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Wrestling Literacy. The Diegetic World of World Wrestling Entertainment

Examensarbeit 2009 103 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Sonstiges


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Theoretical Approaches
II.1. What Does Media Literacy Mean?
II.2. Reality in the Context of Media Literacies
II.3. Representation
II.4. Roland Barthes
II.4.1. General Aspects about his Work
II.4.2. His Observations on Wrestling

III. The History of Wrestling
III.1. Its Origins
III.2. Wrestling Moves across the Big Pond
III.3. The American Catch-as-catch-can
III.4. The Rise of Wrestling as a Show
III.5. Wrestling Moves to Television
III.6. The Monopoly of the World Wrestling Federation

IV. The WWE Today
IV.1. Basic Structure of the Medium
IV.2. Popularity: Numbers, Figures, Explanations
IV.3. The Wrestling Match
IV.3.1. Context
IV.3.2. The Presentation of the Match
IV.4. The Role and Perspective of the Fans

V. Key Issues in the WWE Diegesis
V.1. Authenticity and Reality
V.2. Gender and Sexuality
V.3. Politics and Ideology

VI. Conclusion

VII. References

VIII. List of Figures

I. Introduction

Try an experiment and ask anyone whether he or she knows “The Experiment” Alexander Karelin, arguably the best Greco-Roman wrestler of all time. He won one silver and three gold medals at the Olympic Games of Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney. With this brilliant streak comprising the time between 1988 and 2000, he became one of the most outstanding Olympic athletes ever. Besides, the almost 290 pounds-weighing Russian giant won the world championship nine times, namely in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, and in 1999. He got his nickname “The Experiment” because everybody kept so much wondering about why he was so dominant that the only conclusion seemed to be that his incredible strength must have been the result of some scientific experiment. After his first defeat in, believe it or not, thirteen years of international competition, he retired from sports in 2000. Yet, you will hardly find someone who has ever heard of the name Karelin, except if you turn to sports enthusiasts from Russia. They might possibly still remember the successful athlete as a national hero. However, I would not even bet on that either.1

In contrast to this, it is beyond all question that almost everyone will nod his or her head when you repeat the experiment with the name Hulk Hogan. He has never won a gold medal and, more than this, hasn’t even competed in any Olympic Games. In spite of all this, most people will probably say his name when being asked for the most famous wrestler they know. But why is that?

It is because the vast majority will not even waste a thought on the sport discipline of Olympic wrestling. It is because the term ‘wrestling’ has lately been occupied by professional wrestling, also (but less) known as all-in wrestling or catch-as-catch-can. It is because the shows of professional wrestling are way more present on the television screens than freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestling. And it is because Hulk Hogan, who was recently shown on MTV on a regular and international basis with his reality format Hogan Knows Best and who is now hosting the revived NBC show American Gladiators, has become an icon of a generation, a representative of wrestling in the 1980s - 1990s and a symbol of the rise in popularity of this kind of televised entertainment. Indeed it has become so popular that most people simply refer to it as ‘wrestling’ and leave out any further

determinations, since in most contexts it is more than clear that professional wrestling is meant rather than the Olympic discipline. Conclusively, there is no doubt that professional wrestling has reached a much higher cultural importance than freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestling.

The main difference between the two disciplines is obvious. While the wrestling we know from Olympic tournaments, for example, is, of course, a legitimate sport, the days when professional wrestling even pretended to be one as well are long gone, which will

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 1. Hulk Hogan as a wrestler

be pointed out in this paper. This is also in the mid 1990s why the abbreviation WWE (formerly WWF = World Wrestling Federation), the name of the business company which is nowadays associated with professional wrestling in the first place, stands for World Wrestling Entertainment, with the emphasis being on ‘entertainment’ here. The implication is that the results of the matches in professional wrestling are predetermined and that the main purpose of the TV shows is to entertain the audience and not to show an authentic sportive confrontation between two or more athletes.

But then again, what is authentic? Is wrestling really as fake as it sounds? On the other hand, what is real about it? This paper aims at answering questions like these and many more. What is wrestling, how does it work and why does it work so well at all, i.e. why is it so popular? It will be argued that wrestling, as it is presented by the WWE, does not even necessarily concentrate on the wrestling match itself. Instead, it is often rather about the storylines and plots which give each match a particular dramatic frame of its own. “Wrestling, at its best, is a vehicle for storytelling.”2 Accordingly, the following question arises: how are representations and signs used to convey meaning and how is tension created? In this respect, it bears many similarities to soap operas.

