Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Foley: Voice of Honesty, Innocence, and Barbed Wire

In the scholarly work of that well respected cultural historian Sam Ford, "....Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero", he examines the many complexities and contradictions in casting Mick Foley, both on-screen character and real-life performer, as a hero, underdog, or male archetype. From just looking at him, only one of those labels seems appropriate, given that our scarred, pear-shaped subject certainly appears to have weathered the sour end of his share of battles, and certainly doesn't look like a masculine hero in the vein of say, a Superman or a Hulk Hogan. But as we well know by now, with Mick Foley, appearances, as well as many other things, can be deceiving.

Mick is far from the image of the traditional American male hero. Instead of being fiercely independent and self-reliant, on screen, Mick has a long history of searching for companionship and connection with others, ranging from the approval of his boss, Mr. McMahon, to the tag-team partnership with the Rock as the Rock n' Sock connection, even to the mother/father role filled by the ambiguous wrestler Goldust. While this longing for connection and companionship make negate any traits of loner intensity, etc, that does not make Mick a pushover. Oh, no no. Mick Foley will take any opponent to hell and back, bringing back souvenirs such as thumbtacks and barbed wire, despite his less than athletic physique and scruffy image. Mick does not need to rely on anyone else to get the job done in the ring, but unfortunately his adherence to truth and honesty can sometimes lead to him being screwed over by his wily opponent or The Man, Vince McMahon.

This adherence to justice, honesty and steadfastness in the ring do indeed lend themselves to the characteristic masculine American hero, one who does the right thing, stands up for truth, and will work their ass off for it. These characteristics in Foley's on-screen persona no doubt stem from his real-life work ethic as a sports-entertainer, having busted his butt all over the world in death matches, ECW, WCW and then finally in WWE, putting his life on the line and wrestling through injuries like broken jaws and severed ears, to entertain the fans and just to keep working, to keep wrestling, even as he barely got any support from the office in WWE and when his biggest supporters were the fans rather than his employers. Those traits of the hardworking underdog reflect the other side of the classic lower-class American hero, while not exactly the overall masculine archetype. Mick as the wrestler on TV and the real-life person becomes a hero to every person who has ever worked themselves to the brink and beyond for a purpose, or even just to survive, against unfair odds, a hero to those who try to do the right thing (or want to) even if it's not in their best interests. Mick becomes a hero even to your average overworked student, who even when they are exhausted and sleep-deprived and think they might crack, you can look to Mick Foley, consider everything he put himself through for his dream, his goal, snap yourself out of it, and get back to work.

This tough-as-nails masculine underdog hero, while seeming to portray a 'man's man' in this way, has also been shown to be an expressive, emotional and intellectual specimen, traits that are not often associated with the classic male hero. Certainly we have seen Mankind show his frustration, anger, sadness and humiliation in several 'candid' on screen interviews with JR, and we know of Mick's means of expression and intellectual pursuit through his various memoirs and novels. In a society where men are expected never to show weakness, never to show emotion or to cry, or even to thoroughly analyze something as that is what the 'eggheads' do, not real men, Mick Foley thwarts those conventions while still retaining his hardcore status among wrestling fans and the greater community. He even manages to remain the underdog in several on-screen storylines via these intellectual, emotional traits and his adherence to honesty and innocence, despite the fact that he is a 3 time world champion and arguable the most violent man to set foot in the ring. Mick Foley, in ring and out, is a hero to guys, girls, geeks and jocks, wrestling fans and literary fans, because of all these qualities. He embodies and thwarts the classic traits of the masculine American hero in both real life and in WWE programming, by both expanding on his own personality and drawing from his imagination. It is a sincere reflection on the evolution of our societal values that we accept this form of hero as possibly the new aesthetic for the masculine heroic archetype.


Sam Ford said...

I hope we can return to some of these points when we talk about Wrestling with Manhood in a couple of weeks, so keep them in mind. Discourses of masculinity was what some of the class identified as perhaps the central narrative of pro wrestling...

As an ancillary, I was interested in a discussion in one of Henry's classes (at least I think it was one of Henry's) where a story was told in which a kid had been crying and the father said that boys don't cry. The child said they do and starting citing examples from WWE. Mick pointed out that sports in general sets an interesting place for the expression of male emotion and how expressing emotions and even openly crying is a part of that.

The dichotomy of honesty and innocence, on the one hand, and barbed wire and thumb tacks on the other, is so fascinating when it comes to Mick's image. He can justify his emotional side within the wrestling text, perhaps, by the "extreme" icon that lies beneath it, but Mick will be the first to argue that he his popularity rose as his cuddliness did, and he didn't do much barbed wire and thumb tacks during the time period he was multiple-time WWE champion.

Sue Clerc said...

This is tangential to your point, but the mention of emotion reminded me of why I quickly formed a preference for WWF over WCW hen I began watching.

Suffering. As I continued to record both Raw and Nitro for Catherine, I realized that I really preferred Raw. At the same time, I learned the cliché “The WWF builds stars, WCW buys them.” It occurred to me that part of the WWF’s success in creating stars and making me care about them had to do with camera work and the importance of suffering. WWF cameras were really up in the performers’ faces. You can see this in some of the pay per views from the 90s and it was equally true in the TV shows. When a wrestler was selling the pain, his face filled the screen. WCW kept more distance from their performers. It’s not that I’m a pain junkie, although a man who suffers beautifully will always please a media fan, but the close-ups made it easier for me to identify the individuals and see their emotion/character. I don’t think this is as true as it was. I can’t pinpoint the moment, but I did notice a shift away from the intense close-ups in WWF/E product before I stopped watching.

This past Friday I caught a few minutes of Smackdown and, aside from being amused and appalled that they’ve retained the tribute to fisting for the entrance way, I think that the difference in sound quality also made WWF more appealing to me. Smackdown sounds like the old WCW—the crowd noise is much more subdued. It makes it seem less “live” and immediate.

But getting back to suffering and emotion: In my opinion, Kane was much better at conveying emotion when he was mute and masked (also, he looked better) while losing his mask made no change in Foley’s performance (although the mask did focus attention on his lovely eyes) because his character was already verbally agile.

Sam Ford said...

Your points may be tangential, but they are substantial. In short, production has a whole lot to do with how a show is constructed, and WWE is definitely trying to create a different tone with Smackdown. It's a taped show, on broadcast, etc., and I think they are trying to make it feel differently.

What always bothered me about Nitro that doesn't happen as much with Smackdown was the shots from the back of the arena when they went to the commercial break, where the ring was really small...I always found it odd and that it pulled me out of the match in a way you wouldn't necessarily want before a commercial break.