By Izzy Scrimshire
For years professional wrestling has courted the image of unruly, bud-swilling rednecks and implausible, soap operatic plot lines. But what does it take to stage the biggest show on Earth, and why do people love it so?
1. THERE’S NO OFF-SEASON. As the year rolls round you’re guaranteed to hear something to the effect that it’s “football season” or “baseball season”. Well, it’s always wrestling season. The WWE stages 4 shows a week, 50 weeks of the year – and that’s not counting monthly pay-per-views and other non-wrestling events – making it the largest travelling show in the world today. What’s more, its flagship program “Monday Night Raw” is the longest running weekly episodic show in history.
2. IT’S GOOD FOR YOU. Research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown that more hardcore styles of professional wrestling appeal directly to our death wish instinct and can potentially provide an outlet for violent fantasies.
In 1997, a sample of Idaho teenagers were exposed to taped matches of the ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) division. The results showed that, while they were slightly more disposed to violence immediately after watching, in the long-term the teenagers were considerably less likely to engage in violent behaviours.
In other words, pro wrestling allows its viewers to explore violence in socially acceptable ways. This process, known to psychoanalysts as sublimation, is widely considered a sustainable means of controlling antisocial impulses.
3. IT’S ENTERTAINMENT. As much as WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) likes to promote the impressive athleticism of their talent roster, they make no secret of the fact that wrestling is entertainment, not sport. While confusing for many, there are viable financial reasons for taking the competition out of competitive sports. Since title runs are conferred rather than won, the creative staff gets to decide which wrestlers to “push” and which to “bury” – meaning they can promote the most bankable stars and generate greater profit and phase out the rest.
On a deeper level, having the most popular, as opposed to most deserving, participant win in a match-up is good for the franchise generally and keeps punters coming back. All sports fans love it when a fan favourite wins – but this can be a rare occurrence. In sports entertainment, storylines are carefully crafted to maximise spectator pleasure through a string of calculated wins and losses. These can give rise to dazzling victories, major upsets and unexpected heel turns – but the result is always the same: entertainment.
This has never been more relevant than today. Spectator analysts have revealed that audience disapproval with the quality of matches in competitive sports is at an all-time high. “Too many one-sided contests have taken the gloss off the competition,” reports the Deccan Chronicle. “A neutral observer who turns up at the venue in the hope of watching a cracker of a contest is bound to get exasperated at the manner in which some of the unfancied teams have thrown in the towel without even looking to compete, leave alone causing an upset.” You won’t find this type of anti-climax in pro wrestling – which has more in common with daytime soap operas than a boxing match. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea admittedly, but it certainly beats watching your local team lose every week and have no chance of ever reaching the big leagues.
4. THE FANS ARE IN ON IT. The American Encyclopaedia defines professional wrestling as “physical theatre in which participants act out a fight in front of paying spectators”; matches are fixed, rules are flexible and individual success is determined by a performer’s ability to achieve emotional responses from the audience. “Instead of the traditional sports credo – ‘higher, faster, stronger’ – pro wrestling’s credo might be ‘Tell your story, sell your move, get a pop from the crowd”’ writes R. Tyson Smith, Sociology Professor from Brown University. And it is precisely this act of baiting the audience – rather than simply getting one over your opponent – that makes pro wrestling unique. Even Roland Barthes, the French literary critic, believed that fans of boxing and wrestling inhabited totally different psychologies and comparing wrestling to similar competitive sports was pointless. “The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle.” This stratagem has turned out more lucrative in the long-term for the biggest promoters. To date, WWE has received over 9.5 million “likes” on Facebook (more than Major League Baseball and the NFL combined) demonstrating a level of engagement to which most other sporting leagues can only aspire.
5. IT’S A FAMILY THING. What do 80 per cent of businesses in the U.S. have in common? They’re family run, or at least claim to be. Some of the most powerful multinational corporations today have a common lineage, including Walmart, Trump Organization, Ford Motor Company, Johnson and Johnson… and, crucially, WWE.
The McMahon family have operated the WWE since its formation.
But why does WWE’s status as a family corporate make it a more appealing product to consumers than, say, TNA? People automatically perceive a family owned business as being more trustworthy than their corporate counterparts, according to research conducted by Clay Dibrell, Justin Craig and Peter S. Davis at Ohio State University. Their two-year study revealed that when companies (like WWE) stress the importance of family values, the consumer is supposedly able to relate on a higher level.
And even though WWE does not aggressively promote itself as “family run”, its corporate website makes no secret of its current business strategy. “[WWE] is committed to creating family-friendly, TV-PG broadcast programming… scripted and performed by trained professionals”. Add to this the fact that the McMahon dynasty is by far the most well-known in all of pro wrestling and it’s no surprise WWE are the number one contender in the world of sports entertainment.
