When i was in high school, Smackdown on Thursday night network television either premiered or started to become really popular. I started watching again. It was very much a soap opera for guys. I liked Stone Cold Steve Austin because he was a very down-to-earth guy who didn’t take shit from anyone. I found The Rock arrogant, but eventually he charmed me and i became a big fan. At some point after i started watching again i noticed that they were trying to make every character a big deal character. Everyone had to have a story and a plotline. When i was a kid, there were what we called “designated nobodies.” They fought the big deal wrestlers, and you knew they were gonna lose, but you watched anyway. Back in the day, there was one big deal match (i.e. between two superstars, or two superstar tag teams) in a one hour program. Now a two-hour program is probably half interviews and backstage shenanigans (because of course you have to have background and motivations for what happens in the ring when you’re constructing intricate soap opera plotlines) and guys giving speeches in the ring, but the other half, the actual matches, they’re all billed as a big deal. Fans can only care about so many characters, but WWF tried to make everyone someone we would care about. It became terribly obvious just how much they needed their superstars, though, when they lost them to injury or whatever, and they tried to make other characters superstars. The one thing you can’t do is force fans to care about a character. You can try to make him charismatic and try to write him an engaging storyline, but sometimes the fans just don’t connect. But i’m digressing.
When i first started college i kept up because they posted detailed synopses on the website, complete with pictures, but that got to be too much work. I still sometimes watched over vacations, but my parents got into CSI, and that took precedence over the second half of Smackdown. I tried watching once last semester, but i was out of the plot loop and there was so much boring talk buildup that i couldn’t bring myself to keep watching. So that’s my story.
Oh, and in case anyone cares, it was the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), and it bought out World Championship Wrestling (WCW) as well as Extreme Championship Wrestling (WCW) but retained the name WWF as it integrated many of the wrestlers from these former-competitors into itself. A lawsuit from the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) over name similarity resulted in it changing to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).]
So i saw "Wrestling With Manhood: Boys, Bullying & Battering" at the Academy, and then there were discussions/Q&As after, which i also stayed for.
One of the things a lot of fans will say in response to critiques of pro-wrestling is that “It’s just entertainment.” The people doing the video pointed out that then, what does that say about our society that we are entertained by violence and degradation and so on?
Watching the film, the degradation of women has gotten even worse since i last watched, plus i hadn’t really thought about it much when i did watch it (because objectification of women has become par for the course).
So incredibly disturbing that Chyna started with a very square jaw and other non-feminine physical features and actually had plastic surgery so she now looks much more traditionally feminine. The film talked about how in order to become acceptable in the world of the storyline, her character had to be made more feminized. I remember hating so very much the storyline in which Chyna has an abusive relationship (in which she is the one abused, mostly verbally and emotionally) with “Latino Heat” Eddie Guerrero, because she was supposed to be strong. She was a strong, independent woman, and i nearly cried that she was totally taking this abuse from this guy. I think that was one of the times where just under the surface i really was thinking about how these stories were influencing how the young and impressionable viewers thought of the world, thought about what are acceptable ways of being and behaving in the world, but i freely admit that mostly in the past i have looked at pro-wrestling as mostly TV junk food, as something not to be taken seriously (because i didn’t think of any of the viewers as taking it seriously, as letting it influence how they behaved).
People of course talk about the homoeroticism since you have buff guys wearing not much clothing wrestling. But one of the montages in the video took a lot of clips, muted them, and then for effect played kinda romantic music. There were shots of guys with their heads at other men’s crotches (because they had been beaten up and were struggling to get up) and also of men staring at each other, and some of the scenes when you didn’t have the insulting and all, looked really erotic.
Billy and Chuck. I stopped watching around the middle of the storyline, but i loved that they were so “wink and a nudge to the viewers” (as one of the people in the film put it) a homosexual couple. I was so pissed that when they got a stylist/manager character he was ugly, because i thought he should have been the stereotypical gay male, complete with fabulous outfits. The film talks about how pro-wrestling has stereotypically gay characters (like Goldust) to offset the heterosexual characters, to say “See, this is what gay is, this is what we are not.” (One thing i don’t remember seeing, so i don’t know if it’s stuff i literally missed or just didn’t notice, is instances in which wrestlers would humiliate other wrestlers by aggressively kissing them or simulating sexual acts, because to act as though someone is gay is of course an insulting thing when gay=bad.) The film didn’t mention that Billy and Chuck actually had a wedding ceremony in the ring, but of course it got interrupted or something (i had stopped watching by then and only heard secondhand) and they proclaimed their heterosexuality and blah blah blah (something which angered me), though that may well have happened after the film was finished. One thing that really upset me is that they had a number of clips of fans, who said that Billy and Chuck were obviously gay and that was a reason they didn’t like them. That makes me sad about the state of our society.
