The Consumer Republic

Believe It or Not
Most of the time, I choose the topics for this column. But every once in a while, a topic is so monumental, so epic in its implications, that it demands to be chosen. I’m talking about the burning issue that promises to reveal the soul of our dying century: professional wrestling.
I knew this wrestling thing was getting serious when I learned the traveling minstrels of mayhem were going to be featured in a theme restaurant. Wrestling has already vaulted to the top of the cable ratings and siphons off millions with every pay-per-view event. One can almost hear the network executives, facing dwindling audiences for everything from pro football to college basketball, gnashing their teeth.
How long will they be willing to cede this gold mine to cable and syndication? After all, NBC recently aired a rip-off of Fox’s patented scariest/wildest/amazingest video shows; even PBS did a multinight special on accidents, complete with footage of burning airplanes. Can wrestling be far behind?
In their efforts to understand how we’ve come to this point, horrified pundits point to wrestling’s stronger doses of brutality and vulgarity. This is true–but it explains nothing. Virtually every form of entertainment–movies, TV, videogames (whose heroes wrestlers increasingly resemble)–is more violent and/or sexual than it used to be. Wrestling is out there competing for young male eyeballs with dozens of diversions, all of which have turned up the juice. Besides, mass entertainment relied on violence and sex long before Judy first cracked Punch over the head; critics have been despairing over violence since Cicero.
To credit violence and sex for wrestling’s rise to cultural prominence is a little like saying breathing causes life.
I suspect that wrestling is enjoying its millennial moment because it is openly, unashamedly, undeniably fake. In the old days, the phoniness of the spectacle limited its appeal to a small coterie within the underclass of taste. Today, its status as simulacrum, as the post-modernists like to say, puts wrestling at the center of American culture. Wrestling fans go beyond that 19th-century notion, the willing suspension of disbelief. The 21st-century version inverts the premise: It’s belief that’s willingly suspended.
It’s as if the certainty that the spectacle is fake frees the audience to commit themselves to it. We can see this principle at work in wrestling’s sister entertainment–the TV talk show–where the revelation that the fisticuffs on The Jerry Springer Show were staged had little impact on its appeal. When the emperor is revealed to have no clothes, the audience, instead of exposing him to ridicule, obligingly dresses him with their eyes.
My guess is that the action-figure governor of Minnesota owes his electoral victory to the willing suspension of belief. Jesse Ventura’s former career as a blustering fake is precisely what made him seem more trustworthy than “sincere” politicians whom everyone suspects are secret fornicators, thieves or liars. Poor Bill Bradley. He picked the wrong sport.
I should point out that I’ve seen the WWF in the steroid-pumped flesh. Booing my lungs out, I had a great time. Granted, my visit came somewhere between the high era of Hulk Hogan and the coming of Goldberg, so the dirty-talk and crotch-grabbing quotient wasn’t as high as it is today. But the main bout–Bret Hart vs. The Undertaker–wasn’t exactly a poetry reading either. That night, the audience included a large contingent of mentally challenged kids who were brought in by the busload and wildly enjoyed themselves–which says it all about wrestling’s audience appeal. Though I might not have the same reaction now, there was a common-denominator inclusiveness about the spectacle I found almost sweet.
Indeed, all my vivid memories from ringside are not of the wrestling–when you’ve seen one skull “smashed” into the mat, you’ve seen them all–but of my fellow audience members. They were the star performers the show couldn’t do without. Wrestling, like its mass entertainment predecessors, is interactive. (In the coliseum, pointing thumbs-up or thumbs-down was half the fun.)
Let the audiences of high-brow theatrical spectacles experience catharsis; the great culturally unwashed go directly to acting it out. My WWF evening was fun because I played my part; if I hadn’t booed The Undertaker–a character for whom I had no feelings, pro or con–I’d have expired from boredom. Social critics worry that the current parade of bad guys dominating the ring portends some national moral collapse. I think it’s because booing is more fun.
Heroes in real sports have the power to disappoint us. But the hooting, arm-pumping fans of wrestling, shouting themselves hoarse over a contest whose ending is predetermined, have the luxury of never becoming disillusioned. Which is more than Evander Holyfield’s fans can say.