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Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling

Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling

by Nicholas Sammond, Roland Barthes, Henry Jenkins III, Sharon Mazer, Carlos Monsivais

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The antagonists—oiled, shaved, pierced, and tattooed; the glaring lights; the pounding music; the shouting crowd: professional wrestling is at once spectacle, sport, and business. Steel Chair to the Head provides a multifaceted look at the popular phenomenon of pro wrestling. The contributors combine critical rigor with a deep appreciation of wrestling as


The antagonists—oiled, shaved, pierced, and tattooed; the glaring lights; the pounding music; the shouting crowd: professional wrestling is at once spectacle, sport, and business. Steel Chair to the Head provides a multifaceted look at the popular phenomenon of pro wrestling. The contributors combine critical rigor with a deep appreciation of wrestling as a unique cultural form, the latest in a long line of popular performance genres. They examine wrestling as it happens in the ring, is experienced in the stands, is portrayed on television, and is discussed in online chat rooms. In the process, they reveal wrestling as an expression of the contradictions and struggles that shape American culture.

The essayists include scholars in anthropology, psychology, film studies, communication studies, and sociology, one of whom used to wrestle professionally. Classic studies of wrestling by Roland Barthes, Carlos Monsiváis, Sharon Mazer, and Henry Jenkins appear alongside original essays. Whether exploring how pro wrestling inflects race, masculinity, and ideas of reality and authenticity; how female fans express their enthusiasm for male wrestlers; or how lucha libre provides insights into Mexican social and political life, Steel Chair to the Head gives due respect to pro wrestling by treating it with the same thorough attention usually reserved for more conventional forms of cultural expression.

Contributors. Roland Barthes, Douglas L. Battema, Susan Clerc, Laurence de Garis, Henry Jenkins III, Henry Jenkins IV, Heather Levi, Sharon Mazer, Carlos Monsiváis, Lucia Rahilly, Catherine Salmon, Nicholas Sammond, Phillip Serrat, Philip Sewell

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Steel Chair to the Head is an exceptionally smart and well-crafted collection that will be a valuable resource for popular culture scholars of all stripes. From start to finish, there’s not a weak essay in the book. One of the best anthologies—on popular culture or anything else—that I’ve read in a long time.”—Gilbert B. Rodman, author of Elvis after Elvis: The Posthumous Career of a Living Legend

“The mat is the place where sport and entertainment smack down. This excellent collection of greatest hits and latest memories of wrestling teases out the contradictions of this infinitely frustrating, excessive spectacle of domination and parody.”—Toby Miller, author of Sportsex

Nathaniel G. Moore
"[U]nparalelled. . . . Steel Chair to the Head is a wrestling fan's best friend, and the anti-fan's worst enemy. . . . Steel Chair to the Head gives a sort of stigmatic closure to pro wrestling by elevating its criticism and delivery to an intelligent sensitivity. . . . This fact-heavy anthology shows the brain behind the phenomenon that has disrupted our ever unbalanced culture. A definite too for a fan of media, wrestling fan or not."

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Duke University Press
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The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling


Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3403-3

Chapter One


Introduction: A Brief and Unnecessary Defense of Professional Wrestling

It is ... in the body of the wrestler that we find the first key to the contest.... The physique of the wrestlers ... constitutes a basic sign, which like the seed contains the whole fight. But this seed proliferates, for it is at every turn during the fight, in each new situation, that the body of the wrestler casts to the public the magical entertainment of a temperament which finds its natural expression in a gesture. -Roland Barthes, "The World of Wrestling"

Since this volume examines a provocative subject (for some), let's begin with a provocative statement: Professional wrestling is a substantial American popular art form, the latest in a long line that includes burlesque, vaudeville, jazz, rock 'n' roll, and punk. If Roland Barthes (in this volume) can trace French professional wrestling back through Racine and Molière, all the way to classical Greece, we can at least trace our own lineage back to Tony Pastor, Edward Albee, the Marx Brothers, the Nicholas Brothers, Fannie Brice, Josephine Baker, Milton Berle, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Little Richard, and the Ramones.

