A university essay I produced for a module on representing the self and representing others. Researching this piece truly opened my eyes to the narrative-driven, entertaining, and deceptively well-planned world of American professional wrestling.
How effective is the draw of Good versus Evil in American Professional Wrestling?
The world of professional wrestling has been popular for the past few decades, both as a medium for raw, violent entertainment, and as a method of storytelling. The entertainment of wrestling is obvious from one camera-pan of the audience on any Wrestlemania event – a crowd of loud (mostly) Americans all enthused and totally absorbed in the cheering on of their wrestling heroes, or taunting their rival characters. A strange catharsis is reached in wrestling performance that cannot be found through spectating the majority of other sports – certainly, the audience of any sport will be split between the competing teams or individuals, but the fanbase of wrestling take their task on board as a lifestyle. The audience is so crucial in wrestling; since it is their reactions and taunts that truly create the atmosphere in an arena. A wrestling character on stage can act as tough and dangerous as he wishes, but if the audience aren’t booing or yelling in disapproval, his acts go unappreciated, and his character isn’t accepted as the ‘bad guy’ he’s attempting to create. The audience are deeply involved in the fight on stage not only because of the violence and extreme nature of the sport, but also because they are witnessing an unfolding storyline of allies, betrayal, loyalty, and deep social importance.
The storytelling of professional wrestling is probably its greatest appeal – the flashy nature of its spectacle is why it is one of the highest grossing sports in America in terms of its entertainment leagues, and yet is one of the least practiced competitive sports in the country’s schools, and backwards in modern standards of equality and acceptance. As Sarah K Field’s work, Female Gladiators states, since ‘Title IX’ (an American law of 1972 that promotes equality of sex in education) there have been a number of court cases and trials that materialised through figures of authority showing intolerance to women and girls who practised the sport. Today’s WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) was founded in 1963 under the name WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation), but it took 21 years since its inception to introduce WWE Women’s matches in 1984.
Professionally, black wrestlers have also only been prominent since the late 1970s/1980s – Hulk Hogan’s main rival for the latter part of the decade being ‘Zeus’, a formidable black wrestler, with whom arguments and bouts were common across the WWF’s pay-per-view fights and television programming. Although the majority of black wrestlers began as a rival for the favourite white wrestler of the year, since black wrestlers have become a staple as much as their white contenders. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson widely considered a favourite and wrestling superstar during his WWE career (1995-2004). Far less prevalent as of the last 20 years is the sense that Wrestling is primarily a sport for white people, and that the black wrestlers are the ‘outsiders’. Over 150 black wrestlers have been wrestling professionally since the 1970s, with many being heroes among the professional wrestling roster, and with many black ethnicities being the evil character – very recently, the Samoan ‘Umaga’ with tribal tattoos and garb making a frightening appearance in 2007’s ‘Wrestlemania 23’.
The idea of one wrestler being the hero and the other being the villain is the theme of most wrestling matches. Professional wrestler Mick Foley (aka Mankind) writes in his autobiography, Have a Nice Day!: a Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks, about a conversation with his friend Naitch (wrestler ‘Nature Boy’),
‘Naitch… felt that I needed to be a heel (bad guy)… “Nobody cares about [Mankind] as a babyface.”
In professional wrestling terms, the Heel is the bad guy; the wrong doer; the enemy, and the Babyface (or Face) is the good guy; the hero; the crowd favourite. Foley was conversing about how he was popular being the Babyface, but with popularity waning, he needed to consider becoming a Heel. Wrestlers often switch their alignment in the ring to better their audience response – it is mainly the converting from good to evil, or from evil to good that contributes to an event’s storyline. Cleverly planned tactical decisions are made and rehearsed before each show that will present interesting twists when in the ring, and change the outcome of the match. Richard Schechner writes in Performance Studies: and introduction,
‘Everyone knows the outcome of American wrestling is determined in advance, that the lawless is play-acting – it’s pretty much “all a show”’.
Skimming passed the question of whether it is ethical for bookies to allow voting on sport that is pre-ordained; the fact is widely known – even to newcomers of the sport. Wrestling’s false pretence as a real sport is often a topic of parody for the genre, and is openly accepted even by the wrestlers. But people don’t attend venues such as Madison Square Garden to watch a wrestling match for its athletic authenticity – they go for the melodrama on the stage: to watch allegiances crumble and new rivalries begin. The importance of the locker-room interview found on the televised and published WWE matches is to show that there is conflict and plot affecting the characters even offstage. Very complex relationships result, and the audience are always made to support the Babyface and attack the Heel.
