I spent most of last week writing my dissertation prospectus, so I wasn’t able to get to an idea I’ve been pondering for a few weeks. As I was working on constructing an argument about viewing the Civil War and Reconstruction era from the lens of American settler colonialism, Vann R. Newkirk at The Atlantic beat me to the punch and wrote a very good article about what professional wrestling can tell us about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. You should definitely read it. And this.And this. While Newkirk argues that Trump’s success is based on his ability to play the heel (the overtly bad guy in a storyline), I argue that The Donald fits a more recent archetype: the “anti-heel” (i.e. Stone Cold Steve Austin, C.M. Punk, and Kevin Owens).
This past Tuesday, half-term governor Sarah Palin endorsed fellow reality TV star and demagogue Donald Trump for president of the United States of America. That same day, her son Track, an Iraq war veteran, was arrested for drunkenly assaulting his girlfriend with an AR-15 and attempting to prevent her from reporting it to the police. At a press conference the next day, Sarah Palin addressed “the elephant in the room” and used her son’s alleged domestic violence incident as a platform to blame Obama for not supporting the troops, especially those with PTSD.
“My son, like so many others,” she explained, “they come back a bit different. They come back hardened, they come back wondering if there’s respect for what it is their fellow soldiers and airmen and every other member of the military have so sacrificially given to this country.” Remarking that she could “related with other families who can feel these ramifications of PTSD and some of the woundedness our soldiers do return with,” she then turned to Obama as the root of the victimization of American veterans. “It starts from the top,” she concluded, “the question though, that comes from our own president, where they have to look at him and wonder, ‘Do you know what we have to go through?’”
Whether or not Track Palin suffers from PTSD remains unknown. As a veteran who has been treated by the Army and the VA for anxiety issues in the field and at home, I’d hate to attempt to diagnose Palin from afar. However, there are some lessons to be garnered from Palin’s statements that have not been addressed by most observers, namely where her statements come from and their effect on public perceptions of veterans. Most people on the left side of the aisle have dismissed Palin’s remarks as a bald-face and shameless attack on Obama. And yet Palin is tapping into several less obvious ideological and cultural strains regarding the role of veterans in American life.
[Merry Christmas! Speaking of virgin births, here’s a post I wrote a while back on Tumblr.]
Elites and intellectuals tend to see themselves as the creators of communal identity, but popular performances like wrestling have always been a conduit of the common person’s power. Wrestling is a powerful cultural force amongst the powerless. Wrestling is at its best when it celebrates the ability and worth of the powerless—children, the working-class, minorities, and (increasingly) women.
While I was grading a bunch of History 101 essays on the dual rise of Japan and the United States during the early 20th century, Taylor pushed my old “Sit Down and Enjoy the Goddam Show!” post about the rise and fall of the WWE’s Attitude Era. Honestly, if it weren’t for Taylor this post (and others) wouldn’t have gotten any attention, so thanks for pushing me over the moon, T!
I just finished reading Mike at ironcladfolly‘s wonderful response to my post. If you haven’t done so, you should read it. He does a much better job than I did breaking down the shift to the PG era and the significance of the Attitude Era.
His article brought to mind a documentary I saw on Netflix yesterday entitled “Mystery Files: Pope Joan.” Basically, it’s about an 8th or 9th-century pope who was reputed to be a woman. The Catholic Church’s chronicles state that she occupied the Papacy for two years, at which point she fell off a horse during a processional and gave birth to or miscarried a child. Much of the documentary is about whether or not Pope Joan even existed and, if so, how much of it is accurate. One historian (who asserts that the story is untrue) argues that the dramatic—and literal—fall of Joan serves a theatrical purpose:
“Joan giving birth really adds to the pantomime quality of the story enormously. I think it is the one thing that makes you absolutely sure that one isn’t meant to take this seriously. This is a bit of carnival.”
I immediately realized that this statement has everything to do with popular performances including wrestling. Many fans walked away from wrestling during the Attitude Era. Why? Ironcladfolly hits the nail on the head when he writes that “even the elements of the product that relied on spectacle had changed. Edginess had been replaced by silliness, and audiences weren’t expected to be ‘in on the joke’ to appreciate it.” The WWE lost sight of the art, pantomime, and carnival that is wrestling.
