Deconstructing the Distinction between Marks and Smarks

Works-In-Process

by David Beard and John Heppen

Fans of pro wrestling are typically divided into two groups, “marks” and “smarks.”  The fiction is that a fan is either a smark or a mark.  It’s a little like “Santa Claus” — either you believe or you don’t. 

We propose a third path.  We propose that there are marks, and there are smarks, and there are cases in which “marks” and “smarks” are two halves of the same personality. 

Marks

A mark is a pro wrestling fan who believes that pro wrestling is “real,” rather than recognizing the existence of “kayfabe” (that is, rather than recognize that it is a performance with a predetermined outcome).  The marks at a wrestling match are invested in the contest; they root for their favorite wrestler the ways that a football fan roots for their team.  Like football fans, the “marks” among wrestling fans experience euphoria during moments when the match is going well for their wrestler, and stress when their favorite wrestler is “on the ropes.” This tension between the two emotions generates a sense of pleasure called “eustress” (Wann, Schrader, & Wilson, 1999).  Like football fans, the “marks” among wrestling fans may experience a borrowed sense of self-esteem if their pick wins; they consider themselves triumphant when their chosen wrestler has triumphed and may distance themselves from a wrestler who disappoints them. [This phenomenon is called “basking in reflected glory” in Cialdini, Borden, Thorne, Walker, Freeman & Sloan (1976),  “cutting off reflected failure” in Snyder, Lassegard, & Ford (1986) and “cutting off future failure” in Wann, Hamlet, Wilson, & Hodges (1995)].  In these ways, marks believe in the authenticity of the competition like traditional sports fans (McBride & Bird, 2010, 169).

The “mark” term is borrowed from the lingo of con artists and carny folk, who refer to the suckers who fall for their schemes as “marks.”  Notably, the “marks” do not refer to themselves as “marks” anymore than the victims of con-men do;  this term is foisted upon them by those fans who “see through” the theatrics .  Those fans are called “smarks.”

 Smarks

A smark (“smart mark”) is a wrestling fan who understands that the outcome of a pro wrestling match is pre-determined. Craven and Moseley (1972) stated that these fans enjoyed wrestling for its camp appeal.   Smarks “approach the genre of wrestling as would-be insiders… [and] possess truly incredible amounts of knowledge about the history of wrestling, including wrestlers’ real names and career histories, how various promotions began and folded, who won every Wrestlemania ever” (McBride & Bird, 2007, p. 169).

Because they know that the winner is chosen before either wrestler enters the ring, “smarks” approach a wrestling match the way that a theatregoer approaches a new staging of a play they’ve already seen:  they applaud the performance.   The “smark” enjoys the precision or skill of the coordinated movement of the wrestlers — the spectacle, not the competition.

Smarks claim that “kids are marks” or that “we were all marks when we were kids” — according to McBride and Bird (2007), smarks “view marks with scorn” (p. 169). 

And yet, they can exist within the same person.  McBride and Bird (2007) hinted at this when they claimed that “the spectator’s performance of credulity in the face of the fantastic nature of the display” distinguishes wrestling from true sports (p. 166).  Smarks till feel the tension of the match in ways very much like the ways marks experience that tension.  There can be elements of the mark in the typical smark. 

Revised from Sports Fans, Identity, and Socialization: Exploring the Fandemonium [edited by Adam C. Earnheardt and others].

 

Summer Slam 2018: Coronations and Contracts

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

Well, the “biggest event of the summer” has arrived, and WWE has taken over Brooklyn for the fourth consecutive year. WWE’s SummerSlam is one of the WWE’s “Big Four” (Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, Survivor Series) pay-per-views, and each year it’s being hyped as bigger and bigger, which is made evident as the show gets longer and longer.

This is usually the point in the season where the WWE starts their long-term storylines for WrestleMania, and it employs the following plot devices a majority of the time:

  • A return of a Superstar in action we haven’t seen in a good while.
  • Some type of swerve, shock, etc. involving the main event or another title match.
  • The eventual breakout star for the next year’s WrestleMania suffers some sort of injustice.
  • One of the matches of the card that the IWC (Internet Wrestling Community) is waiting for with bated breath ends up being as exciting as a wet firework.
  • A celebrity from popular culture gets involved with the action.

