Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Goldust and Pushing the Limit

One could very easily argue that pro wrestling is a man's thing, a form of entertainment/sport/etc that caters to or specifically targets mostly the young male demographic. For example, look at some of the major stars: Triple H, Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, John Cena , The Rock, etc. These characters are basically the pinnacle of what a 'man's man' is thought to be: strong, courageous, leaders; if they are considered a good guy, then they are courteous to women, chivalrous even. But most of
all, all of these top wrestlers are, by default, straight as ruler. It's not even a question of whether a wrestler may be gay or straight or bi or transgender or whatever, if they are even moderately successful, the accepted status is Full Blooded Heterosexual, the standard, conservative male gender role.

Into this posturing mix of testosterone and machismo enters Goldust, a glittering specimen with more strut than Flair, and even more feathers. A golden smile and a twinkling wink greets each of his opponents as he steps in the ring, and he is definitely eyeing them up with a little more than competitive interest. Goldust is perhaps the most fearsome wrestler in the WWE, because he impresses more than a threat of violence, rather he brings the threat of lust to the ring, which makes his opponents uncomfortable, fearful, and thus vulnerable. In this way Goldust has a strong advantage in the ring, by taking away the confidence of his opponent at the first glance, or rather first flirt.

Fans and other characters may call Goldust 'unnatural', a 'freak', a 'perversion'.
Well, in a way they are right: Goldust has taken the traditional conservative role of the 'man's man' wrestler and turned it on its head: he takes the presumed heterosexuality of all the other characters and uses it against them, by being decidedly, flamboyantly gay. This 'perversion' of the traditional male wrestling role makes him a heel outright, even if in every other way he may act the same as the normal face. In fact, as mentioned in Grubisic's paper, one of the few times that Goldust approaches a face status is when he avenges the assault of his female valet, fulfilling the traditional male gender role as the strong, male protector to the weak, defenseless female. This exhibition of chivalry goes over with the fans, as they recognize it as a positive male characteristic, seen many times before with other faces.
(Secretly, I'm waiting for the day where some male character 'rescues' a female character, and she then gets pissed off about it. I think it pseudo-happened in a the Lita-Dean Malenko-Matt Hardy storyline, but not to my satisfaction.)

Beyond Goldust's thwarting of traditional male gender roles in wrestling, I find it interesting that in the WWE especially, an organization infamous for pushing the boundaries in almost every sector, the gender roles that thrived in the 50's are still celebrated and rewarded. Yes, with Goldust and improvements in the Women's division, this is changing, but traditionally, the (successful) men are stronger, protective of females, chivalrous, and heterosexual. The women are weaker, support their men, don't step too far out of their 'place', and are also heterosexual. The times are changing, yes, as exhibited by the moderately successful team of Billy
and Chuck, and the highly popular single female wrestlers, but again, note who the top stars are, and whether you as a fan ever wondered if they were gay or straight.


Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

Being unfamiliar with Goldust, I've been surprised at every turn, for the reasons you suggest in your post: to whatever extent wrestling personas can be described as progressive, I nonetheless assumed that heteronormativity would go absolutely unquestioned. If not enforced by every character, I expected subtle signals to the contrary at best.

One thing Goldust is not is subtle. It's hard to imagine how bizarre it must have been to see the character when he was first introduced. I wonder, now, why I didn't hear about him before; he's certainly odd enough to be memorable. Do fans tend to gloss over him? Or is there enough bizarreness in pro wrestling that it's easy to ignore a little non-traditional masculinity?

Alex Maki said...

Goldust was and is a still great character. They continue to bring him back because of the shock value he brings to the table. Although he has since been neutured since his earlier days as Goldust, the oddness is still there.

Sam Ford said...

Goldust is certainly not subtle. He is completely over-the-top, flamboyant, and it was one of the reasons I never thought he was dangerous in terms of homophobia, etc. Instead, he seems to me to be an exaggeration of the fear and threat of homosexuality rather than a stereotyped image of the homosexual, etc. There was always the feeling that Goldust's entire persona, when he was a heel, was to get a psychological advantage over his opponent, and I couldn't believe that, in an era when WWE had not moved to its envelope-pushing days, Goldust would say things to the Ultimate Warrior like, and this is a paraphrase, "'Little Warrior, come out and play.' Warriors, 1975. You, Warrior, can come in my house, but no one will be there. Hey, maybe we could play a super hero game. Yeah, you could be Superman, and maybe you could climb on my back, and ride off into the sunset."