But there seems to be a little more to it, which is also suggested by the history professor Scott Beekman, who complains that “professional wrestling receives little respect. Often decried as ignorant and juvenile, pro wrestling is frequently lumped with others forms of ‘trash’ culture, such as television soap operas and NASCAR.”3 Accordingly, there has not been a lot of research into this matter so far. Beekman states: “Even in an academic world where the studies of popular culture and sport find increasing respectability and status, studying professional wrestling seems somehow suspect.”4 The essay The World of Wrestling by Roland Barthes is probably still the most cited academic piece of literature about wrestling although it is already more than fifty years old. This should be enough to show the extent to which professional wrestling has been neglected. Also in this paper, Barthes will be dealt with and it will be examined which of his observations still apply and which might be a bit outdated, simplified, overaged or possibly just wrong. At least he takes all-in wrestling serious when calling it a “spectacle of excess” the “grandiloquence” of which “must have been that of ancient theatres.”5

Taking today’s literature about wrestling into consideration, this should not be taken for granted. Beekman laments that most scholars “pick wrestling apart and examine slivers of it […,]” which, to him, “reflects the general view of wrestling as lower class and primitive.”6 Of course such prejudices or cut and dried opinions are nothing but simplifications which lead nowhere. Nonetheless, “only the heartiest academics embrace this maligned stepchild of sport and even then, they only approach it with caution.”7 It will also be a task of this paper to give hints at why wrestling is so widely recognized as infamous.

Fortunately, there are also several writers who approached the matter with an open mind. Sharon Mazer, Head of the Department of Theatre and Film Studies at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, and Nicholas Sammond, Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, USA, are only two important names to mention in this context, but there are also a few others who have made their contribution to the research in wrestling, as little as it may sometimes have been, so that the understanding of wrestling as a cultural phenomenon that can be read as a text has gained shape. Finally, an attempt can be made to set up criteria of a wrestling literacy, a literacy of a medium the arrangement of which is definitely multimedia-based, since it has elements of sports, television series and staged drama, just to name a few.

Professional wrestling’s transcendence of boundaries is precisely what makes it so interesting as a cultural phenomenon. The performance genre is not neatly contained by traditional categories. A hybrid of sport, street fight, ballet, spectacle, and soap opera (among other forms), professional wrestling - like jazz - defies easy categorization.8

Furthermore, it is self-evident that the entire medium cannot be explained without an investigation of the role of the spectators and fans who embody a major influencing factor: not only would wrestling shows and matches lose their meaning without the fans, but storylines would also often go in quite different directions without the interference of the spectators via online communication in internet forums and without the direct reaction of the crowd in the arena where the shows are taken.

Taking all this together, it can hardly be denied that the professional wrestling provided by the WWE is a unique medium and, to go one step further, it should be regarded as a genre of its own. In the special issue of the official WWE Magazine released to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of Raw, the flagship of the WWE television shows, the editor Rob Bernstein does not even sound too cocky or pretentious when writing in his short foreword:

Many popular, long-running shows debuted in 1993. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Homicide: Life on the Street. Walker, Texas Ranger. Beavis and Butt-Head. Frasier. And where are they today? In syndication … if they’re lucky. Then there’s Raw, WWE’s groundbreaking sports-entertainment program, which launched the same year - and continues to air today! That ’ s endurance. That ’ s fan love. That ’ s a show worthy of its own magazine.9

I must agree and should add that the WWE as a whole is also a medium worthy of its own study.

The matter will be approached as follows. First it will be necessary to present a few theoretical approaches relevant to the analysis of wrestling. To be more specific, the issues media literacy, reality in media, and representation will be discussed briefly, and Roland Barthes’s main theses concerning wrestling will be summarized.

Afterwards, the history of wrestling will be depicted in detail. As every reader of this paper will recognize sooner or later, this diachronic approach is necessary because the medium simply cannot be grasped without an explanation of its past.

Then an attempt will be made to actually read wrestling, i.e. the world of World Wrestling Entertainment, as a text. Every medium the WWE makes use of, including wrestling matches, magazines, TV shows, or videogames, will be analysed. The same applies to the unique way in which meaning is constructed in the WWE through a constant interaction between the reader / the fans and the actual presentation of WWE media.

At the end, such issues will be discussed that frequently come up when fans and academics speak about wrestling; these are what Beekman calls ‘the slivers’ if you will.

II. Theoretical Approaches

II.1. What Does Media Literacy Mean?

In order to truly understand and interpret the medium wrestling, certain theoretical approaches need to be explained in advance. First of all, it is essential to answer the question what literacy is in order to be later able to tell what it means to read wrestling as a text.

According to David Buckingham, an English Professor of Education, “the term ‘media literacy’ refers to the knowledge, skills and competencies that are required in order to use and interpret media.”10 He also admits that “defining media literacy is far from straightforward,” since talking about “’literacy’ in this context would seem to imply that the media can in some sense be seen to employ forms of language” so that we can actually treat visual or audio-visual elements / media the same way we do with languages, and study them.11 While some scholars of literacy have criticized such metaphorical use of the term ‘literacy’ insofar as they fear that “necessary distinctions between written language and other modes of communication” might thus be wiped away, others have suggested

that “we understand visual and audio-visual representations using the same skills that we use to interpret the everyday world around us.”12 Buckingham insists on the necessity of a distinction between media interpretations at the ‘micro’ and the ‘macro’ level:

How we interpret a film, for example, does not depend only on how we ‘read’ particular shots or sequences. It also depends on how the text as a whole is organized and structured, for example via narrative; on how it relates to other texts we may have seen (intertextuality), or genres with which we are familiar; on how the text refers to, and makes claims about, aspects of reality with which we are more or less familiar (representation); and on the expectations we bring to it, for example as a result of the ways in which it has been publicized and distributed. Understanding these different elements might also be seen as forms of ‘literacy’, in the sense that they involve the production of meaning and pleasure from a range of textual signs.13

The term ‘literacy’ does not only stand for some set of skills or tools a ‘reader’ needs to possess in order to understand and use media, but also “involves a much broader analytical understanding,” for which the acquisition of a ‘metalanguage’ and of knowledge about the “social, economic and institutional contexts of communication” are required.14 Accordingly, the reading of a text or a medium depends on the social and cultural contexts of both the reader and the medium. The reader needs to be aware of these contexts in order to interpret a medium by using this ‘metalanguage’. Furthermore, he constructs, develops, and refines his own “literacy through active participation and sense-making.”15

Moreover, he always needs to keep in mind that

texts are not ‘objective’ and value neutral, but […] constructed artefacts that convey shifting meanings, reflect cultural ideologies, and have powerful impacts on our world views and behaviours.16

To be more specific, if we want to apply Buckingham’s model for the development of a ‘cineliteracy’, which is concerned with the understanding of movies, to the interpretation of a wrestling match, for example, we must be able to

identify ‘stereotypes’ which are played with (e.g. wrestling characters), consider the ‘authenticity’ of the sporting event, detect and explain ‘representations’ as well as underlying ‘ideologies’ or implicit ‘political statements’ and finally speak about wrestling or, to be more precise, the WWE, in terms of its ‘diegesis’.17

‘Diegesis’ is a term which originally comes from narratology and film theory. According to Felluga, it describes a narrative's time-space continuum, to borrow a term from Star Trek. The diegesis of a narrative is its entire created world. Any narrative includes a diegesis, whether you are reading science fiction, fantasy, mimetic realism, or psychological realism. However, each kind of story will render that time-space continuum in different ways. The suspension of disbelief that we all perform before entering into a fictional world entails an acceptance of a story's diegesis.18

This definition also resonates with Bordwell’s and Thompson’s, who add that ’diegesis’ also “includes events that are presumed to have occured and actions and spaces“ which are not explicitly shown on screen.19

But it would make sense to rather speak of ’literacies’ in the plural, since the individual ’reader’ needs different literate behaviours to cope with different contexts.20 This is also where the term ’intermediality’, in the following defined by Werner Wolf, comes into play:

Intermediality applies […] in its broadest sense to any transgression of boundaries between media and thus is concerned with ’heteromedial’ relations between different semiotic complexes or between different parts of a semiotic complex.21

(If media are defined as texts, as it is done with wrestling in this paper, ’intertextuality’ might be used as a synonym to ’intermediality’.22 The term’semiotics’ will be dealt with in the next chapters.)

As this paper will show, the WWE also makes use of different text forms, genres or media, each of which require different skills to be understood and interpreted. Accordingly, the world of wrestling is a semiotic complex with many sub- complexes. This, of course, has an impact on the reading of the WWE. Ann Watts Pailliotet explained her notion of a critical media literacy including intermediality as follows:

Whether reading a book, watching a TV program, or constructing a Web site, readers and viewers interact with levels of information to construct meanings through dynamic processes - often applying intentional sequencing or simultaneous combinations of varied sign systems. Some meanings come from previously seen or heard messages obtained through our exposure to other media productions or contexts.23

Although this paper will focus on the reading of wrestling, it is important to point out that the term ’literacy’ or ’literacies’ contains both reading and writing, as Buckingham also emphasizes.24

II.2. Reality in the Context of Media Literacies

Dealing with the issue of ‘reality’ in this context actually turns out to be more than problematic. In our everyday usage, the term often comes into play when we start “confirming or questioning the accuracy of television representations, explaining and supplementing what is shown” and when we discuss whether what is shown can serve as a real-life model.25 But such dialogues about how ‘realistic’ a medium like a movie is help people understand and articulate their perception of the relationship between the medium and the real world.26

Considering representations in media unrealistic can also have psychological causes, since “a distanced critique of the implausibility of [,for example,] television is taken as a sign of ‘maturity’; and in the process, any expression of pleasure or enjoyment may come to appear […] naïve.”27 Accordingly, such judgments can have interpersonal functions and provide “a powerful means of defining one’s own tastes, and thereby to proclaim […] [one’s]

own (gendered) maturity.” This follows that describing a medium such as wrestling as ‘unrealistic’ can have several reasons: if a boy complains that the wrestler’s muscles are ‘unrealistic’, this can mostly be interpreted as his anxiety about “the fragility of […] his own masculine identity.”28 If someone complains about the ‘unrealistic’ storylines of the WWE, this might be interpreted as his or her personal claim to his or her own maturity. And if a girl rejects the violence involved in wrestling, this might rather be interpreted as her claim to a particular social position than as an actual judgment of taste.29

Whichever way, “judgments about the ‘unreality’ of television […] enable the speaker to present himself or herself as a sophisticated viewer, who is able to ‘see through’ the illusions television provides.”30 A way to deal with the problems the use of the term ‘reality’ inevitably brings about is to draw the conclusion that media, such as wrestling, construct realities of their own. By using representations, they create their own diegeses. Thus, it seems essential to also address the topic of representations.