I won’t analyze the preshow, because seven hours is a lot to be sitting for, but I will be covering the main card. Instead of using the five-star rating scale, I will give the matches a 1 (okay, go grab another slice of pizza), 2 (Not bad, beat expectations and was able to keep a viewer’s attention throughout the match) or a 3 (Wow, I remember why I fell in love with wrestling in the first place) count.

Seth Rollins (with Dean Ambrose) vs. Dolph Ziggler (with Drew McIntyre) for the Intercontinental Championship

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Image Courtesy of WWE.com.

3 COUNT
Rollins (nice homage to Thanos with the outfit) and Ambrose come out to a big pop. Seth has been carrying Raw since WrestleMania 34 and has elevated the Intercontinental Championship into many a main event on Raw this past year. The show kicks off with two of the best in-ring performers to get the people out of their seats. Lots of teases between Ambrose and McIntyre while the match goes back and forth in the ring. Lots of high spots here, but a nice flow to the match. Seth gets busted open, but ends up taking the title home.

The New Day vs. The Bludgeon Brothers for the Smackdown Tag Team Championship

ONE COUNT
Both teams come out to decent crowd reaction after the previous match pulled a lot of emotion out of the crowd. Maybe the New Day’s gimmick is getting stale and we’re waiting for the eventual discord/heel turn for the group, but the whole “we’ve done everything except beat the repackaged Wyatt family” angle doesn’t have me sitting with clasped hands watching this slow-paced match. It ends mercifully with a DQ win by the New Day after they were accosted with rubber mallets. Yes, you read that right.

Kevin Owens vs. Braun Strowman for the Money in the Bank Contract

ONE COUNT
After months of the cat-and-mouse game between WWE’s next big Goliath and one of the best heels on either show, this match made viewers wonder what will happen here. A squash match? Some goofy technicality that causes Strowman to lose? A returning best friend in Sami Zayn? Strowman doesn’t need the briefcase to be a credible challenger, but Owens with a briefcase offers so many possibilities. Owens took some major bumps here and, while this was a squash match, should we really be pulling for the bully? Strowman made Owens look like a jobber, and it will be interesting if Braun cashes in later on in the show.

Carmella vs. Charlotte Flair vs. Becky Lynch for the Smackdown Women’s Title 

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Image Courtesy of WWE.

TWO COUNT
Is this when Becky Lynch finally gets that elusive title? Or does WWE keep Charlotte Flair in the title talk for months to come? It seems like Carmella is just an afterthought here. Charlotte and Becky did most of the in-ring work here, with the “best friends put at odds” in play here. After various near fall for Lynch, Flair comes out on top, earning her spot as the top female on Smackdown once again. The crowd went wild after Becky’s heel turn, and one can hope this turns into a great program for the rest of the calendar year between these two women pioneers.

A.J. Styles vs. Samoa Joe for the WWE Championship

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Image Courtesy of WWE.

THREE COUNT
Two of the most talented workers in the company are going head to head in this mid-card match. This match is a far cry from their TNA days. Having A.J.’s family at ringside was a nice touch and brought some real emotional investment in this match that should be a solid match technically. And it was. Pulling in AJ’s family for the big mental breakdown at the end for Joe’s DQ win brought in the all-too vaunted blurred kayfabe to end it. A.J. walking off into the crowd with his family was a unique ending.

Elias Performs

ONE COUNT
Cue up the digs on the hometown crowd from Elias. After breaking his guitar and a lively and vocal reaction from the Brooklyn faithful, he walks off in a huff. I’m not sure what this was going to accomplish other than a restroom break.

The Miz vs. Daniel Bryan

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Image Courtesy of WWE.

TWO COUNT
A match eight years in the making and one that features some solid microphone work leading up this between an all-time fan favorite against arguably the top heel in the company, this was a match that could offer up some juicy possibilities. A seemingly split crowd was into this match from the outset. After a war of attrition, some old-fashioned “foreign object in the heel’s hand from his accomplice” sealed the deal for the Miz. It was very nice of Daniel Bryan to put the Miz over. Let’s hope this storyline gets a conclusive ending.

Finn Balor vs. Baron Corbin

ONE COUNT
The classic “David vs. Goliath” storyline, this match was just thrown in as a filler for the card. It’s a shame, because after reinventions for both characters, each one seems to be an afterthought in WWE’s title plans. It’s been a long time since Finn was the first Universal Champion and his talents have been on the shelf, either through booking or injury, since then. The “Demon King” entrance was a nice touch, and while it’s great to see Finn take the role of champion for the LGBTQ community, the red and black face paint give him a different dimension and depth to his character. A quick squash by Balor ended this and one can hope we see the red and black facepaint in the title picture.