To best display and consider the role of the hero vs. The villain on the professional stage, I turn once again to ‘Wrestlemania 23’ the highest-earning one-day live wrestling event that broke financial and viewing records across all 50 American states, and Canada. The sheer amount of events is enough to impress, but two main events of the show really illustrate the idea of the Heel versus the Face. Firstly, the ‘ECW Originals’ (Extreme Championship Wrestling) were pitted against the ‘New Breed’ in an 8-man Tag Team Match. The amount of wrestlers to focus on at any point made it an extremely complicated match to watch, but the two teams were easy to distinguish between – the ECW Originals all wore classic wrestling attire and were at least a decade older than each of their rivals – the ‘Originals’ moniker gives connotations of them being ‘classic’, ’old’, ‘homely’, ‘familiar’ . The New Breed consisted of very young wrestlers in extreme costume – one even dressing as a vampire. The visual difference was an interesting remark on the change in stage characters over the past twenty years – how much more flamboyant and excessive the New Breed’s costumes were; their ‘New’ prefix giving both connotations of being ‘fresh’, ‘younger’ and ‘unfamiliar’ or ‘inexperienced’.
The match could have gone either way to the audience, or as with many WWE team clashes, drawn. But in the end, it was a victory for the ECW Originals, and thus a victory for the ‘apple pie’ America of values, showing support for conservatism and the strength of the old favourites. They were the Face (which is interesting considering the younger team would have been initially branded as the Babyface for what they innately stand for – youth and innovation). Making the younger team the Heel may have been an easier decision for the show’s creators, bearing in mind that they were only formed that same year, and with foresight disbanded before the year was over. Schechner goes on to write in his work on performance studies,
‘…fans of World Wrestling Federation matches know their heroes and villains, can tell you the history of their sport, and react according to accepted conventions and traditions… what occurs under the banner of the World Wrestling Federation… enacts the values of its particular culture.’
The second match of significance to the Heel and the Face is the one that took place between Vince McMahon, the billionaire owner of WWE, and Donald Trump, the billionaire business magnate. Two men of incredible wealth and status in America fighting it out on stage is an interesting subversive work of entertainment, but each Billionaire had his own professional wrestler to fight on their behalf – McMahon taking the feral Umaga, and Trump taking the two-time ECW World Champion, Bobby Lashley: two wealthy white men with prominent black figures fighting in their stead. Considering McMahon’s experience in Wrestling, and the higher net worth of Trump, many could appreciate that the former would most likely lose against the wealthier latter with the reigning wrestling champion on his side. Umaga being a staple Heel and Lashley being a staple Face had very less importance, as it was really the alignment of the billionaires that drew the audience’s interest. After a while of the match proving to be of equal strengths, McMahon’s side committed acts that assured them the label of Heel, and thus defeat. Firstly, McMahon knocked out the referee (special guest appearance by ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin) and his own son joined the match as both fighter and referee. When a ‘fair fight’ descends into an unfair advantage, it is the morally clearer fighter’s right to then defeat the wrong-doer. Additionally, McMahon’s embarrassment at being defeated in his own game led to yet more interesting developments in WWE storyline for the audiences.
The classic tale of good versus evil isn’t always in the favour of the hero – by having the Heel win occasionally, further advances in revenge or retribution storylines emerge, and entire lines of wrestling merchandise based around the popular bad guy are developed. It is important to consider that every win for a favourite character is a victory for America – for the fighter or team mostly supported by the American viewers. In this way, many matches can be seen as a metaphor for America versus the Foreign, or the West versus the East. From this belief, many characters have been created that excessively conform to stereotyping, and are generally misused. The Samoan professional wrestler Rodney Anoa’i fought under the moniker ‘Yokozuna’, which is the name for the highest class of Sumo Wrestlers – he was also paraded to the ring with an accompanying Japanese flag, and wearing Sumo garments. Jeffrey Weeks writes in his work, The Paradoxes of Identity,
‘Identities… embody… what we have in common and what separates us; about our sense of self and our recognition of others; about conflicting belongings in a changing history and a complex modern world.’
With characters appearing on stage as bad guys from foreign countries, there is the inherent risk of young or devout wrestling supports actually taking on the view that all foreign entities and people are the bad guys. This is not a subtle problem either, it appears quite openly, and in many forms of wrestling entertainment too. In the 2008 film The Wrestler, which follows the life of an aging professional wrestler, his arch rival during the 1980s, and the peak of his career, was a wrestler under the name ‘The Ayatollah’ – a name which has many foreign connotations accompanying it. The Ayatollah’s stage presence is one of evil, and the eponymous wrestler, Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, is a blonde-hair, shirtless, classic American professional wrestling figure. This is one of the most obvious cases of the ‘apple-pie’ Face and evil foreign Heel in recent media, and much like in the WWE fights, defeat of the foreign character is seen as a path back to stardom and success for the wrestler.
