In one of my theatre courses in university, there were a few lectures about agitation propaganda, and one of them focused on “wrestling.” It was about pro wrestling, sure, but the moment I noticed the lack of the word “pro,” I had a feeling I was getting into something incomplete. Still, I was excited. Here was my favorite past-time being discussed in a university classroom by a professor who seemed interested in the topic. Years of inane message boards conversations and books by “experts” have somewhat diminished my belief that wrestling can be talked about in a way that isn’t elementary at best, so I was hopeful. The professor began by talking about agit prop in general, then “wrestling” in a very general sense (sort of the way George Bush talks about foreign policy), and then began listing off names of wrestlers that he considered worth mentioning. He spoke only of the WWE, and he kept his focus squarely on 1999. Other people in the class seemed fine by this incredibly boring and flat conversation, but all I could think was, “this guy doesn’t like wrestling, doesn’t get, wrestling, and probably doesn’t even want to talk about wrestling.”
Still, why was he talking about 1999? Why was he listing off “superstars” like Austin, Rock, and Hogan? Why did he refuse to go deeper, or, at least, to even connect pro wrestling and the idea of agit prop? My guess would be that he went with 1999 because that’s when wrestling was last considered acceptable to acknowledge by the mainstream (though there is a fervent argument to be made that it’s far more now than it was then), and that he only talked about the top brass wrestlers because that’s all he knew (or all he thought we would recognize). As to why he didn’t bother making any kind of analytical connection to wrestling and anything of meaning? I would guess it’s because he didn’t see the connection. I would also guess that he didn’t see it because you need to watch a whole hell of a lot of wrestling to get anything decent out of it.
I should retreat slightly, because that’s not entirely true. There are two ways to gather enjoyment out of pro wrestling. There’s watching it only when everyone else around you is doing so, because those times tend to be pretty enjoyable, and there’s watching it as if it were an obsession. In other words, there’s catching Wrestlemania in a bar, and there’s purchasing WWE 24/7 with your cable package in order to watch weekly programs from 1996 again. I’m pretty much the latter, and that’s why I was disappointed with the lecture. He missed the one time when pro wrestling was successful at the whole agit prop game. While most wrestling fans, when pressed, will probably point to either 1998 or 2000 as their favorite periods in wrestling (1989 will come up if you ask the right people, too), I’m very much one to point on 1996, because this was the time when agit prop became a weekly event in pro wrestling. Whereas every episode of wrestling that had come before had a rigid 4th wall in place, this period destroyed it entirely, dealing a swift blow to the prehistoric ideals of Kayfabe and trying out ideas that would become staple on the various programs.
1996 would treat wrestling fans with the first instances of pro wrestling as a weapon. Well documented on the “Monday Night Wars” dvd, WCW Monday Nitro stumbled fairly accidentally into agit prop by giving away the “results” of WWE’s Monday Night Raw before it aired. They would up the ante by having Alundra Blayze, then WWE Women’s champion, come on Nitro and dump the belt into the trash. These two instances were related only on the idea of lowering the WWE’s status, not necessarily raising their own. That’s part of agit prop, and I have to give credit to the writers at WCW at the time for having a sharp focus. They would follow these historically minute points by destroying the 4th wall altogether.
1996 also gave us the most famous curtain call in pro wrestling, when the “clique” all came together and bowed to the audience, crushing kayfabe and making me a WWE fan again all in one swoop.
When Scott Hall left the WWE and joined WCW and showed up by walking through the crowd in street clothes, it set a stone dog-ear on the history of pro wrestling. Hogan’s turn to villainy two months later would always be the most discussed action from this period, but it couldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for how Hall performed. If Hall hadn’t walked into WCW as if he still worked for WWE—and when lots of people didn’t even know he was gone from WWE—the exact way he did (through the crowd, ie, walking through the 4th wall) it’s difficult to say if the business would have changed as it did. Maybe that’s hyperbole, but it’s equally important not to understate this moment. The followthrough, both involving the emergence of Kevin Nash and the turn of Hogan, and of the absolute perfectly referenced name for their faction was proof that Hall’s entrance wasn’t a fluke. WCW was consciously going in an agit prop-fueled direction.
What’s interesting was the fact that Stone Cold Steve Austin was born during the exact same period. On one hand, you’ve got WCW’s New World Order. Taken as a term, it is so incredibly charged in world politics, stemming back to the publishing of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and somewhat engaged with the Nazis, the UN, and the United States government. Also, if we’re going to talk about terrific metaphorical terminology, that 1996 was the last time we’d see a strong, entertaining, and dominating version of the Four Horsemen. On the WWE side, we’ve got Stone Cold Steve Austin, who spoke a victory interview in June of this year towards born-again Jake “The Snake” Roberts. We all know how that goes. We also know how many “Austin 3:16” signs were present the next time WWE went on the air. Essentially, we’ve got one image of the greatest theoretical government conspiracy of the 20th century, and on the other we’ve a loosely referential and rather blasphemous allusion. Nobody in pro wrestling has since ever come close to enjoying the kind of importance that the NWO and Austin enjoyed, and not for one second can anyone say it wasn’t because of the agit prop involved.
