– by Walt Mueller
©2003, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding
It was our inability to keep from crossing the thin line between fiction and reality that forced our mother to declare a halt to the playful sibling scuffles we initiated on the living room carpet and front lawn. We were three young brothers who had accumulated an arsenal of eye-pokes, boinks and other “nyuk-nyuk-nyuk” moves from hours spent watching “The Three Stooges.” Our all-too-real imitation gradually led to maternal intervention and the elimination of Moe, Larry and Curly (and sometimes Shemp) from our TV diet.
Banned from the Stooges, it wasn’t long before we discovered a televised substitute that took our grappling sessions to new heights of frenzied fun. We would spend time on Saturdays soaking up one of the many benefits of boyhood in the Philadelphia suburbs – professional wrestling televised on a local UHF station! All of a sudden, our savage repertoire expanded to include pile drivers, leg drops, sleeper holds and the always lethal “hidden foreign object.” It didn’t matter we could never seem to figure out if what we were watching was fake or real. We were now imitating the likes of Chief Jay Strongbow, Bruno Sammartino, “Polish Power” Ivan Putski and Gorilla Monsoon. Sadly, mom would often intervene and end our bouts with a reprimand that served as a quick bell. Admittedly, our “professional” matches sometimes degenerated quickly into something much too real.
I don’t remember when I lost my childhood fascination with professional wrestling. Maybe it was when I grew up a little and finally realized it was all staged. After all, people usually feel cheated when they find out they’ve wasted valuable time on something “fake” or “fixed” – right? Not always. Judging from the mounting popularity of professional wrestling among children, teens and adults of all ages, that certainly isn’t the case anymore.
Wrestling occupies a growing spot on the cultural landscape. Live venues in cities across America are sold out every night. Not a day goes by when you can’t find wrestling somewhere on TV. Billed as nothing more than “sports entertainment” (another way of saying “fake”), pro wrestling is pervasive.
During the last two or three years, my frequent episodes of channel-surfing to catch the latest in pop culture have included a growing number of glimpses into the wrestling world – but not what I remember from my childhood. It’s a big part of the entertainment diet of today’s children, teens and a significant number of adults. Because of this, it’s time to take a deeper look at the world of pro wrestling. What’s it all about? Why is it so popular? Is it harmless entertainment or something more?
Because parents, educators and youth workers need to know more about this powerful cultural force, I decided to go back to professional wrestling. For one week in September, I hunkered down and watched every minute of televised wrestling I could find. Then I read everything written about wrestling I could get my hands on. I came away with a spinning head and two conclusions. First, my mother would be appalled if her three boys started imitating today’s pro grapplers. And second, watching wrestling was an exercise in cultural education.
Wrestling is everywhere!
In a cover article on the professional wrestling phenomenon, Entertainment Weekly called it “the hottest, most innovative entertainment pop culture has to offer” (Entertainment Weekly, 4/16/99). The numbers support that opinion.
Most televised wrestling events feature the two major rival wrestling organizations: The World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW). Thanks to effective marketing, the sport has become the highest-rated programming on cable TV. The two tours produce over 15 hours of weekly programming watched by over 35 million viewers. In all, seven different wrestling programs consistently finish in the top 10 cable ratings every week. The WCW beams its programming worldwide. The WWF is translated into 11 languages and can be seen in over 120 countries around the globe. Between 1997 and 1998, the WWF saw a 156 percent ratings rise among viewers with four or more years of college, and a 111 percent rise in households with incomes of $50,000 or more.
Regular pay-per-view events give viewers even more options. Add these revenues to the sales of wrestling merchandise (trading cards, shirts, hats, videos, magazines, lunch boxes, action figures, toys, music compilation CDs, and everything else imaginable), and it’s clear why revenues are so high! The WWF sold over $1 billion in merchandise during 1998. That figure could double in 1999. According to one report, the professional wrestling business grossed only $100,000 less than major league baseball in 1998. Maybe it’s not surprising that 96 percent of the top 1,000 sports sites on the Web are devoted to wrestling (Spin, 12/98).
What were “The Good Old Days?”
For years, the world of professional wrestling provided morality plays (yes, they were staged) on the never-ending struggle between good and evil. Night after night in dimly lit arenas across the country, fans gathered to cheer for “the babyface” as he (or sometimes she) would enter the ring to defend honor against “the heel.” Fans would cheer as the modest and soft-spoken “face” would never stray from the bounds of fighting with fairness. The evil, loud-mouthed and arrogant “heel,” often representing enemies of the United States (for example, Russian wrestler Ivan Koloff during the Cold War, complete with a hammer and sickle tattoo), would resort to the use of any illegal tactic (eye-poking, kicking, hair-pulling, choking, etc.) in order to gain the upper hand. The “heel” was often accompanied by a flamboyant manager who served as an accomplice, distracting the referee so they could inflict more underhanded damage to the babyface.
