Thursday, February 8, 2007

Introduction and Thoughts on Molinaro Readings

My name is Michael Wehrman. I'm a Ph.D. Candidate in sociology at the University of Cincinnati. My only foray into pro wrestling as a scholar is a working paper that I'll be presenting at the joint North Central Sociological Association/Midwest Sociological Society conference in April. Briefly, I examine the frequency of early deaths among pro wrestlers, and try to compare that to ages at death in the past, as well as early deaths of other professional athletes.
My academic interests lie in criminology and corrections, social inequality and social psychology; however, that's likely to be the last you'll hear of that this term. I hope to provide a sociological perspective to the readings and thoughts on the topics of discussion.

Although my academic interests lie elsewhere, I have remained a huge fan of professional wrestling for most of my life. I've long argued that, unlike the more popular book on soccer by Franklin Foer, it is truly pro wrestling that can explain the world. At any rate, I'll do my best to subdue the fan enough that I can contribute to the discourse in this class.

Now, with regard to the readings from yesterday, historical accounts of wrestling always strike me in a peculiar way. Because of the progression with which carnival strongman contests became "sports entertainment," it's hard to tell where the dividing line is when wrestling became "fake." There are a number of reasons for this, including the believability of the characters, the attitudes they conveyed in and out of the ring, the cultural resonance their hometown region or ethnic ancestry helped them bond with or run up against the fans, and so forth. Ultimately, I think that we'll never find a single moment when wrestling became a work - whether it's Lewis v Stecher or something prior to that. But the important thing to keep in mind are the deep performances of the wrestlers - at no point were these wrestlers "out of character." It was a vastly different business then, but as the Kerrick lingo shows, wrestlers are in the business of "selling" you the match, which involves everything from the persons involved to the premise to the buildup to the match(es).

While I'm not ready to make a giant leap 90 years to today and claim that "wrestling was better then because the wrestlers were more believable," I will claim that those wrestlers who are successful today are those who tend to exhibit characters who are (1) multilayered and (2) "worn" 24/7. No different than the grapplers of the past, the most popular guys, loved or hated, are those who the fans "buy" as legitimate characters - Steve Austin, Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Randy Orton, The Undertaker, and so forth. Yes, even the Undertaker (proving that one does not have to have an "average joe" name and no facepaint/mask/lavish garb to be perceived as legitimate. Although looking back on wrestling of the past (heck, even 11 years ago), we find a remarkably different product, except in its construction. Let us keep in mind that as much as the presentation of the product changes, it's ultimately the same now as it was 90 years ago at its very core.


Sam Ford said...

Very good points. I think you are right that the humanity of some characters is what helps them get over, with some noteable exceptions.

And I also think you are right about how little has changed. Wrestling is still about the money, language from long ago remains a part of wrestling culture today, etc. What is interesting about the current moment, though, is that the number of fans who know more about the workings of the business has expanded dramatically, so that terms which were not known by many wrestling fans at all when Kerrick published that essay in 1980 are commonly used by fans today. "Heat," "working," "jobber," "babyface," "heel," etc...these are all terms that fans themselves use when evaluating performances.

In that case, wrestling has let more people feel like they're on the inside, which changes some of that dynamic of having to be "in character" 24 hours a day. There's no danger in being seen in the same room together, etc. But, still, there's something to trying to figure out the dividing line between Kurt Angle the man and Kurt Angle the character, or Mick Foley, or Ric Flair, and on and on. It's one of the reasons backstage footage has become such a big part of wrestling want to play with that dividing line called the curtain...what is "the show" and what isn't?

Alex Maki said...

HBO did a great special on the early deaths of professional wrestlers. You should check it out. Rowdy Roddy Piper did a lot of the interview and in turn got fired by WWE as a result of it because he badmouthed the business too much.

diduch said...

The question of how far 'on stage' personalities bleed into the 'real world,' is one I hope we look at further. In class we touched on the idea that if you meet, day, Leonardo DiCaprio at a screening for his latest movie, you are shaking Leo's hand - but if you meet The Undertaker outside the ring, you're shaking the hand of The Undertaker.

With the recent popularity of reality television the idea of magnified personality is starting to feel almost commonplace - and certainly there have always been individuals who developed and maintained 'larger than life' auras . Yet the motivating factors in wrestling seem more violent, more heightened, and also simpler with regard to the characters themselves. My question is - what psychological effects does this have on the wrestlers? What coping mechanisms do they have, and how are these similar or different than those of 'mainstream' actors or reality stars?

These are for now rhetorical questions, though I should probably develop them into a post of their own, but for now what I wanted to point out is the movie "The Prestige" which, while trying not to spoil anything, ponders what happens when someone dedicates their entire lives (every hour of every day) to their art, craft, or performance. It begs some interesting and relevant questions, especially when we consider what the closed wrestling community itself might offer the individual wrestlers in terms of a grounding situation of fellow 'performers.'

Sam Ford said...

The extensions of real people into characters versus the gimmick wrestling character is a compelling discussion, Tess, and one that strikes at the nerve of many wrestling fans, some who love the gimmicks and others who feel that it cheapens the realism. In Undertaker's case, his career is interesting. At one point, he transformed his character into a biker who road to the ring on a motorcycle, in an attempt to draw more from the actual Undertaker, but they have since returned him to his more gimmicked roots.

In some storylines, they've explained him as real-life Mark Calloway who has become lost in his gimmick, and at other times, they've used lighting tricks to try and make it appear as if he has "special powers," with lightning coming from the ceiling and striking around his opponents, his ascending to the rafters, etc.

The interesting moments to look at for the reality divide are wrestling storylines based on real-life situations. Matt Hardy finds out his live-in girlfriend (a female wrestler) is cheating on him with his best friend, wrestler Edge, while he is home injured. This is an event that actually happens. Matt starts complaining about it on the Internet, and WWE fires him for airing his dirty laundry in public. The fans won't let it die, so WWE hires Matt back and turns the whole thing into a storyline, having Matt attack Edge from the crowd, and they whole thing plays out as a story, only months after it happened to the three "characters" in "real life." And fans are left to question exactly what is real and what is fake.

Dave Meltzer of The Wrestling Observer actually made the Prestige comparison as well, Tess. HIs point was to compare the competition between the two magicians to becoming as obsessive and over-the-top as the competition between various wrestling promoters' shows in various eras.