“There was a pagan delight in display of muscle, in the strongman stunts, the braggadocio, and even scanty costumes of wrestlers that offended the nice people”

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As Morton and O’Brien explain, about the Victorian era,

Burly sports did not fit into the selectivity of the gentleman’s athletic club, early YMCA exercise programs or fledgling collegiate sports. There was a pagan delight in display of muscle, in the strongman stunts, the braggadocio, and even scanty costumes of wrestlers that offended the nice people, those who advocated muscular Christianity in the schools and promoted Victorian team sports in public. Also wrestling and boxing as immediately intelligible contests quickly attracted the immigrant hordes as participants and spectators. The new arrivals were changing both the ethnic mix and the labor force in America. For all these reasons the ruling set saw wrestling and boxing as manifestations of forces in America they disliked [and] feared. (32)

Nylons and Midriffs: Women of the Hour (October 23, 2019)

Nylons and Midriffs, Works-In-Process

Image credit: si.com

My oh my, friends. In a matter of two weeks, the landscape of the wrestling world (or rather, WWE & AEW) is rapidly changing before our very eyes. We just witnessed a draft on RAW and Smackdown, and new challengers for the NXT women’s championship have announced themselves. Also, we’ve seen a couple of new faces in the women’s division on AEW, adding a few more pieces to the mysterious puzzle for this new fan.

Moving forward, I’ll be breaking up Nylons into two sections: NXT and AEW side-to-side, and WWE’s flagship shows as one. While I certainly respect and appreciate the differences between AEW and NXT, it only makes sense to consider them simultaneously, as they are primetime rivals and seek to offer wrestling fans very similar flavors. At the same time, RAW and Smackdown have always seemed to exist in the same universe, although I’m not sure if that will change with the draft and “rivaling” networks brought into the fold.

Let’s begin with the delicious morsels that the Wednesday night shows have given us the last two weeks.

The Good

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AEW/NXT: I feel that the last weeks were neither truly good or bad for either show, but pinpointing one positive across both is that it seems like storyline progression is happening. For AEW, we see a friendly rivalry between champion Riho and Britt Baker forming, with a title match last week that in my opinion proved Riho to be a crafty and adaptive defender in the ring. The week before last, we also had secondary characters emerge in the form of Bea Priestley and Emmy Sakura, the former of which looking to be a future opponent for Britt Baker. The next few weeks will clue us in to whether or not AEW can be trusted to develop women’s storylines outside of the main title picture, a skill that WWE in this era has fallen short with. But, for the time being, things are looking promising for the upstart promotion.

As for NXT, I have to say that I am impressed with the depth of the women’s division displayed over the course of the last two weeks. I can count on more than one hand the amount of women active on NXT TV on at least a biweekly basis, as it should be. I was awestruck this week when I saw Rhea Ripley for the first time. Her size in comparison to her peers demanded my attention, and her squash match with Aliyah (ending with that insane figure-four-pumphandle slam thingy) was exciting to see. Monsters are so rare in the women’s division, and Rhea seems to be the kind that can both believably dominate, but also be defeated by gutsier opponents.

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I continue to be impressed with the diversity of the women’s division of NXT; no one woman seems to be a carbon copy of another. So far, if we’re grading on visibility alone, I would have to give the edge to NXT. Now, work on getting the main shows up to speed, WWE!

RAW and Smackdown: Bayley! She was the knight in shining armor for me in the wake of the draft. Doing a complete 180 from Hell in a Cell to the first edition of Friday Night Smackdown, Bayley has completed her heel turn with the destruction of her beloved Bayley Buddies. The promo that she cut on last week’s Smackdown was first class, and there was a kernel of truth in the majority of her assertions.

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What resonated the most was her saying that she was tired of letting her cookie-cutter gimmick define her, hinting at the stagnation she likely felt with her babyface character. The videos of young fans sobbing as they watched their hero abandon her happy-go-lucky personality really made apparent the impact of Bayley’s turn, and the pure shock that fans can feel when our sense of familiarity with certain characters is ripped away.

Not only this, but possibly the coolest thing about Bayley’s turn is that she seems now to be more authentically herself. Pamela Martinez, the person, has a punk, skater girl style, and listens to alternative rock like that of her new entrance theme. I got the sense that she now feels a little more at home being able to break free creatively, but also be a little more of herself. I look forward to seeing what Bayley and her bob hairstyle will do next!

The Bad
AEW/NXT: After three weeks of AEW on TNT, I am still disappointed to see only one women’s segment per show. I’m confused as to why we aren’t having as many showcase-type matches for the women as we seem to have for the male stars every week. I am unsure at this point if this is because of a small number of women currently signed with the company, or if they are simply prioritizing the men right now. But, I do know that it needs to be addressed before habits form in formatting the shows every week. Allocating space for the women early on in the company’s history will prevent the inequalities in the women’s division that we so often see in established promotions.