Today, that’s all changed. Good and evil no longer do battle in the ring. Instead, wrestling is a never-ending melodramatic soap opera where complex story lines run from week to week as evil battles evil. Today’s wrestling audience cheers for decadence doing battle with decadence. It’s “heel” versus “heel.” The wrestling world runs on the fuel of vulgarity, sexual desire, infidelity, arrogance, rebellion and attitude. Henry Jenkins, Professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and author of a book on wrestling, says wrestling is “a morally ambiguous universe, with anti-heroes and sympathetic villains” (US News & World Report, 5/17/99).
This rapid shift in emphasis is best evidenced in the moral metamorphosis of Hulk Hogan, maybe the most popular wrestler of the past 15 or 20 years. In the ’80s “the Hulkster” was the WWF’s superhero good guy who loved the millions of kids who loved him. Since moving to the WCW in 1994, bad guy “Hollywood Hogan” became the leader of the “New World Order,” a group of rebel wrestlers intent on ousting the head of their TV network, Ted Turner. “Now I’m the worst bad guy around,” he says. “I can’t win a match unless I cheat. And people love me” (Time, 6/29/98). It was a move he needed to make to ensure continued popularity. Since then the entire world of wrestling has followed the Hulkster’s lead.
An in-depth look at the more recent history of pro wrestling offers further insight into its changing nature and subsequent popularity in today’s youth culture.
The world of wrestling today
The common thread of wrestling past and wrestling present is that the combatants are usually massive and muscular men (and women!) who enter the ring to perform elaborately scripted encounters full of acrobatic moves, fake punches, emphatic grunts and an endless parade of “near-falls” (two-counts that end before a pin as the helpless loser gains a sudden burst of energy in time to escape defeat). It’s there the comparison ends.
Today’s televised wrestling opens with the fanfare of loud heavy metal music and cutting edge graphics. After these intros, the camera zooms in, on and around an arena full of frenzied fans (many of them young children, some on their dads’ shoulders) who have assembled to scream for their heroes. Elaborate staging, state-of-the-art lighting effects, huge video screens, fireworks and rock music combine to set the tone and leave viewers with the sense that something exciting is about to happen.
Part of the show themselves, the fans sport painted faces, wrestling T-shirts, and home-made signs. Television viewers will notice immediately that many of the signs display profanity and a variety of other vulgarities. On one episode of WCW “Monday Night Nitro,” the camera caught signs with the messages “Fah-Q” and “I raped Nitro Girl” (the name for the WCW’s group of girl dancers).
Each wrestler, with a well-developed and distinctive persona enters the arena with their own trademark entrance while their personal theme song and video play. The audience only needs to hear two or three notes and their familiarity with the music lets them know who’s coming next. Then the crowd taunts, jeers or cheers as the wrestler makes his or her way to the ring.
Usually, the fighting begins before the first bell as someone delivers a cheap shot. Rarely does the fighting stay in the ring. It spills out onto the floor, into the audience and backstage. Of course, the crowd never misses any of it as it’s all displayed on big screens in the arena.
The behemoths perform moves with amazing agility and acrobatic precision. Sometimes an accomplice will show up and enter the fight. Foreign objects are no longer hidden. Steel steps, pipes, small appliances, tables, metal folding chairs, trash cans and a variety of other objects are used as weapons. Their use elicits a thunderous roar from the crowd. After many near-falls and nick-of-time escapes, one of the wrestlers will execute their patented personal “finishing move,” usually ending the match. The crowd goes nuts.
But that’s only the wrestling. The majority of the broadcast and live arena event centers on the ongoing soap operas working themselves out between wrestling’s colorful cast of characters. It’s a world of constantly shifting allegiance, harassment, posturing, betrayal and the quest for one of the many available title belts. The major wrestling federations actually employ writers to develop the elaborate story lines. As silly as it sounds, all this combines to create an adrenaline rush that’s fast, furious and leaves fans hungering for more.
The man behind it all
Any history of the changing face of wrestling must start with the man most responsible for these changes, Vince McMahon Jr. The 53-year-old McMahon has been around wrestling his entire life. His grandfather, Jess McMahon, ran the Capital Wrestling Federation in the Northeast. His father, Vince Sr., took over and renamed the organization the World Wide Wrestling Federation. In 1982, Vince Jr. bought out his father and assumed control of the operation, renaming it the World Wrestling Federation.