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Image Courtesy of WWE.

Jeff Hardy for Shinsuke Nakamura for the United States Championship

TWO COUNT
Two fan favorites here that are not the best on the microphone, but are pure magic in the ring, with Randy Orton slithering (pun intended) in the background, you just knew that this match wouldn’t have a decisive finish. A quick pace to this match and lots of aerial action defined this match, but its placement on the card didn’t help a tired crowd that sat through three hours of Summer Slam already. After previously failing as a main eventer, Nakamura gutted out the win despite Hardy’s best efforts. Orton made his appearance at the end, making sure this dance will go one a little longer.

Ronda Rousey vs. Alexa Bliss for the Women’s Raw Championship

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Image Courtesy of WWE.

TWO COUNT
This was inevitably going to be Rousey’s, arguably the greatest female combat sports athlete ever, and destined to take away the title from the best current female heel.
This was a quick display and booked as a squash. It’s going to be a while before someone takes the belt off of her, as it should be. She’s a believable dominant force and with Brock Lesnar leaving the company, her credibility will be key for the Women’s Division going forward.

Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns for Universal Title

TWO COUNT
Smarks’ heads must have exploded when this match was finalized. On one hand, you’ve got Roman Reigns, the next chosen face of the company who is divisive among the WWE Universe. Many folks didn’t want Reigns to win, but if he did get his preordained coronation as the Universal Championship, it means the main title being featured weekly once again.

On the other hand, Brock Lesnar, the champion that makes as many appearances as Sasquatch, may have the credibility as the champion, but has fallen out of favor with the fans due to his perceived lack of care for weekly competition. Not competing every week makes the championship belt on the company’s flagship show seems like a novelty. Every champion before him, if they were able to, competed every week on televised and non-televised events. Lesnar has made it very clear that he only works when the money is there. He is also leaving to go back to UFC to challenge Daniel Cormier for its top belt, so in keeping with time-honored traditions of dropping the belt before leaving the company. He surely couldn’t win, could he?

Enter Braun Strowman and his Money in the Bank briefcase, averting a booking travesty and sitting at ringside awaiting the winner. It was unique way to get fans into the match instead of subjecting them to Lesnar-Reigns IV. Thanks to some shrewd booking, Reigns got his win thanks to Lesnar being preoccupied with Strowman. The win let all three men involved look strong, and hopefully we will get a championship match from week to week from now on.

Overall, this was a pay-per-view that tried to keep adjusting the pace, but is not one that I would recommend to anyone on a Trans-Atlantic flight with five hours to kill. Now with Lesnar and his contract gone, hopefully WWE creative makes the Universal title the featured attraction on Raw again. The company is moving forward with Reigns and Rousey as its faces on Raw, and Styles and Flair on Smackdown, for better or worse.
TWO COUNT OVERALL

Differentiating Regional Professional Wrestling from National Pro Wrestling: Some Observations

Works-In-Process

by David Beard with John Heppen

Wrestling is an athletic performing art where the winners of the matches are prearranged.  Wrestlers  require athletic skill and physical training: be very careful in telling a pro wrestler that what he or she does is “fake.”  It would be like telling Sir Ian McKellan that what he does is fake.  Wrestling has been called a form of theatre (Rinehart, 1998; Craven and Moseley, 1972). While each match appears to be a competition, the goal  is not to win, but to perform.  Theatricality is visible when wrestlers adopt a gimmick or character, used to tell a story to build drama and interest.  Matches are staged between the audience favorite, known as a “babyface” or “face,” and an antagonist (or “heel”).  The rivalry is given an underlying plot:  the wrestlers may be competing for love or avenging a wrong (or perceived wrong). Plots or storylines range from personal grudges to metaphorical conflicts (e.g. between anti-Americanism and patriotism).  Longer story arcs result from multiple matches over time – long-standing feuds build interest in future matches.  The goal is to create a reason for fans to come to the next show and see what happens next and become hooked.

Across sports and media, “fans follow their [sport] around the clock, eagerly scouring television, newspapers, radio, and online portals” (Bryant & Cummins, 2010, p. 218).  Like fans of Twilight or Star Trek, they communicate on the internet through discussion boards, blogs, videos, social networking sites, and more.  Fans buy merchandise; they write impassioned reviews, they produce ‘zines and comics about the object of their passion, they take photographs:  they create!   These creations are part of what sustains the community of of fans of local wrestling, a community that depends on a sense of intimate connection impossible for national promotions. 

