Professional wrestling is often called “fake.” When I was growing up, that was what my parents always told me. That’s what the rich kids used to say when they mocked the poor kids who lived in trailers.
Of course, it’s not really “fake.” Fake is watching Hollywood movies where actors run in front of blue- or green-screens with terrified looks on their face, and then monsters are added in later by computers. Wrestling is not “fake.” People get hurt doing it. They bleed real blood. They are flesh and bone flying through the air, under the influence of all the real forces of physics. It’s certainly more “real” than any action movie.
When people say wrestling is “fake,” what they really mean is that it’s “rigged,” or “scripted.” This is more to the point. Of course, this is also what allows it to be so exciting, and even one of the primary reasons fans tune in week after week.
Wrestling is ballet for rednecks. It is opera for the unsophisticated. It’s a stage show with a production scale greater than most Broadway performances.
I’m not personally a fan of wrestling, but I get it. It’s not difficult to see the appeal in watching men over two hundred pounds throw each other around in highly choreographed maneuvers designed for the sole purpose of creating an amazing spectacle. I find it far more entertaining than dance.
Wrestling is only half about the action. What makes wrestling such a mythological event is that there is a story, or the fact that it’s “rigged.” There is always a morality play being enacted before the actual action begins. Someone has insulted someone else, someone has been betrayed, or maybe someone just wants their chance at glory.
Whatever the setup, the dramatic prelude is vital to the actual match itself. The struggle within the ring is weighted all the more by the consequences that may play out if one side should defeat the other.
The themes chosen are staples of the wrestling public: relationships, respect, societal norms and roles, etc. The theme that panders to American fans the most is probably nationalism.
Big events often feature an American icon squaring off against an archetypal foreign enemy or traitor from within. This type of rivalry was showcased in the brilliant movie “The Wrestler,” and was also played out often by Hulk Hogan.
Here we see the self-perpetuating cycle of the persistence of mythology:
1. A theme is popular
2. Art aggrandizes the theme
3. Return to #1, amplified
The cycle would continue forever, but eventually the tide shifts.
Steve Austin appeared on the scene in the 90’s, marking a change in wrestling’s image. Previously, most faces (or good guys) were quiet gentlemen who defended what was good. Men like Jerry Lawler were famous for being the soft-spoken, polite guy who fought against the likes of the misogynist Andy Kaufman.
Steve Austin was introduced to the wrestling world as a heel (bad guy). He was a rude, trash talking, beer drinking, woman-hitting, leather-clad tough guy. He was everything the wrestling fans prior to that era hated. Even though his actions were scripted to be more “evil” week after week, the fans loved and cheered for him.
People had simply changed, and the old mythology no longer applied. This was not a phenomenon among only wrestling fans, however. Movies like “Interview With a Vampire” and books like “American Psycho” are popular around this time. There is a general shift towards taking the antagonist’s point of view, or even idolizing it.
There are only two reasons to idolize: identification and aspiration. Why is it we began to relate to, or even strive to be, the antagonist? Can we pinpoint through our art when we became the bad guy?