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NOTE: Apologies for the lack of a review column last week. I was sent home from work early and fell asleep all night. Braun won the HAM though, obviously. However, I’ve also driven 40 hours in the last four days, including trips to and from Pennsylvania from the Twin Cities by car, so I honestly don’t know if I’ll make it until 10CST. With that being a possibility, this is a piece I’ve had floating around in my head the last few days, with an awful lot of thinking time on the road probably a great influence. Plus, anytime I get to use what I’ve learned in anthropological studies, I’m up for it.
IN LAIMAN’S TERMS #348 – Wrestling and the Power of Myth
What is professional wrestling, truly?
Now, there’s of course the obvious answer to that. You’re on a wrestling site with writers writing and columning about that very topic, so it seems redundant and even perhaps foolish to ask that here. But I do think there’s more to it than the surface answers, what the companies would say, or the broad interpretations and personalizations of an industry that has spanned decades. Why are we as fans so drawn into it, even when the aforementioned drawing is frustration or disgust? What captures us? What keeps us so dedicated to the concept, or at least the ideas we project onto that concept? I hope to offer some ideas and interpretations for my own part on some of these questions.
One of the clichés that pass through circles of non-wrestling fans is that it’s a soap opera. What are soap operas? Generally, they’re daytime programs with a certain aesthetic, not to mention assumed intended audiences, that portray ridiculous storylines with over-the-top characters, dramatic cues, predictable and formulaic tropes and plots, and a genuine level of feeling surreal. Okay, so maybe I’m not defending the accusation of soap opera very well, but let me get there.
Soap operas, at least in the stereotypes that created the perception of them in the first place, are associated with married women who are at home while their husbands are at work. I’ll leave my social commentary about other kinds of stereotypes and normaitivity aside, because that’s not what this column is about. The love stories of cheating, betrayal, and overcoming obstacles for romantic and lustful love and deceit permeate the society and media, as much as most of them would not like to admit it. The 50 Shades series and its success are a prime example.
Meanwhile, the stereotypes of wrestling, specifically wrestling fans; many of which I don’t fit, but again I’m talking from a broad context of perception. Don’t worry, this is going somewhere, I promise. Wrestling, and fighting sports in general, are thought of as masculine, action-oriented fuel to an audience that craves violence, sex, and rebellion. Through which, love stories are carried out with betrayal, cheating, and overcoming obstacles for romantic and lustful love, where deceit can be the ultimate undoing of the protagonist. Over-the-top characters, onto which the audience can project themselves, fight for what is good and justified while the often cunning, more clever, or downright evil villains have, well… Whatever Other it is they’re trying to communicate to stand in the way of the audience’s perceived affirmation.
This may sound like I’m calling professional wrestling a soap opera, but I’m not. I’m not even calling soap operas soap operas. My intention here is to categorize both of those into a much broader genre that is as old as civilization itself: myth.
Mythology is often associated with the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses of Yore. However, the base word is Myth, and while Classical Mythology falls into that categorization, a Myth is simply a story. Now, what are some of the characteristics of myth?
-Myths are usually set somewhere else. Whether that’s a different time, location, or reality, myths aren’t from what Film and Literature Theorists would describe as the “Realism” school of thought.
-Myths are often about things beyond explanation. The supernatural, what science has or could create, or what is natural.
-Myths often involve non-human sentient creatures like monsters or gods, or events that are beyond our understanding or explanation.
-Finally, overall, Myths are about what it means to be human.
Now that we have the credentials of a Myth, I also described them as a story. Well, what is a story?
-Stories are something that we believe either to be real, or something fictionalized or created to communicate something that is real. In other words, we trust where the story is coming from and/or who is telling it.
-Stories have rules that are established within the confines of the story, or from pre-determined tropes, plots, and characterizations that either follow them or subvert them.
-Stories are something that are supposed to be universally understood, or at least ubiquitous within a culture or subculture.
-Stories are about expectations. Whether or not those expectations are met is irrelevant; we either get what we want, or are frustrated that we won’t.
Now, where does wrestling come in? We’ve circled back.
Be honest, though. When reading those descriptions of Myths and Stories, how many of you were already thinking of professional wrestling examples and how this would relate to what I’m saying?
Mythology is not even out of the question as far as comparison goes. The saga of the old gods and the new often communicate something about the culture and offer explanations about what is either not understood or what needs to be understood better. Professional wrestling, movies, television shows, video games, and literature all do this in some form or another, but wrestling is often dismissed. Like other genres with harmful and untrue stereotypes surrounding them, like say soap operas, professional wrestling is a combination of two forms of media that I didn’t list there for the specific reason of mentioning them now: sport and theatre.
-Athletic feats achieved by a single person or group of people assembled in teams.
-Competition between single persons or teams for the purpose of obtaining glory, merit, conquest, or even something as simple as bragging rights.
