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).
“During one broadcast, Jake the Snake captured Macho Man, dragging him into the ring. Jake tied him to the ropes and menaced him with a cobra which sprang and bit him on the forearm. The camera was jostled from side to side by people racing to Macho’s assistance and panned abruptly trying to follow his hysterical wife as she ran in horror to ringside. A reaction shot shows a child in the audience reduced to tears by this brutal spectacle. Yet, at the same, the camera refused to show us an image ‘too shocking’ for broadcast. Macho Man’s arm and the snake’s gaping mouth were censored, blocked by white bars…A few weeks later, the ‘uncensored’ footage was at last shown, during a prime-time broadcast, so that viewers could see ‘what really happened.’
…Such campy self-acknowledgment may be part of what makes male spectators’ affective engagement with this melodramatic form safe and acceptable within a traditionally masculine culture which otherwise backs away from overt emotional display….The plots of wrestling cut close to the bone, inciting racial and class antagonisms that rarely surface this overtly elsewhere in popular culture, while comic exaggeration ensures that such images can never be taken seriously.”
-Henry Jenkins III in “‘Never Trust a Snake’: WWF Wrestling as Masculine Melodrama” (51-52) <x>
Seriously, though, check out the reactions in the audience.
[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.
Wrestling, a form of popular theater shared by Jews and Gentiles, threatened elite notions of Jewish and Polish nationalism. By participating in wrestling—a associated with ethnic miscegenation and fluid identities where a man could be Jewish one year and Palestinian the next—fans and performers were constructing their own form of Polish identity.
The first article I read as part of my larger Project Generico endeavor was Edward A. Portnoy’s “Freaks, Geeks, and Strongmen: Warsaw Jews and Popular Performance, 1912-1930,” which appeared in TDR: The Drama Review in the summer of 2006. It’s really a fascinating article about theshund, or low-brow culture, of lower-class Jews in the Polish capital. The article exams the role of the popular theater in creating a sense of Jewish national identity, arguing that by “performing as tightrope walkers, fakirs, and professional wrestlers…these performers appealed to Jewish audiences not only because of their entertainment values, but also on an ethno-inclusionary basis that allowed the Jewish audience to ethnically identify with the performer.” In otherwords, it wasn’t the high-arts of literature that stirred the souls of the amkho—the common Jewish rabble—it was the shund, the circus freak, the strongman, the hermaphrodite, and the wrestler. Portnoy lays this argument out quite beautifully:
For thousands of Jews who were caught up in the immediacy of the events, there was nothing more intense or Jewishly important at crucial moments than, for example, to support the Jewish wrestler or to promote Jewish performers in general entertainment venues. These long forgotten moments in Jewish history, in which Jewishness was synthesized with a variety of difference performative forms, are important—if not vital—in attempting to comprehend the lives of the amkho, the common Jews who made up the majority of Jewish society.
Contrary to a history that privileges the paragons of virtue, this article argues that the so-called “fathers of nations,” at least to the commoner, were the freaks, geeks, and strongmen of low-brow culture.
Portnoy does a wonderful job offering a description of several genres within the category of popular theatre, but I’m going to focus on professional wrestling. If you’re interested, he also offers descriptions of Warsaw’s strongmen, fakirs, contortionists, hermaphrodites, and “freakery.”
The amkho of Warsaw have attended popular theater performances since ancient times, and the dusty shelves of archive ache beneath the weight of rabbinic admonitions of the lower class’s taste for shund. By the fine de siècle, Yiddish newspapers began to notice that professional wrestling was experiencing a surge in popularity among Warsaw Jews; thus, the first accounts of bouts appeared in print. Wrestling promoters seized upon the need to capitalize on the sport’s popularity among Jews. In 1913, the first Jewish wrestler, “the Jewish Champion” Avrom Vildman, appeared on a tournament roster.
For amkho “smarks,” it wasn’t enough to simply trot out a token Jewish wrestler. Appearance and performance of Jewishness mattered when it came to pushing the Hungarian Vildman. Menakhm Kipnis, a Jewish journalist and folklorist, wrote that “the main thing was that he was a Jew, with a Jewish nose, with a Jewish forehead, with melancholy melamed-like Jewish eyes.” If there were any doubt as to whether Vildman was Jewish enough, the promoters told the audience that he had attended kheyder (Jewish elementary school) and learned gemore (Talmud). To complete the image, the champ told interviewers that he had a strangely masculine Jewish mother who wore a men’s arbo-kanfes while she prayed. Vildman’s role as a Jewish icon is most apparent when one considers the fact that postcards bearing his image were sold in packs along with those of high-brow Jewish icons like Theodore Herzl (the father of Zionism) and Sholem Aleichem (whose stories became the musical “Fiddler On the Roof”).
