Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Vaguely Marxist Look at Wrestling

Professional wrestling as analyzed by Gregory Stone and Ramon Oldenburg in their paper "Wrestling" is a spectacle enjoyed predominately by the lower classes. While their empirical data is a little suspect based on their sample size and quoting in part of Nielson statistics, their exhaustive look at wrestling throughout history clearly illustrates that from around the 12th century until the time of the writing of the paper, wrestling has been a sport for the bottom economic tiers of society. Without speculating (yet) as to why the aristocracy has never had much interest in the sport (though the brutality, vulgarity, and general connection to primal man seems to go against the idea of refined high society), the draw for the poor and disenfranchised of the world seems fairly clear, especially when looked at in conjunction with "Professional Wrestling: Why the Bad Guy Wins" by John Campbell.
Campbell says much of the same things as some other articles we've read (and indeed many scholarly articles seem to take much the same form: wrestling is fake, here's why it's worth studying, here's the specific argument being made, and in closing, man wrestling fans are crazy, but what can you do), but the passage that really struck me was at the end of 131, in regards to Doink the (horrific) Clown and the Big Boss Man. Doink illegally squirts green slime into Big Boss Man's face and then proceeds to beat the tar out of him, despite the ineffective referees attempt to stop it. Campbell quotes Jim Freedman as saying wrestling fans are largely "low income workers, welfare recipients, or immigrants who are finding little success in what is supposed to be the land of opportunity" (Campbell's summary, not direct Freedman quote), and that for them the "forces of evil, the forces which subvert the ideals of the liberal society, loom uncommonly large" (direct Freedman quote this time). Referees have been suggested as a metaphor for government before, but here there is a much more poignant allusion to the lower classes working honestly as the babyface (in this case Big Boss Man) and the heel (Doink) as those who lie and cheat their way to the top, with the referee powerless to stop them. "For these fans," Campbell writes, "putting one's hope in the referee or the government, is a lost cause."
Campbell goes on to say that other professional sports, ideologically valuing fairness and equality, respect for the loser and celebration for the winner, would look down upon wrestling as violating these values and not being genuine. "But the 'losers' of society know that they have little sense of being respected by the 'winners' nor do they necessarily admire the winners" (131).
Since the 12th century, wrestling has been a sport for the losers of society, while other more "civilized" sports were for the winners. So it is fitting that wrestling would be put down by the upper classes and proponents of other (more highbrow?) sports. 
For the upper classes, wrestling is violent and harkens back to a primal time when man was not locked into the hierarchy of modern civilization, and centers around physically overcoming an opponent. Today wrestling incorporates the idea of rebellion against authority and celebrates the anti-hero who can rise up and throw off the shackles of the aristocracy (here referring very specifically to Stone Cold Steve Austin). What would cause more anxiety for those in power than the celebration of the triumph of the will over the ruling class, even dramatized, if those spectators thought it real or identified with it anyway? What chance do the illusory structures of religion, the economy, or government have against brute force? In March, in a blatant reference to the struggle of the 99% against the 1%, the WWE had an Occupy Raw movement during their transmission.
Conventional professional sports tout false ideologies designed to brainwash participants into thinking fairness exists outside of the game, that class mobility exists if you work hard enough, ultimately enforcing the status quo. Wrestling has no such illusions: wrestlers break the rules when they can get away with it, and at the end of the day the whole match is fixed by the suits in the back anyway. 
Wrestling is popular amongst the lower classes because fans can identify with the struggles of the wrestlers against injustice, because their lives are a struggle against injustice. And not simply on the part of Doink the Clown: the referee is complicit in his ignorance and his collusion with the authority (in this case the government as well as the WWE "Authority"). Indeed, in contemporary wrestling the authority is the orchestrator of the injustice, and the heel is often unleashed on the face by order of the authority (for example, every time Daniel Bryan has ever gotten screwed over). 
Wrestling storylines are tales of the fight against inequality by the lower class, for the lower class. Of course the enforcers of this inequality disapprove. These low income workers, welfare recipients, and immigrants identify with wrestling because they understand the struggle against such insurmountable odds. Wrestling is a reaffirming of the power of the will of the people in a time where the French, American, and Bolshevik revolutions are just memories. The ideas of fairness and equality in wrestling (and indeed in life) is a sham, and while wrestling fans understand that, they suspend it. Because Doink the Clown is the cheating wrestler, the apathetic government, and the antagonistic ruling class, and the lower classes are the babyface. Oftentimes the bad guy wins, and they know every match is a work, but they have to hope that eventually, maybe at next year's Wrestlemania, they'll get their shot at the belt. 


Timothy S. Rich said...

Very nicely put. Often an underlying theme both in the readings and in wrestling more broadly is that the system is stacked against the common man (we'll ignore female wrestlers for the moment). Thus Marxist lens of the plight of the common worker, or more advanced arguments such as dependency theory, often are played out in wrestling without direct references as such. This narrative structure is also coincidentally consistent with the American Dream (not Dusty Rhodes) and the notion of perseverance against the odds is honorable.

That said, Stone and Oldenberg in particular seem dismissive of the lower classes that enjoy wrestling, even while portraying wrestling as a drama for the masses. The lower classes are fans because they are simpletons, in contrast to the social deviants the authors claim make up a sizable portion of the audience.

Sam Ford said...

This narrative really fascinates me, Mikey, and it's one I hope you expand on as we talk through Jim Freedman's piece. You questioned in an earlier post the degree to which we should celebrate or bemoan wrestling's existence as catharsis--does it let off steam so that people might continue to be oppressed. Here, you point out how wrestling gives voice to the frustration of the common people that the game is stacked against them..but we could question the degree to which this works as a Marxist reading (the system needs to be righted) or as a libertarian one (the least amount of infrastructure as possible works best, because officials/governments just aren't up to the task to truly enforce the rules, no matter what we do--government is incompetent). Both narratives do rely on one key point, though--the current example of "consumer capitalism" we have is one that fails people trying to play by the rules.

I look forward to really talking this through as we talk about Jim Freedman's essay and the difference between the "ideal of a free market" and the "reality of a free market."