One of his first moves was to de-regionalize professional wrestling. Until then each area of the country had its own federation with its own stars, circuits, audience, “world champions” and local television contract. Like a rich man playing Monopoly, McMahon quickly bought them up and, with the purchase of Georgia Championship Wrestling in 1984, the WWF was now national.
An imaginative showman, McMahon quickly developed a new set of rules with extreme personalities and ongoing story lines. Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan were the wrestlers used to build the empire. Knowing that rock-n-roll concerts were selling out arenas, McMahon injected a heavy dose of rock-n-roll into wrestling with the sets, loud music, lighting, elaborate costumes and face-painting. This exciting new brand of wrestling found a rapidly growing audience around the world – particularly among children and teens who loved their rock music. A series of pay-per-view “Wrestlemania” events drew huge crowds and pay-per-view audiences, with over 93,000 attending 1987’s “Wrestlemania III” at the Pontiac Silverdome.
As the story goes, the WWF’s main rival, World Championship Wrestling, came into existence after media mogul Ted Turner tried to purchase the WWF from McMahon. The WWF was getting high ratings on Turner’s TBS network and Turner wanted to get in on the action. When McMahon refused to sell, Turner proceeded to buy out a number of independent regional wrestling federations spread across the south. The WCW was born and debuted on TBS in 1991.
Not only did McMahon now have competition, but he and his WWF ran into other trouble in the early ’90s. The WWF nearly went under after McMahon was indicted on charges of distributing and abusing steroids, as well as sexual harassment. Eventually he was acquitted in 1994 but the damage had been done. The WCW had hired away WWF stars Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan and Kevin Nash. TV ratings fell and attendance at live events was cut in half.
But just like the two-count near-falls in which an unconscious wrestler springs back to life, McMahon jumped up off the mat with a two-part formula that’s brought wrestling to its new heights of popularity.
First, he took “successful” elements of pop culture and injected them into his WWF world. “The WWF is a soap, it’s an action adventure, it’s a live-action cartoon and it’s part talk show,” says McMahon. “A hybrid of everything successful on TV, all rolled into one” (Entertainment Weekly, 4/16/99). In another interview, McMahon told Time, “We’re storytellers. You just can’t throw wrestlers out there to wrestle. That’s not what an audience wants to see” (6/29/98). The stories have become so much a part of the show, that actual in-ring wrestling occurs during only about 25 percent of a WWF broadcast.
And second, he removed any and all rules of decency that might have still been there. The result was decadence and moral chaos. A recent Indiana University study of 50 episodes of the Monday night “WWF Raw” broadcasts from 1998 found the following: 1,658 incidents of a character grabbing or pointing to their own crotch (not counting slow-motion instant replays); 157 instances of wrestlers or audience members making obscene gestures; 434 times people either said a sexually charged slogan or displayed one on a sign; 128 episodes of simulated sexual activity; 47 references to Satanic activity; and 609 instances of wrestlers or others being struck by objects like garbage cans or nightsticks.
In September of this year, the Parents Television Council conducted an analysis of the WWF’s Thursday night broadcast of “Smackdown.” They concluded that the most shocking feature was the 25 incidents of foul language per hour. Judging from what I saw during one week in September, this year is even worse.
George magazine recently reported that wrestling is about one “overriding and inescapable theme … transgression. Everywhere one looks in wrestling, someone is crossing the line, challenging the authorities, acting outrageously, disregarding taste and moral tradition. Good and bad have no place in this corrupt universe. Only outlawry does” (7/99). What does Vince McMahon have to say about all this? “I’ve stopped being [TV’s] conscience or policeman. I’ve adopted the same philosophy as Hollywood: here it is – do you like it or not?” (Newsweek, 11/23/98).
With McMahon’s question in mind, I hunkered down in front of the television set on a quest to learn not only about professional wrestling, but to discover why so many in our culture do, in fact, like it.
What I saw during the week
Including pay-per-view, broadcast, and cable shows, I was treated to about 20 hours of wrestling from the WWF, WCW and ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling). The sensory blast, plot lines, vast cast of characters, and overall moral tone left my head spinning.
My week began with the WWF – the federation currently boasting the biggest audience, highest TV ratings, highest revenues and sleaziest cast of characters. During the week I watched, the WWF aired nine hours of programming. The most popular WWF prime-time broadcast is “Monday Night Raw.” On Thursdays, fans get another two-hour dose on “WWF Smackdown.” For those trying to keep up with the comings and goings of their WWF heroes, the federation sponsors two one-hour weekly reviews on Saturday and Sunday mornings: “WWF Livewire” and “WWF Superstars.” In addition, I forked out $29.95 to be part of an audience of millions watching the three hour pay-per-view “Unforgiven” sponsored by “Magic-The Gathering” fantasy cards.
