12:25-12:45: “’He’s Gonna Try’: Notes toward a theory of the professional wrestling gimmick”

Brian Jansen is a lecturer in the Department of English and a communications specialist for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Maine. His work on contemporary professional wrestling has appeared in the Canadian Review of American Studies and the Journal of Popular Culture.

Through a set of preliminary case studies focusing primarily on the performers John Cena and Orange Cassidy, this paper explores the professional wrestling “gimmick,” that set of personality traits, mannerisms, movements, in-ring maneuvers, and speech tics by which a professional wrestler becomes immediately identifiable

The gimmick is central to professional wrestling, its elastic contours encompassing the realistic, the supernatural, even the patently preposterous. The term has additional valences, describing match stipulations or ringside weapons. Nevertheless, despite initial explorations, the gimmick in professional wrestling is under theorized—perhaps because, as scholar Sianne Ngai suggests of the category of the gimmick more broadly, “as a thing whose sheer stupidity cleverly neutralizes the critical feeling it incites, [it] defends itself from intellectual curiosity in a way that puts any person seeking to analyze it at a comical disadvantage” (9).

Ngai’s Theory of the Gimmick (2020), in linking aesthetic judgments to capitalist form, argues that the gimmick as aesthetic judgment indexes how value, labor, and time are linked in capitalism. The gimmick, for Ngai, is a device that strikes us as working too little—but also, paradoxically, too hard (1); taking up her analysis of the gimmick as a labor-saving device that nevertheless “tries too hard,” this paper explores two prominent gimmicks for their insight into how we understand the embodied labor of professional wrestling, and how the labor of professional wrestlers, in turn, might help audiences frame their own relations to work.

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