Tuesday, May 1, 2007

'Wrestling with Manhood' == Wrestling with Agendas

Well if the producers behind 'Wrestling with Manhood' were trying to get a reaction out of its viewers, they did a good job. First, they were able to take all these bits and pieces of the 'worst' televised WWE footage and present it out of context, strung together and packaged to maximize the impact of its extreme sex, or bullying violence, or whathaveyou. That was certainly effective - to a degree, because after I realized that they were throwing footage together to try and make rather unstable arguments of the effects of watching wrestling, I reacted with more frustration and anger that they were interpreting much of the footage wrong, out of context, and playing it up the wrong way to try and support their arguments. It was just very wishy-washy and not well researched in the end.

One part the sticks out the most is the whole 'wrestling promotes bullying behavior in kids' argument. Well, perhaps their is a smidge of merit to it, perhaps not, that has yet to be proven. They continually reference the top wrestling stars exhibiting 'bullying behavior', like picking on announcers or smaller opponents, verbally and mentally bashing them on top of physically beating them down in the ring, etc. In the documentary, they show footage of such behavior and basically tout it as accepted, encouraged behavior by the stars, the top guys that kids look up to and emulate, whom audiences root for. Well, no, not really. This is the sort of behavior the crowds _boo_, picking on the weak, acting like a arrogant punk, etc - this is all heel behavior, not face behavior. They have confused popular == hero, which does not always work. You can be a popular heel or a popular face, and by popular heel we mean the fans love to hate you.

For example, they specifically target Stone Cold Steve Austin, naturally, because he's been one of the biggest names and draws in wrestling history. They cite his bullying of announcer Michael Cole, his domineering behavior, his trash talking and beat downs of weaker opponents, and so forth as classic bullying behavior, which young fans may then emulate because they saw their idol, Stone Cold, a 'real man', do it. Well, not so fast. All of that behavior, and all the footage they showed of it, was when Stone Cold had turned heel! He was not being a heroic (or anti-heroic as the case may be) figure, he was _trying_ to be someone the fans would hate, and so he acted accordingly, as a bully. One of the surefire ways for a wrestler to get major heat for the fans (and encourage his run as a heel) is to beat down another popular wrestler/character, especially a smaller/weaker/younger one, eg Triple H and Austin utterly demolishing the Hardyz and Lita as they lay prone and unconscious in the ring. This worked because Team Extreme were at the pinnacle of their popularity, and by beating them down it earned Austin and HHH virulent hatred from the fans. While this heel turn was not very successful, it did run for a while, and possibly affected what some casual fans saw in Stone Cold as a character. But no. Fans are hardly encouraged to endorse this sort of bullying behavior, they boo it, as any heel will come off as a bully at some point in time. This is one point where 'Wrestling with Manhood' was trying to make a case, and ended up tripping over itself by not having a clear understanding of the story dynamics and context.

One point where they are slightly more accurate is the issue of violence against women and the sexualization of violence in general amongt wrestling storylines. Yes some of the plots that the women are part of are sexist, shallow, and pure t&a entertainment for the guys. Sometimes these ladies are beaten down, sexually harassed, and all manner of other degrading things. Yes this is all very unfortunate and sexist and all that. Let's all get angry about this, etc.

That's pretty much where they leave off. They don't actually get to the resolution of all the degradation that these women endure, and again, they don't review the _context_ of all the footage the show. For all the unfair beatdowns, and strippings, and so forth, there are also quite a few retaliatory low blows, and comebacks and come-uppances. These women fight (on their own some of the time, no less) for their justice, and in the end, the Bad Guy who inflicted all this pain and suffering gets his just desserts. So are all the sexist actions and plot devices just there to titillate? No, they also build characters and advance storylines, by making heels seem even more horrible and morally disgusting (eg Vince making Trish bark like a dog - the crowd was booing most of the time!), as well as providing that eventual turn of the tide for the victim to fight back and earn their pride and for the audience to cheer. Without that context, this sexual violence seems pointless and horrible and put on air just for its own sake (and it is horrible and titillating, but not entirely pointless). By having our victims fight back and our aggressors boo'd and eventually defeated, the idea that this behavior should be discouraged is enforced, rather than promoting sexual violence as these producers try to argue.