II.3. Representation

According to the sociologist Stuart Hall, one of the founders of Cultural Studies, “representation is an essential part of the process by which meaning is produced and exchanged between members of a culture.”31 In linguistics, there are basically three theories about how language is used to represent the world: the ‘reflective approach’ claims that language can only reflect what is already there in the world of objects. The ‘intentional approach’ claims that language only expresses what the speaker, writer or painter actually wants to express. And according to the ‘constructionist approach’, which has recently become the most widely accepted and established theory and which “recognizes […] the public, social character of language,”32 “meaning is constructed in and through language.”33 Thus, “neither things in themselves nor the individual users of language can fix meaning in language.”34 The ‘semiotic approach’ (Ferdinand de Saussure) and the ‘discursive approach’ (Michel Foucault) are two major variants of the ‘constructionist approach.’35

Following the constructionist approach, Hall argues that there are two systems or processes of representation:

First, there is the ‘system’ by which all sorts of objects, people and events are correlated with a set of concepts or mental representations which we carry around in our heads. Without them, we could not interpret the world meaningfully at all. In the first place, then, meaning depends on the system of concepts and images formed in our thoughts which can stand for or ‘represent’ the world, enabling us to refer to things both inside and outside our heads.36

The second system is a shared language which may consist of different words that enable us to represent and exchange meanings and concepts. However, not only words can constitute such a language, but also sounds or images.

The general term we use for words, sounds or images which carry meaning is signs. These signs stand for or represent the concepts and the conceptual relations between them which we carry around in our heads and together they make up the meaning-systems of our culture.37

Consequently, “the relation between ‘things’, concepts and signs lies at the heart of the production of meaning in language. The process which links these three elements together is what we call ‘representation.’”38 Hall emphasizes that “visual signs and images, even when they bear a close resemblance to the things to which they refer, are still signs: they carry meaning and thus have to be interpreted.”39 And as Hall puts it, these

signs can only convey meaning if we possess codes which allow us to translate our concepts into language - and vice versa. These codes are crucial for meaning and representation. They do not exist in nature but are the result of social conventions.40

As mentioned earlier, the study of signs can be traced back to de Saussure and “is now generally known by the term semiotics,” 41 which, again, quickly became an established branch of linguistics. Its most famous achievement is a model called the semiotic triangle. Because of its high profile and publicity, it shall only be briefly explained: In its most basic principles,

de Saussure suggested that human language was founded on a three-way relationship between items in the world (referent), concepts relating to groups of these items (signified [/ signifi é ]), and the symbol used to name these concepts (signifier [/ signifiant ]). In these terms, the individual chairs in the world constitute the referents, the concept of what it is to be a ‘chair’ is the signified, and the word chair or silla or chaise [or Stuhl ] is the signifier.42

Additionally, de Saussure used the term ‘sign’ [/ signe ] to define “the indivisible combination of signified and signifier.”43 Today, the underlying argument behind the semiotic approach is that, since all cultural objects convey meaning, and all cultural practices depend on meaning, they must make use of signs; and in so far as they do, they must work like language works, and be amenable to an analysis which basically makes use of Saussure’s linguistic concepts (e.g. the signifier/signified and langue/parole distinctions, his idea of underlying codes and structures, and the arbitrary nature of the sign).44

Accordingly, it is not only words, sounds and images that can serve as signifiers but also the objects themselves. Stuart Hall clarifies this point by picking the example of clothes and examining how they convey meaning. Especially in our context of wrestling, clothes are indeed a very fitting example, since they are involved in giving each wrestling character a profile of his own.

Clothes […] may have a simple physical funtion - to cover the body […] but […] they also double up as signs. They construct a meaning and carry a message. An evening dress may signify ‘elegance’; a bow tie and tails, ‘formality’; jeans and trainers, ‘casual dress’ […]” and so on.45

Summing up, in the semiotic approach, representation means the way words, sounds and images work as signs within a language. However, in a culture, meaning often depends on larger units of analysis - narratives, statements, groups of images, whole discourses which operate across a variety of texts, areas of knowledge about a subject which have acquired widespread authority. Semiotics seemed to confine the process of representation to language, and to treat it as a closed, rather static, system. Subsequent developments became more concerned with representation as a source for the production of social knowledge - a more open system, connected […] with social practices and questions of power.46

