Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Growing Up, Growing More Risque and Growing More Family Friendly Again

I was psyched to hear that you've just read my article, Growing Up and Growing More Risque, and I was curious what you all thought. Here's an interesting postscript: For the past several weeks I had been involved in an intense recruiting process to work as a writer for the WWE, developing exactly the same kind of trends that I had written about academically six years before almost to the day. After five interviews with the head recruiter and having my writing sample - in which Edge discovers he's the father of a teenage girl - be read roundtable and discussed by Stephenie McMahon-Lavesque and WWE Creative they decided to pass. But they said I had exceptional potential and left the door open for me to get some more experience and to re-apply in a year. But before I got the bad news I had already begun writing a sequel to Growing Up and Growing More Risque which I hope to someday, somehow get written and published chronocling my transition from fan to pro, from outsider to insider. In the meantime, I'm working on getting some experience and I'm really thrilled to have my piece read at MIT. I wish I could come back again to discuss it with you but I was keen to do so on the blog if nothing else.

The backstory. As I said, I wrote the article about six years ago to the day. I remember adding in a bit about the then brand new Hulk Hogan/The Rock match at Wrestlemania X8 in the last set of revisions in order to sound as current as possible. It all started when my Freshman year of college I wrote a final project for UC-Santa Barbara professor Lisa Parks' TV History class on the WWE as soap opera, focusing on the drive-through Vegas wedding ceremony between Stephenie McMahon and HHH in comparison to the weddings that commonly mark major milestones on traditional daytime soaps. That same month I had an opportunity through a class on Writing the TV Script: Buffy the Vampire Slayer to visit the set of Sunnydale in its fourth season (where the Scooby Gang goes to college) and asked Professor Parks to come with us as a chaparone purely on the basis that I had a crush on her. In a complete fluke it turned out she was starting work on a book about Buffy. Fortunately she'd loved my paper on wrestling and had given me an A+ and through our conversations in the van to Culver City I managed to network my way into writing an article for the book. I'd seen it done. I was convinced I could do it, no problem. Somewhat to my chagrin, what started out being an article by me about Buffy ended up being a dialogic piece between my father and I, which we wrote by sending emails back and forth over Thanksgiving break. It was a wonderful father-son time that I really look back on fondly but it proved nothing except that everyone in academia thinks it's adorable that Henry Jenkins has a son who wants to be just like him! How special! So the second time out I was determined to write my own article. Well, as you can see from reading the book it half worked. My dad and I both wrote afterwords, but they were seperate afterwords. I've always been accused of being a journalistic writer, a creative writer, something other than an academic writer, and given a free choice I've always preferred to go with that rather than cover it up. I was lucky that Nicholas Sammond understood what I wanted to do - to use my memories to trace patterns that I could make broader arguments about. I wrote one main draft, which took me about five days, and then went through two or three revisions over the next year, each of which took me about an hour to sort through. They were very nice about letting me print the piece pretty much as was.

It's kind of funny - When I was applying for the job on the real WWE writing staff I recieved the advice over and over again that I should send them a copy of my article, but when I read back through it I realized that I made several references to enjoying Stephenie McMahon-Helmsley in a sexual way, and since McMahon-Lavesque would soon be my boss and would be the one reading it I decided inappropriate sexual conduct wasn't the right foot to start off on. Not to mention that I basically said her father got cow towed by ECW. Yup. That essay's going deep in the vault.