If we were to attemptthe same sort of genealogy as Barthes, we would find it easier to trace a line from professional wrestling's ribald American ancestors back to Greek comedy. It's not a stretch to see in burlesque, vaudeville, and so on, the priapic excesses of Lysistrata, with its links between the body politic and the sexual body clearly marked by gigantic swollen phalluses dragging their bearers toward acquiescence. But what is there in the neon spandex, leather masks, pounding heavy metal and rap of wrestling that recalls Euripides or Sophocles-the horrible grief of Agave, the literal and metaphorical blindness of Oedipus? Very little, if we limit ourselves to the view that these works are great because they transcend culture and history, offering universal truths that ennoble those wise enough to perceive them. While that may be true, it doesn't exhaust the meanings available to us. The theater of classical Athens was more than entertainment; it was also a forum for arguing about social relations-the very immediate question of how its citizens were to live with each other, and within a political and religious order that was very concerned with questions of property, of inheritance, of oppression, and of power.

As such, the stories it told were often bloody or lubricious-filled with murder, rape, incest, suicide, and wanton sexuality. And, like the Parents Television Council or the National Institute on the Media and the Family today, the social critics of the day, such as Plato or Aristotle, warned against the theater (particularly comedy) as a force for corrupting young boys (but not girls, who would never be citizens), and for undermining Athenian society.

While this comparison should make the William Bennetts of our age proud, it is worth noting that Plato, for instance, considered the question of whether young boys should have sex with older men a matter worth debating, rather than simply one requiring condemnation (Plato [n.d.] 1951: 92-103). O tempora, o mores! Arguments for the effect of entertainment on culture and society have been with us for millennia, yet no one today would argue that Aristophanes was responsible for the downfall of classical Athenian society. Yet that is the claim often laid at the booted feet of professional wrestling today: that it is both cause and symptom of the breakdown of American social and cultural life.

The same warning cries were made about burlesque in its heyday in the middle of the nineteenth century, about vaudeville at the turn of the twentieth century, and about jazz and rock 'n' roll in their first proud incarnations. What all of these forms share with professional wrestling, and what is lost in viewing Greek (or French, or Shakespearean ...) drama as simply a literature, is the very carnality they expressed, their celebration and contestation of people and ideas as embodied. American popular performance has never been about transcending the moment or passion and emotion; it has always been about the lived experience of social, political, and cultural life. It is about bodies marked by race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality operating in a democratic capitalist national culture that lacks a robust language for speaking about concrete, lived experience.

Professional wrestling is no exception. It shares with burlesque a celebration of public (hetero)sexuality and a complex and imperfect expression of gendered power relations (Allen 1991). It shares with vaudeville a reveling in physical and verbal virtuosity, in excess and immediacy, in the explicit expression of ethnic and racial stereotypes and of common class subjugation (Jenkins 1992). It shares with rock 'n' roll the blurring of lines of class, race, and gender. And like all of these antecedent forms, since it has become a mass phenomenon it has incurred the wrath of moralists and social reformers for whom the messy and often incoherent bodily expression of violence, struggle, and sexuality represents an assault on the public good. Given that this assault has continued unabated for almost 150 years, it's a wonder that the nation still stands.

