Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Wrestling as the Battle of Capitalism

We'll be discussing Drawing Heat in class tomorrow, but I wanted to make a specific point about Freedman's earlier essay we read in class last week, after reading an excellent post from Omar about the meaning of "Will the Sheik Throw His Blinding Fireball?" and its use of the small town of Simcoe.

My greatest takeaway from that piece has always been Freedman's examination of why the bad guy wins. We've already seen people explain why the good guy wins. I've mentioned the theory that some have that the joy of wrestling is to see the bad guy cheat and then the good guy eventually cheat, to "fight fire with fire," as explaining the joy of the hero's prevailing, even if using the villain's tactics. But, in wrestling, the bad guy wins half of the time, or even more than half of the time, perhaps. Why do people pay big money to see Dusty Rhodes and Roddy Piper get beat up, as Tess points out, or to see Rey Misterio get squashed when returning from knee surgery to say hello to the fans, while still on crutches, again by Umaga, as we saw on Smackdown this past week.

On page 76 of his essay, Freedman writes, "There is a moral and political battle going on. Not between two individuals but between two explanations of how individuals fare in their daily affairs; one is the ideology of capitalism--that is, that all men are equal in the market place--the other, the practice of capitalism--that is, that good, honest men are at a distinct disadvantage."

His theory, then, is that fans know that the ideology of capitalism is not actually true, that the hardest workers aren't always the most rewarded, and that many of the people who get to the top do so by cheating. So, when the bad guy wins, the fans inherently understand because, if you go with the perception that many of these fans are working class, then it is the story of their own lives, and they understand the hero's plight...that the hero deserved to win, but that the world doesn't fight fair.

Cynical? You bet. But it equates wrestling with country music, where the real power is to capture that feeling of the world being against you, being down on your luck, etc. Any thoughts?


Joshua Shea said...

While I didn't Freedman's piece, it's sounds like he's trying to book on an intellectual basis, which while fine, is probably complicating it.

In a typical feud that comes to a natural conclusion with one definitive match, the heel either wins or loses. Based on my booking experience, if the heel loses, it's your typical story ending because the face is avenging a series of crooked losses. You'll see a heel get pinned cleanly far more than you'll see a face.

If the heel wins the feud, it's because he's moving up the roster for one of a variety of reasons. It could be that he's being built up to be a champion, or as fodder for the current champion. It could be that the belief is there is a future for him bigger than the spot he currently takes. But he could just be the person who is being used to bring the face down a notch, politically.

I'm not going to get into an economic debate of capitalism, but you could draw a good vs. bad comparison in 100 aspects of life. I didn't hate Roddy Piper as a kid because of his bankroll and I don't like him now because of it. Perhaps with characters like Ted Dibiase this analogy applies.

It's really quite simple. Book a show that your audience likes and that causes them to want to come back. The bulk of the audience probably likes country music, auto racing, etc. so it seems logical to play to them and allow the smarks to get off more on the athletic performance than the dramatic.

I'm sorry if I'm dumbing this down. When I'd book, or co-book a show the goal was to create a show that made the audience feel satisfied and left questions that they needed to come back to see answered. Whether this was because a Samoan hated a truck driver or because a monster from the future was probably going to destroy the boy-bad lookalike didn't really matter. Like any entertainment medium, you hoped the audience identified with the protagonist, and you give them just enough of the protagonist winning to keep them coming back.

Sam Ford said...

Joshua, I think you make great points about the greater scheme of things, and it's what I mentioned to the class recently about why Umaga beat up the legends. He is going on to Wrestlemania, and they want him to look strong.

As for Freedman, he is not actually a booker or in the business but rather an academic looking at the business. What he's trying to figure out is not how the promoters are making the matches but rather WHY fans identify with the villain winning and how they understand that. His idea is that we all fight fair and get cheated in life and that the fan can identify with that, can emphatize with the hero when he gets cheated, and while they don't go home happy on that show where the heel wins, it confirms something they've known all along, that cheaters often win...

