It's always been out there, flying below the radar of legitimate
action, existing in the odd, cheesy netherworld of "fake"
sports alongside roller derby. But fake or not, this netherworld
is hugely popular. Even sports fans who have never watched
pro wrestling probably know the names of Gorgeous George,
Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, and, of course, the current governor
of Minnesota. Cable television and the advent of pay-per-view
have turned pro wrestling into an enormous business. So much
so that a recent CD collection of WWF wrestler's theme music
debuted at number two on the Billboard albums chart. Number
What is it about pro wrestling that so repels some and so
attracts others? The repellent elements are easy. For starters,
it's fake. The "action" is choreographed and pre-planned.
The wrestlers stamp the ring floor or slap their thighs with
every punch, creating their own sound effects. We can easily
tell the heroes from the villains, and we know that, in the
end, the heroes are going to win. Indeed, the near devastation
the hero goes through only foreshadows his miraculous come-back,
and when the "referee" finally counts out his opponent,
the crowd goes nuts.
Then what are the attractions? Clearly, the morality plays
that are pro wrestling matches mean something to the "sport's"
fans. They cheer the heroes and boo, cuss and spit on the
villains with such vehemence that some might think they were
auditioning for a spot in the ring. The fans' reactions aren't
fake, so something must be working for a lot of Americans
to make them want to spend their dollars on cable television,
pay-per-views, and 20,000 arena seats.
We believe it comes down to something Americans do better
than anyone else: violence as entertainment. The Romans may
have gotten this thing started, but leave it to Americans
to turn it into a multi-tiered, multi-billion dollar business.
While much of the violence in pro wrestling is fake, when
we see a wrestler bleed, that's real, and that violence is
what makes wrestling such a popular form of entertainment.
As one wrestler has another pinned in the corner, he will
ask the crowd whether he should pummel him or not, in essence,
act as the Roman emperor asking for a thumbs up or thumbs
down. The crowd roars its "thumbs down" then counts
out every pounding. A kick to the groin brings a huge roar.
Fake or not, many of us find it difficult to imagine cheering
for a kick in the groin. But not all of us. We live in a violent
society. Around the world, older, more "civilized"
cultures deplore our violent nature and freedom with guns.
(But they also knight Jerry Lewis and eat up our reruns of
Starsky and Hutch, so maybe we aren't doing so badly.) Some
want to blame "the media" for perpetuating our culture
of violence and for lulling our kids into thinking no one
really gets hurt. But popular media only respond to the forces
of the marketplace and the dollars in our fists.
Thus, in the end, we must heed the words of that little cartoon
possum who once so wisely remarked: "We have met the
enemy, and he is us."