July 30, 2007
Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (I of V)

I am finishing up the final version of an essay about three years in the making, that I actually got accepted for publication in my final days as an undergraduate back at Western Kentucky University. After a few holdups here and there, the piece will be going into a collection edited by Cornel Sandvoss, Michael Real, and Alina Bernstein called Bodies of Discourse: Sport Stars, Globalization, and the Public Sphere. As I am tidying the essay up, I wanted to see if there were any relevant thoughts from C3 readers on the implications "real" characters like those in pro wrestling have on the meaning of masculinity in the modern media.

When professional wrestler Mick Foley won the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE, formerly WWF) World Heavyweight Title on Monday Night RAW at the end of 1998, he became a heroic character in the realm of pro wrestling, then at its height of popularity on cable television. Many considered Foley an unusual hero. His character blended masculine heroic qualities of tenacity, endurance, and hard work with characteristics not usually seen in the American hero: a need for communal acceptance, a desire for intellectual growth, and an unattractive aesthetic, with Foley's missing teeth, severed ear, unkempt hair, pear-shaped figure, and lack of the muscular definition usually expected in the wrestling hero.

Mick Foley is a paradox, as his character both embraces and defies elements of the traditional masculine hero. This redefinition of the heroic figure in wrestling, according to Dalbir Singh Sehmby (2000: 202), stems from wrestling's complex relationship among fans, promoters, the media, and Foley himself. Sammond (2005) writes that "whether professional wrestling is progressive, transgressive, or regressive (or all these at different moments) depends on how it serves the social goals of its producers, performers, audiences, and its critics." Because of wrestling's participatory nature, allowing fans to directly influence the product, wrestling heroes may perhaps be more indicative of the paradoxes in defining masculinity and American heroism than the heroes created through many other media products. The construction of Foley as hero reveals America's changing and conflicting values regarding its traditions and its definition of masculinity.

Foley's character also illuminates the ways in which a media image can be appropriated to represent various meanings, depending on who is mediating and interpreting the text. Although the cultural producers of Foley's character--the WWE writers, other performers, and Foley himself--may have particular meanings in mind (and these three groups seldom agree on a single meaning of an interview or match), pro wrestling texts are always polysemic, meaning that the spectacle allows "for a multiplicity of readings and uses" from its fans, as Sandvoss (2005: 123) writes.

While there is no purely monosemic text (in which only one meaning and context is possible) nor is there any truly neutrosemic text (since the number of extant readings of a text could theoretically be quantified were such a thing possible), all texts exist on a polysemic spectrum between these two extremes in which readers negotiate meaning for themselves and then potentially influence each others' readings within the fan community. Each reader has their own self-reflective version of the text based on their own experiences, and the function of fan communities is often to negotiate the meanings of these texts from the myriad personal interpretations into some shared "truth," similar to the function of Wikipedia in finding the shared definition of a term or event. As Sandvoss (2005: 125-126) discusses, it is often not the facts that are in dispute (fans agree on the date Foley won his first world title or the number of PPV main events he has wrestled in) but rather the context, the meaning of each of these events in relation to the other and to Foley's overall career trajectory.

Pro wrestling might seem an unlikely lens to examine American culture through, but
wrestling's roots in America trace back to Native American and European cultures. The modern theatrical version of pro wrestling began in the post-Civil War era when ex-soldiers toured with carnival troupes, putting to use the skills they learned for recreation during the war. Wrestling then formed a strong bond with television from its infancy and has thrived in local, national, and increasingly in international markets. From the 1940s until today, wrestling has retained a substantial television and live-event audience through a product that consistently changes as American culture changes.

Today, pro wrestling is a billion-dollar business for the WWE, which airs on network and cable television, and in syndication. The WWE has divided itself into three major brands: RAW, which airs live every Monday on the USA Network in the U.S.; Smackdown, which airs every Friday night on the CW Network in the U.S.; and Extreme Championship Wrestling, which airs live every Tuesday night on the Sci Fi Channel in the U.S. According to Meltzer (2006b: 4), the average rating for RAW programming was a 3.84 in May 2006, making it one of the highest-rated shows on cable television, and ECW's numbers--after the revived brand's Summer 2006 debut--are lower but represent one of the highest-rated shows in the Sci-Fi Channel's history. Smackdown's consistent ratings on the new CW Network have kept it a staple programming on the new network's lineup, as it was one of the first shows chosen for the new network after its former home, UPN, merged with the WB in September 2006. All three shows are also distributed throughout the world, with the WWE's international popularity growing even at a time when its domestic numbers have remained fairly stagnant or even receding.

The WWE, which particularly targets young adult males, uses its television show to plug not only merchandise but also live events and pay-per-view shows, which act as the climax for ongoing storylines. Among its pay-per-views, the company's annual Wrestlemania event draws particularly well, generating around the 1 million buy mark in the past few years. According to Meltzer (2006a: 6), "the growth in numbers is more because overseas countries are getting PPVs." While the domestic audience is down to the hardcore faithfuls (and there appear to be millions of them, even at WWE's lowest ratings point), the international audience continues to expand.

Wrestling differs from most professional sports presentations in that wrestling characters are often universally scripted to be protagonists and antagonists instead of changing roles relative to location. While the WWE makes small adaptations to each local performance (such as Mick Foley's "cheap pop" reference to the town they are competing in during his interview to garner the support of the local live audience when addressing the television audience), the show emphasizes the national. Furthermore, as the WWE increasingly markets its product internationally, the company chiefly offers the same product internationally that American fans see. International competitors generally gain a more prominent placing on cards when held in the country of their origin and the company has increased its use of non-American competitors, chiefly for the European, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Japanese markets. Otherwise, however, the company only provides as much translation of its shows as is necessary because many of the international audience members see any dilution of the "Americanness" of the product as inauthentic.

Because of the need to fill daily programming, today's mass media make the mythmaking process almost instant. With television programs and even whole networks (such as E!) dedicated solely to tracing and reaffirming the celebrity of certain public figures, the television industry becomes its own machine for producing myths. Further, networks affirm the importance of their programming by reporting on themselves, so that the events onSurvivor or The Amazing Race are reported on the next morning's news, and the release of The Facts of Life on DVD or a Dynasty reunion airing on primetime is accompanied by the cast appearing on news programs throughout the week.

Heroes and myths are created in wrestling at an even more accelerated rate, especially since WWE airs a minimum of five hours of original programming each week. The annual Wrestlemania event is treated as a sacred and historic evening even as it's airing, with matches being declared classic and historic while they are in progress. Wrestlers like Bruno Sammartino, a popular Italian-American wrestler in the Northeast in the 1960s and 1970s, have adopted nicknames like "The Living Legend." Fishwick (1969: 3) finds that a wider variety of figures in today's society is being nominated as heroes, and many of these heroes are increasingly compartmentalized for niches in society. This variety makes the hero both less stable and harder to define, as Browne (1983: 92) examines.

Popular fictional characters, in particular, have become a focus for analyzing the modern American hero because the characters are generally communally defined and are not as easily demythologized as actual people because their lives are scripted, as Rollin (1983: 23) points out. Pro wrestling stars are particularly appropriate for this examination of fictional heroes because of the active presence of fans in the hero-making process. Wrestling fans directly influence the product through an open feedback process by performing their own acting roles at live events, the roles of ardent sports fans. Rinehart (1998: 67) posits that this aspect of wrestling makes it an avant-garde sport by allowing the spectator to influence the action. The appropriation of a wrestling hero by a vast number of "authors" explains, in part, the contention of Morton and O'Brien (1985: 141-153) contention that the wrestling hero is a complicated figure who cannot easily be generalized.