One thing i hadn’t thought about was often the wrestlers literally call on each other to “be a man,” that is, come down and confront them, fight them, whatever. I don’t think i ever noticed it before, but when you’re watching in the context of how young boys idolize and want to be like these men, when you’re thinking about how masculinity is being defined, it’s sad. Oh, and there was a clip that i know i had never seen, in which HHH shows footage of Kurt Angle crying when he is receiving one of his Olympic gold medals and calls Kurt Angle a sissy because of it. That was one of the most upsetting things i have ever seen.
I did think there was something of a low blow at the Republican party. The video talked about how the WWE presents the stuff that goes on as being rebellious (which i don’t see myself, except in cases such as Stone Cold beating up the boss) but really it’s as conservative as you can get (men having absolute power over women and so on) and then they go on to mention the Rock at some Republican fundraiser, at a time when the Republican party was the most conservative it had ever been, “controlled by the Christian Right.”
I won’t get into how pro-wrestling was better when it was good guys vs. bad guys, when changing sides was done infrequently and was taken very seriously. I won’t talk about how the announcers are always pairs and one is always the voice of morality and reason and the other one is the one whose opinions you don’t like but who gets all the good lines (Bobby “The Brain” Heenan being the epitome of that), or how WWF has mocked traditional morals with things like “Right to Censor” and Kurt Angle’s earliest incarnation.
One of the things i nitpicked about was that they didn’t discuss the racial stereotyping at all, though i knew of course it didn’t fit with the theme of the video, which was about defining masculinity. But one of the audience questions was about that, and Sut said that actually there’s a section, “Wrestling With History: Race, Class, and Gender,” which was painful for them to cut out, but that is a bonus track on the DVD. So i e-mailed Jayne Mercier (because the Smith WST department was one of the co-sponsors) asking if Neilson was gonna get a copy of the DVD.
One thing i thought was interesting, was that they talked about how the fans are almost all white males, and most of the wrestlers are white, and how with the black man becoming the epitome of tough masculinity in most of the culture, white males feel the need to see bodies resembling their own also representing tough masculinity.
During the discussion, one older man talked about how cable packages come with certain channels, so if you want some of them but not others, you don’t have a choice, and we should complain to cable companies about this. I have been aggravated by this for a long time myself (though i suspect TNT -- which airs Monday Night Raw -- isn’t part of basic cable) but i stood up and pointed out that one of the major shows, Smackdown, is on network television, UPN, and that what might be effective is to contact the advertisers and tell them that by advertising on that show -- yes, it would require that you actually watch the program -- they are supporting something that you don’t support and therefore you won’t support them, that you won’t buy their products, and you will tell your friends not to buy them, that if you can organize people around this you can make a difference, because money is what counts, and i mentioned the hullabaloo a year or two ago when Coca-Cola pulled its advertising because the WWF wasn’t promoting family values or whatever.
I was thinking later that it would be so easy for me to do this, that it would take only an afternoon to get all the addresses after having watching one taped episode, and then draft a letter and CC it to all of them, and i could even make a list and link to it from my LiveJournal. And i thought about how this is something i remember fondly from my childhood and i don’t want it to end, don’t want to lose it. And then of course part of my brain reminded me that i’ve already lost it, that it is far from what i remember from my childhood, that it is no longer the same thing at all. And i thought about the fact that i’m not their target audience (males aged 18-35) and probably wouldn’t be buying any of their products anyway. And i thought about how much merchandising they have and would losing advertisers really affect them that much. And i thought about how one of the people had mentioned that this is only one of the worst in a larger societal structure. And i thought about how often when you get rid of the worst, people think it’s all better, that there’s nothing left to fix.
Talking about violence always leads to talking about institutionalized violence, and of course it always has to come back to the war on Iraq. We get so used to fake violence, that we forget that real violence can really hurt people. So we declare war without any concept of the suffering involved. I thought about the suffering the Iraqi people currently endure and whether we have any obligation to help alleviate that suffering, and if we can do it without war, and how does that fit in. But i didn’t want to get the discussion any more offtrack. I had more angry things that i wished i could have said, but i seem to have forgotten them. There will be yet another entry on the situation with Iraq shortly, so anyone who feels deprived.... ;)