Explicit violence, foul language, real blood, and a good script:Is professional wrestling socially irresponsible?
by Diado Mack
There is this guy named Sarge, a dishwasher at a restaurant where I work, who can and will, even without being asked, tell you anything about professional wrestling. He followed me around the kitchen one day mumbling about upcoming matches on TV that night, and since he is a good-hearted nut and harmless I smiled and nodded when he told me, "Goldberg is a punk. I hope Goldberg gets his ass kicked by Scott Hall."
I had read that pro wrestling was making a comeback. I dismissed it as a fad supported only by guys like Sarge. Then I noticed that other guys I worked with were talking about the WWF and the WCW, the two premier pro wrestling organizations in the country. Young college age men, or fathers with their sons would come in to eat on a Monday night and request that a TV be changed to the USA Network or TBS which air the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW) matches. By 9:00 pm on any given Monday night, half of the thirty TVs in this sports bar would be turned to one of these two channels, and there would be a throng of college-aged males, heads thrust towards the television with smiles of disbelief and awe like parishioners watching a deity descend to earth.
"By 9:00 pm on any given Monday night, half of the thirty TVs in this sports bar would be turned to one of these two channels, and then there would be a throng of college-aged males, heads thrust towards the television with smiles of disbelief and awe like parishioners watching a deity descend to earth."
I was curious to see for myself what pro wrestling had to offer. I had become interested in this new phenomenon partly because it was receiving so much negative attention in the media. Wrestling has never been the critics darling, and now more than ever, its being put in front of a firing squad composed largely of a group of self-appointed moral watchdogs, like Jerry Falwell, who keenly observed that the anti-Christ is running wild in the WWF. I wanted to observe for myself whether the charges against professional wrestling being socially irresponsible were legitimate.
One evening, I was watching the Late Night with Conan OBrien show where "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was a guest. Hes the good but somewhat bad superstar of the WWF. Not surprisingly, Steve Austin was welcomed with thunderous applause by the studio audience as he greeted Conan. The baldheaded wrestler whose fans where tee-shirts proclaiming "Austin 3:16" (see New Testament, John 3:16) proceeded to shed light on the very real physical brutality of the sport, the marketing gimmicks that make it a billion dollar-a-year industry, and even allowed himself to be made fun of.
Marketing, defined as the total of activities involved in the moving of goods from the producer to the consumer, including selling, and advertising, is a simple term that aptly explains the new and very huge resurgence of professional wrestling. "The 18-49 year old males" isnt the only demographic being hit upside the head with wrestlings new promotional song and dance. Steve Austin has a wave of products and toys that probably wouldnt intrigue a person outside of the 6-11 year old viewing audience. These items include Austin dolls, Austin crazy straws made especially for "drinking chocolate milk," an action figure, and a WWF CD with his face on the cover. The third volume of WWF:The Music was No. 10 on the Billboard album chart during the first and second weeks of March. The one product that is the exception Austin refers to as "a good little piece of business." He has his own condom. (Beat that Jordan). Yes, you can now purchase a condom with your favorite wrestler on the wrapper.
Youre more likely, however, to see wrestling fans and guys like Sarge sporting tee shirts proclaiming the name of their favorite wrestler or wrestling organization. Tee shirts are a traditional merchandising route for most sports. When I was a kid of about seven or eight, the WWF was fairly influential with stars like Hulk Hogan, "Macho Man" Randy Savage, Junkyard Dog, Jimmy "Superfly Snooka," and Andre the Giant. It was not uncommon for kids that age to be wearing shirts featuring their favorite wrestler. Wrestling of the early 80s (even amidst growing rumors and reports that it was fake) was big enough that such stars were transformed into Saturday Morning cartoon superheroes. The drama and soap opera of the ring was played out in cartoon with plot lines that centered around good and evil in comic-book fashion akin to Batman and/or Superman. My mom thought wrestling was trash then, but shed probably have a coronary if I were seven or eight now and watching wrestling 90s style.
The critics are right when they talk about the general themes of 90s wrestling being violence, profanity, and blatant sexuality. However, the very vulgar shows are restricted to pay-per-view, and the shows that air on TBS and USA are tame by comparison. The WWF, which airs its matches on the USA network is considered the "cool and trashy" organization by many teenagers, while the upstart WCW is called by Sarge, "more classy."
