I have a somewhat complicated history with the World Wrestling Federation. Growing up gay, opportunities to bond with my father were few and far between. I wasn’t into throwing a baseball back and forth and the idea of fishing with my Dad and brother seemed like torture. And so, one of the few things we did together each week was to sit on the couch every Saturday, watching the WWF. I figured that the show was just another opportunity for my Dad to watch sports. But, for me, it was all about theatrics. I loved the over-the-top personalities, the death defying fights, the epic battles between Hulk Hogan and anyone else trying to win the title. This was fun TV and it gave me the opportunity to share something with my father. Of course, I now realize that he was probably watching for the same reason I was—to enjoy the hilarious artificiality of the entire thing. After all, Sports Illustrated does not usually cover the latest Smackdown and sports fans don’t usually go to the WWF to get their fix.
As I grew older, I wanted anything but to bond with my parents, and I began to dismiss the WWF as incredibly fake kids’ stuff. Now, more than a decade later, the WWF is completely foreign to me. Hulk Hogan is part of a different wrestling league, the WCW. Jesse “The Body” Ventura is the governor of Minnesota. Female wrestlers have become a major part of the attraction. And the wrestlers themselves no longer steadfastly deny the fact that the bouts are staged.
For years, WWF wrestlers claimed that everything that happened in the ring was real. Of course, anyone with an ounce of brain power could tell that they were lying, or at least stretching the truth. Most of the time, you could tell that the wrestlers were throwing punches and kicks. Sure, it looked like it hurt when they landed on the mat, but I figured that the mat must have been cushioned somehow to break their falls. Now, the WWF is more upfront about what is actually happening in the ring, admitting that the wrestlers are actors, trained to fight safely, to avoid injury to themselves and their opponents. At the same time, however, the WWF now claims another kind of authenticity. Even though the wrestlers are in control, they do hurt each other. They still feel the pain of landing on the mat after jumping off the top of the ropes. What they are doing is real, even if the outcome isn’t.
It’s ironic, then, that an organization that has had such a complex relationship to the term “real” is also responsible for producing one of the most realistic of the reality TV shows of the past several years. Of course, reality TV has just as dicey a connection to the term “real” as the WWF. So it’s probably worthwhile for me to offer my definition. After all, one person’s reality is another person’s three-month, post-collegiate stint in a gorgeous house with a multi-ethnic array of six beautiful twenty-somethings. Most of the time, the “real” in reality TV refers to the fact that the show asks people who do not have formal training as actors (hence, “real” people) to perform as versions of themselves in a variety of “unreal” situations. The results would more properly be termed “improvisational” rather than “real,” as if to say, “Let’s see what happens when we put these people into this extraordinary situation without preconceived dialogue.”
With the WWF’s new show, WWF Tough Enough, airing on MTV every Thursday night, the “real” is slightly different. The show puts 13 strangers (selected after an extensive auditions), in a house together, and has them train with real WWF wrestlers for 13 weeks, in a bid to become professional wrestlers themselves. Each week, the WWF trainers ask the person who is struggling the most, physically and mentally, to leave. At the end of the series, there will be one man or one woman left standing, who will then be offered a WWF contract to continue wrestling for money.
On the surface, this doesn’t seem much different than the rest of reality TV. The show places “real” people in an improbable situation to see what happens “spontaneously.” The difference is that the result is something more than a “cool experience” or a $500,000 cash prize. Tough Enough gives the winner a job at the end, something participants on the other reality shows might desire (usually in the entertainment business), but are instructed not to talk about. (One recent example of this is when Kent was booted out of the Big Brother 2 house several weeks ago. In his post-banishment interview with host Julie Chen, he said that most of the other “house-guests” already had agents prior to the show’s start. Before he could say much more, Julie quickly changed the subject to focus on “the game,” rather than what the house-guests all clearly wanted to get out of it. It’s as if admitting that you want to be an actor undermines your authenticity as a “real” person.)
In order to get this job, though, the Tough Enough participants are clearly put through hell. Of the seven people who have left the show so far, only two have been chosen to leave by the trainers. The other five left either because they decided the job wasn’t for them or because of injuries that prevented them from continuing the training. In an era of Survivor-type banishments, when the norm is for fellow contestants to gang up on someone to vote him or her off, leaving because you can’t or don’t want to be on the show seems positively novel.
I know it may seem like I’m grasping at straws here in my attempts to describe the show as more “real” than a show like Survivor. After all, being given the opportunity to train to become a professional wrestler is still a hugely improbable situation. And there’s nothing particularly noble about this training, as, say, firefighters going through training might be noble. Still, like Making the Band before it, Tough Enough is geared towards humanizing its up-and-coming professionals in order to increase their appeal for viewers. And it is fascinating to watch someone transform from amateur to professional, regardless of profession.
As well, it is refreshing that Tough Enough admits that its subject is entertainment, as opposed to those other shows that claim to investigate deeper issues, such as race, sexuality, and gender, but are about scoring a TV contract when the whole thing’s over. This is not to say that those shows tell us nothing about race, sexuality, and gender, or other matters. They do explore these issues, but usually in spite of the shows’ machinations, rather than because of them. Tough Enough, never makes such facile attempts at “depth.” The show examines one facet of the entertainment business, and any insights along the way are yours to keep. And surprisingly, there are many insights to be found here, in particular regarding the gender dynamics of this traditionally male-dominated business.
While I have come to a definition of “real” in relation to tv, Tough Enough‘s own definition remains elusive, probably because TV is not the word’s best dictionary (considering that nothing on TV is even remotely “real,” in the way that the bond between my father and I sitting next to each other on the couch was). Maybe the “real” we are getting from the WWF is better defined as “honest,” a quality rare in the world of reality TV.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/wwf-tough-enough/