This is where Foucault’s discursive approach comes into play. Foucault was more concerned with the production of knowledge through ‘discourse’, which he treated as a system of representation. Here the term ‘discourse’ does not stand for a linguistic concept, but “it is about language and practice.”47 It is “a way of representing knowledge about […] a particular topic at a particular historical moment.”48 Again transferred to wrestling, the basic idea behind the discursive approach is that the ring-bell or the championship belt only become the ring-bell or the championship belt in the context of a wrestling match and through the discursive consensus on the particular meaning of these objects. As long as a bell is not used to announce the beginning of a wrestling match, it remains only a bell. No one would call it a ring-bell then. The same applies to the championship belt: If a belt, as gilded and pompous as it may look, is not given to the winner of a championship match, it is merely a belt with no particular meaning with regard to wrestling. It is the idea that physical things and actions exist, but they only take on meaning and become objects of knowledge within discourse […], [and that], since we can only have a knowledge of things if they have a meaning, it is discourse - not the things-in-themselves - which produces knowledge. Subjects like ‘madness’, ‘punishment’ and ‘sexuality’ only exist meaningfully within the discourses about them.49

At this point, it is very important to mention that Foucault’s theory, in spite of marking a theoretical development, has not necessarily “overturned everything in the semiotic approach,” since, as Hall explains, “we are still discovering ways of fruitfully applying […] [the] insights” of semiotics.50 The discursive approach has only been briefly summarized because the semiotic approach appears more practical with regard to the analysis of wrestling. After all, it also was the French critic and philosopher Roland Barthes who studied wrestling and generally “brought a semiotic approach to hear on ‘reading’ popular culture, treating these activities and objects as signs, as a language through which meaning is communicated.”51 The next chapter will be entirely dedicated to his observations on wrestling, which will later also serve as a common ground to start from when this paper will examine a recent wrestling match.

II.4. Roland Barthes

II.4.1. General Aspects about His Work

Between 1954 and 1956, Barthes wrote one essay each month “on topics suggested by current events.”52 He had just read Saussure and as a result acquired the conviction that by treating ‘collective representations’ as sign-systems, one might hope to go further than the pious show of unmasking them and account in detail for the mystification which transforms petit-bourgeois culture into a universal nature.53

Taking the date of writing into consideration, it is worth noting that Barthes also selected wrestling as a subject-matter, since his choice of topics was, as he writes in his preface to the original 1957 edition of Mythologies, the title of the essay collection, “guided by […] [his] own current interests.”54 He claims his main aim was to “reflect regularly on some myths of French daily life,”55 which implies, to some extent, that he obviously considered wrestling as a part of it, significant enough to be studied.

Barthes wanted to get a glimpse beyond the surface of several cultural phenomena which were “apparently most unlike literature.”56 In the last of his essays, Myth Today, he tries to “systemize topics discussed previously.”57 As diverse as they may be, at first glance, these topics also appear just as bizarre. For instance, he writes about sorts of food, toys, particular car models, and striptease shows, which he all describes as ‘myths’. He states that “myth is a language”58 and further elaborates on the basic ideas of semiotics:

In Myth, we find again the tri-dimensional pattern […]: the signifier, the signified and the sign. But myth is a peculiar system, in that it is constructed from a semiological chain which exists before it: it is a second-order semiological system. That which is a sign (namely the associative total of a concept and an image) in the first system, becomes a mere signifier in the second.59

As Stuart Hall puts it, Barthes wants to suggest that for a proper semiotic analysis you must be able to outline precisely the different steps by which this broader meaning has been produced. Barthes argues that here representation takes place through two separate but linked processes. In the first, the signifiers […] and the signifieds […] unite to form a sign with a simple denoted message […] At the second stage, this completed message or sign is linked to a second set of signifieds […] The first, completed meaning functions as the signifier in the second stage of the representation process, and when linked with a wider theme by a reader, yields a second, more elaborate and ideologically framed message or meaning.60

This is also why Barthes distinguishes between the first level of ‘denotation’, the more descriptive and simple level at which the majority would agree on meaning (e.g. identifying a certain haircut as an ‘iroquois’), and the second level of ‘connotation’ which has, loosely speaking, to do with what people associate with it at a more abstract level (e.g. identifying the ‘iroquois’ as ‘a symbol of the punk movement’, ‘a fashionable haircut’, or simply ‘awful’).61

In order to be able to accurately classify Barthes and his work, it is also necessary to get a small impression of the style he applies in his writing. As the translator comments, Mythologies is coined by a “poetic and idiosyncratic” language, and also “reveals a quasi-technical use of certain terms.”62 Barthes also made use of terms from philosophy, psycho-analysis, sociology and theatre.63

II.4.2. His Observations on Wrestling

Barthes describes The World of Wrestling, which is also the title of his essay devoted to all-in / catch-as-catch-can wrestling, as “the spectacle of excess” and compares it to ancient theatres and staged drama.64 He treats wrestling matches as semiotic systems and makes great efforts to take every aspect which, to him, seems essential to understand wrestling into consideration. So he analyses both the wrestlers’ roles (and their in-ring action, including particular wrestling holds and moves), and the spectators.

