Since at least 2015, professional wrestling has been having a cultural moment among an unlikely group — an aspirational class comprised of various social classes that “trade in the semi-secret handshake of knowing the ‘right’ things to consume at a given time” (J.C. Pan, “Who Are the New Yuppies?”, The New Republic). The sport has had a considerable impact on mainstream culture since the ’80s wrestling boom, and many of us came of age whistling “I Want to Be a Hulkamaniac” or flipping between channels between Raw and Nitro. However, as an English major at a liberal arts college who spent his days listening to Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea compulsively, professional wrestling was a guilty-pleasure, something I whispered about to other fans, if I crossed paths with them. It was not something to consume conspicuously if one wanted to identify oneself as a cultural and social striver.
Yet as some of us approach and/or settle into middle age, professional wrestling has wormed its way into that stream of popular culture that is beloved by the aspirational class. If I had difficulty reconciling my interest in increasingly remote corners of musical and visual culture and my nostalgia for the theatrics of professional wrestling, that is no longer the case. From the Mountain Goats’ 2015 album Beat the Champ (2015) and culminating with this summer’s GLOW, professional wrestling has become prominent in cultural arenas (indie rock, prestige television, alternative comedy) whose creators, consumers, and critics would seem reluctant to embrace the sport, according to a received wisdom that seeks to differentiate jock from nerd, “high culture” from “low”.
This emergent and sincere interest in professional wrestling among a so-called cultural elite and the continued interest in it among general audiences stems in part from the sport’s trafficking in what Sigmund Freud called phantasy — an outlet that defends against the paucity and disappointments of daily life by fulfilling imaginatively our wishes and desires (Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, p. 105). More importantly, though, Beat the Champ, GLOW, and the other noteworthy pro-wrestling interludes of our current cultural moment provide a sense of stability and legibility for an era in flux.
The Mountain Goats’ 15th and highest-charting album, Beat the Champ opens with a stunning dyad — the beautiful, woodwind lament “Southwestern Territory” and the propulsive “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”. Like most of the songs on this thematically unified album, both rely on lyrics that exalt the professional wrestler’s commitment to the sport while acknowledging the embodied stressors, physical and psychological, that accompany such commitment. The tracks’ portrayal of professional wrestling reflects the Manichean structure and tone of a sport that often relies on the archetypal constraints of face and heel, good and bad. In John Darnielle’s songs, professional wrestlers provide heroic and anti-heroic standards for fans to revel in while pulverizing their bodies in the service of those same enthusiasts.
Like the face-heel dichotomy, Darnielle’s songs rely on an essential tension. Darnielle’s imagined audiences relish wrestling’s spectacle, but such delight pulls against the internal struggle of wrestlers who, like the narrator of “Heel Turn 2”, worry about “walking out of here in one piece”. Darnielle’s lyrics understand that this tension between the joy and anxiety produced through its spectacular creation is not a flaw but a necessary feature of the sport. Just as face needs heel, so too do the audience and wrestler require one another for the situation to make any sense. Without cheering adulation, without any possibility of danger, the acts inside the ring lose meaning.
Darnielle teases us over the course of the record with the underlying thread unifying these two sides: For wrestler and wrestling fan, the athletic feats and skeletal, dualistic narratives provide escape. The physical feats and physical hazards afford diversion and distraction from the sadism of daily existence. “So desperate to escape, I came to you, hands wrapped in adhesive tape,” explains the narrator of “Animal Mask”, a narrator whose yearning finds its echo in “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”, as a young wrestling fan turns to the heroic, eponymous wrestler to escape an abusive home-life into a world marked by strong bonds between fathers and sons and a sense of justice. Wrestling exists in these songs as a phantasy rather than fantasy. Wrestling is hardly un-real for participants and viewer. Darnielle has no interest in debating whether wrestling is a counterfeit sport. Instead, he urges listeners to understand wrestling as a wish-fulfilling narrative system for both wrestler and fan.
