultimately culminate in…. nothing. My parents weren’t going pay for a play-fighting television show (“pay for TV??”).
But those times when I carefully wore away their resolve with begging and pleading- usually with highly detailed explanations of all the moments that led to this happening, where on this particular Sunday evening everything would be coming to a head, and nothing would ever be the same in the entire world (wrestling federation). I needed to be in front of my aging 27″ to take it all in… and those times where they yielded to my lust for staged grappling were fucking beautiful.
But you have to grow up eventually. I stopped watching fake sports in my mid-20s; things just felt different. Main event play-fighting didn’t hold my interest anymore… and it wasn’t until the introduction of the nostalgia-rich WWE Network that I gave the whole thing a second thought.
The WWE Network, where I could relive those childhood memories previously lost to the ages; a place where Hulkamania could truly live forever. Of course, at first, the plan was to exploit their free month. I only really wanted to check out a few old Saturday Night’s Main Events- maybe the time where Hogan suplexed the Big Boss Man off of the top of the cage, a spot equivalent to Foley’s tumble off the cell for its time… But then it occurred to me, it was November… why not check out Survivor Series ’89, one of the few shows that my parents did, in fact, pay for TV and allow me to watch live. And, before long, I was waist deep in the build toward The Black Scorpion vs. Sting at Starrcade 1990- a show that I had been so captivated by as a ten-year-old that I tuned-in to watch scrambled (after all, how could I have gotten to sleep that night without knowing who the dastardly Scorpion was?!).
It didn’t take long for them to get me; I was back, in front of the TV once again, watching drug addled carnies pretending to fight. And while I had joined the Network, gladly giving them my $10 a month in exchange for the safety and warmth of my childhood, I had no intentions of checking out their current product.
I mean, right?
Until a cold Sunday evening in March- a pay-per-view night, indeed- where it occurred to me that it wasn’t just any old ham-and-egger show… it was Wrestlemania; the true Colossal Tussle– the showcase of the immortal play-fighters. This was a big deal, and I knew it.
Just the word Wrestlemania produced a warm feeling unparalleled to others- conjuring up memories of the intense paranoia felt in the weeks leading to the show, scrambling for a venue to soak-in every second of the spectacle while acknowledging the horrifying possibility that none of my friends’ parents may be dumb enough to buy it.
Truth be told, it was mere hours before the start time of Wrestlemania VI that I was able to secure a proper viewing location… I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to imagine the whirlwind of emotions I faced that day.
But now, as an adult, scrambling to secure my spot in viewing scripted-history was a thing of the past: Wrestlemania came free with my WWE Network subscription, and since I still felt some form of attachment to the mental images it drew, I felt a minor buzz of excitement- it was pay-per-view Sunday once again, brother!
And when it was all over, I only felt confusion. Sure, the show was boring and bad- but even during pro-wrestling’s hottest periods there were bad shows too. I remember getting a loose hand-job during the midcard of Wrestlemania XV- a sure sign that something was amiss.
But this was different- this was confusion. What the heck did I just sit through?
On the surface, it looked the same. I mean, it was called Wrestlemania- the name on the marque still says sports entertainment. There was a ring, and there were men pretending to grapple for fictitious reasons- this much was certain. Even some of the names were the same; there was the Undertaker, and HHH . If you were watching from across the room, half looking at your phone, half paying attention, maybe you’d have been convinced… but, not me. Unfortunately, I had made the ugly mistake of taking the fake-event too seriously, watching too closely; expecting to be entertained.
Watching closely, you can see the little differences. Like how the steel guard rail has been replaced with pillows. Gone were the natural promos given by the likes of Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Dusty Rhodes, replaced with stilted and awfully scripted monologues. The fake grappling looked faker than ever; closer to a collaborative stunt show rather than an actual representation of two men pretending to fight. There were no badass heels like “Ravishing” Rick Rude making the audience feel badly about their bodies. And, worst of all, everything on-screen was delivered with a wink-and-nudge to the viewer- just in case anyone dare take the clown show too seriously.
It was almost as if you recreated an entire movie, shot-for-shot, using non-actors. Everything kind of looked the same while also looking horribly weird and different.
Which begs the question: how much of something can you change without entirely making it something else?
It was only after getting a look at the members of the audience, the “WWE Universe” (I’m throwing up), that something urgent and terrible had occurred to me. There were grown men wearing unicorn horns and holding up signs about hugging. Wrestling fans were never known for their own masculinity, but part of the allure of professional wrestling was being drawn to the display of masculinity.
When “Ravishing” Rick Rude comes out to the ring looking greased and ripped, as if he just fucked every girlfriend in a twenty-five mile radius, while calling you a sweathog, you were powerless against his verbal assault. You consequently take the only action available, booing him and hurling insults. When The Ultimate Warrior hits the ring as a paragon of positive masculinity, you’re naturally on his side. If Rude cheats to win, it’s intrinsically understood that his decision was based on the idea that cheating was his only means of victory.