Dave Meltzer, editor of the industry-specialist Wrestling Observer Newsletter believes this family dimension is what gave them the edge over rivals World Championship Wrestling during the Monday Night Wars. Adam Wells of the Bleacher Report goes further. He believes that the only way for WWE to survive is to stay in the control of McMahon family. “I’ve ragged on him for a long time for a lot of his decisions, but no one puts in more work and is more dedicated to their business than [Vince] has been and still is. If someone else were to control that, let’s just say it would probably fall faster than [Ted Turner’s] WCW did.” He continues, “That family is WWE. They wake up and go to bed with nothing but thoughts of WWE in their head.”
6. GIRLS LIKE IT. One of the reasons why the WWE went PG-TV in July 2008 was to capitalise on its growing female audience (35% of their global audience are women). Whereas the “Attitude Era” was an adolescent boy’s wet dream, televised wrestling today likes to play it safe. There’s still plenty of eye candy to satisfy the hardcore fans (Layla, Kelly Kelly etc.), but you can say goodbye to Bra and Panties Matches and Wet T-Shirt Contests. In their place, we have a new breed of female wrestlers tailored specifically to a tweener audience.
Former FCW wrestler and WWE Diva A.J. Lee opts for a geek-girl gimmick in a bid to lure young female fans.
7. CONSERVATIVES SUPPORT IT. You would think with its violence, sexual content and shock-horror storylines, professional wrestling would be top of the hit list for social conservatives. The reality is quite different. Aside from the querulous voices of the Parents Television Council most right wingers have no problem with pro wrestling. This is no mere oversight: wrestling is conservative. In fact, it’s downright fascist. “It has already been noted that in America wrestling represents a sort of mythological fight between Good and Evil”, Barthes writes in the French magazine ‘Les Lettres nouvelles’, but this conception of good and evil is concerned with politics, not ethics. Storylines function as political allegories – which would be admissible if it weren’t for the fact these “allegories” are largely reactionary and used to reinforce retrograde visions of America’s past.
Chauvinistic displays: Former Olympic-winning Greco-Roman wrestler Kurt Angle shocked the world by going pro in 1999. His WWE debut involved a scripted rivalry with despised Indian patrician Tiger Ali Singh (Sunday Night Heat, March 7, 1999). In the densely political chaos that followed the gold medallist denigrated the Iranian flag and performed a devastating belly-to-belly suplex on Singh, earning the approval of the 18,000 strong Atlanta crowd
Believe it or not, Angle’s triumph over Singh (who is actually a Canadian) is fairly tame by WWE standards. In 2004, the company introduced to the Raw brand Muhammad Hassan, a wrestler who described himself as a Middle Eastern-American wanting relief from the increased stereotypes created by the 9/11 attacks. Unsurprisingly, North American crowds did not warm to Hassan (real name: Mark Copani) and his Arabic prayer-singing and paeans to Allah generated tremendous heat. The Council on American–Islamic Relations called the angle “a hate crime waiting to happen” and accused the WWE of making light of the real-life discrimination many American Muslims face. After an infamous incident on “Smackdown!” in which Hassan summoned through prayer a gang of ski-masked “terrorists” to assault the Undertaker, the WWE, under pressure from UPN, released him from his contract and the storyline was dropped.
The Muslim Aggressor is but one in a long history of anti-American heels. In the early years of the Cold War, promoters brought in refugees from the Soviet Bloc with a view to riling up crowds in redneck Southern territories. This Russian gimmick started to pall in the 1980s though after the Krusher Khruschev (real name: Barry Darsow) and “The Russian Nightmare” Nikita Koloff lost the NWA tag team championship. Still, the “foreigner” remains a staple of the wrestling world, feeding off cultural xenophobia and right wing mythology.
8. IT SUPPORTS THE MILITARY. Since going PG, however, WWE has treaded a relatively fine line with regards to its political content. (After all, a publicly traded company and can’t risk alienating investors.) Still, company favourites like John Cena tend to represent a certain ideal of the American right – that is militarised, athletic, ready practitioners of hard justice. This is most powerfully expressed in the WWE through their tireless support of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
WWE’s annual Tribute to the Troops is about a close as the company gets to outright support of the Republican Party. In 2010, former CEO Linda McMahon ran unsuccessfully for the Connecticut seat.
I’m not saying there’s anything intrinsically wrong with using their resources to boost the morale of soldiers in operation overseas. And there’s nothing wrong with characters like Cena and Sergeant Slaughter using military iconography in their characters. But they do have a cumulative effect. Especially when the company makes a habit out of vilifying “foreign” heels like Tiger Ali Singh and Muhammad Hassan. It’s no wonder the right wing press are happy to let WWE pass for family entertainment without so much of a whisper…
Izzy Scrimshire is a journalist and student at the University of Nottingham
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