Slaphappy is reporter Thomas Hackett's penetrating look at the world of professional wrestling, for those who love the spectacle and for the sport's skeptics and the uninitiated. Through interviews with wrestlers, promoters, and fans, Hackett explores the full range of issues that swirl around wrestling culture -- fame, masculinity, violence, aggression, performance, and play. Among the lessons of professional wrestling is that deceit is a fundamental fact of American life. And yet, paradoxically, the one thing wrestling isn't is dishonest. Although wrestlers play pretend, wrestling itself doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is -- fantastically absurd, a very American kind of madness. Celebrity-obsessed, pathologically narcissistic, murderously competitive, it both epitomizes and parodies the delusional egoism at the heart of the culture.
More than that, wrestling provides its fans and performers a medium for thinking about "getting over" in America today. This spectacle of excess may be the apotheosis of American imbecility, but it is also defiant, hopeful, liberating, and unifying -- a throwback to the raucous pleasures of early theater. Fans aren't detached connoisseurs, looking satirically down on life, concealing their anxieties in the cold comforts of irony. They are total participants in a carnival of their own making, shouting epithets, throwing chairs, expatiating their worries in a crowd's triumphant foolishness.
It is, Slaphappy concludes, all the stuff of human culture. Where does fantasy end and reality begin? Where does the performance stop and life take over? Writing with affection and discernment, Hackett gets deep into the culture, discovering that the make-believe competition of wrestling is indeed "real" for millions of young men -- real in the sense that something real and important is at stake: their worth as men.
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About the Author
Thomas Hackett has been writing for magazines and newspapers for nearly twenty years. Born and raised in Eugene, Oregon, he began contributing "Talk of the Town" pieces while working as a messenger at The New Yorker and has since published features and profiles in many other magazines, including Rolling Stone and the New York Times Magazine. He lives in New York City.
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SlaphappyPride, Prejudice, and Professional Wrestling
By Thomas Hackett
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Thomas Hackett
All right reserved.
Slouching Toward Bethlehem
"Let me ask you something," said Joe Joe Russello, Jr., age eleven, interrupting a conversation I was having with his father. "How can you write a book on something you don't know shit about?"
"Well . . ." I started.
"Because either you got the balls of a fucking lion, asking a bunch of bullshit questions," he said, jabbing a finger in my face as his father looked on proudly, "or you've got problems."
Joe Joe had a point. Sitting in my Manhattan apartment, I had developed a lot of fancy theories about professional wrestling. I had gone to quite a few shows, yet always in the same spirit I had crashing debutante balls, cult gatherings, and Ku Klux Klan marches -- to smirk and sneer. Channel surfing, I'd stop on the wrestling broadcasts long enough to feel superior. Maybe I just didn't get it, though. Those tribal rituals you see on PBS, where swaybacked savages dance about shamelessly naked, have always seemed pretty ridiculous, too. There was that reverent voice-over, however, explaining how the seeming imbecilities of the tribal rite contained and communicated everything that mattered to its culture. Perhaps professional wrestling was a story that we, too, were telling ourselves about ourselves.
At the very least it was a popular story. In 2001, at the height of its recent resurgence, nearly 15 percent of the population considered themselves fans, and the industry was making more than $450 million a year. Finding renewed interest every five or ten years, pro wrestling has been a mainstay of American popular culture for over a century. It wasn't quite the cult phenomenon it had been in 1985, when Cyndi Lauper, Liberace, and Robert Goulet made appearances at the first WrestleMania at New York's Madison Square Garden, or that it was in 1987, for WrestleMania III, when the Pontiac Silverdome in Detriot hosted the largest indoor gathering in the history of the human race, at least according to organizers. And despite the energetic marketing of stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, no rivalry yet equaled the 1911 fight in Chicago's Comiskey Park between Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt -- a front-page story across the country. But in a brave new world of dot-coms, instant global communications, and human cloning, the premodern throwback of wrestling was once again a force to be reckoned with, and its fans could no longer be dismissed as credulous bumpkins caught up in vaguely pornographic pleasures. They now constituted a formidable demographic. "We are the voice of the people," said Linda McMahon, chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Coming up on the 2000 presidential election, Linda's husband, Vince McMahon, Jr., was telling his followers that they, "the average wrestling fan," would elect the next president of the United States. And the thing is, he was not completely wrong.
That wasn't wrestling's only relevance to politics. As far as I could tell, both were part and parcel of the same culture of unreality. To reckon with wrestling, in other words, was to reckon with our cultural pathologies in a time of extravagant public inanity.
It was in that environment that millions of young men, in an effort to understand what success and masculinity were all about in America, turned to the culture's most grotesque example of ego and ambition. What they learned wasn't always very encouraging. With an abundance of enthusiasm, boys set out to reinvent themselves as models of manliness. They hoped to defeat insecurities, discover forgotten powers, and show the world they mattered. A few succeeded, rather spectacularly. But all too often the journey led to new insecurities, new fears. Getting caught up in the swirl of celebrity and status, they fell into some disorienting ironies. To prove their strength, they played the victim. To seem macho, they became dandies. To assert their heterosexuality, they acted out homoerotic skits. The fact that all these ironies were right there on the surface and yet could be acknowledged only in the most roundabout way was what made the spectacle so fascinating. But it was also what made wrestling so bewildering, for the wrestlers especially.
I wanted to try to untangle that confusion. First, though, I had to understand why wrestling meant so much to so many people. What did it say to them? What did it say for them? And what did it say about the rest of us?
My first serious attempts to find out were not successful. For a couple of weeks I followed Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling (WCW) around the state of Texas. I went to shows in Amarillo, Abilene, Waco, Beaumont, Houston, and San Padre Island -- at least, I'm pretty sure I did. My travels in Texas are now a blur, but, alas, not of the debauched drugs-and-hookers, fear-and-loathing variety. It was a blur of dumbfounding boredom. Whether it was a house show or a television taping, every match repeated the same undifferentiated routine. Wrestlers made their self-important entrances, threw each other around in a kind of bullying ballet until they and the referee perfunctorily brought the acrobatics to a summary conclusion, at which point they would leave the ring either exultant or shamefaced. Watching on TV, you at least had the benefit of histrionic ringside announcers injecting the antics full of dire meaning. Live, it all just seemed an elaborate demonstration of pointlessness.
Long after I left Texas, though, I found myself thinking about the fans I had met. Fans like Frenchie, an elderly convenience-store clerk, and his young girlfriend, Dee, a nude dancer at Cloud Nine Cabaret; Melanie and Ryan Bernard, ages nineteen and twenty-one, who, instead of exchanging rings at their recent wedding, exchanged those bright and brassy belts that wrestlers wore; the middle-aged brother and sister who brought a poodle to a show, saying it was their daughter; and Bernice and Beulah, the pleasantly plump spinster sisters in matching applique sweatshirts, who maintained a website in memory of fellow Texan and former National Wrestling Alliance champion Kerry Von Erich.
Excerpted from Slaphappy by Thomas Hackett Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Hackett. Excerpted by permission.
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