Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Melodrama, fascism, and the adventure game trinity

One thing that leapt out at me while reading "Never Trust a Snake" was the implication of fascism in the worldview: "The core myth of WWF wrestling is a fascistic one: ultimately, might makes right; moral authority is linked directly to the possession of physical strength, while evil operates through stealth and craftiness (mental rather than physical sources of power)" (41).

This isn't all that surprising, really; it's a central conceit of most superhero comics as well, where all problems are ultimately solved via physical violence, if somewhat supernatural physical violence. It's rarely explicitly stated that the strongest fighter is the most moral, but it always seems to work out that way. (Hell, who can imagine a story in which someone as powerful as Superman is the bad guy?)

But, as noted in the class discussion, there are certain kinds of mental power that get a pass. There are times when we cheer cunning, and there are times when we boo it. And it's important to remember here that, despite the class war rhetoric of the managerial class bullying the manual labor class, there are plenty of bullies who need nothing but physical strength to get the job done--they're the ones we call "bullies" as a literal label, instead of a metaphorical one.

And here's where I go way off text. In culture war rhetoric--where nobody wants to be associated exclusively with brawn--two types of intelligence always end up being posited. The first is the stuff of eggheads and elitists, the "official" knowledge taught, well, in elite colleges. The other is more organic, variously described as common sense or street smarts, a knowledge that marks itself by experiential learning and practical use, consequently marking its opposite as impractical, theoretical, and deceptive. This is the knowledge of outlaw culture, which is usually portrayed as being fundamentally more honest, and more practical, than establishment culture.

Now then. We started with a binary between brains and brawn. We have a third now, having split "brains" in two. It's possible to read "practical intelligence" as a synthesis of physical power and pure intelligence. Most single-player RPGs work with a trenary much like this one, with three types of power. The first two are generally physical and magical, and the third is a somewhat variable "other," often including elements of stealth, interpersonal skills, mechanical knowledge, etc. Often the "other" is a synthesic class, borrowing elements from the others, either through a general mix-'n-match approach or a more intellectual use of the body itself. I'm not sure if any of this fits the subject matter at hand, but the "vengeance" play we've read about earlier--in which the face breaks the rules to even the score with the heel, who has of course broken all the rules from the beginning--might work. Power achieved from a mental source that is nonetheless contextual, acted out from a character explicitly marked as working class (a face, after all), that reasserts balance and demonstrates that there is, in fact, a right time for a good guy to be crafty.


Brian "Louxchador" Loux said...

Interesting point from Peter. I don't know whether to make too much of it but I certainly think there is some truth to it. Fascist undertones do seem a bit too simplistic to tie to wrestling. Especially when we see forces of class fascism or monster heels like umaga also representing evil.

I like the video game tie in, though I can't say I agree 100%. Given that RPGs have almost always included magic, and you're seldom a squadron of barbarians going up against one wizard (most games give you a balanced party), it's not exactly the same. Still, most of the acclaimed and unique RPGs (Deus Ex, Fallout, Metal Gear) reward your character for choosing not to take a full-frontal assault to the enemy, and use things various skills to get your objectives done. And while wrestling is ultimately a might/wrestling ability making right, we tend to remember or get more attached to the wrestlers who have that other trait. Flair's personality, Eddie Guerrero's cheating and stealing, and The Rock's ability to make a one-liner a minute are what we respect. Cena learned the hard way that a full year of might battling crafty or eloquent evil doesn't really get you over.

Luis Tenorio said...

I have seen many times when the more clever of wrestlers is billed as the heel. It has to be that way because the way someone gets screwed out of a title is because the heel somehow gets their cheating ways past the referee. I remember that Triple H was one of the biggest heels and he would find so many ways to screw the Rock or Chris Jericho or Mick Foley. JR always refers to him by his other nickname, the cerebral assassin. And I do think that people in the audience respect that though. He always finds ways to stay on top and whenever he would come back from an injury, he would be cheered so loudly.
I do think that there was a shift to having the bigger opponent be the heel in the mid 90's and continued through to the time when Triple H was the WWE champion. You had Diesel, Psycho Sid, The Undertaker, Kane, Triple H. Pretty big guys taking on smaller people. This is how Shawn Michaels was able to reach the top.
As for other forms of media, I would say that Spider-Man is one of those heroes who regularly faces off with foes that are stronger and beats them through out smarting them. Many times in RPGs you try to build up a character to be stronger than those that you are trying to defeat. But usually you are not stronger so you have to figure out a way to beat your opponent with smarts. And I agree with Brian, this trend of just being strong and being a good guy does not work so well today.

