What is Professional Wrestling?

Something rather cool happened this morning.

My friend Lee Donnelly  was a big WWE fan. I hadn’t really thought about wrestling since I was about ten or eleven, but it was  mentioned at donno’s funeral and I’d been thinking about it since then. Wrestling is very strange,  when you look at it: it’s obviously theatrical, yet it claims to be real, and the pretence of reality  is taken far further than any  other form of theatre. To any other person, it looks  pantomimic, yet it takes itself so seriously. It seemed very odd to me.

When  I turned my computer on this morning, I found this article about Wrestling on the BBC website.  I read it, and came across the name of an academic I didn’t then recognise Dr. Ben Litherland. Deciding it was time to look a bit further into this  bizarre phenomenon,  I plugged the name into google expecting to find a musty old academic, but the strangest thing happened: it turned out that I already knew the guy, and he was a school friend of my brother Luke.  We had chatted before, six  years ago, having come across each other not through Luke but  a mutual friend, James C. I love  how the web works sometimes.

We got chatting (again) and I told ben of my newfound interest.  Apparently, there is a growing literature on the subject, but Litherland said he was against the idea of a  ‘wrestling studies’. That seemed curious to me: if wrestling is an art, shouldn’t it be studied  like  any other (narrative) art form in terms of it’s characters and storylines? But he seemed to be suggesting it was something else; not just a weird panto about men hitting eachother or a type of soap opera. It has a real world, political dimension, especially when you consider that Trump has  appeared on it, and Vince McMahon was one of the biggest backers of the Trump campaign. That which I once dismissed as childish and puerile now seems worth looking into deeply.

Something very, very strange is going on with professional wrestling. It’s obviously fake, but claims to be real. It is presented rather like a soap opera, but disbelief is suspended and the illusion of reality is kept to the extreme. Ben even introduced me to their word for it: Kayfabe.  Something which might appear childish does in  fact take itself deadly seriously, and to it’s fans is  as real as any other sport. These people cannot actually be hitting one another or they would be seriously injured;  and the way in which the camera captures events outside the ring suggests the action is somehow planned and choreographed; yet, as in sport, events are shown live and the audience seem  to think they are watching events which have not been rehearsed. Thus I am baffled – what is it? Theatre? Sport? artform, or something else? How  can something which appears so silly have so much cultural impact? When I read a book or watch a film, I know I’m dealing  with a created artefact – something designed or created by someone to tell me a story or convey a message to me. Wrestling is obviously a similar kind of creation, yet it refuses to admit it is anything other than real (undertones of Lacan there, maybe?) I must admit I’m intrigued.

3 thoughts on “What is Professional Wrestling?

  1. Hi mate. I think most wrestling fans don’t think of it as a sport, but athletic entertainment. In some ways it could be viewed as one imagines fans of figure skating view that sport. There is a lot of technical moves and “spots” that make a wrestling match, but underneath there needs to be a narrative. There is a huge psychology about how wrestlers lay a match out to pull in the fans which is fascinating.

    The whole “fake” argument seems redundant. This argument isn’t levelled at Bond or Star Wars films, but its essentially the same thing. They have rehearsed lines and choreographed the action. But ultimatly they want the same outcome. To pull you in in a way that allows you to comfortably suspend disbelief. The major difficulty here is that films etc can use camera angles, cuts and special effects. Wrestling is right there in front of you, so is much easier to shine a light through the cracks, but also makes it much more impressive.


    1. If you can get hold of it try watching Beyond the Mat, a documentary on pro wrestling. I would also recommend Wrestling With Shadows (i beliece this is free to stream on youtube or some canadian film site).This is a documentary following Bret Hart and goes into the Montreal Screwjob.

      The Montreal Screwjob is fascinating in itself when looking at Pro Wrestling. It was a moment pro wrestling went through the looking glass so to speak.


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