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

Gender/Masculinity: Brains vs. Brawn

The criticism of wrestling's narrow definition of manhood and its vilifying of any opposing views of what constitutes manliness has been covered by many critics (i.e., Lincoln 1989, Berger 1990). The critical concern about the effects of such confining representations of masculinity has been waged most broadly by Jhally and Katz (2002), who indict WWE as purveyors of damaging stereotypes and narrow codes of masculine behavior. Jhally and Katz attempt to connect wrestling's definition of gender roles with broad social problems relating to domestic violence. Jenkins (2005: 306-307) refutes these arguments by claiming that by oversimplifying their subjects, such narrow readings of wrestling participate in the very "anti-intellectualism" for which these critics often condemn wrestling. He particularly attacks their unsubstantiated attempts to liken the ignoring of wrestling's ill effects to the ignoring of Adolf Hitler's rise in Germany.

Wrestling has become a battleground for an argument that involves methodology (whether an examination of wrestling content can have only one possible reading), mediation (a singular writing of wrestling shows by Vince McMahon and his writing team or a communal definition of the product mediated by writers, performers, and fans), and gender roles (wrestling as one definition of masculinity or wrestling as a battle among conflicting masculinities). While wrestling glorifies certain aspects of the traditional hero, its treatment of masculinity is more nuanced than a simplistic reading would find. For instance, Jhally and Katz, in their analysis, do not consider the context of scenes they analyze in the overall narrative or whether the person perpetrating a certain action is a hero or a villain. The contradictions in Foley's character and its affirming and denying of traditional masculine attributes are a fitting example for Jenkins' argument of a more layered reading of pro wrestling. A reading of a character such as Foley's in unambiguous terms ignores the importance of his many contradictions.

The chief struggle in Foley's masculinity is his role as both a pro wrestler and an intellectual. Foley's image challenges the long-held belief that being an American hero cannot involve intellectual achievement, the belief that the American hero emphasizes strength and practical application over analysis as emphasized by Gurko (1953: 168). The writing and lecturing success of Foley the actor was incorporated into his character through Foley's three bestselling memoirs Have a Nice Day (1999), Foley is Good...and the Real World is Faker than Pro Wrestling (2001), and The Hardcore Diaries (2007); his fiction novels, Tietam Brown (2003) and Scooter (2005); his three children's books; and his college lecturing tours. These aspects of his character have been heavily promoted by the WWE as a component of Foley's star image, a character who expresses a growing interest in flexing his intellectual muscles. Foley's achievements as a best-selling author and a college lecturer are now as essential to his narrative as his winning wrestling championships.

On its own, writing is not unusual for a wrestler, but Foley's character brags about his refusing a ghostwriter to help him tell his story and his handwriting of each book before it is transferred to a typed text. Critical acclaim for Foley's writing has led to even greater respect from wrestling fans. Fans have not dismissed Foley's writing as being for "eggheads," as Warren (1972) warns will happen to the writer in American culture. Indeed, the fans admire "the eloquence of tongue and pen" of their hero, contrary to claims by Wecter (1966: 485) that such abilities are not emphasized for American heroes. The fans embrace Foley's writing, including his section of media analysis and criticism in his second memoir, Foley is Good. Foley, then, represents a potential shift in the possible attributes of the hero.

Still, although professing to be an intellectual and a writer, the primary vocation for the Mick Foley character is professional wrestling. No matter how his writing impacts his character, Foley's success is most obviously defined by his abilities inside the wrestling ring to persevere and to successfully compete in individual competition with other wrestlers. Wrestling is a visual drama emphasizing alternations between what Denney (1957: 133) defines as "scenes of dominance and submission." Wrestling is, in short, a dramatic representation of individualistic struggle that some read as masculine in nature.

Fans often validate their viewing of pro wrestling based on the toughness these competitors must employ, not just the toughness of characters but also of the people who perform in these roles. For instance, in my ethnography of wrestling fans, I found fans citing the physical nature of the performance. One fan I interviewed at a live event noted that "wrestling takes an extreme amount of athleticism. A pro wrestler may be an actor, but it is still physical, and they are still thrown on the ground and hit with chairs. Even if it is fake, it hurts." Given the violent nature of Foley's performances, fans particularly see his willingness to sacrifice his body for his performances as an important aspect of the Foley character in addition to the "real" man.

