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Yes, TV is art. Can we talk about wrestling now?

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Monday, Jan 4, 2010
TNA's live broadcast against WWE on January 4 could be a turning point for American TV wrestling. One shot alone won't make it through the WWE's bovine skull, but at least someone's started firing.

It’s finally here! All over the place in the mainstream media, fawning fans of various shows have finally declared television to have officially achieved the status of capital-A Art, with a new era of greatness spilling out of our screens and ushering in a future of digital, LCD, 16:9-enhanced cultural prestige. Phew, that’s a relief. Now I can happily expand my cultural horizons every gosh-dern day without actually having to do anything (except maybe buy a set-top box).


Really, it all sounds a little more like the epoch of an obsessive cultural need for narcissistic self-validation (look Ma, watching TV makes me feel important!)—even a quick look back through history will see modern television repeating many of the high-points, and replicating many of the sins, of its past. Yes, The Wire really is great; but Art is discussed, not declared, and television’s been art for as long as it’s also been trash.


So, while some will still be patting themselves on the back for having watched The Sopranos all by themselves and without any help at all from the big kids, I’m still just as interested in trash and what’s going to happen on Mondays nights in wrestling. Yup, rasslin’. In fact, in the spirit of this great new media dawn we’re facing, I’m going to declare it a cultural turning point: TNA vs WWE on January 4, 2010.
  
Monday nights is the gargantuan WWE’s big live show RAW, while TNA’s Impact! is normally pre-taped and airs on a Thursday (on Spike in the US) to lower ratings and relative obscurity. But with wrestling legend Hulk Hogan stepping on board with TNA, Monday nights might be heating up again, if only for a single week, with the first serious head-to-head live wrestling broadcasts since the days of the “Monday Night Wars’” between WWE (then WWF before a lawsuit from the similarly-initialed animal protection organisation put a stop to that and, more importantly, led to numerous WWF t-shirt designs with wrestling pandas) and WCW (now owned, and maligned, by the WWE).


Lately, wrestling’s been just one big off-putting name, the WWE—but wrestling has been a major part of TV almost from the beginning. It was cheap and it was quick. Not only did it bring a sports-like mentality with it, it also provided a drama and spectacle for those less interested in actual competitive exploits; announcer Dennis James remembers it as a “ladies’ sport”—getting ‘Mother’ interested especially important when most houses had only one television. Unlike other “real” sports, it also was a natural for the idea of television time-slots and commercial breaks: when the matches needed to end, they ended. In Jeff Kisseloff’s oral history The Box, television director Ed Stasheff remembers a wrestling broadcast conflicting with the broadcast of an eclipse. The wrestling promoter simply asked for the times they needed to shoot the eclipse: “I’ll guarantee ya”, he said, “every time you need the cameras, a bout will end.” Like clockwork, one match ended right before the eclipse began, another just before its peak, and another just before the eclipse ended.


Broadcasting also brought with it a new kind of showmanship—the flamboyant and effeminate Gorgeous George became a hated heel, and one of television’s first major cultural icons, openly acknowledged by Muhammad Ali as a major source of his trademark shtick and bravado. Gorgeous George’s legacy isn’t easy to summarise. He brought a flamboyance and spectacle to the screen—an enormous energy—but also seemed to epitomise the notion of a hated outsider in that weird combination of reliance on and vilification of homosexuality (along with class and ethnicity) that still dominates the wrestling world (and, let’s face it, much of the mainstream media as well).


Jumping forward to today, real competition in the corporate world of television wrestling is all but non-existent. In Vince McMahon’s WWE, the spectacle remains, but the growth of the monopoly seems to have stripped away the energetic enthusiasm, the grandiose—sometimes blissfully ridiculous—spectacle and only heightened the presence of its (or Vince’s) cultural conservatism, reactionary outlook, and dubious social values.


The mistaken belief that wrestling only appeals to children, thugs and rednecks is nothing new, but what’s upsetting for the rest of us is that the WWE seems determined to make no effort to change that perception—and, with its new PG focus, seemingly conveniently timed to fit in with former WWE exec Linda McMahon’s run for the US Senate, Vince’s special brand of social conservatism can now be “safely” embraced by all the kids at home. Its lack of serious cultural diversity among its top names is immediately apparent, its vilification of social difference is perhaps momentarily less visible but still a not-too-distant memory (making heels—bad guys—of Muslim Americans in 2005 stoked its audience’s bigotry in the most repugnant way possible) and its treatment of women is so far below any reasonable expectation that it’s difficult to stomach.