The WWF and WCW do weekly battles on Monday nights when they air matches opposite each other. Each show is generally seen by between 2.5 and five million households, and total audience numbers for a week average 40 million cable TV viewers. One aspect of the sports new popularity that has many dumbfounded is that many of the fans are no longer just blue-collar. Wrestlings audience claims many white-collar men who attend and even have business meetings at matches.
It is also very popular with the big men on college campuses. The TNT network had a recent contest that asked viewers from universities around the country to send in tapes of their Monday Nitro parties. From 50 submissions, the winners chosen were Brown University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Cincinatti. Joe Uva, president for sales at Turner Entertainment says, "These are schools you might not typically associate a wrestling crowd with." Such statistics are mystifying to critics who question the sports entertainment value. It is just further evidence that there are facets of the sport that appeal to wide cross-section of people.
What has many people worried is that as much as one-third of the sports audience is under the age of 18. So, for parents of children between the ages of six and 17 who are being dragged to live matches where seats start at $15 and go as high as $150, there is worry that their children are being influenced by the profanity, trash talking, middle-finger flipping and crotch-grabbing. But with all the subliminal messages in most advertising that are sexual in nature, pro wresting at least warns you ahead of time what youre in for. Entertainment that is as in-your-face as 90s wrestling is shouldnt have to make bones about what it is, because one thing it isnt is pretending.
Critics and parents may protest, but marketing execs for the sport have long been calling wrestling "family entertainment." Promoters no longer deny that fights are scripted and winners predetermined. This helps pass it off as family viewing. The popular WCW wrestler Goldberg explains it this way, "Im here to tell you that theres nothing about this sport that is fake. Predetermined, yes. Fake, no." His proof is a nasty scar on his forehead, which he acquired when Scott Hall smashed his head into a set of metal stairs. His battle wound took twelve stitches.
Promoters call scenes that feature bondage and S&M entertainment and they say that every viewer has a choice of whether or not he wants to watch. Whos to call any individuals definition of entertainment wrong? Vince McMahon, the owner and marketing guru behind the WWFs resurgence defends his organization whose characters include a pimp (The Godfather) and a former porn star (Val Venis). Its stories have featured racist plot lines, a simulated castration and even a mock crucifixion of Stone Cold Steve Austin. McMahon says his organization "is not about wrestling." He prefers to call his product "action-adventure." He calls it "a hybrid of everything there is on television today," with "elements of sitcom, a little dash of Springer, some spare parts from the Roadrunner cartoon" and "a plot line stolen or borrowed, if you would from "One Life To Live."
The entire product and soap opera plots attract viewers for the fantasy elements, but it is still the individual stars that sell the merchandise. Its proof that people are still interested in characters rather than seeing general sex or violence. Bill Apter, the senior editor at Pro Wrestling Illustrated notes, "Steve Austin is the kind of rebel we havent seen in wrestling before at least not to this depth. Heres a guy who beats up his boss. There are just so many people who relate to that desire. Austin is not a bad guy or a good guy, and everyone ultimately roots for him." He may not be the most respectable character, but WWF officials doubt if most of his fans dont see the joke or the WWF for what it is. Jay Andronaco, a marketing and media representative with Titan Sports, the parent company that runs the WWF says, "Our success is somewhat predictable, mostly because the WWF has always been synonymous with marketing. The key is that things have become a little mysterious. In the old days of wrestling, there used to be good guys and bad guys. It was black-and-white. Now its all shades of gray, and thats definitely a reflection on society."
That statement is all that needs to be said to end the argument that professional wrestling has a social responsibility and that its participants and promoters are greedy. Perhaps, all involved are devil worshippers. But to say that wrestling will have more of an effect on the minds of every American youth beyond intrigue, or curiosity, is crossing the line. The real issue is money. Promoters of the sport are pumping money into advertising and marketing in hopes that consumers will pump money back into the sport. But marketing is only so powerful if you dont have a product that people are interested in. Whos to say that other professional sports have more redeeming qualities than wrestling? The truth about professional basketball is that kids are being primed for lucrative NBA contracts at the age of 12. Professional wrestlers are athletic actors. After their job is done, they go home to their wives and kids and some might even do the laundry.