I love professional wrestling. I think it’s one of the most unique forms of storytelling out there when done well, and it’s immensely fun to complain about when not done well. So that’s a win-win.
As such a unique medium of entertainment, it’s sometimes quite difficult to think about what wrestling actually is. (By the way, I’ll be referring to it simply as ‘wrestling’, but unless specified otherwise I’ll be talking about professional wrestling of the World Wrestling Entertainment/ Ring of Honor/ New Japan Pro Wrestling variety and not the sport misleadingly referred to as ‘amateur wrestling’.) Some people have this sort of knee-jerk reaction when they hear that someone’s a wrestling fan, which is to pull a dubious expression and pretend to be tentative about using the word ‘fake’. I don’t think ‘fake’ is the right word for it, for reasons I’ll get into; I think that it boils down to a misapplication of suspension of disbelief, wherein people seem to think that the knowledge that wrestling is entertainment and not a competitive sport in the true sense somehow invalidates the whole thing.
Ultimately, professional wrestling creates fictions. The stories it tells are fictive; the matches the wrestlers put on are artificial in the strictest sense of the word, but only to the same degree that a novel or a movie can be called artificial. It evokes feelings in the audience, and those aren’t fake.
Roland Barthes, who was a French guy who wrote a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff, had a few things to say on wrestling. You can read his article on the topic here; this is a translation of an essay originally published in his 1957 collection Mythologies. It’s a little bit outdated, perhaps, given that wrestling today is not awfully similar to what it looked like back in ’57, but I think a lot of the points are still worth discussing.
‘The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess’, Barthes begins. He’s good with words, that Barthes. Anyway, this opening sentence sums up a lot of the ideas he goes into: the raison d’être of wrestling, the very point of the thing, is to be a spectacle. It’s not supposed to be anything more or less than that, really. Barthes claims that, even when he was writing in the late ‘50s, ‘this public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing’ – in other words, the audience isn’t fooled. Those who attend a wrestling event do so not because they think it’s a real fight, but because they enjoy the exaggerated, larger-than- life story told by the wrestlers. That story just happens to be about people fighting. This point about the public knowing the difference is more true today than ever; kayfabe, as the pretence that it’s all real is known, is still maintained within each promotion’s productions, because to openly admit within the story that the whole thing is a story would be akin to Dostoevsky writing ‘and then Raskolnikov felt bad because I, the author of the fiction within which he exists, decided that that would be fun’, but very few watchers of wrestling do so in the belief that they’re beholding a genuine sporting competition.
It’s actually a lot of fun to read about wrestling as it existed in Barthes’ time; he must have been a fairly regular attendee at some French promotion or other. He refers to the villainous characters, those we’d probably now refer to as ‘heels’, as the ‘bastards’. Might be down to the translation, but I think it’d be pretty fun if WWE started referring to its heels as bastards. Things were a bit more simple back then, it seems: he takes the example of a wrestler called Thauvin, a ‘fifty-year- old with an obese and sagging body’ and who apparently exhibits an ‘asexual hideousness’. Sounds amazing – annoyingly, I can’t find any pictures of the guy. Anyway, Barthes ‘[knows] from the start that all of Thauvin’s actions, his treacheries, cruelties and acts of cowardice, will not fail to measure up to the first image of ignobility’. Essentially, what Barthes is getting at is that the guy looks really gross – like, ‘amorphous baseness’ levels of gross – and from that he knows that the dude’s gonna be a real dickhead. Things are a bit more subtle these days, though heelish wrestlers still seem to often fall into some sort of caricature of a real type of person. There’s the arrogant pretty boy, the psychopath, the sadist and so on.
Moving on, Barthes seems to be a real fan of what are now disparagingly referred to as ‘rest holds’: painful-looking grapples which actually serve to allow the wrestlers to catch their breath before the next big spot. (Barthes uses the rather apt term ‘reputedly cruel’ to suggest a manoeuvre that appears to be causing great discomfort, but is just that: the appearance.) Such moves display for the public ‘the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice’. When the villain twists his valiant opponent’s limbs, the hapless target displays ‘an excessive portrayal of Suffering’, displaying to all present that he is, indeed, in a very great amount of pain. The word ‘excessive’, I think, is key: as Barthes says, ‘what the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself’. Wrestling thrives on excesses, grandiose displays of unreserved passions. It’s about an over-the- top demonstration of emotion by its participants, through which the audience come to care about the outcome of the tale.