Local Pro Wrestling Depends on the Community of Fans

Local promotions are dependent on ticket revenues.  Promoters cannot afford to rent large, stadium-style venues and would not be able to attract a large enough crowd to fill such a venue. Instead, they stage shows in armories, American Legion and VFW halls, commercial banquet halls, nightclubs and smaller music venues, community centers, or  gymnasiums. During the warmer months rings may be set outside on bar parking lots or at county fairs and festivals.  Promoters offer low wages;  wrestlers struggle to pay their bills and risk living out of their car if they try to make a go of being entirely and only a working pro wrestler.  During the intermission (and before and after the show), some wrestlers sell autographed photographs, pictures with fans and t-shirts to supplement income from designated areas referred to as “gimmick tables.”

It is working the gimmick tables that audience and wrestlers communicate, fostering the sense of community that turns a passive audience member into a fan. They communcate mostly in “kayfabe,” the term used for the fiction of pro wrestling.  Within kayfabe, pros and fans talk about matches and where they are working next.  The fan speaks to the wrestler in-character.  A wrestler with strong fan connection can sometimes receive “loud pops” (cheers from the audience) that signals to the promoter the popularity of the wrestler. 

Revised from an essay in Sports Fans, Identity, and Socialization Exploring the Fandemonium, edited by Adam C. Earnheardt, Paul M. Haridakis, Barbara S. Hugenberg
Lexington Books, 2012

Nylons and Midriffs: What’s Happening in Women’s Wrestling (August 16, 2018)

Nylons and Midriffs

Hello good wrestling fans. I”m back after a significant move to a new city with some somewhat fresh thoughts about WWE’s women’s division. While I’m sure many of you are hoping for some predictions or speculation from me heading into SummerSlam, I have some general thoughts that have been swirling in my head since my last post that I need to put out into the universe. So, let’s talk about them, in this go-home edition of Nylons before SummerSlam.

The Good
For the first time, I actually have multiple things to say in this section!

First off is the women’s title feuds. For the first time in several months I actually care about the outcomes of both matches. The build to the RAW and Smackdown women’s title matches respectively have created a lot of intrigue, and fans are being given a sense that the victors will actually matter. On the RAW side, you have Ronda Rousey feuding with Alexa Bliss and her new sidekick Alicia Fox. I’m not the biggest Alexa fan, but her heel work with Ronda has been spot on, particularly this past week on RAW. The best heels cut promos where they “have a point,” and Alexa’s was that while Kurt Angle is busy protecting his Universal Title match by constantly intervening in Roman Reign’s affairs, he ignores his women’s champion. Given that comparison, it’s hard to argue that she’s wrong. On top of all of their segments, it feels as if the winner of this match will change the direction of the women’s division for the remainder of the year, so a match that important has to mean something good.

For Smackdown, we have the friendship of Becky Lynch and Charlotte being essentially put on the line in their triple threat with Carmella for the title. In a case where the challengers outshine the champion, this match portrays itself as something that will inevitably stir tension between the two “tea” buddies, if not break them up entirely.

Image credit: Twitter user @2ndNatureFlair

Fans are expecting one of them to win the title and, similar to the RAW match, victory for either woman will set the scene for the division in the next couple of months. Most interestingly is the question of whether Becky or Charlotte will turn heel as a result of the outcome of the match/during the match itself; regardless of which one does, it would be a welcome reset to their characters.

The goodness in all this is that both women’s titles feel important. And in this era of WWE, when wins and losses seem to matter less and less, that is something to be celebrated.

To add to the excellence in storytelling between wrestlers, there is also goodness to note of the women who hold court outside of the ring.

Women in speaking roles have been more visible in the last few weeks, most notably with Renee Young, who not only put on an impeccable performance during that Paul Heyman interview, but held her own as the first woman to sit at the announcer’s desk to call RAW. This move is far overdue in my opinion. Renee has the professionalism of a sports journalist and the eagerness of a fan. She’s serious without being stoic, smiley without being plastic. She seems like a three-dimensional person, which is difficult for on-air personalities and backstage interviewers to achieve in WWE.

