Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Wrestling Without Getting Hurt

One thing that I've been thinking about lately is the role of the audience in wrestling, and the notion that the audience might be like a member of the performance himself.

In watching Kaufman's shtick of goading women from the audience into the ring and beating them, I noticed a lot of similarities to Calvert's shtick (from the Williams reading), where he would encourage local farm boys and the like to get into the ring and try wrestling him. Thinking back further to many of the videos we watched in which the wrestler addresses the audience ("You bunch of pencil-necked geeks!!"), I think that what Calvert and Kaufman were doing was a sort of idealized form of what these other wrestlers are doing.

So what are they doing, you ask?

I think what it comes down to is giving the fan, who might not be in the best physical shape, the opportunity to momentarily see themselves or fantasize about actually being in the ring fighting someone.

In the case of Calvert, we have an anecdote where a boy insults him, Calvert challenges him, and then he runs back to his seat and laughs with his friends. Now in a normal fight, the boy would be a coward, but somehow, by virtue of the wrestling situation he gets a chance to flirt with the fantasy of being able to challenge this wrestler, and then safely run back to his seat.

Basically, the most obvious role of involving the audience in the performance is to create emotional investment. However, I think one of the less obvious (but equally important) roles of involving the audience is to create a sort of fantasy that they are, or could be, part of a physical fight like that themselves.

I think this also accounts well for the fact that wrestling fans seem to be somewhat aware that they are performing as well. If all you wanted was emotional investment from the audience, then what's the advantage of letting them know it is fake? If, however, you want the audience to join in on the fantasy, then letting them know it is fake keeps them feeling safe.

In essence, they can "wrestle" without getting hurt.

Getting back to Calvert and Kaufman...

Now, by actually bringing audience members into the ring, I think Calvert and Kaufman capitlize on the ability to create this relationship with the audience by further blurring the lines between who is an audience member and who is a performer, thus making the fantasy far more real feeling for the audience, while still keeping things at a safe distance.

A part of me wonders if Kaufman's history as a big wrestling fan, who fantasized about being wrestler, yet obviously never had the physique to be one, might have given him a strong intuition for the audience's desire to be involved in the wrestling match and feel like a wrestler themselves. In a way, Kaufman seems to me like an audience member who went out of control and managed to take over a ring somehow.


Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

This might be kind of an "out there" connection to make, but this made me think of something I read on a political site recently. The context isn't terribly important, so I'll just make with the quote:

"Edwards is an effeminate, back-stabbing, hide-behind-the-law, ambulance chaser who couldn't handle himself in a one-on-one fist fight."

I read this and I thought, ok, most of it's standard fare for criticisms of Edwards. But that last one stands out. First of all, it's an actual descriptive phrase, not an epithet. Presumably it required a little more thought than back-stabber or ambulance chaser. Mostly, I just thought, why on earth would that be a useful skill for a presidential candidate? The rest are slurs, meant to imply character flaws. Are there really adults out there who are deeply concerned with fist-fighting ability, and consider it an important part of identity?

Well, yes, there are. And it's probably pretty widespread, if we're honest about it. People do, for some reason, like to believe they're capable of competent violence if only they were given a morally justifiable opportunity to enact it. It's long been suspected to be part of the appeal of violent sports, but the point you made in your post--that the audience has a small, but nonetheless real possibility of LITERALLY getting into that ring--changes the game entirely. Hell, no wonder wrestling stays popular. It's not a glam-rock version of boxing, it's a low-stakes bar fight.

Rob said...

I don't think that's an "out there" connection at all! That's very interesting and fits well with precisely what I'm trying to get at in my post.

I was looking at it mainly from the angle that the audience can participate in this fantasy of being a part of real physical violence as some kind of simple fun or entertainment for them, but I think you bring up an interesting point in that there does seem to exist this (possibly quite widespread) notion that being capable of physical violence is important.

In that sense, for some people the fantasy that wrestling provides is almost less something that happens to be entertaining, and more a kind of psychological need.

Usually we look at wrestling fans from the angle of what they want and enjoy in wrestling, though this makes me think that perhaps it might be very telling to consider what it is that fans couldn't live without in wrestling. What is the thing that attracts them to even the eworst wrestling matches? What are the most basic elements of wrestling that they can't pull themselves away from? I think those omnipresent elements might be quite different from the elements that make a great wrestling match.

Sam Ford said...

Rob, I think the Calvert comparison is a very appropriate one, and I think Williams' short piece was worth including for the class reading just for the astute observation he makes about the engagement with the crowd in his short ethnography.

This all ties in with the points I make about multiple modes of engagement that fans have with the wrestling text. Fans indeed are performers, and they enjoy the direct address the most. This is hard to pull out in the big WWE shows, but the wrestlers now seem to do it on those big shows by addressing the crowd as a whole. Conversely, on independent shows, there is much more opportunity for fans to interact with the wrestlers more directly.