First, he explicitly states that “wrestling is not a sport” and that it is “no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe and Andromaque,”65 both of whom are characters from 17th century dramas by Molière, arguably the greatest French comedy writer ever. Taking into consideration that Barthes concentrated on wrestling shows in France long before the ultimate breakthrough of American pro wrestling as an internationally televised medium, it is very surprising that Barthes took this subject-matter so seriously, especially because, already at the time of writing, as he admits, there were many people who regarded wrestling as “an ignoble sport.”66

Despite the fact that, in the France of the 1950 s, wrestling mostly took place in “squalid […] halls”, he calls it an “open-air spectacle” with “the drenching and vertical quality of the flood of light” being an equivalent substitute for the sky and the sun.67 Besides, he makes a strict distinction between ‘true’ and ‘false’ wrestling, the former meaning amateur wrestling “in second rate halls, where the public spontaneously attunes itself to the […] contest,” the latter meaning matches “in which the participants unnecessarily go to great lengths to make a show of a fair fight.”68 From today’s perspective, it seems hard to explain what exactly was meant by this, since wrestling has changed so much and there is no way to get a detailed insight into what French wrestling looked like in the 1950s. It is unlikely, however, that Barthes wanted to express that he preferred small shows with little audience. Rather, he wanted to stress the point that good wrestling shows are not supposed to be about fairness and the simulation of an authentic contest.

On the contrary, according to Barthes, “the public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not” and “knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing.”69 By this, Barthes addresses the issue of legitimacy which has been mentioned earlier in this paper. Barthes illustrates the aspect that boxing is a legitimate sport while wrestling is not, by using the example of gambling: In contrast to boxing, it simply does not make sense to bet on the result of a wrestling match.70 Barthes goes on to say:

The spectator is not interested in the rise and fall of fortunes; he expects the transient image of certain passions. Wrestling therefore demands an immediate reading of the juxtaposed meanings, so that there is no need to connect them. The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. […] Wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes a total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning of a result.71

As this quotation has shown, wins and defeats play no role in the diegesis of wrestling, according to Barthes. Not only do the fans not care about the results of the fights - maybe one of Barthes’ boldest and most provocative statements - but even “the function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him.”72 By pointing this out, Barthes has identified a central aspect of pro wrestling, which is still valid today. Barthes, however, is not precise, or rather, leaves open who expects something of the wrestler. Does he refer to the opponent wrestler? The organizer of the event, i.e. the promoter? Or does he only mean the spectators? Accordingly, it is hard to say how much Barthes knew about what was going on behind the scenes.

Then Barthes examines the in-ring mechanisms of wrestling, depicting and explaining how meaning is conveyed and tension created. He observes that wrestling […] offers excessive gestures, exploited to the limit of their meaning […] [,for instance,] a man who is down is exaggeratedly so, and completely fills the eyes of the spectators with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness.73

To facilitate the spectators’ reading process of a wrestling event, “each sign […] is […] endowed with an absolute clarity.”74

And so is the distribution of the wrestlers’ roles inside the ring. According to Barthes, “the public is overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles.”75 It is always a fight between the good and the evil with the ‘bastard’ being “the keyconcept of any wrestling match.”76 (This is definitely a statement which will later need to be reconsidered against the backdrop of today’s WWE shows.) The body and the wrestler’s behaviour during the contest function as signifiers while the respective character, i.e. good or bad, is the signified: The wrestler’s “actions will perfectly correspond to the essential viscosity of his personage.”77 Therefore, Barthes compares wrestling to ‘diacritic writing’:

above the fundamental meaning of his body, the wrestler arranges comments which are episodic but always opportune, and constantly help the reading of the fight by means of gestures, attitudes and mimicry which make the intention utterly obvious.78

Later on, Barthes argues that “there is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre. In both, what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations.”79 This follows that there rather is some desire

for a representation, i.e. an image of passion, as the spectators do not care whether the passion is ‘real’ or not.80 In Barthes’s words:

What is thus displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. Wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks. The wrestler who suffers in a hold which is reputedly cruel (an arm-lock, a twisted leg) offers an excessive portrayal of Suffering; like a primitive Pietà, he exhibits for all to see his face, exaggeratedly contorted by an intolerable affliction.81

Barthes’s assumption that the spectators do not want to see the wrestlers actually being hurt and that they do not want to see real suffering is certainly another point worthy of a discussion. According to him, the fan “only enjoys the perfection of an iconography.”82 Besides, he slightly contradicts himself by claiming that “wrestling is the only sport which gives such an externalized image of torture,”83 insofar as he had earlier stated that wrestling was no sport at all.

As Barthes sees it, the spectators only want to see justice, the moral concept which is portrayed in any wrestling match, performed. They want to see an image of the suffering ‘bad guy’, which is why Barthes attempts to translate certain cheers and shouts of the crowd into some language of justice: “’Give it to him’ means above all else ‘Make him pay’.”84 Generally, “the process of creating heroes in French wrestling is very different [from American wrestling], being based on ethics and not on politics.”85 And, as Barthes observes, wrestlers know very well how to play up to the capacity for indignation of the public by presenting the very limit of the concept of Justice, this outermost zone of confrontation where it is enough to infringe the rules a little more to open the gates of a world without restraints.86