A little rambling, making very little sense, sure. But I remember being a teen and quite shocked at what Goldust was saying. He would threaten the fans that he would "come up there and kiss each and every one of ya!" This level of dangerous homosexuality immediately brought out the tension that had always been there for homoeroticism in wrestling. What happens when the touch of the other wrestler excites and pleasures him instead of angers him? It made for some pretty compelling television at times, and it was playing with some heavy stereotypes at a time few others were.

It's also significant that this is Dusty Rhodes' son, that the Goldust character was his way of getting out of his father's shadow and creating his own persona, and it largely worked. Goldust has returned several times, and while the dangerous homosexuality of his character is not always played up as it was in his initial debut, he has remained a unique character. He progressed from aggressive homosexual film buff to odd and eccentric face to bizarre Rocky Horror type character, then quit the persona altogether to go on a religious crusade for the "Evangelists Against Television, Media, and Entertainment (EATME)," then returned back to the Goldust character for a series of bizarre storylines, including his return in 2002 as the sidekick character to Booker T and later the version of Goldust that had Tourette's syndrome.

He's gone again for now, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him pop up yet again, as he's unique enough that no one can quite copy the act.

Brian "Louxchador" Loux said...

On an interesting "real" note: Chris Kanyon - an actual gay wrestler who was with the WCW and had a very brief tenure with the WWE during the WCW/ECW Alliance/Invasion times (with a speech impediment) - eventually did come out of the closet last year. He claimed that he got canned from the WWE because of it.

The now defunct Orlando Jordan of Smackdown was also openly bisexual. A lot of internet talk said that would go on to become an angle for him on TV, but it never did. He got canned, too.

The closest thing to a gay babyface was Vito in a dress (which I am almost absolutly sure came from the fact that at the same time, Vito on the Sopranos was outed as a gay mafioso), and he was loved because nobody could stop laughing during his matches.

To a big extent, the gender-curious heels are somewhat tangents to the "gorgeous" and flamboyant characters of yore - 1950s metrosexuals - updated to present times. But that's the extent of the evolution, I think. We have yet to see a gay wrestler do without the "i'm here to weird you out" aspect. How about a gay wrestler in the vein of Muhammad Hassan - who beats people up because he's pissed at society for how he's treated?

Hal said...

You might consider a little research on an old-school wrestler name "Exotic" Adrian Street as well.

Sam Ford said...

Good point, Hal.

katejames said...

I'm also interested in Goldust in light of what we discussed with Henry Jenkins the other day in class. In the map of homosocial and homoerotic behavior, and the very carefully kept boundary between the two, Goldust falls firmly on the over-the-top homoerotic territory. But, as Sam points out, it is as a strategy, a mental game against the opponent. This, I would argue, disarms the direct route of interpretation for fans.
If anything, I suppose Goldust's presence provides a checkpoint against which to measure the overriding heteronormative, macho, steroid-taking boys club. Just as Vince seems to take any controversy and explode it into a hyperbolic positive for his ratings and storylines, Goldust takes a subtext of wrestling , the inherent homosocial nature of the industry, and blows it up into a strong character that is at once subversive and absurd in its stereotyping, as is requisite for the wrestling character.

Sam Ford said...

And it is important to note, as the article does, that Goldust existed in this manner for about a year until they finally had him explicitly state that he was not actually homosexual, that it was mind games. WWE later had something similar happen with Billy and Chuck, a tag team who took what Henry was talking about a step further by openly playing up that they might be gay. They even had a commitment ceremony on Smackdown but couldn't go through with it at the last second, announcing that they had no problem with homosexuality but that they were not, in fact, gay. It seems that most wrestling stories end that way.

Fascinating to contrast this with Pat Patterson, who is openly gay off-stage but never had that as part of his character. Now, though, the wrestlers and commentators have mentioned it several times on-air in one way or another, and (as we've seen him in documentaries and matches so many times this semester already) it's clear that it hasn't detracted from his legacy in the industry.