Joshua Shea said...

Interesting question, but in this day and age, can you really psychoanalyze fans since their emotions are about as real as the show going on in front of them.

You could ask a fan from 1962, when it was far more of a con, but are you going to take anything a 30-year-old who still believes in wrestling in 2007 says seriously?

And even though we were all let in on the con through the 80s and early 90s, the fans still largely played their cheer the face, boo the heel roles. It wasn't until the late 90s with ECW, the Attitude Era and perhaps most importantly, the nWo, that cheering the "bad guy" became cool.

Now, with the third wall completely being dropped with wrestlers giving interviews completely out of character and reality shows such as Tough Enough exposing everything, how can anybody assume that a fan's reaction to what happens in the ring is genuine?

Let's assume for a second the fans' reaction is genuine. Am I worse person for not expressing my outrage at a heel's dastardly ways? If I don't stand and cheer the hero, does that show I'm siding with the heel? Because the audience isn't weaping at the end of "Romeo and Juliet" does that make them more callous? Does my enjoyment of "The Sopranos" show a deeper acceptance of crime? Please.

Fans attend to have fun, see something larger-than-life and buy T-shirts. Some will yell, some will remain silent. Some will side with John Cena while others prefer Shawn Michaels. Some have seen both See No Evil and The Marine while others have never seen any of Rock's acting.

While there may be socioeconomic similarities between a majority of audience members, there are likely differences in how each perceives and acts at wrestling events. Just because both of our dad abandoned us and our mom's are drunks doesn't mean we both like Randy Orton and react to his antics the same.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Freedman is suggesting that 70s fans are dastardly. In fact, he may be giving them more credit than you might think.

I think his commentary on fans' reaction speaks to his understanding that the fans then very much knew it was "not on the level" and as such, would have resented the faces winning all the time NOT because they're bad people who want bad people to prosper but rather because they would rather see the capitalism they know and understand from their day-to-day life than a phony "the best effort pans out every time" model of capitalism. Getting riled up when the referee misses a call is just part of helping to understand that the world is being presented to them as they see it.

An easier way to paraphrase this is: The fans want to see their favourites win, preferably in the "big" matches, but if their favorites *always* won, they would resent it for being unrealistic.

I do not know if the description still fits for wrestling, but I think a similar understanding shapes pro sports' fans experiences.

Take a certain segment of sports fans (and I'm talking about more rabid fans here, what the cynical being would call the "homer"). S/he knows that their favourite team cannot win EVERY game s/he attends. So, subconsciously, they have a fantasy world of "justice" in their mind where THEIR team wins all the time. When their team wins, it is celebrated not with the feeling of "wow, this is something undeserved" but rather "this is the way it SHOULD be."

Conversely, when their team does not win, there is either a conspiracy against them (i.e. awful officiating) or some superstitious reason that elevates the event beyond rational understanding that a naive interpretation of capitalism would explain (i.e. "curses" or "hexes").

I'm probably making things even more confusing but I guess what Freedman is suggesting is not necessarily that bookers are cognizant of these things, but rather than fans' reactions work out this way, bookers see how the fans' reactions are and book accordingly.

Sam Ford said...

Joshua, I think you are right that there are some awfully simple formulas that work so often in wrestling, and that there are more casual viewers who really do only come for the merchandise, etc. But what I think Freedman wants to know is what is the deep-down drive that motivates people to care in the first place. WHY is it cool? WHY is it worth spending your money on to see the wrestler you DON'T like win?

Part of it is the performance, for sure. And part of it may just be this idea of understanding when the villain wins. And of course the more modern concept of "shades of gray" is somewhat different than the era Freedman is writing about.

But I actually think that understanding fan reactions now is much more compelling than when more people weren't "in on the con." Because if fans are in on the con but are reacting nonetheless, then their reaction is most definitely performance, and that's fascinating.