The fast-paced WWF overload included highly touted matches labeled with all kinds of sad, yet often comical names: The Kennel from Hell Match, The Choke Slam Challenge, The Inferno Match (inside a ring of fire), Hell in a Cell (where the object is to escape the ring and climb over a fence guarded by vicious Rottweilers), the Casket Match (where the winner must drop his opponent in a casket and slam the lid shut), Brahma Bull Rope Match (where the opponents are tied together), and Boiler Room Brawl (an anything goes contest in the arena’s boiler room).
One of the most unbelievable matches on “Raw” was The Evening Gown Match – just one example of how the WWF capitalizes on sexual desire and the bizarre. Wrestling old-timers The Fabulous Moolah and May Young (over 70 years old!) took on Ivory, one of the WWF’s large-breasted and scantily clad young female sex symbols. As with the WWF’s other well-endowed women (Miss Kitty, Debra, etc.), the crowd and announcers continually call for Ivory to “show your puppies” (breasts). The object of the match: strip your opponent down to their undergarments. Ivory was only able to strip May Young down to her bra and panties before Moolah was successful at doing the same to Ivory, who left the ring defeated and wearing only a scanty bra and thong for the entire cheering audience to see. Of course, the WWF’s TV announcers add a heavy dose of straightforward sexual commentary and double-meanings throughout the match and the entire show.
One wonders how long it will be before the TV audience gets to see full-frontal nudity. In one female mud-wrestling match I watched, the two well-endowed combatants entered the ring in bikinis. The winner left the ring holding the other’s bikini top. Although the loser was covered with a thin layer of watery mud, the camera caught a front-shot of her exposed breasts. By the way, this was on regular cable and the live audience was filled with kids.
No-holds barred sexuality is a big part of WWF character personas. Val Venis (rhymes with “penis”), an adult film star, bases his character on the size of his genitalia and is also known as “The Big Ballbowski.” He comes to the ring wrapped in a towel and brags about the size of his penis. Recently, he showed the audience a preview of his pornographic film, Saving Ryan’s Privates.
The Godfather, decked out as a stereotypical ’70s pimp, lives by his slogan “Pimpin’ ain’t easy” and finishes off his opponents with a move called the Pimp Drop. He always enters the ring surrounded by his “ho’s” (slang for “whores”), also known as his “ho train.”
Al Snow enters the ring carrying a severed woman’s head (not real, of course) and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a phrase promoting oral sex: “Everyone needs a little head.” Upon Snow’s arrival in the ring, the announcer asks the audience, “What does everybody need?” and “What does everybody want?” The audience screams the answer to both in unison: “Head!”
One of the most frenzied and super-charged moments of every WWF broadcast is the arrival of the New Age Outlaws into the arena. The tag-team pair (members of the WWF association known as D-Generation X) combines the smart-aleck smile of Mr. Ass and the tough-guy talk of the Road Dogg. When their theme music starts, the crowd goes nuts. As they enter the ring, the cheering crowd yells along with the Road Dogg, “Oh you didn’t know? Your ass better call somebody!” He then drops the mike to his crotch and simulates sex. The two strut to the ring and the Road Dogg goes through another lengthy recitation that the crowd yells right with him. He often refers to wrestling “Doggy-style.” When behind his opponent he sometimes simulates canine intercourse. Once the Road Dogg’s done with the mike, he hands it over to Mr. Ass who leads the crowd in a unison yell of the two words most often heard from a WWF crowd: “If you’re not down with that, we’ve got two words for yaÃ¢â‚¬â€SUCK IT!” The two words serve as the official slogan of D-Generation X. Another member of D-X, the wrestler known as X-Pac, accentuates the slogan by thrusting his pelvis forward and making an “X” across his inner thighs with two karate chops.
Prince Albert, one of the most colorful wrestlers in the WWF, has been labeled the “human pincushion” because of the many piercings on his body. His wrestling name comes from the name for a penis piercing – a “Prince Albert.”
The sexual antics carry over into the soap opera story lines as wrestlers fight for the right to the tour’s female stars. On one broadcast, 380 pound Mark “Sexual Chocolate” Henry stood in the ring and cried to the audience about his “sexual addiction”: “I get on base more times than Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa combined.” It’s all part of the show, and the story line will be continued in future WWF episodes.
Spiritual darkness enters the ring with the arrival of the Undertaker. Also called “The Lord of Darkness,” The Undertaker is known to carry his victims off to be unwilling participants in Satanic rituals. The tag team pair of The Acolytes sport wrestling tights emblazoned with pentagrams.
