Sunday, January 01, 2012

real fake wrestling, cultural liturgy. and the narrative of Jesus

The bouts are stylized rituals. They are public expressions of pain and a fervent longing for revenge. The lurid and detailed sagas behind each bout, rather than the wrestling matches themselves, are what drive crowds to a frenzy. These ritualized battles give those packed in the arenas a temporary, heady release from mundane lives. The burden of real problems is transformed into fodder for a high-energy pantomime. And the most potent story tonight, the most potent story across North America, is one of financial ruin, desperation, and enslavement of a frightened and abused working class to a heartless, tyrannical, corporate employer. For most, it is only in the illusion of the ring that they are able to rise above their small stations in life and engage in a heroic battle to fight back.
As the wrestlers appear and strut down the aisle, the crowd, mostly young, working-class males, knows by heart the long list of vendettas and betrayals being carried into the ring. The matches are always acts of retribution for a host of elaborate and fictional wrongs. The narratives of emotional wreckage reflected in the wrestlers’ stage biographies mirror the emotional wreckage of the fans. This is the deep appeal of professional wrestling. It is the appeal of much of popular culture, from Jerry Springer to “reality” television to Oprah Winfrey. The narratives expose the anxiety that we will die and never be recognized or acclaimed, that we will never be wealthy, that we are not among the chosen but remain part of the vast, anonymous masses. The ringside sagas are designed to reassure us. They hold out the hope that we, humble and unsung as these celebrities once were, will eventually be blessed with grace and fortune.
The success of professional wrestling, like most of the entertainment that envelops our culture, lies not in fooling us that these stories are real. Rather, it succeeds because we ask to be fooled. We happily pay for the chance to suspend reality. The wrestlers, like all celebrities, become our vicarious selves. They do what we cannot. They rise up from humble origins into a supernatural world of tyrants, divas, and fierce opponents who are huge and rippling with muscles–mythic in their size and power. They face momentous battles and epic struggles. They win great victories. They garner fame and vanquish their anonymity. And they return to befriend and confer some of their supernatural power on us. It is the stuff of classical myths, including the narrative of Jesus Christ. It is the yearning that life conform to a recognizable pattern and provide ultimate fulfillment before death.
“For the truth is,” wrote José Ortega y Gasset, “that life on the face of it is a chaos in which one finds oneself lost. The individual suspects as much but is terrified to encounter this frightening reality face to face, and so attempts to conceal it by drawing a curtain of fantasy over it, behind which he can make believe that everything is clear.”
Clashes in the professional wrestling ring from the 1950s to the 1980s hinged on a different narrative. The battle against the evil of communism and crude, racial stereotypes stoked the crowd. The bouts, which my grandfather religiously watched on Saturday afternoons, were raw, unvarnished expressions of the prejudices of the white working class from which he came. They appealed to nationalism and a dislike and distrust of all who were racially, ethnically, or religiously different. During these matches, some of which I watched as a boy, there was usually some huge hulk of a man, known invariably as “The Russian Bear,” who would say things like “Ve vill bury you.” Nikolai Volkoff, who wrestled during these years under the name Boris Breznikoff, used to sing the Soviet National Anthem and wave the Soviet flag before matches to bait the crowd. He eventually teamed up with an Iranian-born wrestler, Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, known as The Iron Sheik. In the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis, the Iron Sheik bragged in the ring about his devotion and friendship with Ayatollah Khomeini. The Iron Sheik was regularly pitted against a wrestler known as Sergeant Slaughter, All-American G. I. During the first Gulf War; the Iron Sheik reinvented himself, as often happens with wrestlers who shed one persona and name for another, as Colonel Mustafa, an Iraqi who was a close confidant of Saddam Hussein. In wrestling, villains were nearly always foreigners. They were people who wanted to destroy “our way of life.” They hated America. They spoke in strange accents and had swarthy skin.
But that hatred, once directed outward, has turned inward. Wrestling fans, whose numbers have been swelled by new immigrants and are no longer limited to the white working class, began to come in too many colors. The steady loss of manufacturing jobs and decline in social services meant that blue-collar workers–people like my grandparents–could no longer find jobs that provided a living wage, jobs with benefits, jobs that could support a family. The hulks of empty manufacturing centers began to dot the landscape, including the abandoned mills in Maine, where my family lived. The disparity between the elite, the rich, and the rest of the country grew obscenely. The growing class division and hopelessness triggered a mounting rage toward the elite, as well as a sense of powerlessness. Communities began to crumble. Downtown stores went out of business and were boarded up. Domestic abuse and drug and alcohol addiction began to plague working-class neighborhoods and towns.
The story line in professional wrestling evolved to fit the new era. It began to focus on the petty, cruel, psychological dramas and family dysfunction that come with social breakdown. The enemy became figures like Layfield, those who had everything and lorded it over those who did not. The anger unleashed by the crowd became the anger of people who, like the Heartbreak Kid, felt used, shamed, and trapped. It became the anger of class warfare. Figures such as Layfield–who arrives at professional matches in a giant white limousine with Texan “hook ’em” horns on the hood–are created by wrestling promoters to shove these social disparities in the faces of the audience, just as the Iron Sheik mocked the crowd with his hatred of America.
Wrestlers work in “stables,” or groups. These groups, all of which have managers, are at war with the other groups. This motif, too, is new. It represents a society that has less and less national cohesion, a society that has broken down into warlike and antagonistic tribes. The stables cheat, lie, steal one another’s women, and ignore all rules in the desperate scramble to win. Winning is all that matters. Morality is irrelevant. These wrestling clans have their own logos, uniforms, slogans, theme songs, cheerleaders, and other badges of communal identity. They do not, however, stay consistent in their “good guy” or “bad guy” status. A clan, like an individual wrestler, can be good one week and evil the next. All that matters is their own advancement. Week after week, they act out scenarios that are psychological windows into what has happened to our culture.

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