-Sport is often as much for spectators as it is the participants. Spectators support the participants for reasons including but not limited to: country or area of origin, association with a team representing a country or origin, personality, and obstacles overcome.
Notice that word once again: obstacles. How many sporting events have interviews where that word is used? Especially in America, every interview can count on this phrase being said: “yeah, we had a lot of obstacles to overcome, this team has been through a lot and we overcame the odds.” Either every athlete and coach ever put on camera has studied the 2006 merits of John Cena complaints, or we’re onto something here. Now, one more list, and all of this will be brought together.
-Theatre, for the most part, has a stage where actors tell a story through words and action before a live audience.
-Unlike film, every play is different. Nothing is alike because the live cannot be one-hundred percent replicated because of context, circumstances, and a different audience.
-Theatre, above all else, is about one major concept: Catharsis. Catharsis, basically, is the purging of emotions by projecting onto the story and the actors telling it something about the audience consummation of theatre. Audiences project themselves as either someone in the story or as a “fly-on-the-wall” spectator of the story. Avant-garde and other forms of theatre go against this, but again, that’s a different column.
With all of these descriptions, we bring it all together with this combination of these concepts.
PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING IS MYTH TOLD THROUGH SPORT THEATRE
The most powerful, or at least the most popular, form of myth is Joseph Campbell’s “Hero of 1000 Faces.” Without going into yet another list, the story structure involves a hero who starts in a place that is perceived to be a perfect world. Then, an inciting incident (hey, that sounds familiar!) happens, and the hero has a choice: stay home, or go on an adventure. Again, laymen’s terms here (no pun intended.) That adventure goes through the rising action where revenge and catharsis are sought against the antagonist, the climax sees that need completed, and the resolution seeing the hero get what it is they want (or not.) Basic structure, happens to work.
Professional wrestling takes this element of myth, uses a theatrical portrayal of sport, and combines them all into a production involving aspects of all of them. Professional wrestling is Myth told by Stories in the forms of Sport and Theatre.
Faces, the protagonists, are given an obstacle that the heels, the antagonists, are preventing them from overcoming. Whether those obstacles are corporate or authority-based, athletic competition-based, or personal infraction-based, the general narrative of a professional wrestling Myth is put forth anywhere from 1-15 different ways at a time on a particular show in order for the face to either get what they want, or to fall short in the process.
Much like sport, audiences project themselves onto particular characters who are made as much for the audience to relate to them as they are a representation of the person portraying them. Whether that projection is doing the right thing and overcoming evil (Hulk Hogan, John Cena) or bucking the system and the people who control it (Steve Austin, Daniel Bryan), the most successful wrestlers are the ones audiences are most able to identify with and/or project themselves onto. That helps explain why what worked in the 90s doesn’t necessarily work today; the audiences aren’t the same.
The element of catharsis utilizes the greatest part of theatre as a medium; the wrestling fan escapes their reality and projects themselves onto a Mythical character. The audience joins them on the journey through the inciting incident and the inevitable confrontation (we’ll leave out the problematic repeating of matches for the sake of this idea), the best example of which is WrestleMania. Either the face wins and gets what they want; a championship, overcoming obstacles, defeating a boss, winning the heart of a companion/love interest, or all of the above. Or, the heel wins, leaving open the opportunity for another face to go through the process all over again, as well as the face to attempt another adventure.
So where do villains come in here?
Ask a lot of people who like anti-heroes, or even the heels themselves, and not just in wrestling. The villain/heel is often far more interesting than the hero. The biggest reason for this is that the villain is not created to be relatable to the person watching inherently; they’re created to communicate something outside, an Other. By Other, I mean an outside force, group, type of person, etc. Something outside the face, or the audience themselves, and that also allows projection. The reason Myths involve Monsters is because they’re so easy to project societal fears and cultural worries onto them without making them human. Sci-Fi movies in the 1950’s used aliens to project the fear of Communism. Zombies often have been used to reflect fears of Mass Consumerism. Anyone who has seen They Live can vouch for that slice of subtlety.
However, wrestling, at least at its best, has the opportunity that most other forms of content creation don’t: the actor portraying the character has some level of freedom in how to execute their solitary mission of making the audience hate them so bad that they, through the face, achieve catharsis, see them defeated. Think of the concept of the Foreign Heel. Whatever audiences fear, whichever country it is they fear, or even on the more local level, which other local rival they fear, even if it’s on the level of “We want to beat them in the Homecoming game.”
But, because villains have much more freedom in utilizing their mission to be a foil to the heroes, they’re often better liked because they’re more entertaining, funny, witty, clever, or interesting as a character. Where a face, in general, has to be a canvas onto which the audience can project, the heel just has to screw with the face in whichever way they feel justified. That not only creates some people loving the villains more, but enough of that groundswell of support can make them anti-heroes, and even faces because that’s who the audience wants representing their catharsis.
