Professional wrestling studies: a survey of the discipline

The art created for Chris Jericho & Kevin Owens’ legendary yet surreal “festival of friendship”: Monday Night RAW, 13th February 2017

Firstly, a quick disclaimer: while medieval and early modern Hispanic studies remain my primary academic interests, my heart has for many years been and will continue to be taken by the unique art form that is professional wrestling, and its establishment as a field of academic study will constitute a dual focus of this blog.

Professional wrestling has been called the “least appreciated” yet one of the most well-established and long-running examples of both television entertainment and live performance art. The combination of its inherently popular nature yet somewhat niche appeal means academic work on it is incredibly unusual, and existing scholarly resources are sparse and sporadically produced. No clear methodologies have been proposed for the study of pro-wrestling, in part due its inherently interdisciplinary nature: it can be assessed from the viewpoint of media studies, cultural studies, performance studies, sports science and film studies, to name but a few disciplines. Despite the multifaceted richness of wrestling as a product, it remains relegated to a rejected outpost of ‘cultural’ or ‘media’ studies, making it perhaps one of the last elements of mainstream media or TV that hasn’t been subjected to thorough academic criticism, and I propose that this must change. Some valuable contributions do exist, however, and the purpose of this blog post is to give a brief overview of the state of the discipline, as well as to suggest further avenues of scholarship (and believe me, there are many).

The most notable works include Nicholas Sammond’s classic edited collection Steel Chair to the Head, which begins, as my article has done, with a “brief and unnecessary defence of professional wrestling”, signalling that those who work on wrestling ought to stop prefacing their work with futile apologies and disclaimers in a plea for legitimacy.  Perhaps the innate self-consciousness of scholars working on wrestling is thus inherently self-limiting. Sammond goes on to highlight the way in which wrestling constitutes:

“A hotly contested site for working out social, cultural, political, and economic ideals and desires. While wrestlers grapple with each other – the signs that flit so uneasily across their straining bodies – whether projected by promoters, fans, or social critics of the form – represent an unequal and uneasy negotiation of social meanings, a struggle to name what proper and just social relations are in a capitalist mass society”. (2005, 15)

Social critique of professional wrestling is incredibly important, yet I question whether Sammond’s approach limits wrestling to a mere ‘sign of the times’ as opposed to treating the product as a work, or ‘text’, in and of itself, given its relation to societal context is limited to conjecture as to the intention of wrestling’s often anonymous authors. The rest of the collection contains fascinating case studies on the economic implications of wrestling, portrayal of masculinity, Latino identity,  and the logic of wrestling as a sport. It notably excludes any detailed assessment of female wrestlers, yet does explore an online community of female fans in the pre-Reddit era.

Two recent contributions have also done much to fill the dearth of criticism: firstly, the 2017 Routledge collection  on wrestling & performance studies proposes “a significant re-reading of wrestling as a performing art”, and is segmented into topics as broad as audience, circulation, Lucha, gender, queerness, bodies and race. Important contributions include the first real engagement with the development of the characters Golddust and Marlena in light of queer theory. The collection’s approach to race, however, is focused on racial violence and nationalism, as opposed to any real exploration of the racialised identities projected in the ring.

Finally, 2018 saw the publication of a new collection of essays on wrestling & identity edited by Aaron Horton. The focus here is once more on nationality, race and gender, but is less Western-centric than previous scholarship: it includes work on Nativism & Chicano identity, Iranian identity, the inauguration of Brazilian wrestling, a history of wrestling in Cape Town, South Africa, and the politics of cultural appropriation. Its approach to gender is also more specific, including a singular case study on Sasha Banks and female wrestlers in Japan. As far as I am aware it also contains the very first academic studies on wrestling in video games – specifically how the WWE mediates its history through the yearly-renovated WWE 2K franchise that concomitantly plays on nostalgia – and on the seemingly indelible connection of wrestling and rock music.

In terms of early career research, in recent years a number of dissertations have emerged. Brooks Oglesby’s 2017 MA thesis constituted another much-needed case-study, on “Daniel Bryan & The Negotiation of Kayfabe in Professional Wrestling”. Steven Granelli’s 2017 doctoral thesis has a somewhat broader scope in its exploration of the “Performance of the Heel in Professional Wrestling”.

Aside from these examples, other published literature is descriptive or biographical, tending to fall unsatisfactorily under the “sports writing” genre. The bulk of real analysis in fact takes place online, where there’s an abundance of popular journalism, as well as independent analysis blogs and the reams of Reddit threads by engaged fans which pop up daily. Any study on professional wrestling ought to take these sources of opinion seriously in an age of new media. Oglesby sets a good precedent in their dissertation by explicitly using social media as an intertext to interrogate the notion of ‘kayfabe’ (defined as the act of presenting that which is staged as genuine or authentic) in the case of the much-loved ‘underdog’ (yet current WWE champion) Daniel Bryan. Kayfabe is a fascinating phenomenon that fundamentally cannot be equated to acting or fiction, simply because of the physical realities and personal parallels involved in wrestling.