Finally, the one overall thing that irritated me about this film was that they never once considered the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of functionality and societal role of wrestling: as a catharsis of caged emotion, rather than a cause of it. They argue in several ways about how watching wrestling can encourage all sorts of deviant and dangerous behavior, but never once looked at other arguments that say that wrestling, along with other structured, violent activities such as hockey, football, and so forth, acts as a release mechanism, a way for the public to express hate and anger and aggression and passion and all these things that are normally societally unacceptable. In the wrestling arena (or the football stadium or hockey rink) all these emotions are expressed in a controlled acceptable environment, providing that catharsis that allows us to function a little better in everyday, emotionally confined society without all of those emotions bottled up inside. But this perception is never addressed in "wrestling with Manhood', they only push their agenda of 'wrestling influences us to do $BADTHING' like fans have no moral agency at all. It basically portrays us as dumb impressionable animals who can't thing or analyze what we see. That's insulting. While some of their arguments may have some merit, the fact that they were so narrow-minded in their presentations and also that they took all their sources and footage out of context to make flimsy arguments put this presentation low in my opinion.


Sam Ford said...

Deirdre, your reading is an interesting one, because it provides something the WWE does not account for. You are a female wrestling fan. Even as they cite and show female wrestling fans at the show, they pretend as if they don't exist. "Look at this audience of boys and men..."

The line that really stuck out to me from your reaction is this: "Without that context, this sexual violence seems pointless and horrible and put on air just for its own sake (and it is horrible and titillating, but not entirely pointless)." That's my argument as well. Do I have trouble with their being troubled by violence against women, sexual aggression, etc.? No, not at all. I have a problem that they play it up as being completely pointless. I think that there are times that WWE capitalizes on doing these things for the sake of doing them, but I also think there are plenty of times these stories are used in really intriguing ways.

In the process of claiming that the fans accept these storylines and love the WWE and its messages wholeheartedly, it was this documentary instead that accepted scenes at their face value. Again, I'm troubled not by some of the messages in Wrestling with Manhood but at their lack of nuance in looking at these issues.

katejames said...

The female wrestling fan is such an interesting subject to me, in that she's almost completely invisible in both the production and the consumption considerations in wrestling. But there she is, cheering and booing as hard as her male counterparts, for whom the material is designed.

In 'Wrestling with Manhood', the female fans that were interviewed seemed to be presented as sad images of women brainwashed by the content, or willing to participate in the production of sexism to gain acceptance in the male community. They might has well have been shown holding bright pink signs declaring "Self-Marginalization Is Hot, Right?!!?" Do female fans of wrestling always have to clad themselves in ignorance and self-hatred the same way a businesswoman clads herself in a powersuit to fit in in the boardroom?

I suspect that there are plenty of highly intelligent female wrestling fans (like Deirdre) who engage with the product without accepting the application of those sexist views implicated by that fandom. But it seems the female wrestling fan has a very different role to perform; she must position herself in a more complex way as a marginalized member of the fan community.

Sam Ford said...

On Thursday, we will be reading Sue Clerc and Catherine Salmon's piece from Steel Chair to the Head about some of these issues, and Sue will be joining us. We can talk about slash fan fiction as one way that women write their perspectives and interest into the show.

Anonymous said...

"They argue in several ways about how watching wrestling can encourage all sorts of deviant and dangerous behavior, but never once looked at other arguments that say that wrestling, along with other structured, violent activities such as hockey, football, and so forth, acts as a release mechanism,"

This point of yours is really flawed, I think. Note the operative word at the beginning of your sentence 'watching' - maybe the activity of wrestling provides some sort of catharsis akin to that yielded by football or hockey or whatever, but is 'watching wrestling' really comparable to playing a sport? Watching a violent activity is radically different than participating in that activity, in this case to the detriment of your argument. [read: there is no physical release involved in watching something, which would be the source of catharsis; read: watching violent sporting events causes spikes in domestic abuse, which I think damages your point http://www.crimestoppers-uk.org/media-centre/crime-in-the-news/february-2008--crime-in-the-news/domestic-abuse-rise-after-football-defeat].

I also don't think it's the case that the documentary insults wrestling fans / 'us' in the way you position it to. The message that I heard being communicated by the film was that 'hey, some of the things on here are really regressive and negative; what might the larger consequences of this be? - here are some possibilities' And everything they suggest is tentative and quite reasonable. To take the stance you take - 'wrestling fans do not blindly absorb the entertainment, they can analyze it, be critical of it, etc.' - totally forecloses the idea that there are unconscious effects that this material can have on a person. As in - I can watch a slew of horror films for a week straight and say that this is depraved, violence is terrible, etc. etc., but if I'm being honest with myself, I'd have to say that the films still had a certain effect on me, that now my relationship to certain types and images of violence is altered in some way which might remain hard for me to describe, much less be aware of. This is part of reason why 'identity politics' movements in the 1980s were so concerned with getting people of historically disadvantaged groups out of stereotypical/subservient roles in films and tv programs (not that I identify with this movement of position). It is these sorts of a/effects that I think the the documentary is interested in - subconscious ones, ones we may not be aware of (and it's outrageous to suggest there are things about ourselves we're unaware of) - and it's these things I think you need to be more attentive in taking into consideration.