Image credit: sportskeeda.com

As well, managers like Lana and Zelina Vega greatly enhance the gimmicks of their male counterparts. We all remember how effective Lana was in getting Rusev over during his first hot streak a few years back, and I hope that pairing the two together again allows them to connect to the audience in an evolved way with their Rusev/Lana Day gimmicks. Zelina Vega, on the other hand, truly sells herself as an asset to Andrade “Cien” Almas. She is convincing as his “business partner” and, often without Andrade saying more than a few words, gets him over as am arrogant, holier-than-thou heel. She asserts herself as a force without taking too much of the spotlight from Andrade, which is what a great manager should do.

Image credit: YouTube user iWrestling

Though it could be argued that having women as simply managers to men is regressive, I believe that in certain cases it truly works to highlight the strength that women can bring as talkers. And I think there’s something to be said about women that are integral in getting men over, because in the real world as in wrestling, it isn’t often that women are given credit for men’s successes.

The Bad
I am actually forgoing this section, as I have more important things to discuss below. But isn’t it pretty much par for the course that WWE is either really great or really problematic, or somehow both at the same time? Seems fitting.

The Thorny
You’ve probably been wondering why I don’t talk much about Ronda Rousey in Nylons. I must admit that I am hesitant toward engaging with her due to some transphobic comments she made a few years back. But it is also because, outside of that, I have needed some time to truly formulate how I feel about her in the WWE. I think I’ve arrived at an initial conclusion.

Yes, Ronda is a star. Yes, she’s got mainstream appeal. Yes, she may even make her armbar look cool sometimes. But…here is where my compliments of her end. My issue with Ronda is the way she is booked.

You may recall in my write-up of the Royal Rumble earlier this year that I predicted that eventually WWE’s hype would get to Ronda’s head, and that she would continue to steal the spotlight away from the other women. WWE proved this to be irrevocably true with the way they promoted Ronda’s first match on RAW last week. The constant mentions of it throughout the show, the the screen graphics seemingly every other commercial break, the backstage shots of Ronda warming up with Natalya…

Image credit: thesportsdaily.com

This woman told us when she joined WWE that she wanted to earn her stripes, and earn the respect of both her peers and fans. In her storyline, we were told that she specifically indicated to Triple H and Stephanie McMahon that she didn’t want special treatment.

And now, only a handful of months later, she is days away from her second title match, only her fourth total match on TV in WWE, where she is likely going to be crowned as champion. She rushed to the front of the line, and we’re supposed to forget all of the promises that she made to us at the beginning?

Where WWE gets its “evolution” wrong is that you can’t say women are “equal” to men if you only treat a handful of them that way. They run picture-and-picture promos for Ronda’s title match during other matches. They flashed her merch across the screen as she entered the ring for her first match. In order for this “empowerment” schtick to work, they need to book ALL of their women this way. They need to push every woman like she’s Ronda Freakin’ Rousey. I believe every woman deserves to feel that important.

Image credit: timesnownews.com

I want intensity between Sasha Banks and Bayley that Ronda shows to Alexa. I want Ember Moon’s merch to flash across our screens when she steps up to the ring. Women don’t get anywhere in society because of a few women who have made it to the proverbial top. Women make it up to men by being uplifted by the women who have already started to climb the ladder. Ronda is ascending quickly, and we’ve seen very little evidence that she is willing to reach back down and advocate for her sisters clamoring to reach her level. She does not equal the women’s division, and we shouldn’t allow WWE to fool us into believing that just because Ronda has achieved the hype that men have always received, that the whole of the division has suddenly “made it.” Your feminism is fake if it doesn’t ride for all of the women behind you.

***

I can’t wait to dive into SummerSlam results in a couple of weeks — I like having time to digest a pay-per-view before I form an opinion on it. So we’ll see where things are at after the Biggest Party of the Summer.

Stay legit bossy,
AC

Reflections on Regional Professional Wrestling:  Gender at FortuneBaynia

Works-In-Process

by David Beard, Associate Professor of Rhetoric, University of Minnesota Duluth

There was one women’s match at FortuneBaynia, a regional professional wrestling show held in Tower, Minnesota, July 29, 2018, about three hours north of Minneapolis.  That match demonstrated some of the limitations of women’s professional wrestling when it settles down into the regional circuits.

Regional professional wrestling is supported by a system of gyms and schools that cultivate talent.  Maybe more accurately, these schools attempt to funnel young men’s passion [to fill the cultural role occupied by wrestlers] into training.  Effective training is the path for those young men to become professionals. For example, FortuneBaynia stars wore shirts promoting The Academy: School of Professional Wrestling in Minneapolis.

