I live in a no man’s land with regard to professional wrestling. On one hand, I absolutely hate it. It represents everything that is wrong with American entertainment. It is all about good versus evil. There is no subtlety to the characters. Good guys are good because that’s just how they are. And, of course, the same thing goes for the bad guys and those in the middle. It’s more or less like Hogan’s Heroes, but even that displays far more complexity than professional wrestling. Ultimately, this is all a political problem for me, because Americans generally think of the world just as wrestling presents it: black and white.
On the other hand, I admire professional wrestling. I understand that from top to bottom, it is a very professional form of entertainment. Within its constraints, it is wonderfully creative. The writers create interesting conflicts. And the performers are shockingly good at the kind of improvised performance art that they practice. In addition to all this, professional wrestling is ultimately the artistic representation of archetypes. As Roland Barthes put it, “What is thus displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. Wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks.”
When I was a kid, I hated wrestling. That was simply because I hate boasting. And also because big men scare me. And, of course, it was “fake.” But after I read Barthes, I turned around on it. I was able to understand and appreciate what Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler were up to. Just the same, I would never willingly watch professional wrestling. I’m no more interested in it than I am the newest variation on The Expendables or Sabotage. And I still find it pernicious. We really should have gotten past such simplistic representations of archetypes.
As a result of all this, I have a problem when dealing with others discussing wrestling. Articles about it tend to focus on this stuff that is self-evident once you combine two notions: that wrestling is “fake” and that its being “fake” doesn’t matter. When a corporate executive spends a whole season in shouting matches with Hulk Hogan (Or whomever — I said I don’t watch the stuff!) a few things are clear. First, these performers didn’t just decide to have this argument that will lead up to the season finale where a grudge match takes place. That was scripted. But it wasn’t scripted the way that an Alan Parker film is. It was scripted in the way that a Christopher Guest film is. So the performers are as creative as the writers. And we should respect that!
This all came up to me while listening to the Radio Lab episode, La Mancha Screwjob. I listened to it because it has a discussion of Don Quixote (which I haven’t listened to at this point). But the wrestling story is actually really stupid. It is about this “Montreal Screwjob” where wrestling supposedly got real. But the truth is that professional wrestling has always played with the line of real versus fantasy. The story specifically mentions a case where a woman left one wrestler for another wrestler and the two wrestlers went into the ring over this issue. So it was both not real (it was a performance) and it was real (because the conflict was real). But this kind of postmodern approach to the sport goes back at least to Kaufman-Lawler, and I assume as far back as professional wrestling has existed.
The story does show the power of wrestling in that even these people who cover it are confused about what is going on. Or maybe not. The truth is that the nature of wrestling is that no one will ever fully admit to what is scripted and what is not. So just as the wrestlers won’t admit that what they do is “fake,” it may be that the journalists who cover it are the same way. The current fashion is for people to admit that wrestling is scripted but that there are real aspects of it too. And this brings up perhaps the most important aspect for me: I assume that it is all “fake” regardless.
Consider the Montreal Screwjob itself. It involved the move of wrestler Bret “The Hitman” Hart from WWF to WCW. Supposedly, there was this incident that took place. One thing was supposed to happen in the ring, but in fact another thing happened. According to Wikipedia, it was a real incident. I don’t believe it. I believe it was a double con. I don’t think it was a coincidence that it worked out perfectly for the WWF and for Hart who went on to be the WCW champion and then retired with a boatload of money. Was there some reality in the mix? That’s the wrong question. The right question is: who cares?
Ultimately, great art plays with the same issues of reality and fantasy. But that “reality” is not “what really happened” but rather “what is eternal.” And so professional wrestling or American Idol or any of the countless varieties of “reality television” will never be great art. Or art at all. Because it can’t be deep.
So I’m left in this no man’s land. I don’t dismiss professional wrestling for not being a “real” sport. But the people who cover it as a subject don’t seem to get much past the thinking of those who hate it for this reason. Whether professional wrestling is “real” or “fake” is not what determines whether it is good or bad. But that seems always to be the focus of the coverage. And that means that the coverage of wrestling is as shallow as the sport itself.