Promoters being as they have always been, one company tried to pass off an fake Avrom Vildman during a tournament in 1921. When the imposter was presented, the audience was not only upset that they had be duped, they were angry because he didn’t even appear to be a Jew. “Where is the nose? [This was a] blond haired man,” on writer complained, “not a Jew at all!” “What a disappointment,” another wrote, “we all talked about Rachel and the hoodwinked us with Leah.” Of course, like modern fans, the audience was quick to forgive. Once Vildman declared the previous year’s Vildman an imposter all of his matches quickly sold out.
Wrestlers became the vessels of what their fans saw in themselves. Portnoy points out that “Jewish fans actively sought out and constructed Jewishness in wrestlers, even when it wasn’t there,” as in the case of Leon Pinyetski, a Pole who denied being Jewish. Fans went as far as traveling to his hometown to find out about his past. Others followed him to Bar Metropole, a popular Jewish hangout, where they claimed to see him eating kugel on Saturdays. Pinyetski maintained his goyish identity even after he emigrated to the United States where wrestling as a Jew would have earned him more money. Amkho enthusiasm for kindred wrestlers apparently knew no bounds.
While the Yiddish press claimed that Warsaw’s Jewish wrestling fandom was composed mostly of poor artisans and shopkeepers, Portnoy believes that it was probably a fair representation of the amkho writ large. In 1921, Kipnis observed that the crowd was composed of traditional Jews with beards, sidecurls, and long black coats, along with bewigged women and khyder boys who had spent their lunch money on tickets. Like today, audiences broke down the fourth wall and participated as participants and spectators. One reporter wrote that the audience once became so loud that the “entire began to shake.” Kipnis stated that at times the air in the room was so full of tension and excitement “that if you were to strike a match, the air would ignite…in a work, it is Dante’s Inferno.” If a match involved a Jewish wrestler, Portnoy observes that “outward expressions of Jewishness, such as the recitation of psalms, were an integral element in the performances of Jewish fandom.” Press reports recounted that Jewish fans feverishly supported Jewish wrestlers, screaming, fighting amongst themselves, and throwing rotten vegetables at wrestlers they didn’t like.
Jewish intellectuals were befuddled by wrestling’s mass appeal. Many of their arguments fit the “Why do you watch wrestling, don’t you know it’s fake?” argument. Portnoy states:
It seemed odd to Jewish intellectuals that something so apparently obtuse as wrestling could so easily bring forth national sentiment among Jews. It was, after all, the ‘intellectuals’—the scientists, scholars, and political figures—who were supposed to foment national feeling among the Jewish masses, through their inspiring words and deeds. The intense interest in wrestling…made Jewish [high-brow] literary figures a weak substitute as national heroes for the masses.
To the elite, wrestling was “irretrievably goyish” and distasteful. Nevertheless, they attempted to participate in wrestling culture by using high-end rabbinic verbiage to describe action in the ring and employ references to high-brow literature in their coverage of matches. Portnoy asserts that this was part of an intellectual attempt to Judaize wrestling, to make it legible and useful to their own nationalist project. Or it may have been their attempt to match the Jewishness of wrestling’s exuberant audiences. He concludes that “the lives of Warsaw’s Jewish amkho who attended the matches were specifically and conspicuously Jewish, and often unaffiliated nationally.”
I would argue that wrestling, a form of popular theater shared by Jews and Gentiles, threatened elite notions of Jewish and Polish nationalism. By participating in wrestling—a associated with ethnic miscegenation and fluid identities where a man could be Jewish one year and Palestinian the next—fans and performers were constructing their own form of Polish identity. This is where I disagree with Portnoy. He argues that in America, wrestling served “seemingly contradictory acculturative and nationalistic functions,” whereas in Poland it promoted ethnic pride and secured a cultural space Jews could dominate. I would argue that in wrestling promoted ethnic pride and created cultural space for minorities in both countries; however, I would add that the threat of the sport become an acculturative force—a force of ethnic miscegenation—is what made the country’s elite suspicious of its cultural importance. We see this in the history of jazz and cabaret in Jewish life in Germany and Poland. Unfortunately, these popular forms of theater and art, and the combining of ethnicity and culture they represented, suffered greatly during the Holocaust. I believe wrestling has become, in the US and perhaps Europe, an avenue through which the non-elite have been able to transcend national and ethnic identities while embracing the particularities of their cultural roots.
I just realized I wrote this with my Colt Cabana shirt on: