It’s been said many times that the reason wrestling people like wrestling is because it’s “a soap opera for men”. This is incorrect. What soap operas offer (or used to offer, they’ve been supplanted by ‘reality’ TV) is a melodrama where story development means nothing and you get just the good stuff – everyone sleeping with everyone and bitterness and recrimination and murder. If there’s a “soap opera for men” equivalent it’s action movies – not much story, just the good stuff, a bunch of shit blowing up and guns blazing.
So what’s the appeal of wrestling then if not soap operaism? Unusually I would equate wrestling to burlesque, and not because they both involve showing a lot of skin. Burlesque was a big deal in old times, then went away for a long time, and now is in vogue again. Why the resurgence when you can see any and all nudity in the universe on the internet? Not to mention your strip clubs and what not. Contemporary burlesque has been described as women stripping for women and I would suggest that’s because burlesque now isn’t just a performance of comedic stripping—it’s a performance of femininity.
The appeal of burlesque (at least now) is that it provides an exaggerated, hyperbolic version of what it is to be a woman. By the same token I believe that professional wrestling is a presentation of the idea of masculinity. Clearly it’s not about violence alone. You can see all fake the violence you want in movies and shows, you can see controlled real violence in MMA and boxing, and you can see real uncontrolled violence on Youtube if you want. But that’s just violence, what’s missing that wrestling can provide is a narrative.
I don’t know if it’s societal or genetic or what, but violence is something I am attracted to. My parents were hippies and wouldn’t buy me toy guns or anything like that so I just collected sticks and pretended they were guns and ran around shooting my friends. I loved GI Joe and Transformers and all the other war cartoons. Why I don’t know, but it’s a thing.
However, I wasn’t I sociopath (then) so it was not about violence for the sake of violence, what I was after was righteous violence. Justice of a both poetic and karmic nature, where the bad guys lose and the good guys celebrate together like best friends. It’s like a fairy tale, but one with violence as the triumphant exclamation point.
I often make jokes about how everything in wrestling is solved with a fight. There have been matches to determine marriages, to settle custody disputes, to decide probate issues, to decide who gets to be CEO, for power of attorney, for jobs, for raises, for parts in movies, for magazine covers, for anything and everything. Whatever the problem is the answer is fighting in the ring. Just like contemporary burlesque showcases sensuality without sex, wrestling offers justified violence abstracted away from the real world complexities of violent actions.
Here’s the irony of that, wrestling gets attacked a lot for being too violent, but I feel that those attacks only serve to make the medium worse and closer to what the people concerned about it think it is in the first place. One criticism is that wrestling promotes bullying, while at the core wrestling’s “moral code” is diametrically opposed to bullies. The problem of bullying managers, wrestlers and authority figures always solved using wrestling’s signature tool of violence.
When a new wrestler is introduced to the audience, there’s a very small window of opportunity in which the audience can be told how to feel about the character. Gimmicks exist as a kind of shorthand that lets the audience know immediately whether they should cheer or boo this person standing before them.
Because they’re designed to elicit an immediate reaction, gimmicks are often insensitive, on the nose stereotypes: the heroic soldier, the arrogant intellectual, the hardworking underdog, the cruel millionaire, and of course, a slew of racial and ethnic–based gimmicks. It’s a difficult, problematic situation to be sure, especially when traditionally under– or misrepresented minorities are involved.
Where even the crassest gimmicks redeem themselves is in what comes next. More often than not, successful wrestling characters add new depth and nuance to their gimmicks as time moves on, sometimes abandoning them completely as they settle into a gimmickless persona based more on a real person. What becomes abundantly clear is that the original hyperbolic gimmick doesn’t matter in the long run—the only thing that really matters is whether the wrestler is a good guy or a bad guy.
There are a slew of things that can render a wrestler wicked in the audience’s eyes, with some of the most serious offenses being a refusal to stand your ground, trying to get out of a fight or having anyone else fight your battles for you. In this cartoonish, exaggerated performance of masculinity, the only unforgivable sin is cowardice.
A wrestler’s initial gimmick exists only for the audience to know how to feel about them until actual feelings form based on the wrestler’s actions and behavior. Operating in a very similar fashion is the tactless, sophomoric tone for which wrestling is often derided. Wrestling isn’t a prestige cable drama, and to judge it by the same metric is like criticizing a candy bar for not being as healthy as an apple. Unlike other television shows, people don’t watch wrestling for rewarding, nuanced dialogue and character studies.
In wrestling, dialogue and character development are all just fuel for the fire, leading to an explosive, violent and cathartic end. Storylines, promos, backstage vignettes—they’re just quick, easy, and often dirty ways to set up a scenario that can only be solved by violence. While the characters involved in a wrestling match and the circumstances leading up to it might be base and simplistic, the match itself is home to endless, recursive, self–referential and frankly, fascinating variation. A good wrestling match can, in terms of complexity and nuance, stand proudly next to anyone’s favorite highbrow drama.
Professional wrestling inhabits a world where all of the characters and conflicts are easily summed up in a single sentence before being violently resolved inside a ring. It’s a ridiculous and reductive way of seeing the human condition, but that’s all any story is really. Even the smartest piece of fiction you can think of works by distilling the complicated realities of life down into more easily and enjoyably digestible pieces.
Is wrestling an extreme variation of this approach? Absolutely, as the medium relishes in its ability to tap into a base, visceral, almost primal understanding of right and wrong—one that you’ve known and felt ever since you were a kid on the schoolyard. Wrestling speaks to big issues through the high proof symbolism of two people beating the ever-loving Christ out of each other. When people think that’s base, insensitive, too violent or reductive, yeah, that’s the point.