The Materiality of the Pro-Wrestling Stage and Sites of Tragedy

Lizzy Hogenson (University of California Santa Barbara – PhD candidate)  – The Materiality of the Pro-Wrestling Stage and Sites of Tragedy

This paper reflects upon the design, construction, and interaction (collision) with the physical wrestling ring as a site where grander narratives about labor rights collide with entertainment, shedding light latent power structures. Stage, I contend, becomes a physical manifestation of the power structures playing out both for the crowd and behind the scenes. Through critical examination of how the stage and material constructions of the environment are read, presented, and omitted, using the cases of the death Owen Hart  1966–1999) and the infamous 1998 Hell in a Cell match, this paper hopes to make a case for the material object (stage) being an important critical lens for media histories and furthering our understanding of the the squared circle. Piecing together the narrative from oral histories, autobiographies, and news coverage, I’ll engage in critical confabulations as method, drawing inspiration from Saidiya Hartman’s Venus in Two Acts. Armond S. Towns in On Black Media Philosophy theories of Material Marxism, cultural theory, and Black bodies form the basis of or critical analysis of the collision of the stages, labor/power, and bodies.


The Face of Getting Over: Facial Formidability Informs Expectations for the

Performance of Male Professional Wrestlers

Mitch Brown (University of Arkansas) – The Face of Getting Over: Facial Formidability Informs Expectations for the Performance of Male Professional Wrestlers

The success of professional wrestling relies on an awareness of the implicit rules of combat that guide how perceivers view combatants. Viewers can estimate the physical prowess of wrestlers. Promoters could similarly estimate this prowess, leading them to invest more in wrestlers whose appearance suggests increased capability of winning actual fights. These estimates could track an evolved psychological awareness of morphological features in men’s faces diagnostic of fighting ability. One feature is men’s facial width-to-height ratio (fWHR), a facial structure indicative of androgenic activity, informs perceptions of men’s fighting ability and aggression; higher fWHRs implicate men as especially formidable. Implicit theories of men’s abilities and intentions could lead perceivers to expect wrestlers to portray certain characters and estimate how effective they are in a given performance style. Given that perceivers stereotype high-fWHR men as more hostile, I predicted that high-fWHR men would be perceived as better heels. Additionally, concomitant perceptions of these men as stronger and more rugged led me to predict that high-fWHR men would be seen as more effective as brawlers and powerhouses in matches relative to technicians or high-flyers. In this experiment, I presented a U.S. sample of Internet wrestling fans images of hypothetical wrestlers represented by images of male faces with either a high or low fWHR. Participants evaluated the men as “fantasy bookers” by indicating the extent to which they believed they would be effective in various performance styles and how they would book them. High-fWHR men were perceived as more effective as brawlers and powerhouses but less effective in more technical performances than low-fWHR men. Participants additionally reported greater interest in pushing high-fWHR men as top talent and considered them to be better heels. Results provide a Darwinian approach to modern dramaturgy by demonstrating how ancestrally derived stereotyping informs decision-making in professional wrestling.


Gendered Fan Participation Levels in Women’s Matches

Tyler Khalli Henderson (Morehouse College – undergrad) 

Professional wrestling has enthralled its millions of international fans with its unique blend of athleticism and theatrical storytelling. Beneath this captivating world, complex gender dynamics in wrestling have received limited scholarly attention. World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), a historic company notorious for its transformative impact on professional wrestling, has faced criticism for discriminatory depictions and derogatory epithets portrayed by their on-screen personalities, particularly affecting women competitors. The pivotal moment in addressing these issues was the 2017 Revolution of Women, led by the Four Horsewomen, a group of female wrestlers. While this watershed moment symbolized industry efforts to address long-standing gender- and race-related problems, sexist attitudes towards women in professional wrestling persisted. This study aimed to explore the intricate relationship between gender dynamics and viewer engagement in professional wrestling. More specifically, male attentiveness levels were examined during matches where women competed against one another and matches where women acted as valets (supporting ringside role) to male wrestlers. The researcher speculated that the young adult male participants would exhibit higher attentiveness during matches with women competitors. A disguised-observational design was employed. The independent variable was the role of a woman/women in the match (competitor/valet). The dependent variable was the attentiveness of two groups of young adult Black males. Thirty male college students (N=30), aged 17 to 23+, were selected using non-probability convenient sampling from psychology classes at an all-male college in Atlanta, Georgia. Participants were divided into two groups: Group A watched a female vs. female wrestling match, while Group B watched a male vs. male match with a female valet. This research contributes to the understanding of evolving roles of women in the industry and the ongoing challenges in achieving equality and recognition.