To really unpack the appeal of wrestling, we should take a step back and look at as something bigger than the events we see on television. This is difficult to do because the WWE’s rise to dominance has been so complete. The company is now synonymous with the art form. Really, the WWE took over wrestling due to the very fact that Vince and Linda treated it as a modern business enterprise while their competitors were still thinking in barn-storming and carnivalistic terms. The McMahons’s have created an environment where wrestling is often referred to as “the business” or “the industry.” It has become an international rather than local enterprise. As a result, we fans tend to digest story lines in business terms. We see pushes/burials and storyline swerves as Vince attempting to tap a new market. This isn’t completely inaccurate, but I think there’s more to it.
For one, enjoying wrestling is almost always reliant on the willful suspension of disbelief. This is why people who attempts to deconstruct wrestling are consider smarks and kill-joys. This is because the audience understands that, deep down, it is an active part of the performance. We know that our willingness to serve as “marks” and “smarks” directly effects the actions of the “faces” and “heels” we inhabit the circus tent with. We know that the ring and arena are share spaces, and we understand that we are part of the spectacle. This is the essence of popular performance. This is why Randy the Ram was willing to die in the ring in “The Wrestler.” This is why my friend went to Wrestlemania XX when he was diagnosed with cancer. This is why sick kids want to meet John Cena and Daniel Bryan as they fight for their lives. This is why broken down wrestlers call the carnival that is wrestling “coming home.” This is why people love the intimacy of indie wrestling.
The reason most wrestlers and fans dislike the stereotypical smarks is because their cynicism and arrogance betray the beauty of the art. I believe that the reason a lot of people dislike the Attitude Era is because the WWE turned its back on its carnival roots and became a smark. Just as the society that enters a long war always emerges as something different, the WWE came out of its war with the WCW as a funhouse reflection of its old self. Think the transition from the Old Republic to the Empire, or America Pre-9/11 to America Post-Patriot Act. In any case, wrestling lost itself and became a business model. It lost sight of its artist side and doubled-down on the idea that muscles, violence, and sex sell. What it forgot was that conscious pantomime and self-awareness made the vulgarity, homophobia, misogyny, and excess palatable. It became Jerry Springer when it was rooted were something so much more important.
During the course of Project Generico, I’ve learned that wrestling has the power to create as sense of community. It contributed to a sense of Southern identity during the late-20th century. It helped create a Jewish sense of community among poor Jews in Warsaw before World War I. It strengthened a sense of Japanese masculine and feminine virility after World War II. Elites and intellectuals tend to see themselves as the creators of communal identity, but popular performances like wrestling have always been a conduit of the common person’s power. Wrestling is a powerful cultural force amongst the powerless. Wrestling is at its best when it celebrates the ability and worth of the powerless—children, the working-class, minorities, and (increasingly) women.
The Attitude Era tapped into that, but it was more lip than substance. It treated the audience as consumers, not participants. I celebrate its demise and I look forward to the carnival.
Traditional geek-fests are now becoming less male, less white, and less straight. Sure, increased inclusion and accessibility have opened fandoms up to the specter of “hipster” and “fake” fans—and perhaps most nefariously the dreaded “fan girl” with her lusty loins aflame with hysterical celeb thirst—but who honestly cares?
There’s been a lot of talk about how the WWE would be so much better if we could return to the “Attitude Era” and hardcore matches (read: Mick Foley hardcore, not the comedy that was the recent Ziggler v. Sandow Broadway Brawl). The Attitude Era brought us some really great moments, and hardcore has its appeals (well, at least some people think it does). Yet the nostalgic detractors of the so-called “PG Era”—a title I think is presumptuous and unsatisfying for many reasons—fail to recognize that the Attitude Era was a product of a very specific cultural moment. And what’s more, that specific time and place that cannot be replicated in 2014. Calling for the return of the Attitude Era is not only misguided, it’s also dangerous for professional wrestling as a business.