WWE and the human situation | Rock Candy

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

WWE and the human situation

Posted By on Wed, Jun 27, 2018 at 10:21 AM

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From 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. June 11, at Verizon Arena, my 6- and 11-year-old sons and I watched “WWE Monday Night Raw” live.

I had not watched wrestling since the 1980s Hulk-a-Mania craze.

It’s hard to trace precisely how I got here. Innocently enough, I began fielding questions about Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and the Macho Man Randy Savage from my eldest son. Seizing a chance to connect by introducing him, I showed him YouTube videos of The Nature Boy Ric Flair and Wrestle-Mania II (a 1986 fete featuring a King Kong Bundy, Hulk Hogan cage match and a Mr. T, Rowdy Roddy Piper bout).

My wife blames me for all subsequent interest. Flair is the paragon of interview smack talk and ’80s Gordon Gekko excess. His raspy, yelled soliloquies are canonized in popular culture. (I tried but never mastered an impression when I was younger, always quickly giving into coughing fits) Eagerly, I introduced my family to his greatest hit:

“It’s so hard for me to sit back here in this studio, lookin’ at a guy out here, hollerin’ my name! When last year I spent more money on spilled liquor in bars from one side of this world to the other than you made! You’re talking to the Rolex wearin’, diamond ring wearin’, kiss stealin’, WOOO! wheelin dealin’, limousine ridin’, jet flyin’ son-of-a-gun, and I’m havin’ a hard time holding these alligators down!”

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Interspersed throughout the charge is Flair’s famed WOOOO! an expression that he is able to make multisyllabic or curt, soft and sensual or aggressive and threatening, on command.

***

On the ride up, while my younger son sleeps, I pepper his older brother with questions to prepare my heart and mind and connect with his interest:

Q: Who are you looking forward to seeing tonight?

A: Finn Balor. [I’m unimpressed, already playing the it-was-better-back-in-my-day card in my mind: Give me a Jimmy Superfly Snuka, a George the Animal Steele, or an Iron Shiek. A guy named Finn? A Universal champion named Brock? How far have we fallen? Undoubtedly, the suburban disintegration of a once great institution. A quick Google image search confirmed my suspicion: Brock Lesner’s blonde flattop and stern, smug gaze carry the Teutonic mien of every archetypal high school bully.]

Q: What interests you the most about seeing them live?

A: “The production.” [This doesn’t surprise me. My wife is an artist and photographer, and he has inherited both her acute eye for detail — observing the intricacies of body movement and facial features, along with her understanding of artistic mise-en-scene.]

But the kid’s a comic book junky, too, so he loves the storylines and drama as well, and he’s interested in getting an in-person glance at character development and plot.

“Really, I just want to see the wrestling,” he admits. “I want to see how they can go so hard and not hurt each other.”

***

Walking up to the arena, we hear call-and-response Flair WOOOs echoing and bouncing around near and far. Like a parliament of owls, or feral hounds, the wind takes a joyous onomatopoetic response from one corner to the next: each person channeling the chemical blonde swagger of the sound’s creator. It’s like the wave in a football stadium, a kid’s hot potato game, or a spirited round of tag. It must be passed; it can’t die down. My sons look at me for demure, Southern, polite-kid permission. I nod. They answer the call.

***

The cultural scene resists in vogue race, class, gender and political lenses: Here, neck and knuckle tats and Razorback logo calf tats mingle with the neon Southern Tide polo. Jeweled jean back pockets and Ed Hardy shirts give way to hip-hop stylings, frat-boy boat shoes and dad jeans. It resists easy semiotic political categorization as well. One of the wrestlers is featured on a shirt that evokes gay pride: The wrestler’s signature logo was in rainbow colors with script that read “Balor for Everyone.” No MAGA hats visible. There are really just a lot of normal, middle-class people here. It is a middle-class archetypal collage: A bunch of moms, dads, and kids. It is multi-racial and intergenerational. It may be the most open cultural “third space” in America, akin to a Southern Walmart in a one Walmart town.

***

My relationship with modern WWE is dichotomous. No middle ground: I tolerate, poorly, my kids’ interest in it. I desperately want to be polite and interested when they talk to me about it. But I cannot. And they must know this, glazed over eyes and mhmms. I talk openly about the “phase” being over one day.

Yet, I love when they wrestle each other and come up with characters, signature moves, entrance songs, and back-stories. My youngest son is Mr. E (not to be confused with Mystery, which is what it sounds like when he says it). He chose E for unknown reasons, even to him. His name begins with a T. He said Mr. T was already taken. His signature move changes every day, and he has “entered the ring” to The Beastie Boys hit “Sabatoge”(my suggestion) and the 1970 Mountain hit “Mississippi Queen” (his suggestion). My sons cover their bedroom floor with couch cushions and perform all manner of moves on one another. I can hear them giving ring-side commentary, describing the moves in detail and inflecting with necessary emotional drama. They emerge hours later with splotchy red skin, asking what we have to eat.

***

The cross-promotional infrastructure is meticulous and executed without scruple all night. “Monday Night Raw” and “Smackdown” are the two big draws, each with their own wrestlers; though, apparently, one can be drafted to fight in the other. NXT seems like the minor leagues for folks trying to get the nod, and 205 Live is for cruiserweights. Along with “Wrestlemania,” several reality television shows featuring wrestlers airing on the WWE network and E! (the promo for John Cena and Nikki Bella’s impending “DTR” on Total Bellas plays most consistently) are promoted regularly; it’s clear you’ve entered into a multi-layered entertainment stratosphere eager to soak up every consumer dollar and free binge-watching minute of the devoted. Teasers are infused into the unfolding drama all night, kicking the narrative down the road … you’ll have to tune in on Saturday night to find out …

***

The event resists entertainment categories: Rock show meets soap opera mixed with contemporary dance, synchronized athletics and a strongman competition; co-mingled with Kardashian-stylized reality television, a call-and-response sing-a-long, an off-off-off-Broadway play, a bodybuilding catwalk and a Fortune 500 corporate board meeting.

