Well, I never thought I would write this article. Ever. Under any circumstances. I am just as surprised as you are.
(Seriously, how the fuck did this happen?)
So, I like watching John Oliver clips on Youtube and about a month ago, he did a story about the WWE and how badly it treats its wrestlers, and how dangerous professional wrestling is.
I hadn’t thought about professional wrestling in almost 20 years. About 20 years ago, my younger brother was no different than a large percentage of young men in America; he LOVED professional wrestling. Seriously, my readers who don’t remember the late 90’s cannot understand how popular professional wrestling was during that time. It was MASSIVE. The performers in this SNL skit were all very well known to a wide audience, not just The Rock.
There is a joke in John Oliver’s story where is exclaims, “Wrestling is better than the things you like.” I laughed at the joke, but I started to think, is professional wrestling really all that different than the kind of things I like?
At the end of March, I would have said, “Absolutely. It’s completely different from the things that I like.”
But I found myself somewhat curious. After all, John Oliver talks about professional wrestling has characters that are good guys or bad guys, as well as scripts and stories. That makes it sound like, well, theater. And I love theater.
So, with that in mind, I decided to re-watch a few professional wrestling clips, and watch other ones for the first time.
So, here is an example from the late 90’s. I remember seeing clips of this shortly after it aired.
OK, first of all, yes, it is dumb as rocks. But I can recognize a basic narrative structure. They have a point of attack (the beginning of the story) when the Undertaker kidnaps Stephanie McMahon. They have an inciting incident (the moment when the protagonist becomes involved in the main action of the story) when Vince McMahon asks for Stone Cold Steve Austin’s Help. When the Undertaker stages the wedding, they build the tension by having other people try to rescue Stephanie first, but failing. It is only after the guy declares that the Undertaker and Stephanie are married and that the Undertaker can kiss the bride that Stone Cold Steve Austin comes out to rescue Stephanie. It is dumb as rocks, but it is a story. It is theater. (And truthfully, it is probably impossible to tell this dumb story line any better than they did.)
OK, two quick asides.
First of all, why is there no sexual danger in the wedding scene? It is amazing how tame it is. And believe me, wrestling in the late 90’s was not tame. But they go out of their way to minimize the sexual danger to Stephanie. What is up with that?
Second of all, the video has tons of comments whining about how this would never be allowed on television because it promotes violence against women. It doesn’t actually promote violence against women. It depicts violence against women, but it does not promote it. It is framed as something negative in the story. Stephanie is kidnapped by the antagonist (I’ve learned in the past month that in professional wrestling, the antagonist or villain is called the heel). The area goes dark and threatening. The Undertaker baits the audience to cheer for Austin to come out and rescue Stephanie, which they readily do. And as if none of that was enough, the TV audience has the fucking Greek chorus squawking about how horrible all this is.
OK, moving on.
So, this is unusual for professional wrestling because much of the storytelling is done through words. Normally it is done through the wrestling itself, such as in this clip. Dean Ambrose had apparently been a heel (bad guy) after turning on his best friends. Now, his best friends forgive him and turn up to save him from being attacked.
None of the characters talk in this scene, but again, the Greek chorus is squawking away on TV. Even so, the actions of the characters advance a narrative. They also express themes of friendship and forgiveness, even grace. But unlike theater, there is no dialogue, except for the Greek chorus. Theater is all about dialogue and language, so when professional wrestling tells story through action, it is different than theater.
Now’s the part where I piss off all the wrestling fans. Because professional wrestling kind of reminds me of this.
Yes, I am going on record saying that professional wrestling is like ballet. And if professional wrestling fans want to protest, “But wrestlers are telling stories with their bodies and through movement!” I will answer them, “What do you think ballet dancers are doing?”
So, is wrestling better than the things I like?
But, it’s actually got a lot in common with the things that I do like.
So, am I going to watch wrestling now?
First of all, I am not all that interested in the stories they tell. Not that it’s bad to like them. If you enjoy it, knock yourself out. It’s not just not my thing.
But there’s a far more important reason.
Professional Wrestling isn’t fake enough.
I know that sounds like a bizarre statement, but that’s what I think. Hear me out.
First of all, there is the injuries and deaths listed by John Oliver. (As I write this, another professional wrestler died at 39.) It’s bad enough I have to deal with the fact that 7 out of the 8 women gymnasts on the past two US Olympic teams were sexually abused by the USA Gymnastics doctor. The Tokyo Olympics is coming up next year, and I know that any moment that I watch women’s gymnastics, I will be haunted by the gymnasts’ impact statements about the pain they suffered at the hands of a sexual predator.
I don’t need any more moral quandaries. I really don’t.
But there is another, less important issue, and that is the dividing line between fiction and reality.
Non-wrestlers, or people outside the wrestling business, are referred to as “marks.” This is the same term that con artists use to describe their victims. Wrestlers were encouraged to keep “kayfabe”, a word that denotes maintaining the illusion of the character and plot, even in everyday life.
Theater has a very different attitude towards the audience. George Bernard Shaw once remarked that a theatrical convention is “an agreed upon lie.” The actors and the audience, together, agree upon the lie. The actors also do not attempt to convince people that the play is an event that actually happens, at least outside the stage.
Theater also has very strict conventions to show the dividing line of the world of the play. I have been to several “talk backs” after plays, where the audience can talk to the actors. Before the actors show up for “talk backs,” the actors change out of their costumes and into their every day clothes. This is not simply for comfort; it also shows that the actors are speaking to the audience as themselves, not as the characters.
Professional wrestling has traditionally shunned such a divide between the world of the stage and the real world. It seems to be changing, but it hasn’t gone far enough for me.
But I must say, I owe professional wrestling a debt of gratitude for making me realize how important the relationship between the audience and the performers are. So I do owe it that. Thanks.