Foley is a particularly physical competitor, generally preferring the use of weapons and fist fighting to the more athletic traditions of fast-paced exchanges of wrestling sequences or submission wrestling on the mat. Nevertheless, any simplistic reading of wrestling matches as completely "masculine" is problematic. For instance, an analysis from Pronger (1990) of the homosexual segment of the wrestling audience and their interpretation of a text whose "official" reading is heterosexual to take on homoerotic meaning challenges traditional masculine views of a wrestling match. The study by Dell (1998, 2006) of female fan club newsletters in the late 1940s and 1950s and the study by Salmon and Clerc (2005) of female wrestling fans and their use of the Internet to appropriate wrestling texts through fan fiction also challenge narrow readings of a communal text.

Class: Mythic vs. Everyman

One of the chief sources of Mick Foley's popularity is his image's ability to tap into what Sehmby (2000: 123) identifies as wrestling's "central working class myth." This myth involves an individual who uses his or her own body to battle against corporate corruption. However, both Jenkins (1997: 50-51) and Trujillo et al. (2000: 538) warn that such an analysis only examines one portion of a large audience, such as the working class, and that any generalizations of a group as diverse as pro wrestling crowds exclude multiple perspectives, as emphasized in the previous section.

Mick Foley exists in pro wrestling simultaneously as a representative of this "everyman" in American culture and as a mythical figure, a living legend. Such a contradiction is not surprising in a culture that creates heroes so quickly, a culture in which people can be considered legends when still in their primes. Because of mass communication's speeding up of the mythmaking process, the number of heroes has also greatly increased. Furthermore, Foley's character exists in the world of pro wrestling, where profit is directly driven by the ability to create heroes that the public is willing to pay to see. He must simultaneously exist as a representative of the everyday person and a mythological figure that is larger than life.

Pro wrestling has produced a form of entertainment most apt to liken its athletes to mythic heroes, as wrestlers are often compared to the immortals and take on mythological names, from Hercules to Adonis to "The American Dream," tapping into broader ideas of the mythological heroic figure as written about by Raglan (1956) and Campbell (2003). Iconic moments in Foley's in-ring career become mythical images that gain meaning outside the context of the specific event: Foley and a partner being put in a dumpster and rolled off the entrance ramp; Foley's falling off a twenty-foot cage and later having a tooth knocked out onto his moustache in one match; Foley flying through a flaming table during his 2006 comeback match. These violent images become mythic icons in the overall image of Mick Foley. Yet this iconography can simultaneously represent the everyday in the same way that tourist photographs capture the spectacular while also transforming them into commodities, as Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998: 80) point out.

However, Foley is positioned as a representative of wrestling fans as well. He uses his unconventional appearance to represent this "everyman," a term borrowed from Inskeep (2000) to describe Foley. Mick Foley's bodily scars embody what Fiske (1987: 247) describes as the grotesque in wrestling. Foley becomes a hero despite his "grotesque" physical nature because of his intense love of wrestling that fans identify with and his ease at displaying his innermost thoughts and feelings. That emotion is established through Foley's rhetoric, such as this statement in response to announcer Jim Ross's assertion that Foley's persona Mankind enjoys pain:

Is it when I can't get up when my little boy says, "Daddy, I wanna play ball!" and I can't do it? Is that when the fun starts? Is it when a doctor injects a 20-inch needle into the discs of my spine so I can wrestle one more day? Whoopee! Let the party begin. (Mick Foley).

This display of emotion and frustration is key to the audience's identification with Foley as a spokesman for their concerns. Foley has constantly been held down, and fans often feel some degree of catharsis in identifying with his character and finding that, no matter how many times he is injured or beaten, that he returns to fight another day, such as the sentiment from the 74-year-old preacher I mentioned above. Foley's positioning, then, as a representative of the fans and also as a mythical figure for the fans to admire, captures one of the key contradictions of the pro wrestling figure, and Foley in particular, as hero, and also captures the aestheticization of everyday life discussed by Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998: 85) that allows Foley to be both myth and representative of the common man at the same time.

