Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Stone, Oldenberg, and Thesis Procrastination

First, a question: when was the Stone & Oldernberg piece written? The notes on the first page are kind of hard to read. '69? '71?

This seems to be one of the more condescending pieces we've read. Not so much to the intended audience, which appears to be intellectuals, but to wrestling fans in general. In particular, the issue of "working-class authoritarianism" seems deeply problematic. Granted, it's not the authors' term, but they don't exactly critique it, either.

Distilled, working-class authoritarianism is the idea that poor and uneducated people can only think in simply binaries, and apply this to entertainment, politics, and personal relationships. It's not an unpopular idea, even if it is a rather impolite one in an ostensibly egalitarian society. I'd derail the post to argue with its substance. I do, however, have to quibble with the unstated assumption that an inability to conceptualize more complex conflicts is the only reason for entertainment based on simple binaries to be appealing. Certainly, none of the wrestling fans in this class are going to raise their hands and agree that they like wrestling because they're too dumb to comprehend nuanced relationships.

So, it's kind of a dumb explanation, but to what extent is it just a stereotype of provincial wrestling fans, and to what extent is it bad sociology? The methodology seems a bit sketchy to me on the "characteristics of the audience" section. Defining a wrestling fan as someone who thinks of wrestling when someone says "sport" seems like it would cut out a good chunk of fans in general, and probably most of our class. I remember Sam mentioning that TV ad rates for wrestling were once extremely low due to a similar demographic mistake. Do the stereotypes drive the bad methodology, or does the bad methodology drive the stereotype?

In conclusion, social science is evil and will destroy the world.


Joshua Shea said...

TV ad rates are still low for wrestling. Take a look at the recent return of "Saturday Night's Main Event" on NBC and look at the advertisers. A lot of them are mail order crap like the Salad Shooter that would never advertise in prime time on NBC because it is a) too expensive and b)doesn't hit their "buy crappy TV products" demo. But wrestling does hit that demo.

Also take a look at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. I can't speak to figures now, but during Raw's first run on USA Network, I read that USA made double the money they did during an episode of Raw, even if the dog show only took in 20% of the audience.

I think that this comes down to what almost everything in wrestling comes down to...money. If, as a promoter, I can draw 10 high school dropouts with the same energy that I can draw one college graduate, I'll go for the dropouts. I think that wrestling has the stigma of having an audience of buffoons and dullards because that is what the promoters have played to.

And while it might not be nice to say, it works. Go to a wrestling show and you'll see a good portion of the audience are exactly these poor and uneducated people we're talking about. These are the people who bring signs and who jump up and down and yell and run after the good guys for autographs. Then look at your highly educated, middle class person. Odds are, they are sitting on their hands behaving as if they are watching a play.

As a former promoter, I can tell you that these fans buy the most souveniers, purchase the most food, and will be your repeat customer. It's sad to admit, but shows on the first weekend of the month draw more than the third week because by the third week of the month the welfare check is spent.

If it's easier for me to entice this audience segment than any other, and they spend the most money, and they're the most loyal customers, wouldn't I play directly to them? Their money spends the same as a doctor's or lawyer's.

There are stereotypes of people who watch golf or tennis or bull riding. Stereotypes are just a lazy way of not conducting a census. Because I'm not a fan of any of those it doesn't bother me. But when somebody stereotypes wrestling fans, it bugs me, because I don't fall into the stereotype. Then I have to realize they are usually right and are not talking about me.

In the end, I think bad methodology drives the stereotype, but I don't think the methodology or stereotype is too far off.

Sam Ford said...

Peter, the Stone and Oldenberg piece was originally written in 1967 as a co-written piece in a book called Motivations in Play, Games and Sports, at a time when sociology of sports seem to have been pretty popular. It was later reprinted under just Stone's name, with very few changes, in 1971, I believe. Sorry for the poor handwriting and bad copying of it.

The tone is one of the best stand-ins I could find for that type of wrestling research, and there is a lot of social sciences stuff on wrestling. I found this to be one of the more insightful pieces, rather than the pure quantitative stuff looking at violence, plus it was one of the earliest scholarly pieces written on wrestling, so I wanted to include it.

Here is the key argument I often make: "Defining a wrestling fan as someone who thinks of wrestling when someone says 'sport' seems like it would cut off a good chunk of fans in general, and probably most of our class."

