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Sociological Spectrum

ISSN: 0273-2173 (Print) 1521-0707 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/usls20

AMERICAN PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING:


EVOLUTION, CONTENT, AND POPULAR APPEAL

Brendan Maguire

To cite this article: Brendan Maguire (2005) AMERICAN PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING:


EVOLUTION, CONTENT, AND POPULAR APPEAL, Sociological Spectrum, 25:2, 155-176, DOI:
10.1080/02732170590883960

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02732170590883960

Published online: 20 Aug 2006.

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Download by: [Fac Latinoamericana de Cien Sociales] Date: 10 May 2017, At: 09:25
Sociological Spectrum, 25: 155176, 2005
Copyright # Taylor & Francis Inc.
ISSN: 0273-2173 print/1521-0707 online
DOI: 10.1080/02732170590883960

AMERICAN PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING: EVOLUTION,


CONTENT, AND POPULAR APPEAL

Brendan Maguire

Western Illinois University, Macomb, Illinois, USA

Over the past several years, professional wrestling, now referred to as


sports entertainment, has become a hugely popular cultural phenom-
enon. There are several reasons to account for why tens of millions of
Americans are attracted to this form of entertainment, but this article
centers attention on three allures that stand out: excitement, intrigue,
and political incorrectness. Content analysis suggests that these three
foci form the core of pro wrestling program content. The present paper
identifies the macrosocial forces that explain sociologically why these
themes are especially marketable today: community breakdown, social
disenchantment, and political correctness.

Dating back to the middle 1980s, professional wrestling has been one
of the most popular cultural forces in the United States. Tens of mil-
lions of Americans are attracted to this form of entertainment.
Despite this popularity, sociologists have taken little notice. This
article seeks to help correct that oversight by describing the evolution
of pro wrestling; documenting the present content of this form of
entertainment; and offering a sociological explanation for the
unprecedented success of pro wrestling.

BACKGROUND

As a professional sport in the United States, wrestling did not emerge


until the latter 1800s when a small number of men toured the country
wrestling for money at fairs and carnivals. Sometimes the

Received 20 March 2003; accepted 19 January 2004.


Address correspondence to Brendan Maguire, Western Illinois University, Sociology
Department, Macomb, IL 61455, USA. E-mail: b-maguire@wiu.edu

155
156 B. Maguire

matches were billed as exhibitions between experts, but generally the


professional simply fought local strong men. In all likelihood the
first scripted match took place in a relatively obscure setting, and
was probably prompted by the fact that one of the competitors
was too injured to engage in a genuine contest. Early wrestlers were
probably focused on finances and career longevity. Most of these
people received modest paychecks and if they were too injured to
wrestle, they were paid nothing. Real wrestling could be dangerous,
and often tedious and boring. Matches could, and often did, go on
for several hours. Orchestrated wrestling was more flamboyant and
the length of the matches could be controlled to meet the demands
of the paying public. While there is no definitive documentary evi-
dence indicating when, where, and why professional wrestling
became orchestrated entertainment rather than sporting compe-
tition, most authorities suggest that fake wrestling began to
displace legitimate wrestling about 1910 (The Unreal Story of
Professional Wrestling 1998). The following account provides further
insight on the changing character of pro wrestling in the early 1900s.
In 1908 Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt (the Russian
Lion) met in a match that was dubbed the greatest in the history
of American wrestling (Siler 1908a, p. 9). At the time Gotch, the
American wrestling champion, was the most famous athlete in the
United States and Hackenschmidt, the European champion, a big
and powerful man, was thought to be invincible. When the two
men met in Chicago, Hackenschmidt was favored to defeat Gotch.
There was a guaranteed purse of $10,000 for the wrestlers and gate
receipts were reported to be $40,000. With regard to the upcoming
match, Chicago sports writer George Siler noted the following: If
any man could tip the winner as a certainty, he could retire pretty well
fixed, as the all absorbing question isWho will win? (Siler 1908a,
p. 9). More generally, a review of newspaper articles leading up to the
fight suggests that the match was not fixed.
The day following the match Siler (1908b, p.9) called it the most
desperate battle in the history of wrestling. The bout began at 10:29
p.m. and ended two hours and one minute later with Hackenschmidt
raising his hand in defeat. In 1911 Gotch and Hackenschmidt, still
regarded as the two top wrestlers in the world, fought a rematch. This
match, like the previous one, drew considerable attention. However,
this time reporters made a point to stipulate that this match was
probably legitimate. A reporter for the Chicago Daily Tribune with
a by-line signature of H.E.K. wrote the following concerning the
upcoming contest: A wrestling match which is probably
on the square is not an inviting betting proposition, . . . At other times
American Professional Wrestling 157