A means to make the spectators literally cry for revenge and justice is basically to present ‘foul play’ so that “Evil is the natural climate of wrestling.”87 As a consequence, Barthes estimates that only twenty percent of the wrestling matches actually show ‘fair play’, which is usually conveyed by “conventional gestures of fairness: shaking hands, raising the arms, ostensibly avoiding a fruitless hold which would detract from the perfection of the contest.”88

“Conversely, foul play exists only in its excessive signs: administering a big kick to one’s beaten opponent, taking refuge behind the ropes while ostensibly invoking a purely formal right, refusing to shake hands with one’s opponent before or after the fight, taking advantage of the end of the round to rush treacherously at the adversary from behind, fouling him while the referee is not looking (a move which obviously has any value or function because in fact half the audience can see it and get indignant about it).”89

Roland Barthes finishes his remarks on wrestling by concluding that “in wrestling, nothing exists except in the absolute, there is no symbol, no allusion, everything is presented exhaustively.”90 But when a wrestling event ends, the wrestlers leave behind their wrestling characters and the ‘metaphysical sign’ they embodied during the match.91 Then they are no longer what they were just minutes before; to use Barthes’s words here, “gods […], 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.”92

III. The History of Wrestling

III.1. Its Origins

A serious attempt to understand professional wrestling must also consider its history. Otherwise it will not be possible to comment on Barthes’s observations either, since he lived in an entirely different era of wrestling, not to speak of his French context. The following chapters will point out which factors led to the development of the sport towards the colourful medium that it is today. In fact, wrestling has a very long tradition and it was a long way until matches with prearranged results were broadcast on television. Beekman comments on this as follows:

Wrestling is generally acknowledged as one of the two oldest sports known to man (running races is the other). Accounts of grappling are found in almost all ancient civilizations around the globe. The function of wrestling, however, varied widely, dependent on the culture examined. For some peoples, wrestling represented an autotelic means of celebrating the human form; for others, it was a functional activity for military or religious purposes.93

For instance, early references to wrestling matches can be found in the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic as well as in many Hebrew and early Christian writings. Although the biblical texts are allegorical in the first place, the use of wrestling terminology makes obvious that the respective authors expected the readers to be familiar with the sport. Furthermore, visual representations of wrestling can be found when examining ancient Egyptian artefacts, sometimes even dating back to the years around 2500 B.C. In the Egyptian culture, wrestling was usually part of the training schedule of soldiers. On festive occasions it was also performed in public. Unfortunately, the rules of ancient Egyptian wrestling are not bequeathed. The first organized athletic contests took place in the ancient Greek culture, which wrestling soon became a significant part of.94

The Greeks wrestled in a sandpit called the skamma, and contestants were covered in oil and then a layer of dust before entering the pit. Greek matches began with a lockup from an upright position, and the object was to score three falls by causing your opponent’s hip, back, or shoulder to touch the ground. Holds below the waist, as countermoves, and tripping were probably allowed. Those inclined to violate the rules faced the wrath of a referee armed with a forked stick.95

Due to the enormous popularity of the sport, certain men soon got paid to compete against each other as representatives of their cities: the first professional wrestlers. The most famous one of those was Milo of Croton who also won the Olympic title in 540 B.C. But when the more brutal form of wrestling called pankration evolved, even he did not dare to participate:96

Much more like modern professional wrestling or mixed martial arts matches than classic ‘upright’ wrestling, catch-as-catch-can pankration first appeared at the thirty-third Olympiad. Pankration eliminated most of traditional wrestling’s restrictions on holds (only biting and gouging were prohibited), and victory was achieved by forcing your opponent to concede. Not surprisingly, pankration matches often ended in serious injuries and fatalities were common.97

Later pankration was also adapted by the Romans. They “took the Greek notion of athletics as a participatory, religiously flavored celebration of the body and converted it into something very modern - the spectacle.”98 It was maybe in this period when wrestling began to serve as a medium of entertainment in the first place, since the Romans mostly had slaves fight against each other for the sake of entertainment. Nevertheless, as the Roman empire approached its decay, new Roman games such as chariot racing and gladiatorial contests came into being and replaced wrestling, to some extent. This does not imply, however, that wrestling disappeared totally. During the Middle Ages, “wrestling became a popular pastime that required no special equipment and facilitated wagering” throughout Europe, where the “local nobility and eventually the Catholic Church approved of wrestling as a recreational activity that served as a training for warfare.”99 At the same time, wrestling also developed in Asia and the pacific region.100

Wrestling then turned out to be very popular particularly in the British culture where local variants of the sport were also codified by the Renaissance period. Those differed in terms of the set of rules and the intensity of the fight. Lancashire style was for example far more brutal than Cumberland and Westmorland style. The upper classes rather saw wrestling as a means of staying fit for military purposes while the lower classes discovered in it a chance to reach local fame, glory and status. Besides, it was mainly the peasantry who used it for the sake of entertainment.101 Beekman describes the status of wrestling at that time as follows:

On the cusp of the Renaissance, wrestling became a more organized activity and was probably the most popular spectator sport in northern Europe. Not only were special matches between local champions organized as entertainment for the nobility, but meetings between well- regarded competitors became frequently held activities in taverns catering to the lower classes. These matches, fueled by alcohol and heavy wagering, often became bloody affairs that precipitated violent confrontations. Loosely regulated or controlled tavern-organized matches, like those rural bouts involving peasants, occasionally resulted in the death of competitors; riots frequently occurred in the aftermath of London matches during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.102

It is also interesting to know that there was no opportunity for members from different social classes to face each other in wrestling contests. Despite this, its popularity crossed the social boundaries, as mentioned earlier: even Henry VIII was a passionate fan of the sport.103

III.2. Wrestling Moves across the Big Pond

According to Beekman, “the English sporting society […] served as a model for the development of a sporting culture in the United States.”104 This development took place more slowly though, because the New England Puritans complained about the perniciousness of sports like wrestling. The Puritans’ main criterion for the quality of a sport was the question whether it fulfilled the purpose of “idle amusement”. Their scepticism about wrestling was mainly based on the gambling, the arguments and the inflamed passion which wrestling was associated with. This attitude remained for a long time so that engaging in wrestling first had a rather weak status in the area of New England. Meanwhile, wrestling occurred more frequently on festival days and as a means to end conflicts between laborers in the southern and middle colonies. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the southern gentry started to develop a soft sport for wrestling as a pastime and even held contests at festivals. Just like in England, however, confrontations between members from different social classes were not possible. But since more privileged sports such as horse racing were restricted to the gentry, the popularity of wrestling increased among the lower classes. Although even George Washington loved wrestling and engaged in it himself, wrestling retained its low status until the early nineteenth century. It had also been used for the training of soldiers, but especially northern officers still preferred ball games, marching races and other acitivities. The elite considered the violent sport of wrestling primitive.


1 For information on Karelin, see Greenwald 2000

2 Assael 2004: 259

3 Beekman 2006: VII

4 Beekman 2006: VII

5 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 15

6 Beekman 2006: VII

7 Beekman 2006: VII

8 De Garis 2005: 193f.

9 WWE Magazine - 15 Years of Raw 2008: 7

10 Buckingham 2003: 36

11 Buckingham 2003: 36

12 Buckingham 2003: 36

13 Buckingham 2003: 37.

14 Buckingham 2003: 38.

15 Whitmore 2004: 294.

16 Pailliotet 2000: 210

17 Cf. Buckingham 2003: 39ff.

18 Felluga 2003

19 Bordwell & Thompson 1983: 385

20 Cf. Buckingham 2003: 49

21 Wolf 2005: 252

22 Cf. Wolf 2005: 252ff.

23 Paillotet 2000: 209

24 Cf. Buckingham 2003: 49

25 Buckingham 2003: 44

26 Cf. Buckingham 2003: 44

27 Buckingham 2003: 45

28 Buckingham 2003: 45

29 Cf. Buckingham 2003: 44f.

30 Buckingham 2003: 46

31 Hall 1997: 15

32 Hall 1997: 25

33 Hall 1997: 15

34 Hall 1997: 25

35 Cf. Hall 1997: 15f.

36 Hall 1997: 17

37 Hall 1997: 18

38 Hall 1997: 19

39 Hall 1997: 19

40 Hall 1997: 29

41 Hall 1997: 36

42 Jeffries 1998: 18

43 Jeffries 1998: 18

44 Hall 1997: 36

45 Hall 1997: 37

46 Hall 1997: 42

47 Hall 1997: 44

48 Hall 1997: 44

49 Hall 1997: 45

50 Hall 1997: 62

51 Hall 1997: 36

52 Barthes 1972: 11

53 Barthes 1972: 9

54 Barthes 1972: 11

55 Barthes 1972: 11

56 Barthes 1972: 11

57 Barthes 1972: 11

58 Barthes 1972: 11

59 Barthes 1972, M.T.: 114

60 Hall 1997: 39

61 Cf. Hall 1997: 39

62 Barthes 1972: 7

63 Cf. Barthes 1972: 7

64 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 15

65 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 15

66 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 15

67 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 15

68 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 15

69 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 15

70 Barthes 1972: W.o.W.: 16

71 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 16

72 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 16

73 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 16

74 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 16

75 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 17

76 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 17

77 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 17

78 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 18

79 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 18

80 Cf. Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 18f.

81 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 19

82 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 20

83 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 20

84 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 21

85 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 23

86 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 21

87 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 23

88 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 22

89 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 23

90 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 24f.

91 Cf. Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 25

92 Barthes 1972, W.o.W.: 25

93 Beekman 2006: 2

94 Cf. Beekman 2006: 2f.

95 Beekman 2006: 3

96 Cf. Beekman 2006: 3

97 Beekman 2006: 3

98 Beekman 2006: 4

99 Beekman 2006: 4

100 Cf. Beekman 2006: 4 101 Cf. Beekman 2006: 5f.

102 Beekman 2006: 5

103 Cf. Beekman 2006: 5f. 104 Beekman 2006: 6



Titel: Wrestling Literacy. The Diegetic World of World Wrestling Entertainment