Like Knights of old versus ancient powers of evil, the set up of the hero and the villain is the biggest draw of professional wrestling. Without the ever-changing and developing storyline behind the WWE brand, and dozens much like it, the sport would be less of a spectacle and less of a success, albeit at the cost of being less of a fair ‘sport’ and a promoter of typecast foreign evils. Not just America is privy to this spectacle, as foreign sports such as Lucha Libre (a Mexican form of masked wrestling), Muay-Thai (a high-energy form of Thai boxing), Capuara (Brazilian martial arts that grew from fighting with dance techniques) and many other speciality sports convey a flare associated with its success, and often are the native fighters the most supported. To suggest American professional wrestling to be the only violator of mass stereotyping in modern world sports would be wrong – after all, on an amateur level, children learning the sport in schools rarely dress flamboyantly or evoke epic relationships based on loyalty and betrayal with other children in the school leagues.
What began as an essay going into my discoveries from watching the hit film The Wrestler, grew as I researched into figures of significance from the world of professional wrestling. Having grasped a simple concept of the importance of stock characters and wrestling archetypes, I saw possibility of these characters portraying the good and the evil – the domestic and the foreign, and various problems or advantages that were provided. The first part of the essay I actually researched into was my second viewing of Wrestlemania 23 (having watched it once with the class) and my return to my original notes. From my first viewing months ago, I had noted on who I thought would win each of the events that took place. I challenged myself by trying to deduce the victors before the end of each match, based simply on what I’d assumed from reading about professional wrestling in the article piece by Sharon Mazer, What the World is Watching. Through trying to come up with the winners, I recalled the phrase ‘apple-pie’ America – the United States perceived as a country of conservative democratic civilians with steady jobs, motor car, white picket fences, 2.5 children, and a pet cat and dog, who live in suburbia. Although very few examples of these sort of people actually exist anymore, they are a stereotype that is perceivable by most people. And although that certain mid 20th-century lifestyle is almost completely gone, the ideals remain the same for a very large amount of American families and individuals. Now I perceived a metaphysical battle of ‘apple-pie’ Americans versus the ‘evil’ of unfamiliar foreigners. Although I feel it wrong to class foreigners are inherently evil, or villainous, it is this belief that leads to a sense of national pride at their defeat. By identifying the common white American’s love of America, and dislike of anything ‘other’, I assumed firstly that the classic all-American ECW Originals would lose to the New Breed. And once they did, my theory really kicked off. It took me until I read ex-wrestler Mick Foley’s autobiography before I knew the terms ‘Heel’ and ‘Babyface’, but once I did, I was discovering more and more wrestling characters and information that really assisted in the creation of my essay.
‘List of Black Wrestlers’ Obsessed with Wrestling. 9st May 2009 <http://www.obsessedwithwrestling.com/profiles/black.php>
A useful resource that told me the state of black wrestling over the last few decades.
http://www.lethalwow.com/history.htm 9th May 2009
The Women of Wrestling website provided information on professional female wrestlers as something more serious that the well-pampered, underdressed women that are often seen.
http://www.wwe.com/ 9th May 2009
The World Wresting Entertainment official site let me research contemporary fighters
Film: Wrestlemania 23 (2007)
2007’s live event was my biggest experience of professional wrestling I have seen.
Film: The Wrestler (2008) dir. Darren Aronofsky
An insightful look into the failing social and financial life of an aging wrestler.
Field, Sarah K. Female Gladiators. America: University of Illinois Press, 2005
This book opened my eyes to various prejudices and inequalities in the American Wrestling.
Foley, Mick. Have A Nice Day!: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks. New York: Harper Collins, 2000
This autobiography was littered with the personal experiences of the wrestler ‘Mankind’, and much like the film The Wrestler showed me the inside world of professional wrestling.
Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. Oxon, England: Routledge, 2002
Knowing that professional wrestling, like most entertainment, is a performance, this book drove home the point of the innate knowledge that wrestling is all preordained and one big show.
Weeks, Jeffrey. ‘The Paradoxes of Identity’. The Routledge Reader in Politics and Performance. Ed. Lizbeth Goodman and Jane de Gay. Oxen, England: Routledge, 2005. P.162
Though initially concerned there was little to do with politics in wrestling, it was in reading of the politics of self and identity in this book that broadened my understanding of a wrestler’s character.
Mazer, Sharon. ‘What the World is Watching’. Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle. Jackson: University press of Mississippi, 1998. 14-49
Research for class half a year ago, but insightful to the point of successful or unsuccessful methods of American professional wrestling in a televised and live medium.