the sporting public is inclined to regard wrestling somewhat in the


light of a joke, with the result foreordained (H.E.K. 1911, p. 1).
The statement that a wrestling match which is probably on the
square is chancy to bet on, suggests that rigged wrestling bouts were
already common in 1911. The same conclusion can be drawn from
the phrase with the result foreordained. Also, it is noteworthy that
the sports writer stated that the sporting public is inclined to regard
wrestling somewhat in the light of a joke. The inference here is that
professional wrestling had ceased to be seen as on-the-level compe-
tition. Something had happened between 1908 and1911.
From 1920 through the 1940s pro wrestling was in a down period;
however, the popularity of the sport increased markedly in the United
States during the 1950s with the advent of television. In fact, Ted
Shane (1950) in a 1950 Readers Digest article noted the following:
Ten years ago wrestling was flat on its financial back. Today, . . .
it provides a good living for some 3,000 glorified pretzel benders;
and 24 million cash customers pay 36 million dollars a year to see
them perform (Shane 1950, p. 10). In their book, Wrestling to
Rasslin, sociologists Gerald Morton and George OBrien (1985,
p. 47) note that pro wrestling may have had added appeal in the
early days of television when relatives and neighbors gathered for
the communal experience of an evening of TV watching.
Following the boom years of the 1950s came a two-decade-long
period of waning fan interest. There were a number of regional alli-
ances, but none were pre-eminent. Then, in 1982, Vince McMahon
Jr. altered the nature of the pro wrestling business. McMahon used
cable television to popularize the World Wrestling Federation
(WWF), a company he purchased from his father. Taking the
WWF to a national stage proved to be devastating to the regional
alliances, each with their own world champion. This was not com-
petition, but rather extinction as, one by one, regional organizations
went out of business.
By 1985, WWF programming was available to viewers across the
United States and dozens of nations around the world. Television rat-
ings soared, live matches sold out, pay-per-view events netted huge
profits, and toys, dolls, t-shirts, and various other consumer items
were in high demand. McMahons WWF and Ted Turners rival
alliance, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) dominated the
pro wrestling industry (McMahon eventually bought out WCW).
Perhaps the best single illustration of McMahons success is the
annual wrestling extravaganza called WrestleMania. WrestleMania
III held in 1987 at the Pontiac Silverdome sold 93,173 ticketssetting
an American indoor attendance record (Heath 1999, p. 123). But what
158 B. Maguire

was it that fans were seeing? In early 1989 Vince McMahon directed
his representatives to admit before a New Jersey legislative committee
that pro wrestling was rigged (Kerr 1989). Pro wrestling was simply
entertainment. Why would McMahon admit that wrestling was
fixed? The answer is to save money! If wrestling is considered a per-
formance rather than a competitive event, then there is no need for
state athletic boards to license the wrestlers, promoters, timekeepers,
and referees. Further, if wrestling is not a sport, then the telecasts of
its events would not be subject to state taxes on televised sporting
events. For over a decade now, McMahon has proudly proclaimed
that professional wrestling is sports entertainmentdefined as
an activity in which participants struggle hand-in-hand primarily
for the purpose of providing entertainment to spectators rather
than conducting a bona fide athletic contest (quoted in Reardon
1999, p. 1).
In the 1980s Hulk Hogan and Sergeant Slaughter filled the role of
larger-than-life comic book heroes. In his book, Professional Wres-
tling as Ritual Drama in American Popular Culture, author Michael
Ball (1990) emphasizes how pro wrestling is like a mini-play with rich
symbolism, including symbols for good and evil. Indeed, both Hogan
and Slaughter stood for God, country, and everything good. Hogan
regularly exhorted kids to obey parents, take vitamins, and say
prayers. Both Hogan and Slaughter took on dangerous and evil
villains. But todays pro wrestling can no longer be described as a
morality play. In her book on professional wrestling, Sharon Mazer
(1998) argues that wrestlings presentations of virtue and vice are
more ambiguous than might be apparent at first glanceit is no
longer a matter of simply reflecting and reinforcing moral cliches
(1998, p. 3). According to Newsweek writer John Leland (2000,
p. 48), beginning in the late 1990s, cardboard good guys and bad
guys were replaced with pimps, porn stars, and sociopaths. Report-
ing for TV Guide, Phil Mushnick (1998, p. 54) has observed that pro
wrestling isnt good guy versus bad guy theatre anymore. Its bad guy
versus worse guy, and both are instructed to sustain an audience
through shock appeal. McMahon agrees: Life is not about black
and white issuesits shades of grayso its important that our
characterizations and performances be somewhat gray (quoted in
Johnson 1998, p. C17).
The changes in pro wrestling over the past century have been dra-
matic and virtually always tied to the presumed interest of the audi-
ence. Instead of a morality play, pro wrestling has evolved into
sports entertainment, a type of soap opera that highlights excite-
ment (much of it revolving around violence and sex), intrigue, and
American Professional Wrestling 159

political incorrectness. McMahon has said repeatedly that he will


promote whatever sells and that he is not the conscience of the coun-
try. He admits that his programs walk on the edge of creativity, to
shock the public (quoted in Johnson 1998, p. C17).

STUDY DESIGN

The focus of the present article is on professional wrestling in the


United States, with a special emphasis on the WWF and WCW. In
2001 Vince McMahon, owner of the WWF, purchased the WCW
and then, in 2002, legal action brought by the World Wildlife Feder-
ation forced the World Wrestling Federation to stop using the acro-
nym WWF. McMahons wrestling company promptly changed its
name to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). It is important to
keep all of these names and acronyms clear because the next section
of the article identifies and describes the content of pro wrestling and
the examples given are sourced to these organizations.
For over a decade Monday night has been a big night for pro wres-
tling fans. Throughout the 1990s the WWF and WCW staged com-
peting programs. The WWF ran two hours of programming on the
USA Network (switching over to the TNN Network in September
of 2000) and WCW produced three hours of programming for the
TNT Network. Today, there is no longer a WWF or WCW. In its
place is WWE and Monday (SPIKE) and Thursday nights (UPN)
now offer highly-rated regularly scheduled cable TV wrestling pro-
grams. The present study examines the content of Monday night
wrestling programs from 1998 through 2001. This four-year examin-
ation is primarily qualitative and is most accurately described as con-
tent interpretation rather than traditional content analysis which
generally suggests a strictly defined coding scheme. To a certain
extent, the method employed here can be seen as a variation of
C. Wright Mills (1959) famous file-keeping methodology for social
research. The video tapes of Monday night wrestling provide a store
of facts and ideas (Mills 1959, p. 200) from which to offer scholarly
evidence and conclusions.