The WWF is permeated with vulgarity. U.S. News & World Report says past episodes of the WWF’s broadcasts “have featured mock crucifixions, S&M scenes, wrestlers mooning the audience and each other, and a woman sucking suggestively on an Italian sausage” (5/17/99). As I watched I saw an endless parade of sexually suggestive behavior and heard tons of profanity with the most popular words being “son of a bitch,” “damn,” “ass,” “balls” and “hell.” The WWF is all about attitude. And no two wrestlers provide evidence of that attitude more than the WWF’s current most popular pair, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
The Rock, known as “The People’s Champion,” is a third-generation professional wrestler. Born Dwayne Johnson, The Rock grew up watching his grandfather wrestle as “High Chief” Peter Mavia. His father, Rocky Johnson, won the WWF tag-team championship with Tony Atlas in 1983. After a sensational football career as a high school All-American and defensive lineman at the University Miami, Dwayne entered the WWF in 1996 as Rocky Maivia. Even though he soon won the Intercontinental Championship Belt, Rocky was too good a guy to warrant continued popularity. He changed his image from “face” to “heel” and has been popular ever since. A master at working up the crowd with the microphone, The Rock has developed patented sayings the crowd anticipates hearing and repeating at every match. Along with his famous raised eyebrow and “The Rock Bottom” finishing move, The Rock is known to never be at a loss for words. He asks the crowd, “Can you smelllllllllllllll, what the Rock’s got cookin’?” And whether his opponent is carrying a nightstick, metal chair or any other object, The Rock whips the crowd into a frenzy by telling his nemesis of the moment that he’s going to “shine up” the object, “turn that son-of-a-bitch sideways, and stick it up your roody-poo candy ass!”
Even though he’s not known as “The People’s Champion,” 33-year-old Stone Cold Steve Austin is by far the most popular and revered hero in professional wrestling today. Also known as “The Rattlesnake,” Austin’s likeness, sayings and emblems can be found on the 12 million Stone Cold t-shirts sold during 1998. Born Steve Anderson in Texas and abandoned by his biological father, this former college football player was working on the loading docks when he decided to attend a wrestling school. Named “Steve Austin” by another more experienced wrestler, he worked his way around local wrestling circuits for little pay and no recognition. After switching his role from babyface to heel, things got better. Signed in 1991 as “Stunning Steve Austin” by the WCW, he became one of the most popular wrestlers in that organization. A severe tricep injury in 1994 led to his firing by the WCW. After a brief stint in the ECW, Austin signed a 1995 deal with the WWF and appeared as “the million-dollar champion, The Ringmaster.” The act never really caught on. Inspiration for change came one night while Austin was watching an HBO film about serial killer Richard Kuklinski who was nicknamed “The Ice Man.” Austin says his new idea was of “this cold-blooded bastard guy, kinda ruthless, who didn’t give a damn.” The WWF liked the idea and gave Austin a three-page list of temperature-based names, none of which he liked. Then, while waiting for a cup of hot tea to cool, Austin’s wife told him to hurry up and drink it before it turned “stone cold.” He had his name.
Today, Austin struts to the ring with a scowl on his face and lots of bad attitude while his theme song, “Hell Frozen Over,” fills the arena. He doesn’t hesitate to raise his middle fingers at his opponents or the audience. The more antisocial and rebellious he gets, the more the crowd loves him. Even though the audience loves him, they will often give him the finger right back. He threatens to serve up a “can of 100 percent whoop-ass” on his opponents and tells them he’ll force them to drink “a cup of shut-the-hell-up.” After a match, he stands in the ring and guzzles beer. He’s an individual who makes his own rules and plays the game the same way. Why? The crowd will tell you as they repeat one of his most famous lines: “Because Stone Cold said so!”
On June 23, 1996, Austin beat Bible-quoting Jake “The Snake” Roberts. As he stood over the fallen Roberts, Austin made a proclamation that’s plastered all over T-shirts and fan signs as “Austin 3:16”: “You thump your Bible and talk about John 3:16. But Austin 3:16 says I JUST WHOOPED YOUR ASS!” The crowd went crazy. Stone Cold Steve Austin embodies the attitude of the WWF.
While Ted Turner’s WCW is currently running second in the ratings and revenue standings, the audience for their three weekly programs is by no means small. Viewers can tune into three hours of “WCW Monday Nitro,” two hours of “WCW Thunder” on Thursday nights and another two hours of “WCW Saturday Night” at the end of the week. WCW also broadcasts a regular schedule of pay-per-view events.