***
Signature moves are an essential part of character development and identity creation: Finn Balor’s “coup de grace” (a diving, double-foot stomp from the top rope delivered to horizontal sternum) is the night’s best.

Personally, I find submission holds less thrilling. I prefer the ref pounding the mic’d canvas: one … two … , the crowd chanting along, the kick-outs, the buildup and the release when he finally hits it a third time.

***

Antagonizing the crowd is necessary. So is catharsis. Elias calls the Verizon crowd hillbillies. They boo resoundingly. He plays a song on a guitar purportedly gifted to him from Jon Mayer. Seth Rollins comes out and breaks the guitar. The crowd is pleased, chanting his “Burn It Down” slogan. Their dignity is restored.

***

My new favorite wrestler is the No Way Jose, from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, who comes out leading a conga line while the crowd rhythmically chants his name. He fought Curt Hawkins who has lost over 200 matches consecutively. The latter tried a sneak attack. The former pinned him within seconds. I’ve been singing his song since.

***

Finesse and agility vs. brute strength is an appreciated trope. Braun Strowman (6-foot-8, 325) fought Bobby Roode (6-foot, 235), Finn Balor (5-foot-11, 170), and Kevin Owens (6-foot, 266), who flung his body off a 10-foot ladder onto the giant’s body lying prostrate on a table. Strowman endured each wrestler’s signature move and the above gymnastic brutality before finally winning the match, much to the audience’s admiration.

***

It’s helpful to watch someone of common build have a wrestling move performed on them: Jinder Mahal’s diminutive manager Ranjin Singh caught the business end of Roman Reigns’ spear. Like watching a middle-aged used car salesman play Lebron James in one-on-one or race Usain Bolt, it is useful for context.

***

The interviews and match-segue-smack-talk sessions are more important than the bouts, as they allow for just enough character development and conflict to tease the audience to subscribe to pay-per-view matches or tune in to Saturday’s “Main Event” or the next week’s “Raw,” which eventually lead to the climax and thus set up of new alliances and storylines in the classic soap opera formula. Rowdy Ronda Rousey’s (who appears to be quickly becoming the branding face of the women’s side) smack-talk-interview with Nia Jax serves as example. Jax says, “You can’t cut it; this is tougher than it looks.” Rousey puts her in some sort of acrobatic jiu jitsu-esque armbar. They will wrestle at the “Money in the Bank” pay-per-view Saturday night.

***

Anytime there is a lull in the action, someone lets out a WOOO! The majority respond.

***

The cheap memorabilia is a decidedly popular draw. Standing in line, we witnessed a decidedly middle-class man buying a $350 dollar replica Universal Championship Belt and then immediately clasping it around his waist and walking off. My eldest son, marveling, remarked in awe, “That guy must be rich.” “I don’t think so,” I responded. My son watched in silent awe as the newly christened champ strutted away. In his middle-school mind, this is what adulthood is all about.

***

Marxist critique: As the storyline seems to go, the wrestlers are merely laborers, producers of a commodity to be marketed and sold, serving at the privilege of the McMahon family, who run the WWE. The hegemony has the power to pick certain matches and apparently play favorites, ostensibly pitting the working class against one another, deflecting attention away from the wrestlers’ collective power. The confusion is that Kurt Angle, a former and sometimes current wrestler and Olympic gold-medalist in his own right, is the general manager of the Raw Brand. Angle is seemingly beloved and, though part of the power structure, serves as a good-cop go-between. The message is overwhelmingly pro-capitalist that the good-guy hero is middle-management peon short of power and long on cult-of-personality, which his overlords use for their gain.

***

Feminist critique: I would shell out however much to read Judith Butler’s critique of this. The women are not pawns used for men. They are athletic, powerful and seemingly as much a part of the night’s event as the men. They are “fetishized normative” in standards — as are the men, muscular and fit. They are overtly sexual — as are the men. There is a lot of long hair whipping, and I can imagine this as potentially offensive and empowering simultaneously; there seems to be enough plasticity within the genre to complicate a clear-eyed declaration.

***

Cultural critique via theorist Frederic Jameson: Wrestling is a social act serving as metaphor, “an operation we perform on reality,” as Jameson says regarding literary culture. Within the narrative playing out on “Raw,” “imaginary resolutions to real contradictions,” are negotiated as we grapple our own individual and collective social conflicts. Or, is this merely escapism, a “bribe” appealing to “utopian longing” of our “deepest fantasies?” — all done through sophisticated marketing strategies encouraging symbolic material idols through fictional ideology and a false need based on the accumulation of consumer goods and vicarious yearnings to be more than we are.

***

As I entered my house for lunch the Tuesday after “Raw,” I heard the upstairs shaking and my wife yelling. The boys came down in their underwear, my oldest with a blotchy red chest where the youngest was strategically and without prejudice delivering Ric Flair chops. The latter had the $35 dollar imitation Universal Championship belt they cajoled out of me the night before draped across his bony shoulder. They gave me a knowing look. I responded: WOOO!

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