Certainly, however, movies and other types of television (for though wrestling happens live, it only causes so much vexation when it appears on the living-room screen) feature violence and sexuality as well. What was Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh, 2000) but a celebration of the politically transformative power of Julia Roberts's breasts? Does anyone believe that Arnold Schwarzenegger makes box office because of his nuanced line readings? Could we imagine Temptation Island set in Greenland? Yet while movies and television sometimes earn the wrath of a Joe Lieberman or Jerry Falwell, they spare themselves much of the righteous indignation reserved for wrestling by hewing to a set of moral frames established some seventy-five years ago during the heyday of the Production Code, a set of norms laid out by the movie industry to avoid censorship. In these frames, representations of violence or sexuality, or racial intolerance, or criminal behavior are acceptable as long as they are redeemed by demonstrating the ultimate wisdom and victory of moral virtue. In short, you can show violence as long as it serves to defeat a greater evil. You can show crime as long as in the end it doesn't pay. You can show sexuality as long as it ultimately serves the greater virtues of love and marriage. Good characters may fall from grace, becoming addicted, promiscuous, violent, and so forth, as long as in the end they (or we) learn from their moral failings. Wrestling, of course, offers no such moral comfort. Week after week, it seems, no one learns anything from its excesses of violence, sexuality, and general moral turpitude. It has become, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, utterly, intentionally, and exuberantly gratuitous.

Nor is the expression of physicality in professional wrestling (or "sports entertainment," a term coined by Vince McMahon to avoid gaming fees) the same as it is in more conventional sports such as football, baseball, soccer, or basketball. In conventional commercial sports (and in their amateur counterparts), the body is first and foremost a vehicle for the skills of the individual, an expression of talent, drive, training, and ability. The athlete's body is that which overcomes the physical, mental, and emotional constraints placed upon it by the demands of the individual sport; it is a tool wielded by the athlete her- or himself, and by the coach who deploys it on the field of play. Secondarily, it is thus subjugated to the will and needs of a larger body, that of the team. It is a body abstracted, and that abstraction is constantly reframed by the commentary of sportscasters, newspaper sports columnists, and fans.

With its gestures toward being a sport, professional wrestling occasionally calls upon all of these meanings in referring to the wrestler's body, but it also consistently violates and undermines them. While ringside announcers may make much of a male wrestler's strength, size, and agility, for instance, the wrestler himself undermines that abstraction, falling prey to strong emotional impulses-anger, jealousy, love, fear-that loosen the grip of discipline over that body. Are those emotions the stuff of the body itself, or the demons of a tormented mind? The male wrestler constantly struggles to control the powerful beast that is his body, and constantly fails in that attempt.

The bodies of female wrestlers suffer a different fate. While the ringside patter may sometimes refer to their strength and agility, announcers rarely forget to mention the female wrestler's body as a sexual object, a formidable assembly of tits and ass that also happens to be able to kick butt. Female wrestlers struggle within and against their own object status, and the emotions that overwhelm them have often to do with that sexuality; while male wrestlers are more likely to grapple over issues of honor and dominance, female wrestlers often engage in cat fights over possession of (or the right to be possessed by) a man. While female fans might sexualize the male wrestler's body, the only time that ringside announcers do so is when his heterosexuality is called into question.

Nor do wrestlers subjugate their bodies to the will of the team. Tag team partnerships are evanescent, rent asunder by the passions that eddy around and through the wrestlers. Either one partner betrays the other, or the team is torn apart by conflicting loyalties (see Salmon and Clerc in this volume). And it is just as likely that a tag team partnership will be forced on two wrestlers by the management, which maliciously and capriciously brings together grapplers who are in competition for the same title, or who bear some grudge against each other. Not only do fierce passions constantly overwhelm the wrestler's control over his/her strength and agility, so does the boss. While the same sort of alienation becomes painfully apparent in conventional sports during contract negotiations and strikes, the cultural convention of the athlete's regulation by a unified self, and by the greater unity of the team, is always quickly restored by the resolution of the labor conflict and by framing commentary which decries labor conflict as unsportsmanlike (i.e., disrupting the illusion that professional sports are not businesses).