FINDINGS

What follows now is the identification and description of the domi-


nant themes inherent in sports entertainment. Specifically, excite-
ment, intrigue, and political incorrectness characterize the main
components of pro wrestling program content.
160 B. Maguire

Excitement

Violence, sex, amusement, and theatrics (exaggerated dramatization


including special effects) typically spark human attention. It is obvi-
ous that film and television producers understand the entertainment
value of violence, as do video game creators and those who produce
music videos. Wrestling fans and viewers are also attracted to viol-
ence. Atkinsons (2002, pp. 6162) analysis of pro wrestling concludes
with this thought: Violence is the central actionand therefore,
source of entertainmentin the professional wrestling match, with
the athleticism of the participants judged by their abilities to admin-
ister and simultaneously withstand physical assault.
Indeed, the display of violence, real or feigned, is nowhere more
conspicuous than in professional wrestling. There are three main
forms of violence in pro wrestling: intimidation, destruction of pro-
perty, and bodily harm. The violence of intimidation is generally
demonstrated by verbal threats. Most often, one wrestler threatens
another wrestler, although sometimes managers and promoters issue
threats as well. For example, in 1999 WCWs Scott Steiner offered
this warning to Bill Goldberg: Goldberg, Im putting you in the
hospital right next to Dallas Page (Nitro February 22, 1999).
Previously, wrestling fans were led to believe that Steiner had so ser-
iously injured Diamond Dallas Page that Page required hospitaliza-
tion. Now, according to Steiner, the same fate awaited Goldberg.
In general, verbal intimidation is common in sports entertainment.
It is a routine way in which to hype an upcoming match.
A second form of violence used to attract attention is the destruc-
tion of property. The most common items damaged or destroyed are
objects at ringside or in the back areas of an arena. Items include
chairs, tables, walls, doors, light fixtures, computers, television sets,
and even bathroom facilities. Even cars are destroyed. In late April
of 2000, Stone Cold Steve Austin stole The Rocks new Lincoln
and totaled the car. Destruction of property is not confined to wres-
tling arenas. Wrestlers have been shown damaging property at
offices, apartments, bars, motels, convenience stores, and even on
the street. Rarely is there any mention of compensation or punish-
ment. It is as if professional wrestlers live by different rules than other
members of society.
The third and most serious form of violence is bodily harm. Wres-
tlers and others (victims will be discussed shortly) are slugged, kicked,
thrown, and otherwise hurt by a variety of weapons. Violent behavior
takes place in and out of the ring. Even though pro wrestling is chor-
eographed, a risk of physical injury is always present. Sooner or later,
American Professional Wrestling 161

nearly every wrestler, even headliners, are hurt and forced to stop
wrestling until the injury is healed. Accidents and miscalculations
occur. Obviously, pro wrestling is staged, but the essence of the pres-
entation is the interpersonal violence. Fans are treated to the spectacle
of each combatant beating the daylights out of the other, or at least
trying to.
Interestingly, the victims of violence include wrestlers, managers,
referees, announcers, promoters, arena workers, security personnel,
fans, and administrative staff of the wrestling company. Even family
members of wrestling personalities are occasionally assaulted. Weap-
ons used in attacks include fists, legs, chairs, hammers, bats, canes,
whips, thumb tacks, chains, guitars, trash cans, Kendo sticks, brand-
ing irons, tasers, cars, trucks, fork lifts, fire, and barbed wire, among
other objects. The wrestlers take pride in using a wide assortment of
weapons. For example, in 1999 a wrestler named Hak informed the
audience that he was the one who introduced the barbed wire bat:
I was the first man to wrap barbed wire around a bat and crush
someones head with it (Nitro, February 1, 1999).
In addition to violence, another conspicuous feature of sports enter-
tainment is sex. In recent years a number of wrestling personalities have
identified themselves with an image that is sexually provocative. For
example, throughout the late 1990s the main sex symbol of the
WWF was a woman named Sable. Always dressed in a sexually pro-
vocative fashion, when Sable appeared for an interview or to wrestle,
she invariably drew attention to her body. At the height of her popu-
larity, she posed for Playboy magazine (Chyna, another WWF person-
ality, also posed for Playboy). Shortly following her Playboy
appearance, Sable bolted the WWF. She alleged that the WWF asked
her to bare her breasts in a pay-per-view event, and when she declined
to do so, her status in the company was diminished. In Sables words,
professional wrestling has become so vulgar and obscene that I do not
wish to participate in it (quoted in Weeks 1999, p. 18).
Other characters in the former WWF that promoted a sex image
include Val Venis, the Godfather, and Debra. Venis was described
as a former porn star and it was that role that shaped the music video
that accompanied his standard introduction to the audience. Seem-
ingly clad only in a bath towel, Venis danced his way to ringside like
a male stripper. Venis proclaimed that he was always on the look for
women and that he knew how to satisfy their sexual desires. For a few
years one of the most famous personalities of sports entertainment
was the Godfather character in the WWF. Playing the role of a pimp,
the Godfather came to the ring accompanied by his hos (whores).
Before each of his matches the Godfather typically did two things.
162 B. Maguire