Despite Rude being more masculine than the members of the audience, Warrior had proven himself more masculine than Rude, forcing Rude to exploit Warrior’s honor (and the naivete which can come with that) to garner a cheap victory. So even if the audience is deficient in their own masculinity and unable to hold frame with Rude, they can feel equal parts satisfaction and anger in how Rude was unable to defeat the Warrior without cheating. And when the Warrior finally gets his revenge on Rude, the ultimate victory is all the more rewarding.
This is the basis of the emotional roller-coaster that is professional wrestling.
Professional wrestling fans are primarily looking for a dramatization of combat where larger-than-life figures play out different masculine archetypes which the wrestling fan can attach himself to and interact with. This is why the hardcore wrestling fan will dress like, mimic, and act out the machismo of their favorite wrestler; they want to see themselves in the charisma of Ric Flair or the irresistible force of Hulk Hogan. It’s easy to pair bad guy wrestlers with the alpha male bullies the wrestling fan has encountered throughout his life; the quarterback who smugly screws the cheerleaders, or the asshole boss who gives everyone a hard time. The undeserving characters who cheat to win and always manage to find a way to come out on top, like the Honky Tonk Man, are infuriating because we’ve all known someone like that. Professional wrestling can present these archetypes and also manage to end the story with the most heroic wrestler triumphing.
“Men seek out substitutes for fightingPlay fighting- sparring- is part of learning to fight, and men ritualize play fighting with sport.”- Jack Donovan, The Way of Men
In Jack Donovan’s excellent meditation on authentic masculinity, “The Way of Men,” Donovan defines masculinity as being composed of strength, courage, mastery, and honor. In looking to the archetypes of classic professional wrestlers, we can see where these qualities are either represented or deficient depending on the desired effect.
A wrestler may have strength as their signature quality, something surely masculine, but could lack honor- making him the typical monster heel like Big Van Vader or Sid. He may have strength but lack courage, like “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan, or even strength without mastery- with which the aforementioned Ultimate Warrior certainly comes to mind.
Courage is defined by the “will to act in the face of adversity” and is the hallmark of the good guy, babyface wrestler. When you see blood in professional wrestling, the idea is most typically (but not always) to make the babyface seem even more courageous. We feel sympathy for bleeding “Stone Cold” Steve Austin as he battles through Bret Hart’s sharpshooter at Wrestlemania 13 due to the depths of his courage. When a babyface fights against the tremendously adverse odds of entering the Royal Rumble at number one, we love him even more when he shows the courage to fight through and win- a storyline used again and again because it’s just that effective. And when a heel exploits the courageousness of a babyface wrestler, like HHH always being sure to leave Mick Foley laying in a pool of blood, we hate them even more. Courage without strength is, of course, another hallmark of wrestling storytelling- the hapless geek who refuses to quit- and we’ve seen that play out in pathetic old Mankind before transforming into his badass alter ego Cactus Jack.
Having mastery over anything- be it a subject, skill, or art- is something which is always revered in the masculine realm. This is why professional wrestling has a World Champion- and the wrestling fan may either respect (or fear) the champion who conquered the competition using legitimate (fake legitimate?) means to win the title… or despise the cowardly villain who cheated to win. The modern fan can even look to the true all-star ring technicians like Ric Flair or Bryan Danielson, and respect them for their mastery of the carnival.
Another hallmark of the professional wrestler is their sense of honor, or lack of honor. Where they fall on the barometer of honor is what ultimately decides their fate as either hero or villain.
For these archetypes to be effective, and for the emotional component of wrestling storytelling to truly resonate, the wrestling fan must be given the chance to become invested in taking the show seriously. The current product lacks this depth, almost to the point of making fun of the viewer for bothering to try. Even if the classic characters of the old era had cartoonish personas, they were still believably human. Modern wrestlers do not feel like three-dimensional characters or actual human beings. Even if someone like Kamala had a silly gimmick, I was still able to believe that he was a Ugandan savage- and there was a sense of danger to that. I was able to believe that Mr. Perfect was really that smug, or that Macho Man genuinely had a screw loose. I was able to get emotionally invested in wins and loses, dramatic triumphs and devastating disappointments, because the characters ultimately felt human. Even if watching adults play-fight will always carry an element of ridiculousness, it also carried a grounding in reality which was crucial.
Maybe the overt masculinity of classic wrestling has become too venomous or dangerous for a modern audience. Maybe advertisers need a softer product to sell. Or maybe times have changed, and all forms of entertainment are being stripped of masculinity as our cultural testosterone whimpers along on life support- while men dressed as unicorns try to capture the greatness of what has long since faded.
When it used to be better.
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