Detailed studies are, however, still required on the interplay of reality with kayfabe, character formation and story development, analysing the impact of wrestling’s multiple ‘authors’: the promotion, the wrestlers themselves, and the audience – both live and online. Moreover, what constitutes a wrestler’s identity is rapidly evolving in the twenty-first century: along with the more traditional elements of name, entrance music, costume, ‘promo’ work, move-set, and commentary, social media is having an increasing impact on both how wrestlers are perceived and how popular they are with the general public. In recent years, particularly notable examples of identity formation and authorship-complication include the Hardy Boyz’s famed Impact Wrestling run in which the promotion relinquished much creative control to the wrestlers themselves. The leading image of the blog also attests to one of the most memorable yet quite simply surreal episodes of WWE’s Monday Night Raw in the past two years: Jericho and Owens’ “festival of friendship”, a idea pitched by Jericho himself.

Another avenue for discussion is what I’ll deem storylines extraneous to the ‘squared circle’; that is, the practice of developing and filming storylines outside of the arena setting without an audience, to then show a live audience the film. The aforementioned Hardy Boyz 2016 Impact Wrestling storyline (in which Matt and Jeff are transformed into Woken Matt and Brother Nero respectively) famously included the Total Nonstop Deletion and culminated in the Final Deletion, both filmed at the brothers’ own homes. The latter has been deemed “a Shakespearean level masterpiece” by sports-entertainment journalists, and its popularity led to the WWE attempting a somewhat watered-down replica in 2018 after it rehired the Hardy Boyz.

A further recent example in the WWE of an extraneous event is the 2017 feud between Randy Orton and supernatural character Bray Wyatt in the lead up to Wrestlemania 33 which then continued on to the subsequent pay-per-view ‘Payback’. One of the most creative set of films in WWE’s recent history, prior to WrestleMania Orton burns down Wyatt’s compound, killing his supernatural alter-ego Sister Abigail. Orton then almost comically strikes his in-ring pose outside the burning building. The wrestlers then faced each other in the charred remnants of the abandoned building at Payback, Orton famously crushing Wyatt with a fridge.

The most notable evolution in the WWE in the last decade, however, surely has to be its belated move away from misogynistic depictions of women, which for so long deterred a large portion of its potential audience. I propose that in recent years the development of long-standing homosocial bonds (ex. The Shield) has come to take the place of ‘kayfabe’ heterosexual relationships on-screen, a fact that is also connected to the WWE’s desire to pursue both a PG and female audience.

While the WWE has addressed systemic sexism, it still fundamentally lacks BAME wrestlers with substantial roles, and regularly falls foul to incredibly racist depictions of wrestlers of colour: more often than not their roles are dichotomised into either comedic or physically indomitable. It also often actively works to incite overt xenophobia and jingoism by having non-American wrestlers rail against the USA (ex. Jinder Mahal’s 2017 WWE championship run), all the while paradoxically attempting to broaden their international audience.

All in all, pro-wrestling constitutes an incredibly unique art form if only because of the sheer volume of material that it is produced week in, week out, across the globe. Established and regularly-aired TV shows continue to be produced most prominently in the USA, Mexico and Japan, and the WWE holds the record for the longest-running weekly episodic programme in history. Given the lack of academic work on wrestling thus far, it therefore may seem an impossible task to adequately assess that which has been produced and to keep up with what is coming, but I readily accept the challenge.

 

Suggestions for further reading

Bibliography

Chow, Broderick, Laine, Eero, Warden, Claire. (eds.) 2016. Performance and Professional Wrestling. Abingdon: Routledge

Granelli, Steven M. 2017. Being Good at Playing Bad: Performance of the Heel in Professional Wrestling. Ohio U: PhD Dissertation

Horton, Aaron D. (ed.). 2018. Identity in Professional Wrestling: Essays on Nationality, Race and Gender. Jefferson: McFarland

Oglesby, Brooks. 2017. Daniel Bryan & The Negotiation of Kayfabe in Professional Wrestling. U of South Florida: MA Dissertation

Sammond, Nicholas. (ed.). 2005. Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling. Durham: Duke University Press

Wrestling-specific news sites & blogs

Cageside Seats

Wrestling Observer & F4W Online

Wrestling Inc.

Daily DDT

Ringside News

Rasslin Rehash

Sub-Reddits

r/SquaredCircle

r/WWE

Posted by

Intersectional medievalist, early modern & medieval Spanish literature, al-Andalus, Spanish colonialism, critical race theory, intersectional feminism, revealing the porosity of borders MA in Medieval Hispanic Studies @ University of Nottingham Currently a DPhil candidate @ University of Oxford

One thought on “Professional wrestling studies: a survey of the discipline

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    A very insightful intro to the topic of pro-wrestling. Have a read!
    #prowrestling #wwe #chrisjericho #hardyboyz #sashabanks #danielbryan #academicwrestling

    Like

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