While the WCW relies on the same formula of flamboyant characters and elaborate melodrama as the WWF, there are some marked differences. The creative forces behind WCW have tried to create a more “family friendly” approach to wrestling as they feel the WWF goes too far with bad taste. What that means is that you won’t hear the profanity. When a wrestler does let it fly, it’s usually muted from the broadcast, although I did hear several mentions of “hell,” “ass” and “damn.” The “Nitro-Girl” dancers are definitely there for the sex appeal. While the WCW prides itself on no vulgarities, naked women or sexual innuendo, there is certainly enough sexual suggestiveness and in-your-face violence on the broadcasts. The WCW is actually a toned-down WWF featuring a slate of flamboyant stars including some older WWF castoffs.
When a WCW audience breaks into the chant “Goldberg, Goldberg, Goldberg,” the tour’s most famous current star is about to enter the arena. During his trademark entrance he stands in a shower of sparklers, flexes his neck and body, slaps himself, then struts to the ring. His clean-shaven head leaves him looking almost identical to the WWF’s Austin. A native of Tulsa, the 284-pound Bill Goldberg was an All-SEC defensive lineman at the University of Georgia. After time spent with the NFL’s Rams and Falcons, Goldberg entered the world of professional wrestling. Goldberg disposes of opponents in lightening fast fashion with one of his two famous finishing moves – The Spear (a running tackle) and The Jackhammer. Like Austin, Goldberg oozes individuality and an “I play by my rules” bravado.
Extreme Championship Wrestling’s weekly one hour broadcast kicks off with a shot of the organization’s logo. Appropriately, the logo is wrapped in barbed wire. Playing to smaller crowds both live and on television, the ECW brand of wrestling is just what its name says – extreme.
The ring skirting is emblazoned with the words “Blood and Guts.” This is wrestling that’s much more violent than the WWF and WCW brands. There are no pads or mats on the floor outside the ring to cushion dives and falls. The moves are more intense and dangerous. The crowd loves it as the wrestlers appear to literally beat each other. While the action is scripted, this stuff really looks like it hurts. The wrestlers use cinder blocks, blow torches, metal folding chairs, 8-foot tables and barbed wire as weapons. There’s lots of blood.
The audience seems angry and I saw several giving the finger as the camera panned the crowd. The fans are so into it that they count out loud as one opponent beats another with consecutive punches to the face. One reviewer calls ECW “slamming action and cockfight-like atmosphere.” During televised events, the ECW disallows profanity and male vs. female violence. The one hour I viewed was all about hard-core wrestling with little off-stage melodrama. For the angry and crazed wrestling fanatic, the ECW is a place to let off steam.
What’s the draw?
What is it about professional wrestling that’s revived its popularity in today’s culture and grown an enthusiastic audience that includes children of all ages?
First, there’s no denying the fact that today’s professional wrestling is entertaining. One fan expressed her love for the sport in a letter to Entertainment Weekly magazine: “HALLELUJAH!!! It’s about time somebody recognized wrestling fans. As a 24-year-old college-educated woman, I’m proud to say I love this stuff. I look forward to the shenanigans of the fabulous-looking men each week. It has all the elements of a great television program: drama, heartbreak, romance, excitement and intrigue! Not to mention really buff men in tight wrestling shorts!” Every TV broadcast I viewed was filled with non-stop action, lots of attitude, sensory overload and the hook of ongoing melodramatic story lines. With each broadcast ending on a cliff-hanger, loyal viewers will definitely be back for more. At the same time, relatively new viewers will be tempted to take the bait and come back as well. Just like my grandmother and her soaps, today’s viewers can’t miss their “story.” The combination of music, pyrotechnics and multiple-camera angles combine to make wrestling a sport for the music video crowd.
Second, the acting and athleticism are fairly good. The fact that wrestling is known to be “sports entertainment” starring a cast of extreme characters wrapped up in an ongoing series of bizarre tales and relationships makes the ridiculousness of wrestling’s over-acting actually serve as a draw. In the wrestling world, over-acting is good acting. And the sillier, the better. In addition, these folks perform amazing athletic stunts at the risk of doing great harm to their bodies. To wrestle professionally and survive, one must be fit, muscular and agile. Today’s behemoth wrestlers are not only actors, but gymnasts, acrobats and ballerinas all wrapped up in one package. The choreographed physical “dance” of a wrestling match is demanding. From what I saw, it’s got to hurt. The “reality” of wrestling was realized in May 1999 when WWF superstar Owen Hart was killed during a 60-foot fall while being lowered by cable into the ring during a pay-per-view event. In September, The Droz suffered a severe spinal cord injury during a match. His prognosis is uncertain.