Parallel in Storyline: Connection between Marvel Cinematic Universe and Bloodline Saga in WWE

Swapnaneel Basu Roy – Saint Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Kolkata, India

The ongoing narrative captivating the WWE, the foremost professional wrestling promotion, is none other than the compelling Bloodline saga. At its helm is Roman Reigns, embodying the Tribal Chief gimmick, consistently positioned at the ‘head of the table’ and maintaining his championship reign for an impressive span exceeding 1250 days. This seemingly indomitable bloodline, however, faces a formidable challenge from the American Nightmare, Cody Rhodes. Drawing intriguing parallels with the revered Marvel Cinematic Universe, particularly evoking the epic struggles depicted in the films “Infinity War” and “Endgame” where the Avengers rallied against Thanos to protect the Earth, this paper meticulously explores the nuanced similarities and connections between the Bloodline storyline and the expansive Marvel cinematic universe. The narrative takes an intriguing turn with the introduction of pivotal characters such as The Rock and pre-established adversaries like Seth Rollins, foreshadowing an impending clash between the two factions during WrestleMania XL to safeguard the very essence of the company, reminiscent of the Avengers’ epic confrontation with Thanos in the movies. This in-depth study embarks on a comprehensive analysis of the storyline trajectories, spanning Bloodline’s inception in 2020, with the overarching goal of showcasing the striking parallels that unfold between the captivating Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and the enthralling Bloodline saga.

Un Verano sin Ellos: Booking Bad Bunny vs. Logan Paul in WWE

Guillermo R. Gil – Un Verano sin Ellos: Booking Bad Bunny vs. Logan Paul in WWE

It would be a battle of two island sons. Bad Bunny is from the town of Vega Baja, born and raised. Logan Paul—a recent transplant from his home state of Ohio— lives in an uber-exclusive resort community in Dorado. Paul is among the ultra-rich foreigners who have moved to Puerto Rico in recent years thanks to an aggressive piece of legislation designed to attract outside investors with ludicrous tax incentives, thus driving real estate prices up and pushing locals out. At least that’s the sense one gets from Bad Bunny’s music video documentary for his song “El Apagón,” which details the ways these new residents have made life worse for Puerto Ricans. Paul is called out in the video. This is the real-life storyline for a grudge match between the two celebrities and the main conceit of my proposed presentation. Specifically, how the rapper and the youtuber, represent two radically different versions of a future of Puerto Rican prosperity. And how, depending on the booking, the feud could offer a compelling narrative around the key issues affecting Puerto Rican life today: precarity, displacement and fear of a substitution of the population.

Professional Wrestling and Poetry

Guillermo R. Gil, Jessica Fontaine (McGill University), Jack Bedell, W. Todd Kaneko, and Marion Wrenn (NYU Abu Dhabi)

In Roland Barthes’ seminal essay “The World of Wrestling,” Barthes makes the case that in professional wrestling performances the wrestlers’ bodies and gestures are excessive signs that are “endowed with an absolute clarity” that the audience understands “on the spot.” Narrative meaning, embodiment, and form converge in wrestling performances. Wrestlers’ and fans’ uses of and debates around professional wrestling’s vernacular language or slang, terms such as “kayfabe,” “work,” and “gimmick,” further reveal the richness of professional wrestling’s aesthetic construction and affective and narrative meaning-making conventions. Recent publications of poetry, including The Dead Wrestler Elegies (Kaneko, 2014), From Parts Unknown: A Pro Wrestling Anthology (Bedell, 2022), and “Allegory” (Pardlo, 2021), which focus on the theme and subject of pro wrestling, bring such complexities into further relief. On this panel, scholars and poets of pro wrestling will discuss and analyze the intersections of poetry as a literary genre and pro wrestling as a liminal performance genre. The following questions will guide our conversation: What similarities or contrasts exist between the role or position that wrestling occupies in relation to sport and theater, and in the role or position that poetry occupies in relation to other literary genres? What similarities or commonalities can be identified in the roles or positions each form occupies within larger mainstream culture? What are the overlaps or points of contact between poetry and pro wrestling, as it pertains to practice/ principles/ effect on the audience? What does poetry/the study of poetry have to offer professional wrestling studies?