First, he enjoined the audience to chant with him that PIMPING


AINT EASY, and then he offered his opponent the choice of one
of his hos in return for not fighting. Occasionally, an opponent would
take one (or more) of the women and withdraw from the ring. Debra,
now the wife of Cold Stone Steve Austin, is not a wrestler, but for a
couple of years she was regularly seen in the WWF as manager of Jeff
Jarrett. Whenever an opponent appeared ready to defeat Jarrett,
Debra would distract him by showing more and more of her
cleavagethe announcers referred to this as showing her puppies.
The WCW also used sex themes in their productions. In early 2001
Scott Steiner was the WCW world champion. In addition to his
championship belt and his massive arms, he consistently furthered
an image of himself as a sex machine always ready and able to
satisfy his freaks. Speaking at a performance in Rockford, Illinois,
Steiner boasted the following: I went back to my hotel room to a
chorus line of freaks, all horizontal and looking for satisfaction. I
sent sweet sensations up and down their spines all night long (Nitro,
November 26, 2000).
Even a casual viewer of pro wrestling is likely to notice the sex
themes. It goes beyond the characters who purposely showcase their
sexuality to include the types of matches and contests. For example,
there are bikini, bra and panty, chocolate pudding, and eve-
ning gown matches, all of which center attention on the bodies of
female wrestlers. Another variation is a mud pit match. For
example, in Denver on August 7, 2000, WCW held such a match
between Major Guns and Miss Hancock, two sexy women wrestling
personalities. The announcer, in only a bit of an overstatement,
defined as follows the mission for Major Guns, a buxomy blonde:
to take Miss Hancock out to the mud pit and strip her naked
(Nitro August 7, 2000). More recently, Eric Bischoff stated: Nobody
really cares about womens wrestling. What they care about is sex ap-
peal (WWE Raw August 19, 2002). After saying this he announced
that Trish Stratus and Stacy Keebler would fight in a bra and panties
match in the mud.
The arena audience itself contributes directly to the sex theme of
pro wrestling events by making and holding signs with a sexual mess-
age. Representative examples include I want to be in Chyna,
Sable 4:69, Puppy Love, and Suck it. Similarly, fans partici-
pate in chants that carry sexual connotations. In short, there is no
missing the sex theme in sports entertainment.
A third aspect of contemporary pro wrestling is amusement. Part
of the appeal of sports entertainment is that it offers a distraction
from the humdrum, and enticement into a land of entertainment
American Professional Wrestling 163

and enchantment. We have seen that violence and sex are used liber-
ally to lure viewer interest. Amusement, defined here principally in
terms of comic relief, is also used to engage popular interest. Author
Robert Provine (2000) has argued that laughter is quintessentially
social and that it functions to draw people together. What do wres-
tling fans find amusing? It appears that sports entertainment comedy
content generally falls into one of three categories: slapstick, bizarre
humor, or just plain silliness. Slapstick is very common in pro wres-
tling programs. An example of this occurred in late November, 2000.
With Florida and the presidential election dominating the news of the
day, at 7:00 p.m. TNT network flashed the following across the
screen: BREAKING NEWSSPECIAL BULLETIN. A serious
looking man came on the air and stated: Ladies and Gentlemen
of the press, let me announce the next President of the United States
(Nitro November 26, 2000). That was all the man was able to say,
because Jeff Jarrett came out and smashed a guitar over his head
and down the man went. On a regular basis wrestlers hit one another
with trash cans, shovels, or other familiar objects. The violence
resembles the slapstick of The Three Stooges.
An illustration of bizarre humor revolves around elderly female
wrestler Mae Young. In early 2000 the WWF showcased a budding
romance between wrestler Mark Henry, also known as Sexual Choc-
olate, and Mae Young. A rival of Henrys, Kurt Angle, accused
Henry of living in sin and sneered that Henrys greatest
accomplishment is impregnating an 82-year-old woman (Raw=War
Zone February 7, 2000). Minutes later Angle caught up with Young
and body slammed her. The announcer cried out that Angle had
just body slammed an 80-year-old with child (Raw=War Zone
February 7, 2000). People dressed as medics rushed to the scene
and Mae, still supposedly delirious from the slam, took off her skirt
and volunteered that she prefers to be on top and asked the medics if
they wanted to see her puppies (breasts). Many Americans might
think the Mae Young story is unseemly or even discriminatory on
the basis of sex, age, and race (Henry is African-American and
Young is white). Still others might see this story as so farcical as to
be humorous, similar in comedy value to the farce of Pink Panther
films.
A third type of amusement is silly humor. For example, in the
WCW wrestler David Flair spent several weeks trying to identify
the father of the baby carried by Stacy, his bride-to-be. At one point,
Flair asked Stacy to take a blood test (Nitro October 9, 2000).
Obviously, paternity claims have nothing to do with the blood of
the mother. There are countless examples of silly things said and done
164 B. Maguire

during pro wrestling programs. At least some fans probably find


amusement in this silliness.
Finally, pro wrestling is exciting because of its theatrics. Fans are
treated to entrance and exit music, fireworks, jumbotron images, spe-
cial effects lighting, dazzling costumes, eye-catching props, extra-
large bodies, and exaggerated gestures and language. As theatrical
performers, wrestlers have much to learn. They must learn how to
throw and be thrown, come off the ropes, execute specific holds
and sequences of moves, and develop a sense for spatial relations.
Pro wrestling is a theatrical soap opera, but it requires a certain level
of physical skill and dexterity. Consider this rather unusual example
of learning the trade cited by Mick Foley (1999, p. 234): Someone
suggested using a shovel as a weapon, and I began practicing half-
speed shovel shots on the wall . . . I was scared that I might seriously
hurt someonethis wasnt a plastic or even an aluminum shovel, it
was solid steel.
Theatrical showmanship also demands that wrestlers learn how to
make elaborate gestures. For example, they must sell the pain they
supposedly feel when on the receiving end of a blow or move.
Further, they must draw out in dramatic fashion moments of rage
and triumph, including dramatically emphasizing the nearness and
reversal of pinfalls. Arena crowds are quick to chant BORING
whenever histrionics subside.
In sum, the first allure of pro wrestling is its excitement. The
excitement of violence and sex images are an almost sure way of
attracting attention. Amusing and theatrical actions and story lines
are offered to retain viewer interest. This leads us to the second allure:
Intrigue.

