Thursday, October 20, 2016

Notes on wrestling, Part I: Introduction

Professional wrestling is not generally regarded as prestige entertainment. Just the opposite - to many Americans, and especially those with the privilege of writing about such things for a living, it's considered an absurdity and an embarrassment. It's something that educated, cultured, and decent people are not only disinterested in, but actually find disagreeable to talk about; the stereotype of a wrestling fan is that of a crass, unfashionable working-class rube with a taste for violence.

I want to begin this essay, then, by reminding leftists that all of these attitudes - and particularly, all of them clustered together into the same stigma - are extraordinarily suspicious. First, they mark a set of often arbitrary and subjective tastes and norms that just so happens to be disproportionately shared by the privileged, and disproportionately rejected by the powerless. Second, they critique and villify what is at worst an extraordinarily marginal form of violence - and out of all proportion to the often insidious and far more pervasive violence that afflicts our society. And third, the stigma against professional wrestling rarely comes from a place of lived experience or even cursory knowledge of its culture; as a rule, critics are not merely unfamiliar with it and its history, but proudly ignorant, and would be ashamed to know anything more than the barest details.

Consider, for example, a typical series of remarks from liberal columnist Katha Pollitt, who touched on professional wrestling a while back. How should the democratic egalitarian respond when she sneers that it is "witless - Americans can't get enough of it"? Today, Pollitt insists that we should support Hillary Clinton for president, since we supported other candidates who "voted for [the] Iraq war also". What is the ideology that embraces this repetition - and then broods that professional wrestling "is popular because it corresponds to reality...which fights one war after another"?

To be sure, there is a left critique of wrestling. Historically, it has been afflicted with every bigotry you can name. This does not much distinguish it from anything else in our culture, and particularly in recent years wrestling has made significant strides, even stepping ahead of the curve on some issues; still, it has a history of racism, sexism, and homophobia that must be grappled with. Wrestling also remains a horrifically exploitative industry characterized by union busting and gross inequality between the richest and poorest workers; again, this hardly distinguishes it from any other industry in late capitalism, but it cannot be disregarded.

Still, whatever the merits of the popular stigma against professional wrestling, it is clearly caught up in a discourse that fosters elitism and that, through scapegoating, confounds our understanding of violence. This should be enough to raise the hackles of anyone concerned about the insidious ways that ideology can entrench hierarchy and perpetuate oppression; it should at least compel the skeptic to suspend her judgment, and to reconsider, with fresh eyes, the profound and even revolutionary spectacle of grown, greased-up men wrestling in their underwear.