Women do not have the same path.  At times, women’s wrestling has almost felt like stunt casting in television:  as noted by the Associated Press, at one time, Takashi Matsunaga offered Tonya Harding $2 million to become a pro wrestler.  “Tonya was made to be a pro wrestler… She’s about as tough as they come and she’ll last a lot longer in our sport than she will in figure skating” [AP, “’Tonya was made to be a pro wrestler’”].  There was no path that leads Harding into the squared circle — only media attention that the promoter could convey into ticket sales.

At the national level, women didn’t occupy the same role within the WWE.  It’s only since 2016 that the WWE ceased referring to their female performers as “Divas,” now referring to them as “Superstars” [the same term for male performers].  Fewer women aspired to become “Divas” than men aspired to be “wrestlers.” As trainer Susan Green complained in Curve magazine, “if you’re not 7-foot tall, [national wrestling promotions] don’t even think about you.”  — finding their emphasis “to be less on athletics and more on showmanship and telegenic faces” [Plenty of pain and gain,” Curve, March, 2007].  

How do women enter professional wrestling, then?  Trainer Randy Powell, the founder of the Professional Girl Wrestling Association, “thinks that the attraction to wrestling by women athletes is simple. ‘After girls get out of high school and college, maybe they’ve played sports, the only thing left for them is the little community leagues or something they have at the Y, there’s no other outlet. And sometimes that’s just not enough’”  [Plenty of pain and gain”]. Women redirect other athletic passions into wrestling, rather than dreaming to become a wrestler.

The women who make their way to Tower, Minnesota for an event like FortuneBaynia are committed to the craft.  Lisa Marie Varon tore her ACL in 2002 and since then has wrestled with a leg brace well into her forties. But Varon and Dashwood wrestled alone, without an undercard of local women wrestlers to support.  

This dynamic was different for women wrestlers than for men wrestlers.  At FortuneBaynia, nationally recognized male superstars wrestled in part to legitimize the undercard of local wrestlers.  In contrast, these women wrestlers were the only representatives of their gender wrestling in the ring. [NWO brought a young woman as eye candy earlier in the event, not to wrestle.]

Women wrestlers struggle with the dynamics art critic John Berger identified in his TV series and book, Ways of Seeing.  Therein, he claimed that “Men act and women appear.”  The woman who followed NWO into the ring was designed to appear while X-Pac acted.  Varon and Dashwood are trying to break that mold.  

But it’s hard — women internalize this distinction.  Berger goes on to explain: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves…. Thus [a woman] turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.”  When I discuss this text in classes I teach, female students remind me that women may no longer check themselves in pocket mirrors, but they do check themselves in their reflection in their cell phones — they turn themselves into a vision, a sight.

Varon and Dashwood have done their level best to become women who act, with the technical proficiency and crowd appeal equal to the male wrestlers.  But the dynamics of the audience, who whoop and holler at cleavage as much as at a well-executed moonsault, works against their efforts.  The pop of the crowd converts Varon and Dashwood into objects to be ogled, rather than actors equal to their male peers.

The regional professional wrestling show, then, works to trap the women it spotlights.  Berger describes the process I’m describing, in terms of art, by looking at renaissance paintings:

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.”  –John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Wrestling fans watch genuinely talented athletes, with enough acting skills to convey characterization at least as well as any actor in commedia dell’arte [or in any production of an emotionally flat musical like Music Man].  And then, they hoot more loudly when they wiggle their asses than when they jump from the ropes.  The audience under-recognizes the talents these women displayed to earn their place in the ring. The audience forces them, instead, into the sex object roles they are more comfortable with.

It’s no wonder that the women in the audience aren’t rushing to  The Academy: School of Professional Wrestling, aren’t aspiring to become the next Victoria or Emma.

Reflections on Regional Professional Wrestling:  Nostalgia Marketing at FortuneBaynia

Works-In-Process

by David Beard, Associate Professor of Rhetoric, University of Minnesota Duluth

Nostalgia is a powerful dimension of brand management, and FortuneBaynia, a regional professional wrestling show held in Tower, Minnesota, July 29, 2018, about three hours north of Minneapolis and most of the way to the Canadian border, demonstrates this power.