This thematic matrix clearly contributes to Darnielle’s late-career consonance. The most-recent Mountain Goats records, as well as Darnielle’s wonderful forays into fiction (Universal Harvester Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2017) , focus on the ways that subcultural groups locate a sense of justice, belonging, and creativity through the media associated with their particular faction. Whether it’s Roger Painter’s letters to his therapist Gary about the comforts of Sabbath’s Master of Reality in Darnielle’s 33 1/3 volume, Sean Phillips’s mail-based Trace Italian from Wolf in White Van, or the characters that stock the most recent Mountain Goats album, Goths (2017), Darnielle’s late work focuses almost entirely on characters who search for meaning and justice and camaraderie through often maligned media, much like the semi-autobiographical narrators that pop up throughout Beat the Champ’s fan-centric songs. Text-based RPGs, heavy metal, wrestling, and goth grant performers and audience members alike a phantasy of a just world, a world that conforms to their desires for how things ought to be and defies how things are. These media forms and their concomitant subcultures carve out a space where so-called misfits can find comfort in an ethically correct and fair existence.
This situation is also in keeping with GLOW’s representation of professional wrestling as the path by which each of the show’s central characters, and many of its secondary figures, fulfill their desire to break out of professional and personal ruts. Wrestling gives Debbie Eagen (Betty Gilpin) the opportunity to reject her domineering husband and at least partially resolve her relationship with Alison Brie’s Ruth — all while rejecting a society’s dichotomous demand that women choose career or family. Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) discovers an undiscovered paternal streak and reinvigorated aesthetic aspirations, even if they’re ultimately thwarted by Back to the Future’s existence. Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) parlays her trainer and stunt work into a flourishing career in front of the camera, and Sheila the She-Wolf (Gayle Rankin) locates a space in which she can perform her identity without embarrassment or harassment.
Comprised of individuals cast out of Hollywood’s culture industry, a dream factory for non-traditional body types or class status or race or ethnicity, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling grants these women respect and stature. They achieve a creative, largely autonomous outlet for their artistic desires to flourish. Like the fan narrators of Beat the Champ, they escape and that escape instills in us, the viewer and listener, an unequivocal sense of what philosopher John Rawls called justice as fairness.
Both Beat the Champ and GLOW point to a willingness of media and audiences — previously unwilling to embrace the sport as anything other than a punch line — to grant it the attention and admiration it deserves. Both show and record have met relative critical and commercial success. Praise for both has not been rapturous, but audiences and critics have consistently supported them, pushing Beat the Champ, in particular, to the highest Billboard showing by a Mountain Goats record. The positive response to this much-maligned entertainment — and the willingness of audiences and critics to take seriously — is quite new. Sure, you might argue that interest in professional wrestling among taste-makers emerged almost decade ago with Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008), but that overlooks the movie’s rampant grotesquerie. The movie’s wrestling does not provide an outlet or fulfill a phantasy for Mickey Rourke’s Randy Robinson. Instead, it invites its audiences to gawk at the degradation of Robinson’s body — his limp, his stringy and poorly dyed hair, his seemingly static face. A compelling portrait of the grinding life of its working-class protagonist, The Wrestler nevertheless avoids the elation and sense of escape proffered by Darnielle or GLOW creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch. Part of The Wrestler’s success undoubtedly lies in the abilities of its largely cultured, middle-class audiences to feel a patronizing sort of empathy for Randy Robinson rather than an exalting sense of justice as fairness. But that’s different from the empathy elicited by Beat the Champor GLOW
What is it that’s drawn the aspirational class to professional wrestling? In his 2015 review of Beat the Champ, Jeremy Gordon, borrowing a framework from French philosopher Roland Barthes, recognized one factor: a desire for justice. Per Gordon and Barthes, wrestling provides a just phantasy. It fulfills wishes, desires for the world to operate in accordance to a moral calculus. It provides a world in which the righteous thwart the wicked. Look no further than Darnielle’s “Legend”, wherein the song’s narrator relishes the defeats handed down by the high-flying, heroic Chavo — a “defender of the downtrodden” whose career arc follows, from the narrator’s perspective, a Horatio Alger-like rise. Or, take GLOW’s “Live Studio Audience” episode, in which Cherry and Tammé Dawson (Kia Stevens) convince the obtuse Stacey and Dawn (Kimmy Gatewood and Rebekka Johnson) to enter the ring not as elderly grapplers but as hood-wearing members of the Ku Klux Klan — and then succumb to a satisfying beatdown. These moments certainly speak to the phantasy of justice Gordon describes.
