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

A growing body of scholarship has formed to analyze professional wrestling; however, this preliminary collection of work into wrestling's close connection with American society, past and present, has only scratched the surface of an art form that provides an inexhaustible wealth of research material. Wrestling is a particularly apt way to study the culture of a particular time and place and an exaggerated visual text that provides many potential avenues to study the hero-making process in American culture. Pro wrestling is liminal, existing both as sport and drama, fact and fiction, all mediated through a web of complex relationships within the larger construct of the promoter, the media, the actors, and the fans. Furthermore, wrestling is a text that draws on a variety of dramatic conventions and a unique blending of "high" and "low" culture, reflecting what Levine (1988) identifies as a contemporary questioning of distinctions between "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in American art.

Wrestling has been examined from a myriad of critical perspectives because of the rich possibilities its complicated narrative structure offers for various disciplines. Barthes (1972: 21) claims that pro wrestling is "a spectacle of excess" involving a symbolic show of suffering and justice through the hero's struggle with the rule-breaking villain. Goffman (1974) further identifies this spectacular element of wrestling's central narrative, the hero's appropriation of rule-breaking to retaliate against an opponent who has broken the agreement of a fair fight between the two. Goffman (1974: 418) claims wrestling's excitement comes through this breaking of the audience's perceived frame of fair play in sports.

I have found this theoretical viewpoint substantiated to a degree in my own ethnographic work (Ford: 2007), such as the revelation of a 74-year-old preacher at one live wrestling event I attended in Kentucky that, "subconsciously, everybody has somebody somewhere he wants to see done that way. Grandma can't yell 'break his arm' out normally because we would take her to Hopkinsville (a town in the region where a mental hospital is located), but she can do it watching wrestling. We can't do these sorts of things or act this way in our own lives, so we can watch the wrestlers do it."

This spectacular element of wrestling relies on the instant mythmaking process of both wrestler and wrestling events referred to above. The overflow of visual iconography in wrestling matches and the visual exaggeration of transcending societal norms all play a part in developing this mythmaking process, something Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998: 82) refer to as "the presentation of the world as spectacle, as a set of performances" through the pervasiveness of media. Wrestling presents the visual extreme of situations and emotions that everyday life brings us--injustice, suffering, and the insufficiency of "the system" to effectively deal with problems. Later, I will examine how Foley can exist simultaneously as a spectacular mythic figure and as an "everyman." This is accomplished, in part, by what Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998: 88) call "the aestheticization of everyday life," of which the star can become an important part. Although these emotions and images that both Barthes and Goffman find on the wrestling stage are presented in their spectacular extreme, they are overflowing visual representations of some of the most basic human emotions and situations.

Pro wrestling is unique as a cultural meeting place for various academic methods to interact, and sports entertainment has inspired a substantial body of research from a variety of disciplines. As an transmedia text, wrestling allows for various methodologies from multiple fields to complement each other in scholarly analysis. Only recently have scholars such as Jenkins (1997, 2005) more fully emphasized the value of using these multiple methodologies to examine pro wrestling. Jenkins writes about wrestling as a media construction to analyze the companies that promote wrestling, the performers who act out the roles, the fans who consume and shape the product, and the growing body of critics who analyze and appropriate wrestling for their specific arguments and methodological perspectives.

Pro wrestling, then, is a microcosm of American culture, both because it allows for
interdisciplinary readings and because it is so directly influenced by its fans. Wrestler Mick Foley's image provides the material for an effective case study of this mediation of contradictory elements in the contemporary American hero. Foley's character exists as an example of the conflicts embodied in the modern hero, conflicts that both accept and deny aspects of the traditional masculine hero model that has been considered the template for the hero throughout the relatively short history of American culture. The ways in which Foley both accepts and disproves these traditional assumptions provide not only an example of the complicated characters involved in pro wrestling but also the current society's struggle to define itself through its heroes after demythologizing so many long-held cultural beliefs.


This study seeks to incorporate a close reading of both the factual history of the myth of pro wrestling character Mick Foley and his various representations over the year to help understand the evolving nature of the pro wrestling hero. However, this close reading focuses not only on the wrestling programming but also the fan community's interpretation of the Mick Foley character and the complicated processes in which wrestling texts are negotiated using the three-pronged approach suggested by Sammond (2005)--by looking at the wrestling promoters and Foley himself but also the work of various scholars and the fan community at understanding the wrestling hero. By combining these various methods, I seek to gain a greater understanding at not only potential ways that Foley may represent shifts in the construction of the American hero and the qualities that constitute heroism but also the cultural process by which fan communities and cultural producers negotiate these facts. This study focuses primarily on the wrestling text but draws on observations from my ethnographic research of the fan community as well.

While my audience-based analysis looks completely at how audiences interpret and understand their performance as sports fans, even though they know that the wrestling competition is staged, this piece does not directly employ ethnographic research. Rather, my focus is to understand how fans have influenced the negotiation of Foley's star image by examining the ways in which Foley's story has shifted throughout the past two decades. My goal is to use my own knowledge of his character's past to understand the scholarship of various theorists who have written on the American hero and particularly on the pro wrestling hero. I first present a brief trajectory of the development of Foley's character, followed by an identification of various struggles that are present throughout the character's evolution and an analysis of what these struggles of defining Foley, both within the fan community and by cultural producers themselves, indicate for the current state of American masculinity and heroism. Ultimately, my goal is to emphasize how the text of a professional wrestling character is fundamentally altered by the interpretation process in a business where fans have a weekly impact on storyline development based on their reaction in the arena and their viewing patterns at home.