The wrestling fans were instrumental in Foley's rise to the top of the wrestling world, supporting him despite what some might consider a less-than-generous push by the wrestling narrative at some points. The night Foley won the title on Monday Night RAW, announcer Tony Schivone of the rival WCW program gave the results of the taped match away on the live Nitro, revealing that Foley would win the title. "That will put butts in seats," he said. Figuratively speaking, it did, for, after Schivone's announcement, several hundred thousand viewers tuned in to RAW to watch Foley, giving the WWE the ratings win for the night (The Monday Night War).

Fans made Foley their hero because they both identified with and were inspired by his character. As Warren (1972, xiv) writes, "if the hero is the embodiment of our ideals [ . . . ] then to analyze him is likely to mean, in the end, an analysis of [ . . . ] ourselves." Foley is as representative of his audience as wrestler Antonino Rocca was of New York City Puerto Rican fans in the 1950s, as recorded by Wolfe (1982: 30), who asserted Rocca's rise as American hero as one of the strongest examples of a sports hero in contemporary culture. At the time when Foley was thrown off the top of the Hell in a Cell cage and had several of his teeth knocked out later in the match, fan Thompson (1998b) wrote in his commentary to fellow Foley fans that, despite the characters' being written as a villain and many other fans not supporting him, Foley needed their support. "I don't want to see Mick kill himself because the fans don't appreciate him. But maybe now they will. [ . . . ] Hopefully, the WWF is gonna do whatever it takes to reward Foley for his efforts." By the end of the year, Foley had become a major fan favorite and a champion, due in part to this rising fan support.

Foley's character is also greatly shaped by the wrestling promotion that writes the narrative of his performances. The WWE, a capitalistic enterprise, promotes the heroes who can gain the most appeal from the widest audience. Therefore, while American heroes may appear self-made, they are actually the construction of hero-makers, entrepreneurs looking to use the heroic image of a character for their own profit. In Foley's case, that profit is purely monetary, as the WWE directly capitalizes on Foley's popularity through tickets and merchandising sales. The narrative of Foley's achievement, despite his constant degradation by the Mr. McMahon character, is ironic considering that the establishment the fans are rallying against in the narrative is, in reality, the promoters of Foley's character.

The WWE's influence in Foley's rise as hero is similar to those of authors of more traditional fictional texts, such as those of hero-maker Horatio Alger. Gardner (1964: 332) writes that Alger's own obsession with money is echoed through his stories both in the pecuniary motivation of heroes and villains and in the detailed description of monetary values. Similarly, Foley is not only a reflection of the WWE fans' desire and WWE's creation to capitalize on that desire but also a reflection of negotiations among the varying worldviews of the multiple authors of WWE texts. This negotiation allows Foley to exist both as a myth created for wrestling fans and as an everyday hero created by wrestling fans.

Ideology: Individualism vs. Collectivism, Underdog vs. Champion

The narrative of Mick Foley's rise to stardom emphasizes his character's inherent desire for a cohesive community. Beginning with the nascent character development in WCW in which Foley worked as a hired gun, he has often attempted to bond with other figures, for example with fellow bounty hunter Abdullah the Butcher. His persona Mankind revealed his intense desire to be loved by fans, only to be continually disappointed when the fans chose more attractive or more successful wrestlers over him.

Foley's character's search for approval from authority figures caused him to adopt transsexual wrestler Goldust as a mother/father figure, wrestling manager Paul Bearer as "Uncle" Paul, and, later, Vince McMahon as a father figure. On a weekly basis, Foley would try to please his boss and would even call him "Dad." He also looked up to highly individualistic wrestling characters "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and, later, The Rock as big brother figures and sought approval from them by attempting to become their partner. In both cases, Foley was eventually able to win the approval of both characters, despite their lack of desire for a partner. Foley's character's commitment to a wrestling community even led to his forming a group called "The Union" at one point, a community of wrestlers united much like a labor union against the repressive regime of Mr. McMahon's "Corporation."

Foley's need to create a community of professional wrestlers is ironic, of course, in a narrative in which individual competition is the primary focus and in which he is able to gain respect from other wrestlers only through his own achievements. Wrestling, and Foley's character in particular, embody this contradiction. Pro wrestling is particularly apropos for an examination of the struggle between individualism and collectivism: wrestling has a troupe of characters that is involved principally in one-on-one confrontations but that is also a group of individuals who rely on each other.

