Monday, September 8, 2014

Wrestling and Morality

The introduction of Steel Chair to the Head was not only an extremely insightful (if not slightly florid/obfuscated) defense of wrestling, but also a solid condemnation of "reformist rhetoric" (so called in the text) and the idea of censorship. Moving from a discussion of the artistic merits of professional wrestling, Nicholas Sammond addresses the absurdity of conventional wisdom regarding the moral degradation of American society (that is, that our habit of consuming theoretically improper popular entertainments from "unscrupulous marketers" is the cause of our societal ills). Calling out those who speak against the social shortcomings of wrestling (misogyny, racism, violence, etc.), Sammond turns the table and decries the ineffectiveness of regulation and censorship as opposed to intelligent debate and dissent. According to Sammond, in the face of much blustering and impassioned speeches from both political parties, the average citizen turns to apathy or political incorrectness out of boredom. I found this especially poignant because as a relatively young person, I can identify with a sense of disenfranchisement and disconnectedness that comes from being informed of what is moral and immoral, and the tendency to lapse into either not caring or embracing immorality for the sake of rebellion.
Citing past offenses of reformist rhetoric, Sammond talks of public indignation to rock-n-roll music as being anxiety over the integration of African Americans into mainstream American society and the political machine moving from various disenfranchised groups throughout history (women, immigrants, African Americans), painting them as intellectually inferior to white males and in need of guidance and protection from corruptive influences. Today this group in need of moralizing is youth, and Sammond writes that attempting to regulate or withhold images ignores the larger need for public action against the various economic and cultural iniquities that exist today, and are portrayed in pro wrestling. On page 17 Sammond writes that "...apathy and political incorrectness are the symptoms of the improper stewardship of an infantilized majority." The youth of today are apathetic or intentionally immoral due to the protection of the censors, because the persons that claim to be looking out for the best interest of youth are not looking to educate, but to collar and oppress. The real issues, Sammond writes, are less what a child watches on television and more their economic and social status. To take that a bit further into cynical college student territory, the upper class points at morally-questionable lower class entertainment as promoting poor values, while denying these lower classes the opportunity to truly educate themselves and adopt their own value systems through informed debate, preferring to withhold knowledge and censor violence to leveling the playing field and losing their position of power.
So in defending wrestling against it's detractors, Sammond constructs an argument in which he not only eloquently defends the sport ("sport"), but also takes a jab at these detractors, politicians and activists who are really more interested in keeping the status quo tipped in their favor rather than keeping young children from learning a penchant for violence or misogyny from watching Smackdown.
Sammond goes on to talk about how wrestling parodies social injustice and acts as more of a moral mirror for contemporary society, insinuating it's usefulness as a tool for introspection and presumably social change. I take some issue with this based upon some other comments he made in discussing when the WWE went public, and how it was portrayed. Sammond likens wrestling to a celebration of the triumph of the individual over oppressive social systems, and how buying stock in WWE was an opportunity for the "little guy" to escape the bonds of his job and become independently wealthy through stock ownership. He concludes that both of these point to larger "sociocultural formations that oppose an active and productive masculinity to a passive and consuming femininity, which positions collective social action as emasculating" (13).
My issue then is that wrestling seems to be a type of vicarious catharsis for the spectator, an opportunity to project one's anger at his or her situation onto a wrestler who will ultimately prevail over the heel. This seems like it would only continue to beget a "passive and consuming" attitude, which rather than inciting the larger populace to go out and really work to change the pervasive misogyny, racism, and violence in this country, wrestling would act as just another opiate of the masses, giving viewers the escapist opportunity to sit back and watch their favorite wrestler fight their battles for them. So in summation, I am thoroughly convinced wrestling is not a corruptive influence on the American people, though I question the effectiveness of wrestling as a tool for social change, be it through parody or otherwise.


Sam Ford said...

Mikey, you've sure given us quite a bit of food for thought here, and I'm thoroughly looking forward to some lively discussion in today's class. We're going to be talking quite a bit this semester about what involvement in the wrestling narrative might mean for wrestling audiences. Why do people engage in pro wrestling shows/storylines as if they are real? Is catharsis a major part of the enjoyment and, if so, does it serve to awaken people's understanding about a certain unfairness in society or, as you suggest here, risk to be another opiate for the masses, giving a symbolic victory over social injustice in a way that keeps people complacent in the space they are in? And how do pro wrestling promoters figure into this mix. To what degree to people in the wrestling business or wrestling fans think overtly about the types of stories they are telling, and what it means for society...versus how much of this is "beneath the surface" and the sort of readings academics would bring to a discussion? (See Tim's post for today's class, for instance...) To what degree is wrestling "populist" in its politics, as we will continue to discuss, an what does that mean on the "liberal" vs. "conservative" scale? And to what degree does artistic merit come into play here? In other words, are we better off to study wrestling as popular culture...meaning it is "wrestling" as a category or subject that we should study, rather than the merits of a particular show, storyline, character, etc., as one might study a critically acclaimed TV series, film, novel, etc.?

Marshall Metcalf said...

You touched on a point that I have found extraordinarily interesting in this class. The fact that Pro Wrestling is a mirror of society in some ways is fascinating. I think it's very interesting that the writers can make wrestling touch on so many social issues.