Player As a Willing-Mark: Wrestling Video Games Have Yet to

Keep Up With the Times

John Withers (Gaston College)

In Freud’s “A Child Being Beaten” (1919) example roles collapse when players engage in wrestling video games. Dominated by WWE, alongside other major global promotions, wrestling video games allow players to interact with digital action figures to lose voyeurism alternating between roles of abused and abuser as a way to Identify/Embody the digital otherself inhabiting on-screen personalities. Video Game Avatars have been examined and dissected in many ways; Identification, Voyeurism, Fantasy, and Frustration seem especially important. At the beginning of the wrestling video game subgenre two characters fighting, either player versus player or player versus computer, in a digital wrestling ring. Currently, most games include wrestling matches leading to title runs or longer storylines allowing players to rebook or restage favorite and least favorite matches with new outcomes. The game remains a dual tool of fantasy and frustration. Interestingly, wrestling video games retain a mindset more familiar to the Territory Days than modern understanding of immersive theatre. Worldwide wrestling video games revisits the mantra of the Memphis Territory “wrestling is real.” Even when games and avatars leave the ring for backstage brawls it exists in a story space ignoring Tales from the Territories (2022-), Dark Side of the Ring (2019-), Beyond the Mat (1999) and countless other documentaries that peer behind ring personas. Examining avatar and story progression reveals a willing history blindness within the player even when they are “smartened up” and not a “mark.”


Preserving Wrestling Heritage: The Imperative of Academically Acceptable

Resources in Professional Wrestling

Milaun Murry (University of Texas – Arlington)

Professional wrestling, as a global phenomenon, is rich in cultural significance, history, and artistic expression. However, the lack of academically acceptable resources dedicated to preserving this unique heritage poses a challenge. This session aims to underscore the importance of creating scholarly materials related to professional wrestling and advocates for increased emphasis by wrestling promotions on the preservation of their cultural legacy. The world of professional wrestling is teeming with stories of athleticism, theatricality, and the human experience. Yet, the lack of credible academic resources (in comparison to other professional sports) limits the understanding and appreciation of the sport’s evolution, its impact on society, and the contributions of its key figures. Wrestling promotions often focus on the immediate entertainment value of their product, but the long-term preservation of their history is equally vital. By investing in the creation of academically acceptable resources, promotions can not only contribute to the broader cultural and academic discourse but also enhance their own brand value. We will delve into the ways in which a commitment to preservation can positively impact the reputation and longevity of wrestling promotions. Moreover, we will address the potential collaborative efforts between wrestling promotions, academic institutions, and historians in the creation of comprehensive resources. By doing so, promotions can establish themselves as custodians of their own legacy and contribute to the scholarly understanding of professional wrestling’s unique place in global culture. This session seeks to highlight the symbiotic relationship that needs to exist between professional wrestling and academic preservation. By acknowledging the importance of academically acceptable resources, wrestling promotions can ensure that their rich heritage is not only celebrated within the realm of sports entertainment but also documented and respected in the broader academic landscape.


Professional Wrestling and the Triangle of Narrative Possibilities

Thomas Aldersley (University of Chester – PhD candidate)

Professional wrestling is a performing art form that straddles live and recorded mediums, creating stupendous and exciting live performance experiences, and both pre-recorded and live programming on television and online. Professional wrestling is pre-determined, scripted performance delivered through vignettes, interviews, and live-contact improvisation, known as matches.  With market leaders World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and All Elite Wrestling (AEW) attracting live audiences of over 70,000 to individual live events and both boasting tens of millions of viewers every week. Through my PhD research I have studied the stories that are told, and the narrative and performance techniques used in professional wrestling in addition to examining the effects of intertextuality on the form. I have used a grounded theory methodology to carry out two simultaneous case studies into AEW and WWE, using content analysis of their respective mediatized outputs, with an analytical framework of Bakhtin, Eco and Booker. Through this research I have developed a theory called The Triangle of Narrative Possibilities. Through my PhD research I have studied the stories that are told, and the narrative and performance techniques used in professional wrestling in addition to examining the effects of intertextuality on the form. I have used a grounded theory methodology to carry out two simultaneous case studies into AEW and WWE, using content analysis of their respective mediatized outputs, with an analytical framework of Bakhtin, Eco and Booker. Through this research I have developed a theory called The Triangle of Narrative Possibilities. This is the unique narrative world in which professional wrestling performance exists. A world located between the points of fake, real and fake real, or in wrestling terms; shoot, work and worked shoot. This triangle allows professional wrestling to present a dynamic, innovative, and contemporary performance product and that challenges its audience to question reality and allows its performers to experiment and push the boundaries of what is possible in narrative performance. This presentation will explore The Triangle of Narrative Possibilities.


