Professional Wrestling [August 16-20, 2010]

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Monday August 16, 2010 – David Ray Carter (Film critic) presents: A History of Violence: politics, profits, and the changing face of the WWE

Tuesday August 17, 2010 – Cory Barker (Bowling Green State University) presents: Making the scripted more real? Pro wrestling and Twitter

Wednesday August 18, 2010 – Sam Ford (Massachusetts Institute for Technology) presents: “All I Care about Is Me: I’m ‘The Nature Body”: The Permeable Boundaries of Pro Wrestling’s Fictional World

Thursday August 19, 2010 – Ari Berenstein ( presents: “The MSG Curtain Call”: A Conflation of Front and Backstage in Professional Wrestling

Friday August 20, 2010 – Bryan Alvarez (Wrestling Observer/Figure Four Weekly) presents: History Repeats Itself?: How Wrestling Regards Its Performers


Theme week organized by Shane Toepfer (Georgia State University)

Picture from twodolla via Flickr, used and altered under Creative Commons License permission.

  • A History of Violence: politics, … by David Ray Carter

  • In 2005, the WWE held the “Judgment Day” pay-per-view, of which the main event between John Cena and JBL is considered one of the bloodiest, most violent matches in history.  In 2010, up-and-coming wrestler Bryan Danielson was released from the company for being too violent during an episode of Monday Night Raw. Professional wrestling has been described as a “macho soap opera” and therefore it is fitting that the story of the WWE’s journey from bloodbaths to the land of TV-PG is one of tragedy, greed, and politics.

    The WWE’s transformation began after the 2007 murder-suicide involving wrestler Chris Benoit. The company took considerable negative publicity for the crime and soon began to make their televised programming less violent. Violent matches were relegated to PPV events and, in June 2008, all of the WWE’s programming became TV-PG.

    On the June 7, 2010 episode of Raw, the cast of the WWE’s NXT interrupted the main event, destroyed set pieces, and, beginning at 0:27 in the clip, Bryan Danielson choked the announcer with his necktie. The attack continued for several minutes, but it would be these five seconds that would cost Danielson his job. Danielson had been the main focus of the fledgling NXT program and was believed to be destined for stardom, making his release all the more shocking.

    The violence of the act was the cited reason for his release, but other factors may have played a role. Linda McMahon, former WWE CEO and wife of Vince, is a current Republican candidate for Senate and is likely reluctant to give her opponents any easy targets. Furthermore, keeping a TV-PG rating translates into a different pool of sponsors, ones more likely to abandon the company should another scandal arise. The elements once synonymous with the WWE — profanity, the objectification of women, and offensive storylines — have also been curtailed in an effort to keep the TV-PG rating. Those fans looking for a “mature” product have an alternative in the TV-14 TNA, which garners only a fourth of the viewership of the WWE.

    As the WWE gears up for SummerSlam, Danielson has returned to the independent wrestling circuit, where fans greet him with showers of neckties as a show of support. He is, to date, the only casualty of the WWE’s effort to offer a more family-friendly product; an honorable goal but also one with considerable financial and political benefits. 

  • Making the scripted more real? Pro … by Cory Barker

  • Professional wrestling is not real. Most fans are aware that what they are seeing is pre-scripted and delivered by performers in character.

    Despite this familiarity viewers have with the product, there has always been a separation between the fans in the audience and what happens behind the giant, HD TitanTron screen.

    As internet access has become more readily available, the separation has narrowed. Full storylines are leaked weeks ahead of time, backstage political struggles are rumored about and now people like me can passively follow the product with ease. But internet-powered proximity to the industry doesn’t equate to closer proximity to the performers themselves.

    However, Twitter does.

    From the WWE’s John Cena and Randy Orton to TNA’s Mick Foley and retired legends like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels, many of pro wrestling’s most influential performers now use Twitter to connect with fans.

    Though most of the wrestlers tweet about the inane aspects of their personal lives, which take place almost exclusively on the road, the connectivity between them and fans creates a new experience – and raises new questions. Fans know that the performer known as Hornswoggle is playing a role in the ring and on television, but when the usually silent man tweets about loving a Toby Keith concert (See Slide #2), it is difficult to determine the reality of it all. Is this all a part of the WWE marketing machine (See Side #3) or is Dylan Post (Hornswoggle’s real name) just boringly updating his followers on his life outside the ring? Are they in or out of character? Are Post and his cohorts even crafting their updates? Or are the tweets being ghost-written by the WWE’s scribes?

    From the wrestling promotions’ perspective it does not matter. Even if thousands of fans are following performers who are tweeting about their mundane lives and raising the curtain on the scripted wrestling experience, said fans are still interacting with the brand in a way. But from a fan perspective, there is more to consider. Is theoretically being closer to your favorite wrestler more important than knowing how real that mediated relationship actually is?

    The wrestling industry and its performers are still adapting to the Twitterverse and social media in general (See Slide #4), but in a way, a form of entertainment based on a fabricated, detached relationship with its fans is becoming more tangible thanks to a medium that could be just as unreal.

  • “All I Care about Is Me: I’m ‘The … by Sam Ford

  • Professional wrestling builds an immersive narrative world, but one with a unique twist when compared to other entertainment properties: it’s fictional world is set, in fact, in the “real world,” and its cast enacts its dramas in live events multiple times per week which—in purporting to be legitimate sporting events, invite the fans in as performers in their own right, playing the role of a sports crowd. This precarious balance between “real” and “scripted” means that the pro wrestling narrative is directly linked to the lives of the performers playing a character. Injuries to performers routinely have to be written into the script of the show, and tragedies or controversies in the lives of the wrestlers immediately affect their on-screen characters.