Intrigue

Numerous commentators have described sports entertainment as a


male soap opera. Even one of the principal figures of pro wrestling,
The Rock (2000, p. 277), says as much: Were producing a live play,
a highly physical, male-oriented soap opera, and Vince McMahon is
our director. Going back to the emergence of American soap
operas, to radio programs of the 1930s and 1940s, one sees that a
key ingredient of the soap opera form of entertainment is
intriguekeeping people in suspense (Fowles 1992). Researcher
Marilyn Matelski (1988) suggests that plot lines typically follow a
number of topics including intrigue and uncertainty. The intrigue
and uncertainty in professional wrestling takes three main forms:
high-risk situations, character transformations, and mysteries.
American Professional Wrestling 165

Part of the appeal of sports entertainment is that it entails risks for


the participants. Some of these risks are real, while others are orche-
strated. For many fans, the distinction between the two is probably
often blurred. That is, viewers may believe that someone is hurt,
when that is not the case, or conversely, fans might not recognize
actual harm when it occurs. An illustration of the latter point is the
1999 fatal fall of the WWFs Owen Hart in Kansas City. While being
lowered from the top of the arena, the cable snapped and Hart fell 60
feet to his death. Arena fans thought that the fall was part of the act
and were alarmed to find out later that Hart had died. Incredible to
some, McMahon decided to continue the program, even after he
found out that Hart was dead.
At times uncertainty extends beyond what will happen physically
to the wrestlers. Often, the fate of others hangs in the balance. A com-
mon ploy is to put women on the line. In 1999 Diamond Dallas
Page included his wife as part of a wager with his opponent, Scott
Steiner. If Steiner beat Page in their upcoming match, then Steiner
would get to have sex with Pages wife. A similar but less drastic
wager involved Lex Lugars manager, a woman known as Elizabeth.
Before one of his matches, Lugar wagered Elizabeths hairmuch to
her displayed surprise and regret (Nitro February 8, 1999). If Lugar
lost the ensuing match, Elizabeths hair would be shaved off. Luckily,
for Elizabeth, Lugar did not lose, and she kept her hair. Yet another
example of this phenomenon involved a woman named Tori who was
a close friend of WWF wrestler Kane. Shortly before Christmas in
1999, Tori was informed that she would have to spend the holidays
with WWF wrestlers X-Pac and Test if Kane was defeated in an
upcoming match. Kane lost the match and two days after Christmas,
according to script, Tori claimed that she had been violated by Test.
Test replied as follows: I didnt touch your woman . . . better give her
some Prosac to calm her down (Raw=War Zone December 27,
1999).
Character transformation is a second form of intrigue in pro wres-
tling. For many decades professional wrestlers were either good guys
(baby faces) or bad guys (heels), although they often moved
back and forth between these roles. There is still role reversal today,
even though the traditional good and bad guy routine has been large-
ly shelved. Consider, for example, the remarkable transformation
of a WWF wrestler called The Godfather. For many months, this
wrestler dressed in stereotypical clothes that one would generally
associate with a pimp, and came to ringside accompanied by several
beautiful women. The Godfather referred to these women as his
hos. In the summer of 2000, WWF writers introduced a new group
166 B. Maguire

called Right to Censor. Steven Richards, the leader of this group,


speaking to wrestling fans in Albany, New York, and a national TV
audience, denounced The Godfather, his fans, and WWF producers
as immoral: You cheer for The Godfather and his hos. Can some-
body tell me where our morals have gone? The Godfather and
the producers of this show are corrupting the youth of America
(Raw=War Zone July 17, 2000). The Godfather reacted angrily to
Richards, even challenging him to a match. Within two weeks, how-
ever, The Godfather renounced his past actions and embraced
Richards and the Right to Censors point of view. Henceforth, The
Godfather became known as The Goodfather and in this persona
he argued for a restoration of traditional morals. Gone were the hos
and all allusions to sexual permissiveness. Later, however, The
Godfather character returned. As of early 2002, he was portrayed
as running an escort service. In The Godfathers words, he offered
service with a lot of class and a lot of ass (Raw=War Zone January
28, 2002). This is an apt illustration of scripted character transfor-
mation. Indeed, viewers of sports entertainment can never be
completely sure how long pro wrestlers will stay in character.
Virtually all soap operas offer their viewers mysteries from time to
time, and pro wrestling programs are no exception to this general
practice. Mysteries represent a third type of intrigue. Some mysteries
continue through several episodes with clues dropped along the way.
One of the top mysteries in WCW in the year 2000 concerned the preg-
nancy of David Flairs girlfriend, Stacy. Shortly after Stacy
announced that she was pregnant she also volunteered that David
was not the father of the baby. If not David, who was the father?
David began a long and complicated search for the father of the child.
At roughly the same time that David Flair was trying to identify
the man who impregnated his girlfriend, over in the WWF, Stone
Cold Steve Austin was searching for the man who ran him over in
November of 1999. Mick Foley, former wrestler and at the time serv-
ing as WWF commissioner, launched his own investigation. Week
after week, various wrestlers were eliminated because they had con-
firmed alibis. By the middle of November, about one year after the
so-called hit and run, the WWF established that wrestlers Rikishi
and Triple H were the guilty parties. Of course, neither Rikishi nor
Triple H were ever arrested.
At times, a mystery can be introduced and resolved all in one pro-
gram. For example, on the night of October 29, 2001, early in the
broadcast, Shane McMahon suggested that one of the most promi-
nent members of WWF would that night defect to the Alliance
(mostly old WCW wrestlers). For the rest of the evening, there was
American Professional Wrestling 167

speculation about who the defector would be. By shows end, Kurt
Angle identified himself as the defector.