Third, pro wrestling is marketed heavily to children of all ages. The army of professional wrestling followers is huge, growing and diverse. Wrestling’s appeal crosses all age and socio-economic groups. When Vince McMahon says his WWF target audience is 15-24 year-old males, don’t believe it. A walk through your local discount store will prove otherwise. Anything that can be stamped with a pro wrestling logo or photo is. From the television, to school halls, to store aisles, to the streets, professional wrestling’s presence on merchandise is inescapable. Walk those same halls that our impressionable young elementary kids walk on a daily basis. Chances are you’ll see the faces, logos and sayings of today’s wrestling stars. For our younger kids, wrestling’s grabbed them like the yo-yos, hula hoops and Ninja Turtles of years past. Wrestling has been marketed successfully to all ages. In today’s culture, wrestling is “cool.”
Fourth, wrestling serves as a vent for our culture’s collective anger. Today’s emerging generations are marked by brokenness. Usually, it starts with brokenness in the home. Too many are alienated from self, others and God. One symptom is the growing undercurrent of anger that finds its expression in fits of anger carried out on playgrounds, on film, in music and in the wrestling ring. Judging from the screaming legions in a wrestling audience who pump their fists and raise their middle fingers, wrestling is a steam-valve for their own anger. By living vicariously through the rage-filled relationships played out on wrestling’s stage, the fans find expression for their anger. My guess is the wrestling subculture will only get more angry, demanding the edge of wrestling misbehavior be stretched even further. For years, we’ve heard angry kids describe how listening to rock’s thundering riffs and throat-wrenching vocals is a temporary fix for dealing with rage. Wrestling is uniquely poised to fill that role as well.
Fifth, the diverse cast of characters offers every kid someone with whom to identify. Every wrestling fan has a favorite, someone who is worthy of their applause and adoration. Kids angry at the world might be drawn to the brash individualism of Stone Cold Steve Austin or Goldberg. Girls who have been taken advantage of might be attracted to the muscular Chyna as she enters the ring to put men in their place. The quiet introvert might find a comrade in Mick Foley’s character Mankind. Young males with a tendency to objectify women may like Jeff Jarrett or The Godfather. Kids with an interest in the occult might name Kane, The Undertaker, Sting or the Acolytes as favorites. In the world of wrestling, the diversity of the characters markets the “sport” by enabling everyone to find someone who reflects their cares, concerns, experience and aspirations.
Sixth, professional wrestling is a sport uniquely suited for our postmodern times. The emerging world view of postmodernism celebrates diversity and pluralism. The postmodern person inhabits a world where right and wrong no longer exist. Consequently, who’s to say how “the game” of life is supposed to be played. Everyone becomes a god to themselves, making and changing the rules as they go depending on how they feel at any given moment in time. Authority is to be rejected. All these elements of the postmodern world are evidenced and celebrated in the world of wrestling. The referees are there, but they have little or no control. There is no delineation between good and evil. With the disappearance of the babyface and heel, anything and everything decadent is celebrated with cheers and applause. How can a world that is increasingly moving away from rules, borders and boundaries continue to get excited about rule-driven conventional sports like baseball and football? Instead, it’s a guy like Stone Cold Steve Austin who’s the consummate postmodern hero. Why? Because every one of his decisions and actions is justified by his credo, “Because Stone Cold said so!”
And seventh, the world of wrestling offers disconnected kids a “religious experience.” The wrestlers are the gods. The merchandise serve as icons. The matches and events are “church.” In a day and age where the church, for a variety of reasons, is being eliminated from the menu of youthful spiritual possibilities, wrestling is an attractive option. By sharing an interest in wrestling with others their age, kids have found a common experience to talk about. Their “fellowship” is built around wrestling.
How should we respond?
What then should concerned parents and youth workers make of today’s world of wrestling? Can we use wrestling to gain a window into the world of today’s youth? If so, what can we learn? And how should we respond to the confusing and unhealthy messages of wrestling? CPYU offers the following analysis and suggestions:
First, realize that the world of pro wrestling offers us a window into the world of our kids and their culture. It’s a mistake to shake our heads in disgust, walk away and forfeit the opportunity to learn about our kids through their fascination with this fast-growing phenomenon. Wrestling is popular for numerous reasons. Our job is to discover what our kids see as the attraction. Begin by taking a look at the world of wrestling to gain a firsthand knowledge of what’s out there. Then, sit down and discuss that world with your kids. If wrestling has become an obsession for your child, you need to discover the reasons why. Does wrestling reflect what’s going on in your child’s heart? Does wrestling and its characters speak to their situation, hurts or perceived lot in life? Is their involvement purely for entertainment or is it something more? If so, are there problems that need to be addressed?