Having good wrestling with a few women can only take the division so far. If the stars align correctly, I do believe AEW’S women’s division could be more interesting than NXT’s. But, people want options for our favorites. Give them to us.

In NXT land, a critique that has emerged for me is this: why is Shayna Baszler still champion? In watching the product for about a month now, I can’t find anything discernibly different about her in comparison to her peers. WWE seems to have a hard-on for “combat” level athletes who have histories in MMA. Even still, they only favor some of them.

For the women, it seems that they push the more masculine-leaning of these MMA-types. To me, I think there’s a logic (and potential crossover appeal to male audiences) behind pushing Ronda Rousey over Sonya Deville, or Shayna Baszler over Taynara. It seems they want to push the women who look more intimidating in real life, walking down the street, who scowl a little more convincingly, over women who are in other contexts coded as more “cute.”

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In any case, it seems that the reason Shayna has held the belt for so long has less to do with her look and accolades in MMA, and more to do with the fact that they have not built other women to her level (sort of like how Ronda was on the main roster, with the exception of Becky).

And even this fact is surprising, because it seems like there is plenty of talent on the NXT women’s roster. All they need to do is pick a woman and run with her. And do that with the next one, and the next. And suddenly you have a roster of stars, rather than a sky with only a few twinkles.

RAW and SD: I’m not even sure where to begin with this storyline, but whatever is going on with Lana, Bobby Lashley, and Rusev is….weird. And bad. It is out of left field, and I can’t pinpoint the malice that potentially lies behind this storyline.

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There were rumors in the past about how Vince McMahon didn’t like Rusev because he could not fathom how someone as “unattractive” as Rusev could snag someone as beautiful as Lana. So maybe this storyline is his attempt at taking a jab at Rusev, his way of writing his own fan fiction of who Lana should have ended up with. Maybe this is his way of turning Rusev into the “cuck” he thinks he deserves to be. (Please see this video to learn about the racist and sexist roots of the word “cuckold.”)

Or maybe it’s an excuse to sexualize Lana. Take your pick, but honestly none of these reasons are good. Lana and Rusev on screen have unmatched chemistry because they are real-life partners, and to do this just seems like drama for the sake of drama.

I hope we find better things to do with the both of them soon. But particularly for Lana, who is not that great in the ring; it would be a shame to jeopardize her popularity with fans because someone in the back wanted to prove a point, or live out a sick fantasy in storyline. We can and should strive for more, and I hope miss CJ Perry is able to achieve that one day soon.

The Thorny
For a change of pace, I’m not going to write anything for this section, because I feel it is too soon to tell where the true insidious patterns are developing in both WWE and AEW. With AEW still in its infancy and the draft causing us to see WWE’s main brands anew, I consider the last two to three weeks to be a hard reset of sorts.

Things are slowly building, so I am going to give the benefit of the doubt and allow things to play out. For now…

***

Until next time!

Stay legit bossy,

AC

When the Rebel Heart Met the Blackheart: Slash in Professional Wrestling

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I’ve been working on this project for awhile now, and this presentation from MPCA/ACA 2019 contains my preliminary results on slash fanfic that feature NXT wrestlers Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa.

This work began with noticing that other fans were as interested in this pairing as I was: https://prowrestlingstudies.org/2018/11/21/pro-wrestling-slash. When I started looking into the stories being told, I noticed how the fans were reacting to the NXT storyline featuring these wrestlers. This observation led me to begin mapping the emotional trajectory of that storyline: https://prowrestlingstudies.org/2019/02/22/the-emotionality-behind-ciampa-gargano-part-1-pre-tag-team-titles. I still have more on that storyline to map, but I decided to start theorizing what I saw happening in this fandom, which led to the above presentation.

Mainly, my argument is that kayfabe aligns professional wrestling with other forms of fictional storytelling, meaning that how people react to those narratives would have some similarity to have people react to pro-wrestling narratives. And, if there is a script, then there is an encoding occurring in those narratives that reflect specific ideological perspectives. NXT creates stories with actors like any other entertainment producer, and those stories contain certain ideas about the world as embodied through actors’ performances.

Since ideas are being encoded into those storylines, that means pro-wrestling fans — like any other type of fan — will decode what they see in those narratives and react to them in different ways (depending on their interpretive baggage). Some fans will also engage in transformative work to recode elements of those narratives to create their own stories, ones that may be more emotionally or cognitively fulfilling than the original canon. Such fanon, then, can contain depictions that are quite different from what was originally encoded, such as slash stories that turning canonical homosocial or antagonist relationships into homosexual relationships.