Professional wrestling has no such illusions: it's a business, and wrestlers are workers. As Sharon Mazer and Laurence de Garis point out in this volume, the traditional terminology of wrestling acknowledges this, calling wrestlers workers and those elements of a wrestling match (or interview) that are planned by management or the wrestlers themselves a work. The idea that the wrestler controls his or her body, or the persona that sits uneasily on that body (a wrestler may go through several personae during the course of a career), is disrupted by the conventions of the form, in which the will and freedom of the wrestler are constantly undermined by the whims of the back office. (Retired wrestler Mick Foley, at the height of his career in the [then] World Wrestling Federation [WWF, now the WWE, or World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.], brought this situation into even starker relief, performing several personae-Cactus Jack, Dude Love, and Mankind-simultaneously, sometimes even within one match or interview.) It bears repeating: wrestlers are workers, and as such they simultaneously reveal the production of their personae, their embodiment of characters of their own making, and their ultimate lack of control over the conditions of that making and over the disposition of the products of their labor. They are twice alienated from the control of their bodies, both by their inability to regulate the passions that drive them, and by a management that plays on that lack of self-control, to enact a transparent appropriation of their labor.

This violation of the cultural convention of the performer's control over her/his character has been further disrupted since the WWE gained monopoly control over televised professional wrestling in the United States in 2001. When work on this volume began, there were two major wrestling venues-the WWF And World Championship Wrestling (WCW)-and one smaller but still substantial venue, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). Since then, the ECW has folded and the WWE has bought out WCW'S stable of wrestlers. To capitalize on this smackdown, and to appeal to WCW fans, the WWE has built a number of storylines around the uneasy integration of the two operations, particularly around "interoffice" struggles to streamline the two management systems, and around the troubles of wrestlers (workers) in attempts to accommodate consolidation. Performers in more mainstream narrative forms disappear into their characters and into the narrative; athletes, never characters, perform the control of their bodies by themselves and by the team. Their participation in a capitalist enterprise constantly disappears into the fiction of self-control. Not so for the wrestler, who is worker and product and character, always out of control, always struggling to control self and others, and always failing in that enterprise.

This, then, is what makes professional wrestling so disruptive, so transgressive, so upsetting to its social critics on both the left and right. Focused on the struggle between wrestlers' bodies-oiled, shaved, sweating, pierced, tattooed, and pharmaceutically and surgically enhanced-wrestling resolutely refuses to ground that struggle in a moral order, to subject those bodies to a consistent discipline that would make sense of its excesses of violence and sexuality. It offers absolutely no narrative of redemption. Wrestlers never learn from their mistakes, never see the error of their ways in retrospective regret, nor conquer the external forces that oppress them. Instead, the cycle repeats, over and over: the same mistakes, the same betrayals, the same evanescent victories and defeats.

For Barthes, this was indicative of the wrestler's status as a signifier for basic passions: not fully a character or a player, the wrestler was but a "basic sign." But this reading underplays the levels of signification present in every wrestler today. (Stone Cold) Steve Austin is at once the beer-swilling, redneck good ole boy, the exploited worker caught up in internecine management struggles, and the freelance entertainer playing those factions against each other. Vince McMahon is simultaneously the actual chairman of World Wrestling Enterprises (a savvy businessman), the fictional chairman of the WWE (an irrational, violent, and manipulative exploiter of his workers), an actually loving husband and father to his wife, Linda, and children, Shane and Stephanie, and a fictionally abusive husband and father to the televised versions of those same family members. Chuck and Billy play gay tag team partners on Smackdown! and then Chuck Palumbo and Monty Sopp assert their heterosexuality in interviews on Howard Stern and The Today Show, then Billy and Chuck disavow their homosexuality moments before getting married on Smackdown. The circuit of signification flickers uncertainly between the ring and the wider world, and between worker and persona, playing off the obvious homoeroticism of wrestling, raising it and diffusing it. Which passion speaks, desire or fear? Which is genuine? Both? Neither?


Excerpted from STEEL CHAIR TO THE HEAD Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Nicholas Sammond is Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930–1960, also published by Duke University Press.

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