Monday, September 8, 2014

The Joanie Laurer That Never Was

Chyna entered the WWF (now WWE) in 1997 as the "Ninth Wonder of the World." She barged in with the lean and intimidating physique of a bodybuilder. The WWE, being the savvy and intuitive business that they are, could tell that something was still missing...

Ah, yes! Tits and ass.

And they weren't wrong. 
Chyna & Chris Jericho

A few surgeries later and Chyna was everything that they hoped she would be. A sex symbol that could kick some serious ass. (Because why just destroy your opponents when you can look hot doing it too?) Regardless of how you looked at it though, she was wildly popular and brought in some serious money. People seemed to like her. According to Steel Chair to the Head, "she offered a delightful counterpoint to the powder-puff 'managers'" that would accompany their men to the ring. However, she still seemed to symbolize an "immature hetero-masculine desire," while sometimes enacting "a slavish subjection to her male love-interests." In other words, they couldn't let her just be badass for the sake of being a badass. They had to sell her.

And I think that that's what makes then-wrestling so different from now-wrestling. At one point in time, wrestlers had the power to create their character and control their performance. While the "bigger picture" seemed to be planned, the details were left up to the wrestlers. If you wanted to make it in the business, you had to be both athletically capable and creatively inclined (to an extent.) In other words, you had to be able to sell yourself. Now, the company sells you for you. Writers are in charge of creating you and selling you to the public. (The WWE has essentially become one of the most successful pimps in the world.) 


"The work of wrestling--the refinement of moves, the development of animosities and alliances, the creation of characters--happened in motel rooms and locker rooms, not in front offices. New wrestlers learned from old-timers, and often skills were handed down from generation to generation within families. Now...wrestlers are less and less skilled workers and more products, commodities who play workers on television." -Steel Chair to the Head (p. 12)

8 comments:

Sam Ford said...

Katie, a provocative way to look at this, to be sure. Wrestlers are legally considered "independent contractors," but many have argued that WWE manages their identities, etc., very much like employees. Questions of creative control and who owns a name/gimmick have persisted throughout the "modern era" of pro wrestling, in a way that it was much less the case in a former era. Of course, there were also "booking offices," and many have argued that the NWA was basically a system that allowed for the enforcement of regional monopolies, among promoters who colluded to control. Which meant, of course, that a wrestler who knew ended up on the outs with one promoter in the "Alliance" could end up on the outs with all of them...and that talent was shared across promotions. One could argue that Moolah was positioned in "Lipstick and Dynamite" as a pimp of sorts, and that certainly Lou Thesz described Argentina Rocca as a prostitute under the control of Vince McMahon Sr. and Toots Mondt. But there was quite a lot of autonomy in how wrestlers controlled their characters and their performance in yesteryear...as well as autonomy in developing their mic work. Ole Anderson lets us know his feeling about that with little subtlety, for instance through his condemnation of Diamond Dallas Page, who doesn't know how to construct his own match and wants to script it out, move by move...

Timothy S. Rich said...

Katie, this reminds me of an interview I read recently with a former WWE Diva (I forget which one) that, in very diplomatic terms, suggested that the WWE dictated her look, her actions, and how she should be portrayed both in the ring and outside (e.g. never in public without makeup).

While I understand a company wanting to control what it sees as its property, what does this do not only to the psyche of performers, but to creating a sense of realism in a match?

michael richardson said...

I very much agree with everything you have said Katie, and while I can't speak so much to the Divas side of WWE because I really don't know much about subversion of the will of the authority going on there, I think that the example of CM Punk speaks volumes about the amount of control exerted by the WWE over their wrestlers. The McMahons don't own CM Punk's name and therefore he has a certain amount of autonomy, but his rant before his suspension back in 2011 (if it was even real) is the only example of actual subversion within the company that I can even think of, and he isn't with the company anymore. Whether he chose to leave or not, it seems as though no dissention within the company is tolerated.
(also forgive my inability to embed youtube videos in this, but here's a url)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mw8LFHSj6m0

Sam Ford said...

Certainly, we should talk about the ability to "go against the script," the debate about what constitutes an acceptable degree of subversion while still keeping your position, etc.

Tony Smith said...

Boy, am I upset I missed any discussion of this in class last week. I don't mean to be a Johnny-come-lately, but what a great discussion! I think Tim raises important questions about the quality of matches, which are expressions of creativity, and about the effects on the psyche of the wrestlers. As a licensed, trained, and practicing counselor (that way you know I am qualified to say this, at least, on a cable news show), I can say that I often come across people who have little autonomy in many aspects of their lives and that this impacts the person emotionally, cognitively, socially, and even physically. Since wrestling walks a blurred line between on and off stage, a lack of autonomy one feels in their character will surely translate in a lack of autonomy they may feel off stage. I have meet many people who can separate their work and home roles, and are excellent at compartmentalizing, but when they have little autonomy in their role at work, they tend to be pretty unhappy people most everywhere.

Sam Ford said...

I don't think wrestling as an industry is known for people who have "great work/life balance," although there are certainly exceptions to that rule. That Tito Santana has become an adjective for the sort of person who is a balanced human being outside work indicates how, at least in the old days, rare that ability to have peace and normalcy outside of wrestling really is...But agreed that this is among the most fascinating of topics we can get into. In other posts we've been talking about the 24/7-ness of pro wrestling in a digital age. And, I've argued here that it's a genre where performers have always had a difficulty shutting it off. That means that a frustration regarding where you're at in the pecking order seems like it might be even more pronounced in wrestling than it would be elsewhere...Despite wrestling's scriptedness, wins and losses do matter to the degree that it determines where you're at in the company and where you're seen as existing and heading as a character.

Melissa Smith said...

As soon as I saw Chyna mentioned in one of our articles, I knew you were going to love writing something about her, and I wasn't disappointed! Your post brings up a question I've had for awhile now: do wrestlers choose and develop their own gimmicks or are they told what to do to develop their character? Obviously, the fans' responses dictate a lot of the changes that need to be made to a character, which might be a contributing factor to Chyna's physical alterations, but would that choice be made by her or by the company? When looking at other characters (those whose gimmicks go beyond "tits and ass" and some kickass), I can't help but wonder if they chose the path that they followed. While it seems easy to be a heel in the ring, there would probably be repercussions in your real life. At the same time, everybody can't be a face. What determines if you get pushed or if you become a job man? Good wrestling technique? Definitely not. Physical form? Not necessarily. A compelling and lovable (or hate-able) character, plus a story line that draws attention? Right. Does each wrestler design and develop their own character, then let the crowd decide who they want? If so, wrestling may be more competitive than I originally thought.

Sam Ford said...

Of course, Melissa, there's no simple answer to these quite complex questions. But they are key questions to ask. I think there's a mix of all of these options involved here, and we'll be talking about them a lot as we read more about the development of characters over time. As we've discussed some already, there's a big shift from an era where someone developed a persona and moved around with it from territory to territory, to WWE acting as a modern media company in some ways and putting much more focus on its trademarks and copyright. The promoters of old didn't particularly see themselves as a media company...they were trying to sell live event tickets in their area, and TV was just there as advertisement. As the mentality switches, the question of "ownership" of media footage, of gimmicks, etc., becomes a much more important part of the "business."