Take Braun Strowman as a recent, wildly successful example. The clear intended face, Roman Reigns, is someone the audience, in general and on the whole, rejected as their representative for the ultimate catharsis. Braun Strowman, however, was a larger-than-life person and personality that he became a displayer of Feats. Combining his displays of feats of strength, power, determination, and charisma saw what should’ve been the establishment of a Big Bad Villain for the hero Roman Reigns to overcome morphing into the larger than life personality that the crowd wanted to see smash the imposter hero.
Stone Cold was supposed to be evil, but fighting back against the boss/authority/corporate people was huge in the 90s. Look at the success of Rage Against the Machine. Often the rebellious nature of the media culture is reflective on the anxieties therein. The Cold War was over, the early 90s wars were brief, and 9/11 hadn’t happened yet. Without an Other to fear, the rebel without a cause nature rose up and kicked away the prototypical hero of Hulk Hogan yore and instead welcomed in the antihero, who by all means was usually a horrible person (in-character.) Look at the old promos with Austin and the Rock for examples of how much those characters hated everyone and each other, yet somehow got cheered for it. With nothing to rise up against and nothing in the greater overall cultural context (American, and at least perception of a certain audience… That needs to be noted), the culture was more interested in seeing someone buck the system than go along with it.
SO WHY IS WRESTLING DIFFERENT?
That’s the entire point of writing this analysis of the subculture that is professional wrestling. While progress may be slow in some social and representative areas, the more people who are able to feel catharsis and escapism through what is presented, the better. Women now have more than bikini models and recipients of violence to relate to. Marginalized communities are, in general and in WWE specifically, are no longer merely tokenized or cast as the villain simply for existing, or at least as often. The pieces are there for more people to find their entertainment value in professional wrestling because there are more opportunities for people to feel like they’re represented and included. This has not always been the case, and it has turned some people off from it, for reasons I again won’t get into. But if you can hook more people into wrestling by having at least one character they can relate to and identify with, there are going to be a lot more longterm fans in for the long haul, and a greater societal variety of them who stay past being children and just liking to see pretendy fun-time fighting.
I couldn’t help but feel this ridiculously hard when I was listening to a podcast last week, and I won’t name which one because I generally like the guy who hosts it. They did an episode all about wrestling, but not really. In my opinion, if you’re going to do a podcast all about wrestling, to me you should at least have some idea of wrestling beyond 17 years ago and back. Organizational and communicative problems aside, the guys didn’t know who they wanted for their various top 5 lists, and therefore went to other lists to try to jog their memories. They didn’t know who JBL was when discussing villains. They didn’t know anything about The Shield, other than that they existed. They didn’t know much beyond John Cena also being a wrestler. Gosh, they didn’t even know what the Walls of Jericho was.
It is, though, representative of people who fell away after the most popular eras of wrestling concluded. When Hulk Hogan left, a lot of people went with him. When The Rock and Stone Cold left, a lot of people went with them. But now, the potential is there for there to be not only one main person that makes wrestling relevant in a cultural context again, but many. As WWE becomes more global and inclusive, it also hangs on to some of the old forms of storytelling and presentation that don’t work anymore, and it’s a rough period to find pure entertainment and catharsis, especially when one of the main villains (I’m looking at you, Steph) NEVER loses or gets their comeuppance! Yes, the villains need to sometimes win, but to never lose, show vulnerability or fear, and never pay for it in any way is not sustainable.
CONCLUSION AND HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
The weekend of the Royal Rumble reinvigorated my interest in WWE beyond writing analytically through a weekly show. The women are well represented. Non-white characters are something other than token villains or stereotypes. Villains are also more interesting, and the level of morality and face/heel dynamics has become so grey that it’s often brought into question whether or not it’s even relevant anymore. But the fact that it can be questioned means there’s more than one way to tell a story, and more varieties of people are finding their stories told through wrestling, even if the audience is more niche than it has been in the golden eras.
Even those desperate to see wrestling as relevant in the athletic field can find something to grab onto with the signing of Ronda Rousey, although where the hell she’s been after making that appearance and signing supposedly full-time is still up for questioning. Tournaments for cruiserweights, women, and other countries are making the product more accessible than it’s ever been, and even though that has cast away some fans who sought other kinds of catharsis and solace in other media, the pieces are there for another golden era to begin if the cards are played right. The Royal Rumble weekend gave me hope that it can happen, and I want it to.
Professional wrestling has its problems, as does any media or entertainment venue, but for a subculture that has persisted through changing eras, audiences, and cultural realities, the fact that it still remains a visible and somewhat financially successful entity is proof that it goes beyond who is pushed or what storyline is chosen. The power of Myth through professional wrestling resonates with audiences, and more people being able to access that Myth and its escapism and catharsis, the better and more sustainable the product is going to be.
Thanks for your time, hope that wasn’t too lengthy or academic. If I can stay awake tonight, I will see you for Thoughts.