While the NWO would, through the end of 1996, quickly grow into a unit capable of “real” power (with the executive director of WCW, Eric Bischoff, revealing his allegiances to the group in December), Austin found himself in arguably the biggest example of agit prop that wrestling has ever given us. On one of the last episodes of RAW in 1996, Austin threatened to visit the house of the injured Brian Pillman. The cameras followed him to the house. Inside was Pillman, his real-life wife, a camera crew and a WWE “reporter.” When asked whether he was worried about Austin’s imminent arrival, Pillman smiled that deranged psychotic smile of his revealed a pistol. This was the first time a real lethal weapon had appeared on a wrestling program that didn’t feature Cactus Jack (and nobody can really count a flaming table covered in barbed wire, because, well, when does one of those ever appear outside of a wrestling match?). Austin broke into the back door with a tire iron and rushed into the room to be greeted by a maniacal Pillman, grinning ear to ear, pistol locked and aimed. The feed cuts, and we’re left to wonder whether the gun went off or not. We would mostly never find out because the scene’s historical reference was stricken from WWE’s memory until the release of Pillman’s DVD in 2007. There were simply too many complaints of the company going too far, and too many threats to take the show off the air.
Anytime you’ve got someone going “too far,” you’ve got agit prop. I mean, if you’re not agitating people, it’s just not working, is it? Thing is, pro wrestling is where we should be able to go for our recommended dosage of it, because there’s no place that does it better. In 2006, we had the introduction to the Latin American Exchange to TNA wrestling, a group seemingly born to please fans of agit prop. They had it all; a topical real world tension in the Mexican border issue, profound historical imagery displayed as they entered the arena, and a message of being mad as hell about discrimination that actually made a ton of sense. The best propaganda always has been and always will be the truth being screamed louder than the lies.
Don’t take this as me suggesting that they need to return to the “attitude” era of wrestling, because I’m not. 1998–2000 saw the demise of agit prop in pro wrestling, and it was a particularly sad time for me, even though nobody noticed it die because they were too busy chanting along with the Rock. It died with the influx of desperate writing into WCW (the 2000 period is a great example of how not to use agit prop) and the vanillaization of ECW on TNN. But the NWO, Austin 3:16, Pillman’s gun, and other excellent ideas all had one thing in common; yes, they were meant to stir the pot, but they all stirred with a charged purpose that resonates into popular culture, faith, fear, and human history. And one could say that pro wrestling could use more of that.
- WWE 24/7 is probably the best thing that company has done in the last 5 years. For ten bucks a month, they give you like 30 hours of old wrestling shows on demand. More importantly, it makes old wrestling seem important, because it’s all of a sudden historical. Bravo to whoever green lit this beauty and made all us smarks smile. ↩
- One that mostly pointed at itself. But since wrestling is a reflection of whatever culture it resides, it was really pointing the gun at all of you, too. ↩
- Consisting of “good guys” Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon and “Bad guys” Diesel and HHH. ↩
- Really, could there ever be a more powerful named group than the “New World Order”? ↩
“I don’t mind talking outfits, entrances, charisma, or presence, because those all add to wrestling as a performance art. I love talking about moves, matches, and storylines – what worked, what didn’t, and why. However, I don’t want to discuss what they look like and what someone would like to do to them in the bedroom. To me, that’s not what wrestling’s about. “
One of the things we set out to do with this issue is promote the idea that there aren’t male wrestling fans or female wrestling fans. It’s a bullshit illusion fed by people who profit off demographics and stereotypes. Every time we forget that we’re all goddamn individuals with different preferences, those people begin to make money.
Here’s a confession that should be obvious for people who’ve read me a while: I could really care less what happens on wrestling shows week to week. I’m interested in theory, trends, and the tropes of this art form. More than anything, I’m for promoting it as an art form and not a “fake sport.” What actually occurs on the shows are details for me, because my subject is bigger than any episode or live event. My subject is about what the hell wrestling is and what it means to people. I believe with the Fair to Flair Quarterly, we’ve begun to crack that, just a little bit.
Sounds like an overall ban on combat sports, if likely a very temporary one over a fiscal issue.
Simple answer for WWE: stop calling the product sports entertainment, and you’ll never have to deal with this ever again. You’ll notice that the Oklahoma city ballet (which looks totally kick ass) is not affected. WWE should define itself, at least when it comes to legal matters like performance ability. Ambiguity is not their friend here, and neither is any athletic commission.
Evolutionary psychologists might say that our prehistoric ancestors passed down a tendency toward violent behavior, particularly among males. But even if this is true, the full explanation is far more complicated. While violence may be part of our genetic history, so is contemplation.
And being human beings we need more than food, security, esteem, and love. We need to be self-actualized. That is, we need to create; we were meant to create. And the height of creating is experience. Unlike all other art forms, the theatre is a creation of the experience of human living.
So to ask if professional wrestling will die out, you ask if our need for violence and our need for theatre will die out, and that’s a pretty big scientific question. I’m not sure if you meant it to be. Do I think wrestling will change from its current format and experience? Sure, it almost has to every now and then to stay topical, but like the porn industry I don’t much worry about its ability to find an audience. What I worry about is this need in each of us for the best crossroads between theatre and violence, between satiation and catharsis. What are we if not caught in a winded attempt at long-lasting self improvement? Where does the image of one man beating another senseless—fake or no—eventually belong?