Political Incorrectness

A third allure of contemporary pro wrestling is the politically


incorrect speech and behavior that is a staple part of this entertain-
ment (see Maguire 2001). Dwayne Johnson, more popularly known
as The Rock, provides the following explanation for why he thinks
professional wrestling is so appealing: There are a lot of people
who live vicariously through the WWF characters like The Rock
and Stone Cold Steve Austin (quoted in Whoriskey 2000, p. E5).
Contrasting wrestlers with other professional athletes, The Rock
argues: They have to be P.C., The Rock doesnt. Shaquille [ONeill
of the Los Angeles Lakers] cant say Im going to lay the smack
down on his candy ass, The Rock can (quoted in Whoriskey
2000, p. E5).
Seymour Martin Lipset (1996) argues that in American society
there is a suspicion of authority that is rooted to the nations revol-
utionary past. A general lack of respect for authority figures, at least
in comparison to other countries, permeates much of social life in the
United States. Therefore it is not surprising to find such themes used
by pro wrestling to generate interest, appeal, and satisfaction.
Political incorrectness in pro wrestling takes the following manifesta-
tions: gross insensitivity, humiliation, taboo topics, anti-authority
speech and action, racism, and sexism. Examples of each abound in
sports entertainment.
Gross Insensitivity
American society prides itself on its tolerance for nonconformity and
its ability to see things from another point of view. There are even
formal lessons in the area of sensitivity training. Such lessons, how-
ever, have not entered sports entertainment. As an example, for sev-
eral months in late 1999 and early 2000 the WWF featured an
ongoing clash between wrestlers Bossman and the Big Show, Paul
Wight. During this time, fans and viewers were told that Bossman
had initiated an investigation into the life of the Big Show, hoping
to discover some unflattering information. On the night of December
6, 1999, before a huge arena audience and on national television,
Bossman released his main finding: Paul Wight was a bastard.
Wights mother was asked about this in an interview and, crying all
the while, she admitted that Paul was in fact illegitimate. With that
confession, a delighted Bossman said this to the Big Show: Hey,
168 B. Maguire

Paul Wight, youre a nasty bastard, and your momma says so


(Raw=War Zone December 6, 1999).
Humiliation
Regardless of the details, acts of humiliation tend to attract interest,
and this is certainly the case in sports entertainment. Consider the fol-
lowing example from the WWF. On November 19, 2001, in Charlotte,
North Carolina, and on national television, Vince McMahon ordered
wrestler William Regal to kiss my ass. This was not a matter of
Regal performing menial tasks for McMahon or simply showing defe-
rence. Indeed, an actual kiss was required and expected. McMahon
stated that Regal would be retained by the company only if he did
as he was told. In a particularly degrading and humiliating scene that
lasted nearly five minutes, McMahon pulled down his trousers and
undershorts (still concealing his front) and demanded that Regal kneel
behind him and administer the kiss. In the end, the proper Britisher,
William Regal, did as he was instructed.
Taboo Topics
In a general sense, many of the topics showcased in pro wrestling are
somewhat taboo (e.g., graphic violence, near pornographic sexual
images, etc.), but some topics are particularly outrageous. Such an
example is Satanism. Satanism received its most extensive coverage
in the WWF in 1999. The Undertaker and his manager, Paul Bearer,
were portrayed as representatives of Satan and Undertaker explained
that each soul that we take, we take in the name of a power even
greater than me (Raw=War Zone February 15, 1999). Satanic drama-
turgy reached its highest point of influence on WWF telecasts on the
night of April 4, 1999, when a young woman was clamped to a Satanic
symbol. Amidst her screams, and The Undertaker talking in tongues,
television viewers were told that she was to be sacrificed. As this
example suggests, virtually nothing is off limits in sports entertainment.
Anti-authority Speech and Action
In pro wrestling those in authority, including, most prominently,
referees and promoters, are frequently beaten up. When that happens
in the real world, it is not tolerated. If a person assaults a police offi-
cer or work superior, there are serious penalties, and yet in sports
entertainment there is usually little or no punishment for such beha-
vior. Many Americans have bosses that they genuinely admire,
respect, and like, but millions of other Americans may have bosses
that they loathe. For the latter group of people, pro wrestling may
offer a satisfying vicarious experience of seeing an authority figure
roughed up or otherwise embarrassed.
American Professional Wrestling 169

The most conspicuous example of an authority figure in sports


entertainment is Vince McMahon, owner and promoter of the
WWE, previously known as the WWF. In early 2001 McMahon
urged viewers and fans to adopt a New Years resolution to respect
authority (Raw=War Zone January 8, 2001). It is fitting that McMa-
hon would encourage respect for authority because he has been a fre-
quent victim of attacks by his employees. Viewers have seen
McMahon hit over the head with a chair, thrown off the top of a cage
onto a table, sprayed with beer from a beer truck hose, doused with
what appeared to be raw sewage, and beaten up so badly that he had
to be hospitalized. In the soap opera that is sports entertainment
McMahons life has been threatened, his daughter kidnapped, and
his wife stalked. This reflects anything but a respect for authority.
The disrespect for authority in sports entertainment is too rampant
to be the product of coincidence. Instead, it appears to be a calculated
strategy. On this point, consider a comment offered by Mick Foley
(1999, p. 452): The real-life screwing of Bret Hart was used as a
springboard for Vince McMahons evil Mr. McMahon personaa
persona that helped propel the company to greater success than
was once thought possible. As noted earlier, The Rock has stated
that he thinks a lot of people live vicariously through WWF charac-
ters, that some of them want to be able to put people downlike
their bosses and get away with it (quoted in Whoriskey 2000,
p. E-5). Corporate downsizing, the application of formal rules for
everything from work to play, and a culture shaped by litigation
and political correctness, not surprisingly gives rise to anti-authority
sentiments that sports entertainment is happy to address.

