Jhally, S. & Katz, J. (2000, February 13). Manhood on the mat: The problem is not (just) that (professional) wrestling makes boys violent. The real lesson of the wildly popular pseudo-sport is more insidious. The Boston Globe
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American professional wrestling:
- has exploded in popularity in the U.S.,
- is being exported and watched with curiosity and interest worldwide (even in rural African villages),
- is not a sport,
- is reflecting and sending a strong cultural statement—especially to young boys.
Vince McMahon is the head of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). He is glib, if not arrogant, in describing what he shamelessly promotes.
(Wrestling is) contemporary sports entertainment which treats ‘professional wrestling’ as an action/adventure soap opera. With the sexuality of ‘(Beverly Hills) 90210,’ the subject matter of ‘NYPD Blue,’ the athleticism of the Olympics, combined with the reality-based story lines, the WWF presents a hybrid of almost all forms of entertainment and sports combined in one show.
This new form of entertainment has made WWF extremely rich by means of—
- traditional advertising,
- product merchandizing,
- frequent pay-per-view specials.
The writers of this article seek to express the meaning of this popularity—especially among white boys and men. They see the success of these shows as a result of what has been happening to men and masculinity in our urban cultures—and describe it in these ways:
- Post-industrialism, high-technology, automated production, e-commerce, and the accomplishments of feminist movements have challenged traditional masculinity.
- Many boys and men are retreating into a cartoonish masculinity, a world…where size, strength, and brutality are rewarded (see "WWF Smackdown").
- Might makes right, with extreme violence defining how power is exercised.
The authors of this article may go too far in dismissing the clear evidence that imitation of this violence has caused imitative violence (and serious injury) to young fans. But they do point to a larger problem: that "children are learning that taunting, ridiculing, and bullying define masculinity."
We can see this process of normalization clearly in pro wrestling, where intimidation, humiliation, control and verbal aggression (toward men as well as women) is the way ‘real men’ prevail. Manhood is equated explicitly with the ability to settle scores, defend one’s honor, and win respect and compliance through force of conquest. Already, this definition of manhood is at the root of much interpersonal violence in our society.
Examples of this may be found in
- domestic abuse,
- school taunting and violence.
A recent study of 6,000 (grade 4 to 6) school children showed:
- 1 in 10 claimed to have been bullied once or more times a week,
- 1 in 5 admitted to being a bully.
But WWF, and competing WCW, are about more than violence and taunts of violence; they are also about sexual exploitation and violence.
- WWF thrives and abounds with sexual come-ons.
- Most wrestlers have scantily-clad girl friends who accompany them into the ring.
- Racism and sexism combine when the black "Godfather, as hustling pimp, leads his ho-train of white prostitutes into the jeering crowd."
As female sexuality is increasingly used in the scripts, the line between the bimbo/prostitute sidekick and female wrestlers is eroding.
- In one show, Miss Kitty removed her top.
- Female contests often involve mud or chocolate baths.
- Evening dress contests end in having one’s dress ripped off.
Promoters such as McMahon welcome criticism from concerned adults and politicians. They sense such objections will only fuel youthful rebellion and contribute to the popularity of the shows. This article concludes:
Some people will argue that analyzing the social impact of wrestling is a useless exercise because after all, it’s only play-acting, right? But to those who still believe that there is no connection between popular culture and broader social and political issues, that an analysis of wrestling has nothing to teach us about where our culture is heading, we have two words of caution: Jesse Ventura.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- What is your first response to this article?
- Do you understand the popularity of these shows?
- Have you read about the numbers of boys who are reenacting the actions of these wrestlers after school in and around their homes—for examples diving off roofs, smashing light bulbs into their faces and heads, batting one another with chairs.
- What do you see as the sexual effect of these shows on boys?
- Do you agree with the concerns of these writers? Do you have any further concerns about the direction of "professional wrestling?"
- How is "professional wrestling" helping or hindering boys to grow into what you consider to be healthy manhood?
- What might its effects be upon girls?
- What response do you have to this phenomenon? What response from society at large would you like to see?
- Wrestling has become big business, a most lucrative entertainment genre.
- "Professional wrestling" has changed greatly since the days of Hulk Hogan and Macho Man.
- Children in the developing world are growing up in a confusing transition from traditional societies to urban life. It is sad to consider such forms of entertainment as one of top exports of the U.S.A.
- We must take seriously the place of popular media in the socialization of all young people.
Dean Borgman cCYS