Beyond the Ring: Exploring the Intersection of Cultural Wellness, Mental Wellness, and Gender Identity in Professional Wrestling

Milaun Murry (University of Texas- Arlington), Aaron Machbitz (You Are Loved Founder, VP of Experience Wrestling), and Hollie McMillan (University of Texas-Arlington, M.S. candidate)

Professional wrestling stands as a dynamic and physically demanding industry, where athletes undergo intense physical training, grueling schedules, and the pressure to entertain global audiences. This panel seeks to shed light on the multifaceted impact of cultural wellness, mental wellness, and gender identity on the overall well-being and success of professional wrestlers. Cultural wellness plays a pivotal role in shaping the experiences of wrestlers in and out of the ring, as they navigate diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and traditions. We will explore how cultural awareness, inclusivity, and representation within the wrestling community contribute to a healthier and more supportive environment for athletes. From embracing cultural diversity to addressing cultural stigmas, understanding the intersectionality of cultural wellness is crucial for fostering a positive and inclusive wrestling landscape. Mental wellness is another critical aspect that significantly influences the performance and longevity of professional wrestlers. High-stakes competitions, rigorous training regimens, and the constant scrutiny from fans and media can take a toll on mental health. We will delve into the strategies employed by wrestlers to maintain mental resilience, cope with stress, and seek support when needed. The exploration of gender identity within professional wrestling is an evolving narrative that demands attention. This panel aims to analyze the challenges and triumphs faced by wrestlers navigating diverse gender identities, from breaking gender norms in the ring to fostering an inclusive locker room culture. In conclusion, this panel aspires to provide valuable insights into the intricate relationships between cultural wellness, mental wellness, and gender identity in professional wrestling. Discussions will revolve around the responsibility of wrestling organizations in promoting mental wellness and destigmatizing mental health issues in the industry, championing gender diversity and providing platforms for all athletes to thrive; and creating a culturally aware and inclusive community. By acknowledging and addressing these dimensions, we can collectively contribute to the creation of a more compassionate, resilient, and successful wrestling community, fostering an environment where athletes can flourish both personally and professionally.


From Gorgeous George to the Golden Lovers: Arguing for the Applicability of Queer Studies to Professional Wrestling

CarrieLynn Reinhard (Dominican University), Christopher J. Olson (Dominican University), and Hannah Steele (PhD Student, University of Delware)

As a phenomenon and a field, professional wrestling lends itself to interdisciplinarity and transdiscplinarity. Professional wrestling studies utilizes a variety of academic disciplines, from cultural studies and performance to health and law. One underexplored connection is the application of queer theory. This presentation outlines why this gap needs to be addressed by presenting some of the various possibilities and implications for understanding professional wrestling through a queer theoretical lens. Professional wrestling combines and collapses distinctions between multiple athletic and performance/art forms, creating a mode of entertainment that is distinctly queer. A queer theoretical approach to professional wrestling as form invites questions such as: What does this queer form allow professional wrestling to do that other forms of entertainment cannot? How might this understanding of professional wrestling affect audience engagement or our analysis of concepts such as kayfabe? How does professional wrestling as queer impact a promotion’s and/or wrestler’s public and legal classifications? A queer theoretical approach also invites us to consider queer genders, sexualities, narratives, fans, and fanworks in professional wrestling. Considerations of this kind invite questions such as: Where are queer wrestlers and stories being represented? What types of promotions are giving queer voices a platform? How are fanworks such as fanart and fanfiction shaping fan engagement with professional wrestling? Prior to the 21st century, queer representation in professional wrestling was scarce, and primarily limited to negative and/or stereotyped portrayals performed mainly by cisgender, heterosexual men. Characters like GorgeousGeorge, a flamboyant heel prominent during the 1940s-50s, and Goldust, an outrageously lewd character who used his ambiguous sexuality to unsettle both opponents and audiences during the so-called “Attitude Era” of the late-90s, drew on unfavorable stereotypes to generate heat with fans. Today, the variety of queer performers and performances work to undo such problematic depictions by revealing that the queer subtext of wrestling is actually the genre’s primary text. Trans* wrestlers like Max the Impaler, Edith Surreal, and Veny, homo/bi/pansexual wrestlers like Fred Rosser, Toni Storm, and Effy and Allie Katch (BUSSY), flamboyant performers like Dalton Castle and Hiromu Takahashi, and explicitly queer storylines like the Golden Lovers (Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi) demonstrate not only the growing presence of queer performers in professional wrestling, but the need for fans and scholars to unsettle our binary ways of engaging with and understanding the genre. Moreover, a queer theoretical lens uncovers how the industry is not newly queer, but has always been queer. Overall, such specific examples will be introduced to demonstrate the need for this theoretical approach to studying professional wrestling as a subset of popular culture. Existing since the late 19th century, professional wrestling operates as a microcosm of various important social, cultural, and political issues, and the application of queer theory can further illuminate the relationship between the LGBTQIA+ community and the wider world over the past century to today. This theoretical interrogation helps pro-wrestling scholars (and, by extension, popular culture scholars) and fans read against the grain in this entertainment form still so dominated by toxic masculinity, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, racism, and other forms of bigotry and prejudice.