Monday, February 19, 2007

"Billingsgate"

As Dell puts it in 'Wrestling with the Mainstream Press', you learn more about the spectators than the wrestlers at a wrestling match. In this case, you also learn about the sexual politics of the 50's, when the social norms would have women quiet, chaste, and certainly not violent, but at ringside or watching at home, female wrestling fans of all ages and and classes broke away from their everyday roles. Ladies scream at the villains, threaten them with bodily harm from their own hands, and even swooned over their favorite heroes, things they would _never_ do in a normal setting, at home or in public. Why?

For most of everyday life, these women were expected to suppress all anger and aggression, to be pure and chaste (at least until marriage), and submit to the dominant men in their lives. At the wrestling arena though, they can transpose all that pent-up emotion on to the characters in the match, to hurl insults and threats at the unfair ref and the dastardly villain (perhaps the representatives of male oppression they are faced with continuously), and even to call after their favorite hard bodies, and perhaps aggressively pursuing the wrestlers outside the ring! The environments of the wrestling arena and matches are outlets for all these suppressed emotions that the female fans carry with them day to day, all the rebellious, violent, independent or sexual urges every human has that are not acceptable for a 'normal' woman to have in that day and age (and honestly, there are lingering gender stereotypes like those even today). It is this emotional censorship that gives rise to the Hat Pin Mary's, the most energetic female fans that would physically attack wrestlers or refs when they got close enough, with pins and bottles, shoes and bags.

The other amazing aspect of this female-fan behavior is that, while it was surprising to the husbands and other men in attendance, it didn't hurt the reputations of these women all that much. Being loud and violent and even lewd at wrestling matches was basically exempted behavior, when in everyday society such behavior would be severely frowned upon and possibly stigmatizing. While wrestling in itself is not exactly considered the highest form of cultural sophistication, it did not hurt one's reputation to be a fan, even for women (unlike nowadays). Amazingly, wrestling became a source of liberation for women, as both fans and later as wrestlers themselves. Who'da thunk?

3 comments:

Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

The seeming lack of stigma attached to the kind of fandom exemplified by female wrestling fans of that era is indeed quite surprising. Although, the article suggests that there was, in fact, some pressure against it in the popular press. My question is, why did it seem so ineffective?

It is possible, of course, that the press quoted in the article were perceived as being alarmist and ignored by the populace. Then again, it's also possible that no amount of stigma would be sufficient to roll back the change in women's identities necessitated by the war. Then again, it might have something specific to do with television, which is one of the more recent cultural/technological developments in this era.

I wonder if yelling at the screen at home preceded yelling at wrestlers in the ring, or vice versa? There are so many variables at work here, it'd be hard to pin one down conclusively...but damn, interesting cultural moment.

Sam Ford said...

Deirdre, some great points here regarding the positioning of these women. Ironic, isn't it, that a genre that is famous for not always treating female characters equally ends up being a haven for free female expresion on the fan side and also a way for some women to express their freedom, according to some of the women in Lipstick and Dynamite. I think the major difference is taking a readerly vision of wrestling versus a writerly version. What I mean is that the wrestling text looks much differently, depending on whether you give the audience a role in the text or not.

This will be a major point throughout the semester, but wrestling looks quite different if you consider the fans as passive viewers, versus looking at them as active participants. And Chad Dell's piece is a great example of that.

Sam Ford said...

I think back to my parents' stories about their grandparents in the 1950s and 1960s yelling at their TV sets, screaming at the referee when the heel was doing something behind his back, etc. It does seem like a key part of wrestling in particular, although it happens in other types of television watching as well. Perhaps, as wrestling more openly claimed to be "sports entertainment," this type of home engagement has changed somewhat, but I don't know quite how much.