Gargano and Ciampa joined NXT starting in 2015. After a slow start where they were positioned as strangers teamed up to compete in the inaugural Dusty Rhodes Classic, their underdog, emotional story really took off during the Cruiserweight Challenge. Since then, the stories have had their emotional highs and lows, as the storyline responded to actual injuries suffered by Ciampa, who went from face to heel in his relationship with Gargano.

Whether they were friends or foes, Gargano and Ciampa’s performances inside the ring involved a level and type of physicality less common in WWE matches. Other than just the technical skill of their movesets or their willingness to risk their bodies, the men embraced one another repeatedly in emotional displays of solidarity, joy, and pain.

Brandon Stroud and other commentators have highlighted their emotional in-ring performances, remaking on their ability to tell stories almost completely through expression and gesture. And the men’s social media accounts, especially when they were #DIY and when Ciampa turned, furthered this storyline, creating a transmedia experience that added to the kayfabe that these two men were more than friends.

It is not surprising, then, that the fans reacted to these men in very emotional ways, such as intense cheers and boos, depending on the point in the storyline. More interestingly, however, are how the slash fanfics reflect the emotional nature of their performances and the storyline.

For this presentation, I focused on Archive of Our Own (AO3), which had the most such stories. Their decoding could be seen in how they commented on each other’s stories, making direct references to the matches, wrestlers, and storyline — all reflecting their decoding.

On AO3, I have identified 43 such stories so far, 13 with a Mature rating for sexually explicit material. These slash stories tended to portray Gargano as sweet, innocent, emotional, feminine, and submissive — and Ciampa as stoic, bitter, pained, aggressive, lonely, and dominant. Furthermore, the stories appear to do two main things:

What appears to be happening is that NXT encoded into their storyline a level and type of homosocial relationship that challenges gender stereotypes in professional wrestling. The fans, then, have emotional decoding reactions to the emotional story cues. What they recode through their slash fanfic are homosexual relationships that serve two purposes: first, to explain the nonstereotypical homosocial relationship; second, to repair the bonds of the broken relationship between Gargano and Ciampa. In this way, their recording operates as a form of relationship maintenance that helps establish why these two men — originally positioned as strangers to each other — acted as they did and also helps the wrestlers — and their fans — work through the tensions to hopefully reunite the wrestlers and thereby give them a happy ending.

Again, all of this is preliminary, and needs work done to relate what was found to what has been written about professional wrestling fans and slash fan fiction. And I look forward to doing the research to finalize this project — especially as it means reading more slash!

Six important messages about manhood

Works-In-Process

Below, some notes about gender in wrestling, from “Wrestling with Masculinity: Messages about Manhood in the WWE” by Danielle M. Soulliere

Six important messages about manhood were revealed by the WWE programs:

(1) Real men are aggressive and violent,

(2) men settle things physically,

(3) a man confronts his adversaries and problems,

(4) real men take responsibility for their actions,

(5) men are not whiners,

and (6) men are winners.

These messages support the dominant culturally ideal hegemonic form of masculinity by empha- sizing aggression and violence, emotional restraint, and success and achievement as desirable masculine traits. Moreover, proof and assertion of manhood were effectively accomplished by demonstrating characteristics of the dominant hegemonic masculinity (aggression, physical competition, success) and by questioning the manhood of other men.

Paradigm Shifts: A Brief History of the Life, Death and Rebirth of Pro Wrestling on TNT in the US from WCW’s Demise to AEW’s First Show on Television

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Photo by author

Wednesday, October 2, 2019, marks the first time in 6764 days professional wrestling has aired on the TNT network; it’s also been that long since the Monday Night Wars officially ended even though the meaningful battles ceased well before. Over eighteen and a half years have passed since the name on the contract read McMahon, and WCW was no more. How did the Wrestling Wars start, end, and (possibly) begin again?

WWF Monday Night Raw premiered on January 11, 1993. It was the first live weekly wrestling show with true national television reach. Shortly after its debut, costs prohibited going live so multiple weeks of Raw were taped at the Manhattan Center in New York City and subsequently shown in the 8pm Eastern slot on the USA network.

In 1995, the recently promoted Executive Producer of WCW, Eric Bischoff, found himself in a meeting with Ted Turner. Turner asked him how WCW could become competitive with WWF; Bischoff responded that they needed prime time. His off-the-cuff proposal was granted with a Monday night slot on TNT, thus kicking off the Monday night war.