On the surface, the autograph sessions and the card seem to function to serve multiple audiences.  The presence of Baron Raschke [who wrestled beginning in 1966, retiring in 1995] appeals to a fan of wrestling in the era of multiple regional promotions, when Minnesota was center of the AWA.   The presence of “Mean Gene” Okerlund, Lanny Poffo, and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat appeals to a fan of the “Hulk Hogan” era, in which the WWE rose to prominence as the first “national” brand of wrestling. The presence of NWO, appealing to fans of wrestling in the nineties, alongside contemporary wrestlers [like Minnesota’s King Leonidas] may give the event the overall feel of a buffet.  The promoter pulls fans from multiple generations together, and together, they accumulate ticket sales adequate to their costs.

That may, in fact, be the principle behind the autograph sessions.  Some fans would not have thought, at all, to move from the signing line for Mean Gene to the line for King Leonidas.  Each wrestler has their audience.

However, once the bell rings, Heavy on Wrestling infuses the card with the power of nostalgia.  Below, I will trace ways that in-ring matchups at FortuneBaynia reflect the principles of nostalgia in marketing.

Understanding Nostalgia

“Nostalgia” is a word that is used in a diversity of academic and nonacademic communities without a great deal of consensus in meaning — so before I begin, I’ll try to nail it down.  According to Clay Routledge, Tim Wildschut, Constantine Sedikides, Jacob Juhl, and Jamie Arndt, “Nostalgia was originally viewed as a ‘cerebral disease’ specific to Swiss mercenaries who were separated from their homeland, and later it was considered a psychiatric condition or ‘immigrant psychosis.’ The view of nostalgia as a psychological problem did not change for some time” [“The Power of the Past: Nostalgia as a Meaning-Making Resource”].  In looking at FortuneBaynia, I’m not looking at nostalgia as a pathology; I’m looking at nostalgia as a resource, as “a positive psychological force” [“The Power of the Past: Nostalgia as a Meaning-Making Resource”].

Research has divided nostalgia into three forms, and all three are active in the professional wrestling community:  

personal nostalgia (i.e., nostalgia generated by reflecting upon times from one’s own experienced past)

historical nostalgia, which is generated by reflecting upon a time before one’s birth

vicarious nostalgia, which may be evoked when consumers attempt to reconstruct or relive an event from a bygone era [Darrel D. Muehling, David E. Sprott, and Abdullah J. Sultan, “Exploring the Boundaries of Nostalgic Advertising Effects”].  

At the national scale, the WWE Hall of Fame attempts to sew these three kinds of nostalgia together fluidly, inducting older figures [often as “Legacy” inductees] as well as more contemporary wrestlers, often wrestlers with little or no affiliation with the WWE.  The WWE deploys actual nostalgia for the wrestlers of one’s past alongside a vicarious nostalgia for wrestlers whom most members of the audience could never have seen. [Some of these older wrestlers simply retired before younger fans began watching; some of these older wrestler wrestled before wrestling was available to a national audience, and so geography would have kept them from being seen by the younger fans.]

It’s no surprise, then, that regional wrestling follows the lead of the WWE.  Regional wrestling shows deploy the diversity of forms of nostalgia — from the personal nostalgia for someone who grew up watching a wrestler as a kid to the vicarious nostalgia for wrestlers of an age before.   

In that sense, nostalgia, as deployed by promoters like Heavy on Wrestling at FortuneBaynia, is “psychologically advantageous as it increases positive mood, self-esteem, and social connectedness.”  Because people who experience nostalgia also experience positive mood, self-esteem, and social connectedness, “nostalgia, in turn, render[s] people more tolerant of the threatening [experiences]” [“The Power of the Past: Nostalgia as a Meaning-Making Resource”].  Putting it simply, nostalgia can be deployed to make a threatening experience for the audience of professional wrestling — watching the aging and deterioration of one’s childhood idols as they are replaced by younger wrestlers you’ve never heard of — into a positive one.  

To demonstrate this, we will look at two moments when nostalgia was an essential element in the FortuneBaynia:  

  • at a tag-team match when X-Pac of NWO wrestled alongside Minnesota indy wrestler Arik Cannon,
  • at a King’s Corner match.  

We’ll close with an anecdote from an earlier Heavy on Wrestling event, the naming of Baron Von Raschke as Heavy on Wrestling Commissioner [an event which included his surprise appearance in a match].  All told, strategies for the deployment of nostalgia at Heavy on Wrestling events can be explained by reference to the psychological and marketing literature on nostalgia.

