Wrestling With the Margins

The academy puts on its tights and steps into the ring

Henry Jenkins IV recalls that in 1992 his father, an M.I.T. professor, treated him to a big WWF match at Boston Garden. Surely, Henry Jenkins III was treating himself too: The cultural-criticism scholar had taken a cue from his wrestling-fanatic son and was studying the spectacle. They watched, rapt, as the lavender-clad Beverley Brothers hugged and took the ring. But as the opponents, the über-masculine Bushwhackers, sauntered in wearing work shirts and boots, the queer-bashing began. The more effeminate duo not only got ripped apart and taken down, but became the object of the crowd's loathing as it chanted, "Faggot, faggot." In that moment, the father was deeply disgusted with his academic pursuit and the son became alienated from his passion.

The early '90s saw a rekindling of professional wrestling's glory days, when the ring was a moral battleground and an arbitration space for allegorical matchups. With the advent of the WWF, wrestlers went from fighting men in tights to bona fide emoting televised personalities. Kids began eating Hulk Hogan vitamins. It caught the attention of more scholars than just M.I.T.'s Jenkins, who, though disgusted with its politics, kept following pro wrestling. His 1997 piece "Never Trust a Snake" is one of the pillars of Nicholas Sammond's new collection of academic essays, Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling (Duke).

Sammond, then an assistant professor at UC Santa Cruz, had read French literary theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes's famous 1957 essay "The World of Wrestling" and was seeing the upswing of a televised spectacle of sweat, drama, and brawn. He decided to give his students a lecture on pro wrestling. Sammond, now a professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, tells the Voice his students "absolutely went wild."

What would Barthes do? Pro grappler the Plague, 2004
photo: Thomas McGovern
What would Barthes do? Pro grappler the Plague, 2004

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    Much as Barthes did, the authors in Sammond's collection use the placement of professional wrestling in the dramatic arts as a launching point for their analyses. Although the topics are diverse—everything from female fanship online to political implications of Mexican lucha libre masks to WWF as an s/m narrative—all but one of the essays directly reference Barthes. Because a translation of Barthes's piece opens Steel Chair, it's easy to place all of the other writings in a scholarly tradition that stems from his work.

    "Are they dependent? Well, Jenkins's original article was dependent on it—he opened up the field," editor Sammond says, attributing the frequency of references to Barthes within the collection to academia's inability to accept study of such a topic without a plug into a reliable scholarly source, rather than to critics' inability to move past old ideas. "Because not too many people have written about wrestling, Barthes is an opening into the topic, and somewhat necessary to nod to."

    Jenkins goes beyond the nod and calls Barthes a critic it is necessary to "bow before." "You have to say, just to get through the gate, 'Yes, I know that essay, and here's how we'll talk about it from there,' " Jenkins said.

    But in the web of cross-references that is Steel Chair, Jenkins—whose essay deals with suppressed expressions of masculinity in contemporary human interaction, presenting spectacles like WWF bouts as a melodramatic expressive form for the working-class man—gets almost as many reference hits as Barthes.

    Sharon Mazer, who now heads the department of theater and film studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, comes in a close second. Mazer began studying pro wrestling just after Jenkins did, but did so in a journalistic manner: by engaging with those inside the world of wrestling. She avoided the bright stadium lights, slicked-down bodies, and pounding music of televised arena wrestling and headed to Gleason's Gym in DUMBO. But as she became more involved in her research, she spoke more of "lessons . . . learned" and "admiring . . . acrobatics" than enjoying wrestling for itself. She writes, "Like Barthes,I frequently find the ecstasy of wrestling's rhetorical and metaphoric possibilities irresistible."

    Mazer might work like a journalist, but she takes liberty to rib 20/20reporter John Stossel for his inability to debunk wrestling (and his ability to get his ears boxed by wrestler David "Dr. D" Schultz at the same time). She scoffs at his and other mainstream media's inability to get the starting place for reporting right. Of course professional wrestling is more spectacle than sport! Barthes said it! Don't you guys read?

    But Mazer, Sammond, et al., are engaging in the academic equivalent of investigative reporting here. They are researching and writing about subjects who would rather not be covered, and writing for a small, concentrated audience not necessarily composed of those affected.

    Vince McMahon and his World Wrestling Entertainment have a stormy relationship with the media, and it is hard to think, politics considered, that academia wouldn't be to professional wrestling's abhorrence as well.

    Jenkins explores this idea in his afterword, written after Sammond decided to compile the essays a few years ago. Because it was Jenkins's son, by then a media studies student at George Washington University, who piqued his interest in wrestling culture, he asked Sammond if his son could share the afterword space. Sammond loved the idea. In an interview with the Voice, the elder Jenkins elaborated on this epilogue, complicating other writers' metaphors for heartland entertainment (NASCAR, The Passion of the Christ) as scales on which to weigh red-state morality. (Jenkins IV, instead, sees fanaticism for pro wrestling as an indication of marginalia of tastes that pop up within, and end up defying, our left-to-right political model.)

    "The politics of political incorrectness is often looking for fault lines in culture. It is not television for swing states," the elder Jenkins said. He neither defends nor condemns professional wrestling's transgressions; rather, his ideas function as a map with which to navigate the confused politics of the WWE. It is socially conservative, but it is out to fuck GOP political correctness in a way that seems to trumpet free speech. It is self-consciously a business, and stands for business interests. But, Jenkins asks, wouldn't it stand for unions? Vince McMahon solidly supports the Iraq war, but given the heightening struggle between military leadership and ground troops lacking armor or clear command, he and his business might side with the troops.

    The younger Jenkins's portion of the afterword looks at the WWF-WWE wave of wrestling's developmental cycle, through youth to raunchy adolescence (the years of queer-baiting and burying opponents alive) and into adulthood. "Yeah, I'd say WWE is acting thirtysomething and married now."

    "It's on the decline," Sammond agrees, but foresees wrestling being rejuvenated at the local level, where new story lines can develop and genuine characters emerge. "I don't think it will ever decline completely. As long as there are people out there who identify with those on the margins, it will continue."

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