Joshua, what I think you are trying to articulate is that, while wrestling fans draw in a lot of educated people, it is the type of entertainment that can draw in several layers of people. Basically, becuase wrestling grants so much autonomy to the viewer to make the meaning, there are many levels or layers of involvement in wrestling, which is what some of my research we'll be reading later this semester looks at.

If that's the case, then it means that different levels of mental capacity can enjoy wrestling. A few people I know who watch wrestling and who I've talked with wrestling about before are mentally handicapped. They can enjoy wrestling because they can know the archetypes and each match tells a simple story. I have another level of fans I know and converse with that watch the show who grew up with me, and it's always about the nuances and the history, the performances and the personalities, and what academics often call "vernacular theory," knowledge of the fan community. We also have this scholarly layer of discussion.

These categories aren't mutually exclusive, but wrestling has several layers of involvement. I think wrestling's strengths is often in the fact that it tells a simple story and also points to more complex one, at their best, so that I believe wrestling can directly appeal to the college graduate and high school dropout simultaneously.

You are right, Joshua, that it all comes down to money, and I think one of the reasons the Stone and Oldenberg argument has to be at least drawn into question is how much it actually costs to be an ardent WWE fan, versus trying to draw people to indy shows. The expense of watching and following these events seems to defy some of the non-consumer, welfare arguments levied against wrestling.

Oh, and I hope Mike is around to tackle Peter's last line, since he's a social scientist. :)

Joshua Shea said...

It's interesting to note that the "educated" have been represented as heels in the last 20 years in the WWE. You had "Genius" Lanny Poffo reading poetry, then Shane "Dean" Douglas with his word of the week, and now Matt Stryker doing the word schtick.

Then, you take a look at the rich/well-to-do characters like "Million Dollar Man" Ted Dibiase, early Jim Cornette or the first characterization Hunter Hearst Helmsley, and even Vince McMahon and they too are all portrayed as heels.

Who else have been the heels? Foreigners, Homosexuals, Cowards and Bullies. Add the educated and the wealthy and you've pretty much covered it.

Faces have been rappers and hillbillies and pro-American and cowboys and musclemen and trashmen and mostly characters that the mainstream wrestling fan could indentify with. That could be because they are 10, because they are poor, or because they're bitter, but for some reason, they click.

Take for instance Dusty Rhodes. Never liked the guy. He looked like a tub of goo and only spoke 75% english in his interviews and people would go nuts for him. And he knew 2 moves. He was the everyman....or at least the everman that encompassed the largest portion of the wrestling audience.

I created a similar character when I ran an indy. I took a guy who was a bouncer/doorman at a popular bar and essentially told him to be himself. He'd wear his work T-shirts to wrestle and be announced as coming from the bar. He knew about 4 moves and his interviews were horrible, but he got over with the audience in a way that I only saw Dusty get over. For the New England crowd, this wrestler was the everyman.

Wrestling does appeal to both the college graduate and high school dropout. It just appeals far more to the dropouts, so the face has to be the everyman and the person they are not (wealthy, educated) has to be the heel. Admitting that more lower socioeconomic people like wrestling compared to people who are fortunate enough to have more than they need is not an evil thing. Go to a wrestling show and tell me you don't feel like there are far more poor people and far less educated people than you there. That's not a bad thing to be honest about.

Wrestling does appeal to various layers of society, but a promoter or booker has to go with the segment that has proven to consistently draw, and it's not the well educated.

Mike W. said...

I'll just assume that Peter was referring to economists and marketers, and agree with his assessment of their impact on our world. ;)

Now, as for the question "is it bad sociology?" While I always appreciate a healthy dose of skepticism, I often find that it comes hand-in-hand with research findings that the reader doesn't particularly like. This doesn't mean that the methodological criticisms are invalid (they aren't), but just a pattern I've noticed over the years.

Nevertheless, their criteria for including someone in the sample is certainly ripe for criticism. I don't think it impacts the reliability of the study at all, though for those looking for a publication might be interested in doing a replication and extension of it.

I'd argue that Peter is overstating what is meant by "working-class authoritarianism." It doesn't mean that people are only capable of rudimentary good/evil understanding, but that it's more typical of some classes. It's not all that surprising or controversial to make such a claim when you compare the highest year of education completed for those in each SES group. It certainly isn't a perfect correlation, as Shakespeare's Globe Theatre certainly wasn't only populated by British patricians and aristocracy. That doesn't explain why wrestling fails to rank high in mentions among those of higher SES.