A hot crowd for a wrestling match is not the same as a hot crowd at a basketball game because the wrestling fans know they are watching something scripted. Instead of being a hot crowd, they are also PLAYING a hot crowd. That's a distinction that sets them aside from sports fans. But I think Bryce is right that we often underestimate the intelligence of the fans of yesteryear, in that I think many of them knew, in the hearts, that they were being "connned." People have always been much less marks than we would like to think they are, and especially are much less marks than some promoters like to think they are.

Mike W. said...

Sam, your comments on capitalism and success remind me of one of the more popular theories of crime in this day: Richard Rosenfeld and Stephen Messner's "Crime and the American Dream." The brief summary of their thesis is that American society exalts the end of a capitalistic pursuit more than the means. As a result, the ends are more binding (material wealth, great finances, networks, etc.) than are the means. It may be controversial to say, but as a society, we respect the entrepreneurship the drug dealer shows more than we do someone who works as a janitor - and, at the very least, we know who can pose a threat to us and who can't.

Ultimately, we know that capitalism isn't perfect (and I don't think that's cynical at all). We see evidence of nepotism every day, or poor/nonrational hiring choices, and so on. So, in the construction of these ideas, we find that some forms of "cheating" are approved by us, while others are reviled. The University of California vs. Bakke, a case where a white med student sued the school on basis of discrimination, was lauded by anti-affirmative action advocates and reviled by pro-affirmative action advocates.

What's the difference between that and rooting for John Cena to use the chair (depending on one's stance on affirmative action, of course)?

Sam Ford said...

Interesting point. That means that there are two reasons to understand the modern anti-hero phenonmenon in wrestling, etc. One looks at the business and says the old formula was becoming tired and more modern storylines, starting in the late 90s "Attitude Era," began playing with that formula slightly with characters like Steve Austin. The second is that society itself is changing its views slightly, that there is a bifurcation of understanding of exactly who is "right" and "wrong" in a given situation, and the formula has changed to reflect a higher level of ambiguity...

katejames said...

Sorry to jump back a couple posts, but I am really interested in Sam's comments about the performative audience. I thought this was especially transparent inthe story of the Manitoulin stop on the tour. At first, the audience is totally complicit and performative, even helping organize the line and make change before the show starts. Freedman describes the crowd: "Here were clusters. They paid together, stayed together, lingered together around the show cards in the lobby picking out their favorite stars. It was a social event. Boys and girls darted across the arena floor, visiting, dancing in front of the swollen crowd." (104). This very much describes a crowd engaged with the performance of the arena. As the matches go on, the crowd continues to play along: "Martinez and the Wolfman brought the fans back to life, so much so the air was popping during intermission as if the matches were still going on." (106)

However, there is a distinct moment when the crowd stops their part of the performance: when the bear match begins, the crowd, who had a real-life "Bear walk" curse involving suicides in their community, disengages with the playing out of their role of engaged crowd: "A glassy stare poked forth from the deadly silence that blanketed the faces in the crowd and for the first time that night, as the happy faces turned to grim expressions, I recognized the large number of Native People in the crowd." (107)

The progression of descriptive narrative crowd clearly demonstrates their agency and complicity in the perfomance aspect of professional wrestling, and their ability to draw a clear boundary line to what they are willing to perform. I think this is why, on tv, the crowd often reads as another actor/ collective force in the drama.

Sam Ford said...

Kate, great point that you bring out here and in the discussion today as well. Here, you see the fans clearly refuse to continue performing, and of course it ruins the show. This happens from time-to-time in televised wrestling and is more pronounced when the promoters expect the fans in the arena to perform for the cameras to make a better TV program or pay-per-view event to the many more viewers watching at home, but wrestling shows in and of themselves lose all their steam when the audience disengages.

Here, it's an unfortunate lack of cultural understanding on the part of Dave and the wrestlers, in using the bear (think that bear was more trouble than its worth...) But this does make explicit the ways in which fans are staging their performance and the social contract in place between fans and promoters as to what they are supposed to do during shows.

Thanks for pulling out these relevant quotes and solidifying the point.