I’ve been pretty open about my lack of interest in American pro wrestling. I am however, a fan of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, and I recently listened to his interview with former WWE star CM Punk, who at the end of his interview stated how he often feels fat and out of shape. Not that I enjoy the misery of others, but it was affirming to know that I shared an insecurity with another—although significantly more prominent—pro wrestler.
I want to make clear that this is not a covert public confession to an eating disorder, something with which I am not affected. If anything this could be considered an admission that for years I struggled with insecurities regarding my physical appearance. More broadly it is an attempt to illustrate that such insecurities are not uncommon, and further, are exacerbated by aesthetic ideal conceptions of masculinity proper. In doing so we will look at a series of case studies that will illustrate how the physicality of pro wrestlers bear signs which adhere to particular conceptions of the otherwise complex milieu of social constructs such as race, class, gender, and so on. That being said, it should be immediately obvious that it would impossible to give such a topic a proper treatment within the average blog post length. Consequently this will be the first of a series of installments: this discussion will primarily set up the theory within which I understand the aesthetic and physical expectations of the masculine body; subsequent additions will examine case studies such as the Ultimate Warrior, Viscera, and other pop-culture icons.
Further it should be noted that this is not an attempt to equivocate the physical and aesthetic expectations of men’s and women’s bodies, but rather to explore the social and cultural expectations of beauty that are particular to male performers—and perhaps men in general, although such a broad claim is well beyond the scope of this discussion.
The dominant cultural presupposition holds that body image issues are inherently a women’s problem. For example the phrase “manorexia” is clearly a verbal play on the eating disorder anorexia: the addition of the “m” masculinizes the word thereby distinguishing it from “anorexia.” But this action presupposes that anorexia is inherently a female disorder, and thus the anorexic man is an anomaly as he is suffering from something that is thought to only afflict women. While this example is specific to a particular condition, it indicates a broader cultural understanding of body image issues as being exclusive to women.
My interest in this topic was rekindled by ESPN’s decision to feature professional baseball player Prince Fielder on the cover of their annual Body Issue, which subsequently fueled a public discussion about men’s physique. Despite the fact that Fielder is a professional athlete, his perhaps “husky” appearance incited public criticism of his “less than ideal” physical appearance—in other words he wasn’t svelte enough to conform to the masculine ideal aesthetic that we’ve attached to athletes.
Such aesthetic expectations are omnipresent in sports, and given the hyperbolic, theatrical nature of professional wrestling, such aesthetics tend to be overrepresented. But the representation of ideology within the body is not new, and is in fact a somewhat intentional and integral part of pro wrestling sport. Despite the athleticism of pro wrestlers, it differs from sport proper in that pro wrestling is simultaneously steeped in theatre. This theatrical nature gives professional wrestling a sort of license to intentionally draw upon ideological conceptions of beauty, heroism, and masculinity.
In his famous essay The World of Wrestling, Roland Barthes states “What is portrayed by wrestling is therefore an ideal understanding of things; it is the euphoria of men raised for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and places before the panoramic view of univocal nature, in which signs at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction.” In other words professional wrestling distills otherwise complex intersections of—among others—race, class, gender, good and evil, and reifies them as physical signifiers within the body of the wrestler which in itself constitutes a basic sign. These signs are constructed to resonate with and conform to dominant ideologies of the audience, and thus are simplified and hyperbolized so that there is no need to connect the signs to what they signify—they are immediately readable.
Barthes also helps us understand the importance of the appearance of the body in pro wrestling. Unlike most sports wherein a particular body type is produced from repetitive movements and actions, pro wrestling’s theatrical nature means that the body of the professional wrestler is crafted in order to fit an ideal aesthetic: a continuous cast of Spartans.
While Barthes wrote specifically about wrestling, he wasn’t the only academic to understand how the human body is used as a conduit of signs. The late French philosopher Michel Foucault noted that “the body is directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it; mark it, train it” and force it to “emit signs.” The signs themselves are a product of “an overall effect” of the “strategic positions” of hegemonic power. By using Foucault’s and Barthes’ ideas as lenses through which to view professional wrestling, we understand the body of the wrestler as a hyperbolized sign which functions as a signifier for pre-existing ideological conceptions of race, class, gender, good and evil, and national identity.
But how does all of this theory relate to body image issues? Given that their bodies are a central feature to the sport, wrestlers are often hyperaware of their physical appearance. The narrative structure within professional wrestling—from long-form storylines of the WWE to the minute narrative of a single match itself—are constructed upon these very ideological conceptions. When these popular conceptions break down there is a sort of ideological disruption. The most relevant and obvious example lies in the aforementioned Fielder case, wherein Fielder’s masculine form failed to conform to the ideal athletic body.
I am specifically interested in a variety of things: if the theatre of pro wrestling functions as a sort reflective field of ideological conceptions, it can be used as a means through which to gain perspective on how a particular culture understands itself. What do I mean by this? In case studies—which we will examine at length later—we will look at Hulk Hogan’s (Terry Bollea) super-patriotic gimmick from the 1980s. I argue that his “American hero” character would have been unsuccessful if, for example, Hogan had been a man of color. This claim, of course, is an historical one and thus cannot be divorced from the context, a context that we will examine in order to illustrate the conversation around race and national identity during Hogan’s run as the “Real American.” Thus we can use this information to gain a particular understanding of how viewers perceived American identity itself—i.e., American identity proper—during that time.
Peripherally I am also suggesting is that these “ideal” masculine forms are hyperbolized and distilled within pro wrestling in such a way that drives wrestlers to aspire towards an unrealistic—and often times unattainable—physique. Repeated failures to achieve such perfection undoubtedly lead to a sense of inadequacy, and many wrestlers end up altering and sometimes destroying their bodies striving to such ends.
As someone who has to continually fight back impulses to try semi-promising fad diets or health supplements from body building websites in order to drop to an unhealthily low body-fat percentage, I often find myself contemplating this fleeting sense of inadequacy. While some of the aforementioned theory may seem obtuse on its face, it can be instructive to help trace a sort of metaphysics of masculinity, as well as a broader means through which to inductively unpack cultural self-identity. I find both of these ends to be simultaneously intellectually and personally fulfilling, and the former can be a theoretical framework with which one can confront their own body image issues.
We’ll continue the discussion with a series of case studies. This is an open-ended project, and thus I cannot enumerate subsequent entries. However anticipate a multifaceted analysis including not just pro wrestling photos, images, videos, and excerpts from interviews, but also social and political history where contextually relevant.
Barthes, Roland. “World of Wrestling.” Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling. Durham: Duke UP, 2005. 23-32. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon, 1977. Print.