I'd also argue that wrestling was, up until the "attitude era," very much an array of good/evil dichotomies. Hulk Hogan didn't have a bad bone in his body, while the Iron Sheik, Ivan Koloff, and others were completely irredeemable. There's a reason, I think, that the term is "babyface," and that's indicated in the character. Since the attitude era, the antihero has become typical, and nuanced characters (The Hart Foundation - the faction, not the tag team - comes to mind immediately, as they were reviled in the US but lauded as heros in Canada). Fans know more backstage rumors than usual - leading to the mixture of "stage character" and "real life character." Hulk Hogan is an American Hero, but also a master backstage politician and an egomaniac.

Ultimately, if I may disregard the "backstage stuff," (as Barthes argues that only what happens in front of the fans in a show matters), it is a morality play. Or, rather, it was. To some degree, it varies from location to location; Argentina Rocca was a hero in the New York arena, but he was no Ivan Putski in Chicago.

In criticizing the methodology of this reading, let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. There's something to be said about the appeal of wrestling, which is a very slippery topic that nobody, I feel, can successfully wrangle. Is it the clarity of the battle (the idea that, any of us, as fans, could watch any match at any point from any promotion featuring any wrestlers, and within seconds we would recognize the heel and the face)? I don't know. Is it the performance of maneuvers, the art of the battle? As much as I wish it were, the popularity of wrestlers like Hogan, Warrior, and Rhodes (as Joshua mentions) certainly tells us no. Is it the quality of the characters?

Now *there* is a point to contend with Stone and Oldenberg. They mention "poor performance" by a villain, but the context of their mention was solely in the area of "breaking character." They don't differentiate between good faces and heels and bad faces and heels. One thing about wrestling that seems to have remained constant, no matter how much the business has changed, is the upper echelon of performers. Why are Thesz, Gotch, Gagne, Lewis, Flair, Rhodes, Superstar Graham, etc. so frequently mentioned? The way wrestling historians write, you think there would be no more than 20 wrestlers in the country at any given time. If the "working-class authoritarianism" argument was solid, then there would not be tiers of wrestlers, in my opinion. There is some element of nuance that separates, say, Ted Dibiase from Mike Rotunda's "Mr. Wallstreet" (ostensibly the same character, but only one was successful). It is, all cynicism aside, the crowd who makes a wrestler popular, or who sends them back to their day jobs. If not for that nuance, really, we'd only be left with the binary that "extraordinarily wealthy egotists get booed equally."

Yet, I'm not ready to abandon such a binary entirely. As I said, it was there in the past, and I'd say it's still here in the present (even if many of us can't stand John Cena or Bobby Lashley). The biggest evidence of that is the idea that, outside of Wrestlemania, very few wrestling feuds feature guys who are both faces or heels. It is, almost without fail, one of each.

And, if I may be very very picky, the teaching wrestler is Matt Striker (with an i); Matt Stryker is a Cincinnati-area wrestler who did some work with Ring of Honor and early on with TNA.

Sam Ford said...

Very interesting points that I hope we will continue visiting throughout the semester. Joshua, my points about high ticket prices questions the WWE fans or the most active portion of the fan community in partiuclar, and not your cheap seats viewers at WWE or your indy show crowds. What I'm curious about is not that wrestling isn't immensely popular among the working class, as the quote I pointed out from Matysik in my post about the psychology of booking indicates, but rather the complete dismissal by many scholars and marketers of any other audience, particualrly of "Big Time Wrestling." The fact that they always ask what your favorite sport is of course skews wrestling's performance, as "sports entertainment" is not very easily understood, and the amount of money that active WWE fans spend on DVDs, PPVs, tickets, 24/7, magazines, books, merchandise, etc., also questions whether wrestling fans are all so poor as people claim.

But I don't want to throw out the fact that wrestling appeals to all classes. In fact, that's the charm, in my opinion. And I think that, although I've always cheered on the heels, there is something great about the celebration of the everyman, versus this idea of wrestlers as gods. Was Dusty Rhodes a god or an everyman? Or both? When we get to my piece on Mick Foley, we can discuss this in more detail because it brings up an awfully interesting contradiction.

Mike W. said...

Allow me to make one last argument about "working-class authoritarianism," in that I think it applies to any number of sports. People have teams and individuals they love, those they hate, and those they are lukewarm towards. The last category transition between loved and reviled based no who they're playing (for instance, I cheer on anyone playing the Steelers as heros - but if they're playing the Bengals next week, I have no problem switching).

It's not unique to wrestling, in other words.