The first WCW Nitro emanated from the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota on September 4th, 1995. The first shot fired was the appearance of Lex Luger, who had wrestled for WWF the night before. Luger’s contract had lapsed and he signed with WCW the day of the Nitro premiere on TNT.

Many memorable moments occurred during the Monday Night Wars and both companies pushed to newer heights in ratings and revenue. WCW actually defeated WWF in the ratings for 83 consecutive weeks. The shows gradually increased in length from one hour, to two hours, to three, in Nitro’s case. (The WWF would change its name to WWE after a trademark lawsuit from the World Wildlife Federation, and would later increase to three hours each Monday after the wars had ended).

There were too many memorable moments to detail here as the companies battled for supremacy. However, it was a golden age for wrestling fans as both companies pushed the envelope to outdo one another. Which brings us to present times.

The current era of wrestling started fairly innocuously. Renowned wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer was asked on Twitter about the drawing power of independent wrestlers, people who weren’t signed to a major company. A follower asked if any independent company could draw 10,000 fans. Meltzer replied, “Not any time soon.” Cody Rhodes, a second-generation star who had recently departed from WWE responded emphatically to Meltzer: “I’ll take that bet Dave.”

At that time, Cody was wrestling in the Ring of Honor (ROH) promotion. It wasn’t an independent, per se, as it was (and is) owned by the Sinclair broadcast group. They had national syndication but at the time didn’t have a national weekly television slot.

Cody huddled with his new friends the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega, and they hatched a plan to do a one-off independent show to try to prove Meltzer wrong. This was the birth of All-In, a supershow in the Chicago, Illinois area intended to sell 10,000 seats. Later, pay-per-view (PPV) distribution was added as the show sold out in under 30 minutes. It was obvious from the response that a hunger existed in the wrestling audience for an alternative to WWE.

Also involved in All-In was Tony Khan, the sports analytics guru and wrestling superfan, and son of the incredibly successful businessman Shahid Khan. In fact, Tony Khan financed the private jet that allowed Chris Jericho to make an appearance at All-In and still honor his concert obligations with his band Fozzy in Merriam, Kansas that night.

Since All-In, it has become obvious that a hunger exists for a different type of pro wrestling than what WWE offers. AEW launched in May with the Double or Nothing pay-per-view from Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena. More events followed with Fyter Fest, a co-promotion with the CEO Gaming convention, and Fight For the Fallen, a fundraiser to combat gun violence in Jacksonville, Florida. The culminating event prior to AEW’s television debut was a PPV from the same arena as All-In. The show, entitled All Out, set the stage for the debut of the TNT weekly program Dynamite from 8-10pm Eastern beginning October 2nd, 2019.

I had originally intended to end here. However, WWE has taken steps to add their developmental territory, NXT, to directly oppose AEW by being televised on the USA network on Wednesday nights also from 8-10pm Eastern. Both promotions cater to the same fans who want more serious pro wrestling. Though the principal players deny it, we have a new wrestling war on our hands.

Enjoy.

Excerpt from “Wrestling with Masculinity” Message 6: Men are winners

Works-In-Process

Below, some notes about gender in wrestling, from “Wrestling with Masculinity: Messages about Manhood in the WWE” by Danielle M. Soulliere

Message 6: Men are winners

Winning and achievement are part of being a man. This was very apparent even in the contrived world of professional wrestling. Male performers who held the championship title were described as “The Man,” which suggests that masculinity is synonymous with winning and achievement. For example, JR says of Chris

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Jericho on an episode of RAW (10-22-01): “Jericho is the man. Chris Jericho is the WCW champion.” Likewise, JR says of champion The Rock: “Man, what matchup, but The Rock is still the man.” (RAW 09-03-01) Clearly, winning and achievement are part of being a man. Holding a major championship title indicates proven masculinity. It is interesting that the same awe does not seem to be applied to female performers who win major championships. Female title holders are not described as “The Woman.” Winning and achievement, therefore, are constructed as masculine not feminine.

Excerpts from Mazer, “The Doggie Doggie World of Professional Wrestling”

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At its worst, a wrestling performance is an oversimplistic display of male bravado and vulgar social clichés. But at its best, wrestling is a sophisticated theatricalized representation of the violent urges repressed by the social code, of the transgressive impulses present in the most civilized of people. Most of all, wrestling activates its audience through a series of specific strategies. Instead of leaving passive onlookers in the dark, the wrestlers, through their play, make spectators an integral and essential part of the performance. (Mazer, “The Doggie Doggie World of Professional Wrestling”)

Is It Terrible or Terrific? We Needs a Better Way to Talk About Professional Wrestling

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 I gave it four stars.  You gave it two and a half stars.  Fair enough.  It’s just our opinion, right?  Well…sort of.  While it is true that match rating is a subjective process, that does not mean we cannot understand it.  Too often, subjective behavior (especially as related to art) is either reduced to its simplest form, in which many of the interesting aspects of the phenomenon are lost, or treated as an enigma that cannot be studied empirically. But if we understand match rating as a form of behavior, we can define the parameters of that behavior in order to better understand what people mean when they rate matches.  The problem is not the behavior, it is the tools that we use to study it.  Simply put, we need better tools to understand the experience of watching and appreciating professional wrestling.

