Identity in Professional Wrestling (or Throwing Our Hearts Through Barbershop Windows)
Listen. I know you’re probably not here to read about professional wrestling. I get it. But this month’s theme is Identity and there’s no art form where identity is more inextricable from the art itself.
When I was young, I became a fan of professional wrestling because of the larger than life characters. I watched with rapt attention when Jake “The Snake” Roberts’ deadly cobra bit the arm of a prone “Macho Man” Randy Savage, blood dripping from the bite marks. I wrote letters to a hospitalized Hulk Hogan after a savage attack by Earthquake put him in the hospital. I’m a grown man and I still can’t fully forgive “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels for throwing his tag team partner, Marty Jannetty, through a barber shop window/interview set. It’s easy (and not particularly new) to look at them as broad morality plays speaking to the lowest common denominator and, while I would argue that is reductive and condescending, I have to admit I see some points.
Once upon a time, the wrestlers’ personal identities were inconsequential. No one cared whether “The Million Dollar Man” Ted Dibiase was a nice guy or not “in real life”; wrestling purported to be real life. When he was in public, he was expected to be a nasty rich guy, due to the strictures of kayfabe (the idea of professional wrestling being presented as a legitimate competition … essentially “faking the marks”). Vince McMahon gave him a per diem to be spent in flashy ways while on the road. Tip big, but be a jerk about it. His personal identity was completely subsumed by his character’s.
Then … something changed. When the era of Kayfabe ended, things shifted for wrestlers and fans both. It started with a trickle. Good guys and bad guys being caught riding together. People who had no reason to like each other hugging in the ring. So called “dirt sheets” began to report on the backstage machinations with the same breathlessness of the Hollywood Reporter discussing future film deals. Slowly but surely, fans got “smart”.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin is a fictional character. Kenny Omega is a fictional character. Kevin Owens is a fictional character. Yet Steve Williams, Tyson Smith, and Kevin Steen all exist in the real world and, in one way or another, the highs and lows of their lives have all been mined for storyline purposes. Professional wrestling is always looking at different ways to tell you stories. If it can mine Kevin Steen’s friendship with best friend Rami Sebei to deepen the story of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, it will. Blurring the lines of Kenny Omega’s real (?) romantic relationship with fellow wrestler Kota Ibushi allows us to experience “will they/won’t they” tension tinged with the spice of actual, legitimate chemistry and sexual tension. Steve Williams broke his neck in the ring; Stone Cold was never the same.
In the wonderful video essay by Super Eyepatch Wolf, he talks about The Undertaker and how professional wrestling is the only fictional enterprise where the characters age at the same rate as the audience. There are no “Six months later” jumps; we watch it all in real time. Even with a character as ridiculous as The Undertaker, an undead, old-west warlock, the person who plays the character still ages, becoming more mortal each day. The mortality is what keeps us showing up. Effy, an independent wrestler based out of Florida, is just as relatable as a barrier breaking gay icon as he is as a meat shell for the demon he sold his soul to for access to unbound pleasure. We all contain multitudes, you know?
Our humanity informs our creativity. Every new work demands we reveal more of ourselves to the audience, but exposure without creativity is just vanity. In the search to make our work more intimate and more personal, we would do well to see what lessons we can take from every art form under the sun. Identity in professional wrestling is nuanced, complicated, and all the sweeter for it.