The Nostalgic Power of NWO

Heavy on Wrestling was excited to confirm the appearance of multiple members of wrestling team NWO at FortuneBaynia for signings and, in particular, the appearance of X-Pac as part of a tag team match.

From the Press Release:  Ever since October 29th, 2017 when it was announced that X-Pac was the first official signee for FortuneBaynia, the bar for the show was immediately set high. X-Pac himself announced that he would be competing in a match at Baynia, leaving fans to wonder who the legend would face in his first Heavy on Wrestling match since 2014. While who he faces will be scoped out by Heavy on Wrestling officials over the next two weeks, we can confirm who X-Pac will team with. We are proud to reveal that professional wrestling legend Sean “X-Pac” Waltman will team with Midwest Wrestling Legend Arik Cannon at the biggest event in Heavy on Wrestling history.

There were local reasons to celebrate X-Pac’s appearance.  He announced, after the match, that his family was from the Iron Range.  There is value to the “local boy” angle in X-Pac as a draw for FortuneBaynia.

It’s also true that his presence at the event generated nostalgia as a force that validated his partner, Arik Cannon, and that validated the regional promotion. Heavy on Wrestling.  Serving as the venue for a match with the wrestler who held championships with WWE and WCW at the same time in 2001 only added to Heavy on Wrestling’s legitimacy. But the theater of the match worked by triggering nostalgia in the audience, too: the opposing team lost when X-Pac’s former team-mates, Kevin Nash & Scott Hall, approached the ring.  Their very presence spooked Rob Justice & Darin Corbin with the same goose pimples that audience members probably experienced when the two giant men approached the ring.

When, as the match ended, X-Pac extended to Arik Cannon a t-shirt signifying his symbolic membership in the NWO, he made manifest the rhetorical force of the match:  to help audiences seeing Cannon for the first time move past their discomfort with a new face into acceptance. Following the insights of Routledge, et al, “nostalgia, in turn, rendered [the audience] more tolerant” of Cannon, and hopefully, from Heavy on Wrestling’s perspective, converted NWO fans into Cannon fans for the next event.  

King’s Corner, Nostalgia Takes All

While the objects of nostalgia in the NWO match were intimidating, powerful, in the King’s Court match, the nostalgia was generated by two wrestlers who usually took the second string, and they played that role again.  

The team of “The Genius” Lanny Poffo, Nick “U-Gene” Dinsmore, King Leonidas, Super Thunder Frog, and Wild Cat faced off against Chainsaw King, Copperhead, Lore, John Johnson, and Red Wing in an elimination match. U-Gene and Lanny were the first eliminated from Leonidas’ team.  

Perhaps their quick elimination had something to do with their age.  As Poffo left, he mouthed “I’m too old” and left without hi-fiving the fans he passed.”  Or perhaps, admittedly, even in their prime, these would have been wrestlers who were quickly eliminated.  

Nonetheless, the match was even deeper in nostalgia, as Poffo opened with a poem in honor of his deceased brother, fellow professional wrestler Randy “Macho Man” Savage.  Poffo was the “Genius” in his wrestling persona because of the poetry. Poffo connected the fans to his persona, to his popular brother. Even as the wrestlers of the 1980s left the ring, one could feel the torch being passed to their teammates.  Fans of the earlier generations of wrestlers experienced nostalgia in watching Poffo and U-Gene, which became acceptance of King Leonidas, Super Thunder Frog, and Wild Cat.

Coda:  The Power of Nostalgia in the Power of the Claw

Nostalgia has been part of marketing regional professional wrestling for years.  In 2016, Baron von Raschke was named the commissioner of Heavy on Wrestling, and in one of the matches, he intervened by applying “the claw,” his finishing move.  The claw involves gripping the top of the head of the opponent with one hand and squeezing the fingers into the opponent’s skull, as a submission hold, like a sleeper hold.  The claw immobilizes a wrestler probably a third of Raschke’s age.

As physics and biology, it’s complete fiction.  That fiction, though, allows the audience to ignore the realities of aging.  The Baron’s power is in the theater of the ring and in the willingness of the audience to accept that power.  As he conjures the power of the claw in his fingers, he fills the audience with “positive mood, self-esteem, and social connectedness,” as his fans — regardless of whether they ever saw the Baron in action.  That energy passes from the Baron’s fingers into the young turks, crackling into acceptance from the audience of the next generation of wrestlers.