Racism
Racial and ethnic stereotypes were especially blatant and prominent
in pro wrestling during the 1980s (Maguire and Wozniak, 1987).
According to The Rock, it used to be the case that the leading black
wrestlers were jive-talking caricatures . . . Theyd eat watermelon on
camera and do all sorts of degrading things, because thats what was
expected of them (The Rock 2000, p. 9). Although racism is under-
stated compared to past eras, sports entertainment still makes use of
racist themes. For example, WCW made use of the real life murder of
James Byrd. Byrd, an African American, was dragged to death by
three white men in Texas. In the middle of 1999 WCW showcased
an intense conflict between long-time wrestling star, Macho Man
Randy Savage and former professional basketball player Dennis
Rodman. The dispute between the two men escalated to the point
that they argued over Savages girlfriend, a lovely young woman
170 B. Maguire

named George. The story line suggested that Rodman had stolen
George from Savage (a white man) who then threatened to drag Rod-
man all the way to Mexico. This threat came only months after the
Bryd killing and it seems likely that the dragging reference was to
the Bryd case. By the following week it had become apparent to Sav-
age that his girlfriend George had willingly taken up with Rodman.
Macho Man denounced them both, but Rodmans reply, consistent
with another racial stereotype, was as follows: You know what they
say, once you go black, you never go back (Nitro August 2, 1999).
For several months in the middle of 2000, Booker T, an African
American wrestler, was WCW heavyweight champion. Making an
African American the champion is not an example of racism, but
the way in which other wrestlers referred to him is such an example.
As an illustration of this, consider what Scott Steiner said in reference
to Booker T: Im sitting in the back listening to you talk your jive
and quite honestly, I dont understand a word youre saying . . . So
what Im saying is I need an Ebonics handbook to understand your
ass (Nitro October 23, 2000). This is a common ploy. Rather than
have an ethnic minority say or do anything that resonates with tra-
ditional negative stereotypes, wrestling alliances often have a white
opponent introduce racist elements.

Sexism
The use of sex is an integral part of sports entertainment and so
is sexism. There are numerous examples of sexism to highlight. To
begin with, in WCW there was a character named Oklahoma who
displayed all of the attributes of a stereotypical male chauvinist.
Oklahomas view of women is revealed in the following statement:
I am sick and tired of all these [expletive deleted] that dont realize
that their place is in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant (Nitro
January 10, 2000).
Popular wrestlers Val Venis and Scott Steiner appear to be no
more enlightened than Oklahoma. Nearing the 19992000 holiday
season, Val Venis told an audience in Houston, Texas, that women
are a lot like Christmas trees, they smell good, are pretty to look at,
and dont feel special until I plug it in (Raw=War Zone December
20, 1999). Steiner has also repeatedly spoken of women as sex objects.
Here is what he said in June of 2000 (Nitro June 5, 2000):

Me and my freaks come into town a little early cuz we heard that
Hotlanta loves to party. So we went down to this club and this freak
comes up to me and says that shes been looking for love in all the
American Professional Wrestling 171

wrong places. Thats a hell of an odd thing to say to me, so I look into
her eyes and say I might not know how to love you, but I damn sure
know how to touch you. So why dont you quit lusting it and let me bust
it? So I took her back to my place and I gave her this feeling and I knew
she hit the ceiling and she called me the big bad booty daddy.

At the conclusion of these remarks, one of the announcers called


Steiner the greatest man alive. Undoubtedly, some viewers would
not have agreed with this description, thinking instead that Steiner
might be the greatest sexist alive.
Even more overt examples of sexism are the occasions when
women are man-handled. In fact, men take all types of physical lib-
erties with women in sports entertainment. For example, WWF wres-
tler Jericho once tied up WWF female wrestler, Chyna, and hit her
with a hammer. WCW wrestler Jeff Jarrett fought with a woman
named Miss Jones and then proclaimed: I just enjoy embarrassing
the hell out of the opposite sex (Nitro September 11, 2000). The
Franchise, another WCW wrestler, once baited female wrestler,
Medusa, with this warning: Wrestle me, bitch, dont make me have
to hurt you (Nitro September 11, 2000). Occasionally, women are
not only beaten, but they are sexually violated at the same time. In
early 1999 an example of this occurred when Jerry Briscoe and Pat
Patterson wrestled Chyna. Not only did these men wrestle her, but
they conspicuously felt her breasts as they were grappling with her
(Raw=War Zone January 18, 1999). Finally, Curt Henning was just
as obvious, but rougher, when he fought a woman wrestler named
Midnight. Hennig repeatedly slapped Midnights breasts (Raw=War
Zone November 29, 1999).
In addition to being spoken of and treated as sex objects, women
are also dressed and asked to perform as sex objects (as noted earlier).
Beyond this, it is also the case that women wrestlers are typically
given less attention than are male wrestlers. The true stars of sports
entertainment are males.