Have you ever read Roland Barthes’ Mythologies?  If you are interested in academic studies of professional wrestling, your answer is probably a resounding “yes” (index fingers in the air).  It’s beautiful writing and critique, but as a passionate wrestling fan, it is also…missing something.  Let’s not forget, the term “fan” is short for “fanatic”.  While enthusiastic, Barthes by no means appeared to be a professional wrestling fanatic.  He was a scholar interested in the interesting and often paradoxical cultural phenomenon known as professional wrestling.  But, at times, his analysis in “The World of Wrestling” seems entirely disconnected from my experience as a fan.  Part of that can be attributed to the time (1957) and place (France) of the writing.  His experiences are entirely valid but bear little resemblance to my experiences as a modern pro wrestling fan. Would his critique be different if he instead watched NJPW’s Dominion 2018? Perhaps somewhat but probably not in a truly fundamental way.  His interpretation is based on a casual interest in professional wrestling rather than that of a devoted fanatic.  So, can we compare his interpretation of a match to mine?  Probably not with a five-star system that attempts to describe a complex, interconnected series of events involving sport, spectacle and fan engagement with one of 21 fixed categories. 

Even if we assign the exact same star-rating to a match, we do not know if our rating was based on the same parameters of judgement.  It is important to recognize that interobserver agreement and reliability are not the same thing.  Interobserver agreement refers only to an agreement between two observers regarding the occurrence of an event.  For instance, I may assign a match three stars while you also assign the match three stars.  Does this mean that we had equivalent viewing experiences?  It is possible that the experiences are equivalent, but it is also possible that we had vastly different experiences while viewing the match that led to similar match ratings.  Perhaps I found the moves performed in the match to be simplistic and sloppy, but I greatly enjoyed the underlying story and dramatic build to a climax.  Conversely, you found the execution of moves to be crisp and relevant to the narrative of the match, but you observed little evidence of investment by the live audience.  As a result, we both assigned the match three stars, but our three-star ratings have very different meanings.  The point is evident: while any two viewers may assign similar ratings to a match, the underlying experience contributing to those ratings may be vastly different.  A reliable scale must not only ensure that similar observations lead to similar ratings but that the assigned ratings are equivalent in meaning.

The purpose of this post is not to disparage the five-star system so often (but incorrectly) attributed to Dave Meltzer.  It has served as an incredible tool for describing our experience of professional wrestling.  But as Meltzer has often acknowledged, it was never intended to be an objective or authoritative indication of match quality.  Instead, it is a shorthand tool that allows fans to efficiently communicate the level of enjoyment (s)he experienced from watching a match.  But as a tool for the empirical investigation of professional wrestling fandom, it is insufficient.  The five-star system fails to get underneath the rating.  Consider this classic example: Meltzer gave Hogan vs. Andre from WMIII a dreadful negative four-star rating, but the match is venerated as one of the greatest moments in wrestling history by many WWF/WWE fans.  How could they be so far apart?  While we can speculate (e.g., Meltzer values in-ring athleticism, whereas WWF fans value spectacle), we cannot truly know the answer given a star rating.  The tool quantifies the aggregated experience of watching the match, but it does little to clarify why that experience occurred. 

What is the solution to this conundrum?  Ultimately, we need a better instrument to empirically investigate the experience of viewing professional wrestling.  We need an instrument that better clarifies the why of the professional wrestling experience.  With better tools, we can better understand professional wrestling viewing as a behavior and begin to understand the variable underlying that behavior.  Not only will such an instrument allow us to understand the factors that contribute to the evaluation of match quality, it will allow us to better understand differences between professional wrestling fans and fans of other sports and entertainment mediums.  Such an instrument should clearly identify and define aspects of pro wrestling matches. Such an instrument should provide guidelines for how users should quantify their experience.  Such an instrument should include anchor points from which deviation can be understood.  Such an instrument should be as objective as possible in order to allow for more meaningful comparisons.  Pro wrestling viewing is and always will be a subjective experience, but that does not mean that we cannot move toward a more objective understanding of the phenomenon.