Unfortunately, such framing doesn’t fully capture the complexity of wrestling narratives and perhaps obscures some of the more ideologically unpleasant leitmotifs in this sport. Professional wrestling can provide a sense of justice. Nevertheless, as Darnielle’s “Heel Turn 2” makes clear, professional wrestling often relies on undermining the traditional righteousness of its narratives. As Darnielle’s narrator, a one-time face notes: He’s “spent too much of [his] life … trying to play fair” and so opts to “throw [his] better self overboard” by not only turning heel but by doing so by “shoot[ing] at” his opponent, purposefully abandoning the scripted bout. Wrestling is not wrestling if the hero doesn’t occasionally turn into the villain and reveal the underlying iniquity of the world. Feel good about rooting for this face? Well, now you’ve found yourself in league with an ethically bankrupt rogue.
Sure, wrestling can provide an outlet for the more progressive scenarios, as occurs in “Live Studio Audience” (GLOW, Season 1, Episode 7). But the context of Cherry and Tammé’s triumph underscores a more reactionary strain of wrestling narrative: Their moral challenge to racial prejudice overwrites the scripted bigotry of Sam Sylvia’s original treatment that trafficked in an intolerant, reactionary ideology all too common to professional wrestling. The WWE of my youth and adolescence became a venue — an incredibly satisfying one — for working through the American political and cultural anxieties of the ’80s and early ’90s. Patriots like Hacksaw Jim Duggan (from my hometown no less!) stood up to treacherous Soviets like Nikolai Volkoff and Boris Zhukov and, when the Cold War sputtered out, Orientalized Asian characters like Haku and Yokozuna, a towering foe whose imposing frame embodied US fears of robust economies emerging across the Pacific.
Too far? He squashed an unconscious Duggan and then draped him with the American flag, as if his opponent was a physical embodiment of American might, in 1993. The justice that professional wrestling delivers is often, from a left-of-center perspective, hardly just. Foreign “others” are often villains, as are some embodying the working class (see, Brawler, Brooklyn). Racialized characters conform to specific stereotypes. And the heroes? Upstanding, proudly American characters. Recent years have seen professional wrestling adopt a more inclusive perspective — consider figures like C.M. Punk or John Cena’s 2016 patriotism-PSA that challenged viewers to adopt a more complex and diverse sense of what it means to be American. Yet the WWE still hosts an annual Tribute to the Troops and John Cena led viewers in a jubilant response to the death of Osama Bin Laden, collapsing the complex if still homicidal ideology of a terrorist leader into a black-and-white battle of good vs. evil.
It’s not just delivering justice that has made wrestling popular. It’s not just that it satisfies and completes our phantasies in abstract and concrete ways. If that were true professional wrestling, with its interest in upholding racial hierarchies and an outmoded sense of American Exceptionalism, would hardly attract artists like Darnielle, Flahive, and Mensch as a narrative conduit for exploring the downtrodden and marginalized. It’s also interesting how professional wrestling achieves these effects.
In his essay on professional wrestling’s mid-century incarnation, Barthes explains that it’s not just justice that makes wrestling appealing: “The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not …: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees. … [Each] moment … is intelligible … Wrestling demands an immediate reading of the juxtaposed meanings … [The] function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him” ( Barthes, Mythologies) What proves most essential is the legibility, the stability of meaning in the wrestling ring. Wrestling satisfies our expectations. It rarely surprises. Even those moments that approach surprise — the heel turn, shooting, screwjobs — exist within a narrowly managed set of possible narrative outcomes. Such moments do upend expectations but they do so in expected ways. Just as bouts are scripted, so too are deviations from the script managed by a limited set of aberrations. That is not a flaw. It is not a bug. It is the necessary feature ofprofessional wrestling. It is what gives viewers satisfaction, regardless of political perspective or social background. As Barthes explains, “wrestling [unlike judo] offers excessive gestures, exploited to the limit of their meaning… Each sign in wrestling is therefore endowed with an absolute clarity since one must always understand everything.” The point is not that wrestling fulfills our sense of justice. It’s that it does so in a manner full of legible meaning.
At a point in time of great uncertainty for a great many people in the United States, as a creeping sense of dread has grown over the last decade-and-a-half, professional wrestling, with its immediately intelligible meaning, proves an effective escape. We may not agree with the ideological motivations of or professional wrestling narratives, but viewers take solace in a world where the meaning of actions and words has been stabilized. If we live in a post-truth era, as Ralph Keyes suggested in 2004, it’s only appropriate that the manufactured, spectacular athletics and drama of professional wrestling should become a central node in our current cultural matrix.