SOCIOLOGICAL REASONS FOR WRESTLINGS


CURRENT APPEAL

There are probably dozens of reasons that could be advanced to ex-


plain the unprecedented popularity of modern pro wrestling (sports
entertainment), but three sociological factors merit special consider-
ation: the breakdown of community, the disenchantment of social
life, and the phenomenon known as political correctness.
172 B. Maguire

The tragic events of September 11, 2001, brought Americans


together like no other time in recent memory. It was as if the
United States was once again a community but this sense of together-
ness is not a typical feature of modern society. This insight was intro-
duced at least as far back as 1887 with the thinking of Ferdinand
Tonnies (1953). Tonnies theorized that industrialization produced a
fundamental shift in social organization where close-knit community
life gave way to impersonal mass society. More recently, in his popu-
lar book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam (2000) offers a long list of
indicators showing a reduction in community activities by Ameri-
cans. These indices include the following: lower voter turnout;
decreased membership rates in churches, labor unions, and pro-
fessional associations; and reduced attendance at picnics, bars, and
restaurants. Putnam argues that watching television is associated
with decreasing social ties. In reality, however, watching TV may
be a response to feeling socially unconnected. For example, an elderly
person, whose close friends have died, may turn to television as a way
of staying in touch with what is happening in society. Likewise,
watching wrestling might be an attempt to connect with society.
As has often been said, todays version of pro wrestling is a soap
opera. Why do people watch soap operas? Fowles (1992, p. 171)
argues the following: Soap operas add to consciousness, contribu-
ting a scaffolding that viewers can use to strengthen and extend their
own lives, . . . In his examination of the soap opera, Guiding Light,
Intinoli (1984, p. 49) describes the program as an alternative com-
munity that presents itself as a parallel world that resonates with
the life of a viewer.
Can pro wrestling, as soap opera, really intersect with the actual
lives of viewers? Millions of people watch these programs regularly,
often in the company of others. They set their schedules accordingly.
Further, fans form a community of sorts by engaging in water
cooler or Internet conversations about past actions or future hap-
penings. This is a community by discourse, a fan-club type of associ-
ation. Of course, wrestling fans form a tangible community by
showing up in-person for wrestling events.
A second factor that helps to explain pro wrestlings current popu-
larity is the general disenchantment of social life. According to
George Ritzer (1999), social disenchantment has exacerbated the
desire for personal excitement. Ritzer argues that Americans choose
between competing cathedrals of consumption. Examples include
shopping malls, amusement parks, cruise ships, casinos, and zoos.
States Ritzer (1999, p. 8): In order to attract ever-larger numbers
of consumers, such cathedrals of consumption need to offer, or at
American Professional Wrestling 173

least appear to offer, increasingly magical, fantastic, and enchanted


settings in which to consume. Ritzer never mentions contemporary
pro wrestling as a cathedral of consumption, but it certainly fits his
model. Live wrestling events, like the concerts of popular rock stars,
have become a major happening, selling out within hours of when
tickets go on sale. Blaring music, pyrotechnic displays (including
one particular wrestler throwing lightning bolts), and jumbotrons
grab fan attention. As we have previously seen, much of the content
of pro wrestling centers on violence and sex, topics that seldom fail to
allure spectator interest. Indeed, speaking to the issue of professional
wrestlings mass appeal, former WCW star Jeff Jarrett offered this as-
sessment: When you hit two old ladies with a guitar, man, I dont
care if the guitar is fake. I dont care if wrestling is fake. If you see
that happen, you wont change the channel, which is what wrestling
is about now (quoted in Madden 2000, p. 29).
Beyond community breakdown and the disenchantment of social
life, there is a third feature of modern society that pushes the popu-
larity of pro wrestling: political correctness. Pro wrestling offers an
escape from political correctness. Indeed, the content of professional
wrestling contains a hefty dose of politically incorrect views and
behavior. For example, for decades violence and sex in the film indus-
try have been hot button topics (Horn 2000). Television content
has also been examined. In an advertisement printed in many big-city
newspapers, the late entertainer Steve Allen (1999), speaking for an
organization called Parents Television Council, stated that TV
is leading children down a moral sewer. Critical of television prac-
tices, Allen (1999) continued: Are you as disgusted as I am at the
filth, vulgarity, sex and violence TV is sending into our homes? Are
you fed up with steamy unmarried sex situations, filthy jokes, perver-
sion, vulgarity, foul language, violence, killings, etc.?
Although Allens advertisement indicts television in general, it
could just as easily be specifically referencing the content of pro-
fessional wrestling programs. On this point, consider the following
description of star wrestler, Stone Cold Steve Austin, as offered by
a Chicago Tribune reporter, Patrick Reardon (1999, p. 1):

Austin is no gentleman. Hell hit an opponent with a chair. Hell toss a


beer into another wrestlers face. His comments are peppered with
obscenities. His signature gesture is extending his middle finger at
his adversary, or both middle fingers if he is really angry.

Austin is not unusual. In pro wrestling, viewers regularly see


extreme violence, including the use of weapons such as guns and
174 B. Maguire

knives; scantily clad women; simulated sex; and actions and words
that are conspicuously politically incorrect. Vince Russo, a writer for-
merly associated with the WWF and WCW, offered this commentary
regarding the issue of base content:

The reality is in TV today theres a sick society out there and if you
dont give it to them, guess what, theyre not going to watch your pro-
gram. Theyre not going to watch Bill Goldberg, and WCW is going to
be out of business (CNN=Time, 2000)

What Russo is apparently suggesting is that there is a public


demand for base entertainment. There may be some truth to that
observation, and if so, it indicates the embrace of political incorrect-
ness as a counter to a perceived over-controlled social life.

CONCLUSION

For most of the twentieth century professional wrestling was a mor-


ality play. Good guys and bad guys acted out a ritualistic drama in
which moral order, although threatened, would always be preserved.
The morality play is no longer showcased. We have seen that todays
version of pro wrestling, sports entertainment, highlights a peculiar
blend of excitement, intrigue, and political incorrectness. This new
emphasis is suggested and reinforced by specific macro-level social
developments. Pro wrestling, in its own inimitable way, addresses
the anxiety and angst associated with community breakdown, social
disenchantment, and political correctness. Given that these broad
social currents are unlikely to be neutralized any time soon, pro-
fessional wrestling would appear to have a secure future.

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