Anonymous said...

An interesting point there about the two distinct forms of intelligence, with 'elite', educated knowledge being considered part of the establishment and therefore uncool, versus experiential knowledge or 'street smarts', the kind of intelligence you get from practical experience of real life, which has the connotation of honesty and 'real-ness'. These forms of intelligence and the stereotypes associated with them (eg the super book-smart but unpopular and awkward nerd vs. the street-smart brawler who may not get stellar grades but is quick and clever) have been exploited in wrestling personas over and over again. A key example is Kurt Angle, who initially started out with his Three I's gimmick, representing Integrity, Intensity and Intelligence, and also Chris Nowinksi, who parleyed his Harvard reputation into a stuck up, elitist preppie (note that both of these personas based on establishment intelligence became successful as heels). Then on the other side, you have the rough and tumble, practically intelligent guy, quick, clever, not necessarily book-smart, but cool nonetheless, mostly because they are anti-establishment (exibit A: Stone Cold Steve Austin). These stereotypes of intelligence are easy to exploit as they permeate out culture today, depite the attempts of MIT students to make nerddom cool. :)

Rob said...

Another thing to note, while talking about the complexities of what different kinds of intelligence are acceptable, is that there also seems to be different kinds of physical strength as well.

Sometimes the villain is incredibly strong as well. Sometimes the villain is, by most objective accounts, physically stronger than the hero, such as in the case of Andre versus Hogan, or perhaps most wrestling giants.

If raw strength alone is what holds moral authority, then you would expect the giants (who are always naturally more powerful) to always be the heros, yet they are consistently villains.

I think a key point here is that strength coming from certain parts of the self, or from people in certain types of situations is seen as having more moral authority than other types of strength.

The giants are atypical, large, unusual. They are expected to have natural strength nad a natural advantage. When the hero fights a giant, I think the audience respects his strength more because it comes from a similar baseline as the average person's strength. It seems to somehow take more work ethic and dedication to build that kind of strength than the natural brute force of a villain.

Another thing is strength coming from the heroic and noble side of the character seems to matter a great deal. Pitting the clearly weaker hero against the stronger villain and having them win because they called upon some inner good guy strength (e.g., "hulking up") seems to be another type of strength that is given more moral authority.

Ultimately, I think it all comes down to identity.

The audience member wants to imagine that they could be like the hero to some extent, capable of beating even the most seemingly impossible situation, and both of these kinds of strength suggest something achievable (or even pre-existing) in a character more like the audience member.

Sam Ford said...

Great points from everyone involved here. Quite right that wrestling is a little more complicated than always displaying a fascist "might makes right" mentality, but that of course doesn't mean Henry was wrong. He was quite astute to pick out this theme in pro wrestling, since it is a major part of the presentation, and his observations were quite true. Wrestling is just more complicated than having one right answer to explain it all, though.

I think another clear observation than the division between "street smarts" and "intellect" is somethign that Brian touches on, the great respect giving to wit as well. The Rock, Ric Flair, Mick Foley, Eddie Guerrero, and John Cena turned face not necessarily because they were street-wise, although they all were to some degree, but because the portrayers were so spontaneously clever verbally that the fans couldn't help but cheer them on, even if they were supposed to be "the bad guy."

It reminds me of the emphasis placed on improv comedy at various times in Western culture and, in African-American culture, playing the dozens. It seems that the witty master of verbal rhetoric may well be appreciated for their creativity and intelligence, while the didactic and pompous intellectual will always be the heel under almost any circumstances, unless they lighten up a little from that role.

katejames said...

I really like Rob's assessment of good vs. evil physicality. I noticed this sort of 'mustering up of inner strength' much more in the Attitude age than in the early video we watched. Though there has consistently been a sense of good overcoming some larger and more powerful evil, the actual physicality in the match seems more geared towards this movement narrative in contemporary wrestling.

When we see the 'hulking up' act, we are somehow affirmed that our bodies will become powerful enough, when necessary, to take on the adverse forces of the universe. We see a physical reaction to outrage- a shaking, a look, and posturing of a passionate, last-ditch resurrection from the beat-down.

So, while the 'might makes right' catchphrase may not be universally applicable, given that faces lose so often to the actual physical prowess, size or intellectual cunning of the heel, the performance of the face using his hard-earned mucles to beat that heel down on occasion is key to the feeling of fan empowerment.