Despite the fact that the outcome is pre-determined, it’s still important who wins or loses. I mean, just because Game of Thrones is scripted doesn’t mean that nobody cares what happens to the characters. Barthes’ conception seems to be predicated on the babyface, the heroic character, prevailing, as he says that the ultimate virtue of a wrestling tale is that it represents Justice when this most dastardly foe – that bastard with his tricksy holds – is ultimately overcome. He meets comeuppance for his gross villainy, and thus the audience can rejoice in the tale of Good delivering sweet Justice upon Evil. I like the last sentence of his essay a lot, and I’ll leave my thoughts on it there: ‘In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.’
Isn’t that great?
Anyway, that’s Barthes. I have my own idea of what wrestling really is: somewhere between a stage play (complete with Errol Flynn-style choreographed swashbuckling) and a genuine example of its subject, the thing it pretends at being, I’ve come to the conclusion that the thing that is most like wrestling is pornography.
Bear with me on this one. I know it sounds weird, but I honestly can’t think of a better analogy when discussing what sort of thing wrestling can be categorised. ‘Performance art’ might be the most apt description.
Now, pornography isn’t often described as ‘fake’. When one beholds a picture or video of a pornographic persuasion, the first thing that comes to mind is probably not ‘well, that’s not real sex’.
It is real sex. That’s basically the point of it. When you watch a video of two (or more, but let’s keep it vanilla for example purposes – I guess a threesome would be the equivalent of a Triple Threat, and I dread to think what a Tables, Ladders and Chairs porno might look like) people banging, you’re fully aware that they are actually, in actuality, really doing it. There’s legit bang occurring.
You’re also aware that the story presented to you, a story in which people have sex with each other, is not entirely true. After all, they’re doing so on camera, in a way designed to appeal to you, the happy viewer. They’ve chosen how to present it, how to frame it. There’s lighting, make-up, direction, all with the express goal of making everything look like a more idealised version of what happens in reality. I mean, most people aren’t watching porn because they want to see something as close to a genuine sexual experience as possible. They want it to be heightened, for the participants to be more attractive, more excited and more competent than just a couple of average people.
Similarly, wrestling presents an idealised, exaggerated version of a fight. It’s done in such a way as to make it as exciting and satisfying for the audience as possible, which involves a level of artifice. Underneath it all, there are people who are genuinely beating each other up, they’re just doing so in a deliberately entertaining way. That’s another point, by the way: the claim that some non-fans make that wrestling is so unreal as to involve no actual pain to the wrestlers is just stupid. Wrestlers get hurt all the time. Don’t think that because they’re trained to avoid seriously injuring each other, that means that every one of their moves has absolutely no impact whatsoever. In much the same way, don’t think that the fact that the attractive woman is probably pretending to be enjoying it more than she really is negates the fact that there is a real, actual penis up her.
So, to sum up, I don’t think ‘fake’ is an applicable word when talking about wrestling. I mean, what’s it faking at being? A real sport? It barely bothers with that conceit any more; yes, the surface presentation of a wrestling promotion (barring all the weird stuff that Lucha Underground, Chikara or, latterly, TNA gets into) is that there is a legitimate contest going on, but then the surface presentation of Harry Potter is that there are wizards and shit. It’s more accurate to think of it as a fiction about a genuine sporting event, in much the same way that the Rocky movies are fictions about boxing contests. Sylvester Stallone didn’t actually have to box Carl Weathers, but the characters are engaged in a battle designed to make the audience feel a certain way. (Much as porn engages its actors in a battle of sorts which is also designed to make the audience feel a certain way, although perhaps not the same way that wrestling’s going for.)
There you have it, then, wrestling fans. Next time someone accuses you of liking a ‘fake’ sport, just watch some porn with them. That’s my helpful advice.