I think the thing I'm proudest of about the article - other than the approach, which is different than I'd read before - is how prophetic the ending was. I said that the WWE was starting to become more melow, more grown up, to push the envelope less, that it was becoming more mature and I believe it did. The current WWE is a lot more clean cut than the WWE of the time I was writing the article. There are a lot fewer cheap heat angles - no necropholia, no gay wedding bashing. The obscenity is for punctuation ("...................................... DAMN!") instead of every other word, which is fine by me. But they haven't taken a step backwards. They've taken a step forwards. This is definately no kids show. Not with Melina's ring entrance or bloody Hell in a Cell matches. This is much more grown up in that they feel the need to act out to get attention less. John Cena is the perfect baby face. He even salutes his enemies when they won't shake his hand. He's patriotic. He's studly. He's Hulk Hogan and Shawn Michaels rolled into one, but he's his own thing too. He sets the tone for the WWE along with classic wrestlers like Michaels and The Undertaker and Chris Benoit and completely uncontroversial, painfully dull heros like Lashley and Batista. Today's wrestling has the elements I liked about old wrestling - some silly gimmicks like a country western Asian guy or greasers with a rollergirl or an Irishman with a leprachaun - and a classier feel - but it also has the things I valued about its adolescent period - breathtaking high spots and some fun play with sexuality. There are things I would badly like to see them work on. I feel like they're still way behind in terms of seeing women as equals rather than play things. They've gone with such uncontroversial characters in some cases that I'm not sure who the heck they are (Batista, Lashley.) But I think the hour long HBK/Cena match last week and the long term angle they're building with Mr. Kennedy are some of the best stuff I've seen the WWE do in a while and I'm really taken with it.

What do you think?



Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

First, I've been delayed on commenting to due a lack of selective pressure and that whole editing thing, so I hope you do eventually get to read this--the blog functionality isn't really good for comment visibility on older posts.

That said, the thing that struck me most about your article was the way it dealt with the emotional aspect of fandom. The kinds of experiences you describe are probably fairly common among our generation, but it's still fairly rare to come across them, even for those of us called upon to study fandoms. CMS is kind of defined by this tension between objective observation and subjective participation, but it felt very different to read about fandom largely in terms of one human life, as opposed to general social trends or group dynamics. Growing up in a fan culture is perhaps, first and foremost, about growing up. We construct the narratives of our lives from what we find lying around--some more obviously than others--and I think your article did a great job of showing just how affecting those symbols can be.

Sam Ford said...

Good points, Peter, and since Henry's trajectory with wrestling and mine follow some of the same pathways, I remember being particularly drawn to this. In fact, it is this essay that sparked my relationship with Henry, and which was actually how I met his father and found out about CMS in the first place.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I wrote an eerily similar piece which I don't think I've ever shared with Henry. We were asked to write about the person who was our hero, and the idea was that we would choose someone noble or someone we knew. I wrote about a guy whose passion for what he did set him above all else, whose dedication I wanted to emulate--Jim Ross.

In the process, I described my own fandom and the trajectory of the WWE. Henry's essay laid that out much more fully than a writing portfolio piece from high school did, but I think there are ways we can tell stories "journalistically" about one life that has greater implications and wider "truths" than some studies that are intended to be more "broad-focused" can really do.

Sue Clerc said...

This post reminded me of two observations based on recent viewings.
1. How will they turn cena when he needs to be a heel? They've relied so much on his Marine-ness to make him a face and WWE has always played on the unfortunate jingoism of some of its viewers. I suppose they could, over the course of months, distance him from his past. God knows they do not worship at the altar of the Continuity Gods.
2. The return of gimmicks. As my deep fandom coincided with the death of the gimmick (the chant of "Kill the Clown" filled the 1996 Slammys), I was surprised to see the '50s greaser tag team. I get the impression that gimmicks are on the rise overall, just when I thought the Bariquas and Nation were dead and buried. So Sondheim was right, "you gotta get a gimmick if you wanna get ahead."

Sam Ford said...

Sue, Cena remains an intriguing dilemma because he makes more money in merchandise than anyone else and may be one of the most hated wrestlers on the roster but also one of the most popular. There have been few wrestlers that have simultaneously generated cheers and boos the way Cena does. In WWE's eyes, heat is good heat, especially if Cena is pushing merchandise and live events sales...

As for the gimmicks, you are quite right that they are growing. There was the Spirit Squad, now Deuce and Domino, etc...But I don't think it will necessarily turn into mid-1990s with the garbage man, race car driver, clown, country music singer, hog farmer, and on and on.