    Take, for instance, the 2005 arrest of then-WWE performer Richard Fliehr for road rage. Like many wrestlers, Fliehr plays a character not far removed from his “real” identity—”The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Thus, as news broke in a variety of online and traditional outlets about Fliehr’s arrest, wrestling fans became well aware of the incident. By the time WWE Monday Night RAW rolled around, WWE decided to address the incident head-on, with Flair’s on-screen foe Edge showing Fliehr’s mug shot, mocking Flair for his arrest, and then showing the above parody of the road-rage incident.

    In the process, a real-life event for the performer instantly became a narrative point for the on-screen character in a way that seldom occurs in other fictional storytelling formats. Wrestling has long thrived on this process, requiring its performers to maintain “kayfabe,” referring to the upholding of the illusion that wrestling is “real.” For instance, face (protagonist) and heel (antagonist) wrestlers were not allowed to travel together, and wrestlers were often rewarded for getting into bar fights or other incidents that reinforced their “on-stage” character. Certainly, the carnival roots of pro wrestling shapes the way wrestling continues to incorporate events from “real life” into the fictional world of “the WWE universe,” with the idea that an event in the personal life of a wrestler which becomes public will, in most cases, be expected to be addressed within the narrative as well.

  • “The MSG Curtain Call”: A Conflation … by Ari Berenstein

  • May 19th, 1996: Madison Square Garden, New York City: Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, Diesel and Hunter Hearst Helmsley are in the ring together after the main event, hugging and raising their arms in celebration. At the time it was the last WWE (then known as WWF) performances for Diesel (Kevin Nash) and Ramon (Scott Hall) before leaving for the competing product, World Championship Wrestling.

    A curtain call is an expected part of theatre routine, as second nature as the actual performance. The actor leaves the role of the character and becomes his or her real self. By accepting accolades and acknowledgement from the audience, the actor temporarily conflates front and backstage. An entire ensemble may also appear and celebrate onstage together.

    However, curtain calls were almost unheard of in professional wrestling. Faces (the heroic protagonists) and heels (the villainous antagonists) weren’t supposed to shed their character to show respect and admiration for each other in public, much less “onstage” (i.e. the wrestling ring), even after their performance had concluded.

    “The MSG Curtain Call”  was precedent in that the wrestlers chose to allow the audience to see their real backstage friendships. In the video, the audience gives a roar of approval and exhilaration for this unscripted moment. The child, his voice filled with surprise and enthusiastic acceptance, recognizes there is more at stake than the usual “show”.  I had been in attendance on that night and his reaction mirrored my own.

    It was also an unauthorized action with dramatic repercussions, namely the temporary demotion of Helmsley. A planned prestigious win at the 1996 King of Ring tournament instead went to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who was on the cusp of gaining massive popularity. Austin’s mainstream appeal contributed largely to WWE regaining top status over WCW by mid-1998.

    Fans had long ago learned the secret “F-word” regarding professional wrestling. However, they were increasingly exposed to moments such as the curtain call that served to blur and to conflate the boundary between front and backstage during the “Attitude Era” of the late nineties.

    Curtain calls are no longer provocative rebel yells in 2010, but rather pre-approved or otherwise innocuous celebrations, such as “Nature Boy” Ric Flair’s retirement ceremony. Still, it is in these moments that the audience comes as close as possible to witnessing the wrestlers’ real emotions and reactions, as opposed to the ones they are supposed to perform on stage.

  • History Repeats Itself?: How … by Bryan Alvarez

  • Of the many reasons that various pro-wrestling companies have gone out of business over the last 100 years, one that stands out, particularly over the last two decades, is an inability to learn from past mistakes.

    On Tuesday, August 17th, an article was published in the New York Times talking about head injuries, and how there is a possibility that Lou Gherig never even had the disease that was named after him; he may have died due to brain injuries suffered on the field during his long career.  While the theory about Gherig is brand new, you’d almost literally have to have been living in a cave to not be aware of the studies being done on concussions over the last four or five years.

    Even if you don’t follow sports, it’s impossible as a wrestling fan to be unaware of this given the the biggest wrestling story of this generation, Chris Benoit’s brutal double murder/suicide over the June 24, 2007 weekend in which he killed his wife and young child and then hung himself with the cables on the lat pulldown machine in his home gym.  An autopsy found an astoundingly badly-damaged brain, chock full of the tau proteins signaling a severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

    In plain English, it is no mystery, particularly in wrestling, that head injuries are bad news.  Which is why it is very disconcerting to watch the vicious chairshot that Rob Terry takes in the accompanying video, which happened not in the 90s or even pre-Benoit, but on April 5th, 2010.

    It’s one thing to bury your head in the sand and not realize that Hulk Hogan in his late 50s isn’t going to be the kind of draw that he was in his mid-30s, or even mid-40s.  This is not learning from history, but at least it’s an example that involves things like ratings and PPV buyrates.

    To not seemingly be aware of the dangers of concussions, to allow a guy to take a full-force chairshot to the head, and to care so little that you don’t suspend either guy or even edit the chairshot off the television program shows a lack of regard for the safety of the performers that borders on criminal.  Wrestling often comes across like a Road Runner cartoon where guys get beaten up and come back two hours later without a scratch on them.  But the wrestlers aren’t cartoon characters.  They’re real people, they have families, they get hurt and all too often they die.  To see a wrestling company in 2010 allow something that is so obviously unsafe is extremely disappointing.

Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 16 Aug 2010 04:02:00 +0000