The status of the women’s division is especially concerning given how many strong female competitors there now are in the broader wrestling world. Shimmer is a credible and classy all-women wrestling promotion, and TNA wrestling’s Knockouts division matches are often the highlights of their broadcasts (something that, in a WWE-context, could only be taken as an insult). The WWE slips the women a two-minute “match” here and there, often in silly costumes, presumably just to justify keeping them around for photoshoots and trophies for the wrestlers in case a miserable portion of the fans worry that their favourite piece of beefcake might be some kind of stinkin’ homo. Going PG meant that the WWE did away with a good deal of cleavage and bikinis, but somehow the women still get traded as prizes from wrestler to wrestler (see: the repugnantly docile and talentless Bella Twins) and get more time as escorts than competitors. Popular Diva (as they’re idiotically known) Mickie James is currently being mocked endlessly for being overweight—something the stocky but healthy Mickie certainly isn’t—a wonderful PG message for young boys and girls out there. And how does the WWE have her respond—she cries and seems to accept the validity of the stigma. When it’s not insulting, it’s juvenile—the nasty ol’ Divas call Mickie “Piggy James” and cut up her clothes (leading to more boo-hoos from Mickie). Wimmens just care about their clothes and their weight, y’see. If Linda McMahon let this stuff go, then there really is reason to worry about her gaining any kind of political power.


The smoke-and-mirrors of getting rid of the overtly sexual elements doesn’t amount to much. Meanwhile, TNA can easily get away with a little titillation and have it be no big deal at all simply by maintaining a credible women’s division. Most of the more-creatively-named Knockouts can put together a decent-length, intense and creatively-executed match—Hamada, Alissa Flash and Sarita are as exciting as any male wrestler to hit the scene lately. Sure, their storylines can also be stupid, dumb and insulting—but usually only as stupid, dumb and insulting as the men’s storylines. TNA presents women with physical and cultural variety (it’s clear from first glance that most wouldn’t make it through the door of the WWE Divas division), and we’re not repeatedly reminded that, ultimately, they don’t actually matter or have any serious thoughts in those pretty li’l heads. It seems commonly understood that the women in WWE are specifically not at any point to look more capable than the men—TNA’s first Knockout champion, the wonderful Gail Kim, recently jumped ship to WWE and…vanished into obscurity.


Surprisingly, for all the WWE’s obsessive emphasis on the male wrestlers, they’re often not actually very good at the top levels. Not just the dull storylines, but the fact that Vince McMahon’s brand of wrestling has always had very little to do with… well, wrestling. Adding to the ridiculous body images that the women are expected to live up to, Vince has always had a clear obsession with pumped-up muscle-bound freaks (becoming one himself and even attempting to kick-start a WWE-style competitive bodybuilding show). Watching a WWE-style match today is like watching a child play with He-Man action figures: they circle around each other and then bang into each other repeatedly until one falls down. Then they do it again until the other one falls down. Compared to most of the fast-paced wrestling you’ll see almost anywhere else, Vince’s toys seem to be wrestling inside a cube of jello. And, like a child with his toys, the favourites always come out on top. Dumb-as-a-post never-lose thugs like Triple H and John Cena, aggressive, juvenile and indestructible, represent the height of WWE aspiration.


With the WWE stripped of any serious young blood, all its vibrant colour (even the once-exciting announcers are now muzzled) and any kind of relevance or vitality, TNA’s attempt to step into the ring could not be better timed. Casual viewers bored and unimpressed with glimpses of WWE’s conservative dreck, dire attempts at humour, juvenile focus and action-packed inaction may find TNA to be not just a refreshing change but a revelation—a return to the brief period of time when American wrestling wasn’t ashamed to be wrestling and when a wrestler’s vibrant and physical performance could still make a viewer sit at the edge of their seat and recoil in surprise at what seems to be a superhuman feat or superbly executed counter. TNA performers like Kurt Angle, Samoa Joe, Jay Lethal, Hamada, Desmond Wolfe and current champion A.J. Styles seem to do more in a single match than most WWE wrestlers do in an entire year—the TNA ring isn’t afraid to showcase skill and ability over bulk and brawn.


All of this is what makes January 4 so interesting: can TNA actually present wrestling in a new and refreshing light? The difficulty here is that the impetus for the live Monday night competition is the presence in TNA of Hulk Hogan, a wrestling legend but perhaps also the best example of WWE-style non-wrestling there ever has been. After a shaky Australian tour, it looks like the Hulkster may not be stepping into the ring, at least not any time soon—but what he will bring to the show behind the scenes remains to be seen. An attempt to battle the WWE may simply result in TNA losing its uniqueness.


Here’s hoping TNA pulls it off, and showcases their exciting talent-pool rather than trying to compete on the WWE’s own terms and disowning the “wrestling” that it’s all supposed to be about. The exciting physicality and extraordinary discipline of the performers are the spark that the WWE has been lacking for so long. Casual viewers should take the opportunity to see if TNA will give them a chance to rediscover what makes wrestling vital, and perhaps be a part of doing away with the stodgy McMahon business model that’s ruled for far too long. There’s no reason that the skill, athleticism and live performance of professional wrestling should be seen only as the domain of half-wits and hillbillies.


With any luck, it’ll be a slobberknocker of a battle between TNA and WWE on January 4. But more likely it won’t—and nor is anyone, even in TNA, seriously expecting it to be. TNA is a wrestling company; WWE is a children’s marketing machine. One shot alone won’t make it through the WWE’s bovine skull, but at least someone’s started firing.


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