Second, if your child is getting wrapped up in wrestling’s anger and violence, something needs to be done. Work to discover the root cause of your child’s attraction to wrestling anger. Dig deep to uncover reasons for their violent expressions of the same. Sometimes anger is justifiable. But inappropriate expressions of anger should be addressed immediately. Wrestlers model an approach to conflict resolution that’s anything but positive: if someone is crossed, they beat the other person senseless and silly. Wrestling promotes no-holds-barred violence. We must offer and model alternative outlets and responses to stem the growing tide of vengeance and violence in today’s youth culture. We must teach our kids Biblical models of conflict resolution.
Third, we must actively undo wrestling’s negative example and lessons about life. Some will laugh at the notion that wrestling is a powerful teacher, because, after all, “it’s only entertainment!” Sure it’s fake, but that doesn’t negate the fact that wrestling can and does serve as a powerful teacher. Young children who are cognitively unable to separate fiction from reality don’t know the difference. Ask any playground monitor about professional wrestling and they’ll tell you stories of squelching recess tussles, both fake and real, that look a lot like pro wrestling matches. Wrestling does teach and influence young lives. Howard Spivak, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics task force on violence says, “These shows are extremely inappropriate models for children.” Televised violence is linked to an increase in aggression among children. “A 1994 Israeli study of third through sixth graders showed that after the WWF started airing in Israel in the early 1990s, violent behavior-in the form of mock wrestling matches that often escalated to fighting and injuries-increased ‘to a degree never known before.’ When WWF airtime was cut back, the violence among school children diminished ‘sharply'” (U.S. News & World Report, 5/17/99). On a recent visit to our local K-Mart I scanned the aisles of wrestling action figures and toys. There were many of all types. One action figure of The Rock came complete with a crate (for stuffing opponents in), a snow-shovel (for hitting opponents over the head) and a “head-Dunkin’ toilet.” The box read, “ages 4 and up.” Not surprisingly, I’ve seen lots of kids mimic D-Generation X by yelling “SUCK IT!” while imitating X-PAC’s chops to the groin.
Fourth, older children and adults should be challenged to consider wrestling’s effect on them. While wrestling may not have the same power over adults as over young children, there is still an element of “teaching” involved. First, continued viewing desensitizes viewers, leading to relaxed standards of right and wrong. If we laugh or cheer for it, our guard is let down. Second, younger kids don’t miss learning from our example. If we watch it, it’s okay for them. If we laugh and cheer at it, we’ve given them permission to do the same.
Fifth, involvement indicates support. Our support through boosting ratings and revenues sends a loud message to the wrestling world that they’re giving us what we want. In effect, we’re telling them to “keep it up!”
Sixth, the amoral messages of wrestling should be aggressively countered with the truth. Postmodernity issues serious challenges to the standards of right and wrong that keep a culture in check. Wrestling’s expressions of and contribution to this decline are seen in its lack of civility, disappearance of right and wrong, the rise of individual license, anti-authoritarianism, the decline of respect, the objectification of women, free use of profanity, fascination with depravity and darkness, and the elimination of personal responsibility. God’s order demands a different view of life. Wrestling serves as a wake-up call for diligent parenting and ministry to kids. We must live out and communicate God’s order and design for all of life.
Seventh, schools should not be an “arena” for pro wrestling. Of course, wise parents will disallow the T-shirts, toys and other wrestling items. The message of “Austin 3:16” is inappropriate – especially on a child’s T-shirt. Where parents don’t willingly exercise their responsibility, the local schools should enact dress-code standards that disallow such indecency and discourage wrestling behavior.
And finally, each of us should shift gears to invest our “professional wrestling time” more wisely. Parents of younger children should make that decision for them. Offer entertainment alternatives that are safe, healthy and enjoyable. Parents of older children and teens might want to watch and discuss a match with their kids. Point out the negative aspects of wrestling while encouraging those children to invest in more wholesome viewing. If your relationship with your teen is marked by mutual respect, a “no-wrestling” directive will sit more easily.
I’ll admit it, my week in wrestling left me facing a great dilemma. On the one side, I experienced firsthand the magnetic draw this action-packed world has on kids. I understand why so many get hooked. But on the other hand, I felt like my morals and standards were body-slammed to the mat. I was left with two conclusions: First, it’s not a good thing that so many individuals and our culture are hopping on board the pro wrestling bandwagon and climbing into the ring. And second, my mom the peacemaker was probably right!
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