The WWE is simultaneously depicted as both a tight-knit community of performers and a group all in competition with one another. Many have identified the basic plot of a pro wrestling match as centering on this contradiction. Pro wrestling heroes compete as representatives of the fans and generally attempt to compete based on rules that have been communally agreed on by the wrestlers. However, the villainous wrestler almost always breaks that communal bond during the match behind the referee's back. As a hero, Foley balances his desire for community with the individualistic nature of his job.

Finally, Mick Foley represents one of the most troubling aspects of American culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in defining our own heroism: the paradox between our ideology being built on the toppling of the oppressive force of the ruling class by the underdog with our own country's becoming the major power in the world. As with the popular narrative of American history, Foley's rise to stardom involved a struggle through adversity.

Traditionally, when the WWE groomed potential heroes for their champion position, the characters built their momentum through victories. Foley, in contrast, was brought into the company after losing several top-level matches in WCW. In the period between his WWE debut in March 1996 and his winning the title in December 1998, Foley had won only twelve of his twenty-eight WWE pay-per-view matches. In interviews outside the WWE narrative, even Foley questioned whether his character was eligible for hero status. Foley told Inskeep (2000) that, when he found out he would be winning the championship, he tried to talk the WWE out of it. "I was like, 'What? Are you kidding? Me? I'm not a, you know, championship guy. I'm the guy who always, you know, comes up a little bit short." Fans bought into this underdog story for both Foley the character and Foley the performer, as many believed he would never win the championship. For instance, fan Epstein writes of Foley's winning the world championship that "hard work paid off for Mr. Foley. Congratulations, you deserve it!"

The writers often positioned Foley as innocent, a character that Leverette (2003: 63) writes "becomes the symbol of the child in all of us." Foley's narrative as the underdog builds on the rich history of the underdog athlete in professional sports and mythology that Klapp (1962: 30) references. This underdog status is emphasized in the rhetoric of Inskeep (2000), who says, "Foley hung on for years and developed a following. The more body parts he lost, the more fans he gained." Inskeep goes on to note that Foley, a Civil War buff, compares himself to Robert E. Lee, who was "really glorious in defeat." Foley's tie to Lee and the South is revealing, as Warren (1972: xxi) writes that Lee became even more of a hero through failure in the Civil War myth than if the South had won the war.

Likewise, as Foley lost more matches, fans began to identify with his plight and respected his dignity in defeat. For instance, in 1998, before Foley had reached the world champion status, fans started an online rally to support Foley for the Time Man of the Year Award. Foley ended up getting tremendous online support, garnering more than 50 percent of the vote at one point. However, Time did not accept the fans' recommendations in their final choices for Man of the Year, which Foley fan Epstein called "a despicable act."

Considering Foley an underdog hero is another paradox in his narrative, however, as he is also one of the top wrestlers in the WWE. Foley's underdog status becomes compromised by his success, just as perceptions of the United States as an underestimated nation conflicted with its rise as the major international power. One way in which American culture tends to continually perpetuate the underdog myth is through individual stories of rising through adversity. In Foley's case, his character attempted to overcome his loss of "underdog" status by continuing to be an innocent and honest force in a corrupt system.

In his return to the ring after four years away from wrestling, for instance, Foley was positioned much as Atticus Finch was in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Foley, like Finch, was a man with a great reputation who only agreed to use his abilities again when there was no other choice, as Finch uses his marksman abilities only when there is no alternative left. Foley returned to the ring only after months of heckling by young wrestler Randy Orton. He had lost a retirement match in 2000 and had taken a role as WWE Commissioner and occasional spokesperson, a role Foley (2005a) believes increased his overall character's popularity. Foley forsook the big payoff and the glamour of the lights of a return because he felt he could not go back on his promise that he would retire. Foley did not return to the ring, even after being beaten and spat upon, until he felt he had no other choice but to defend his honor and family against Orton's constant verbal assaults.

This reluctance to fight and this commitment to honesty showed great restraint on Foley's part. The writers attempted to cast Foley as an underdog in the narrative because he was a lone voice of honesty among several manipulative and opportunistic characters. Even this re-appropriation of the underdog is undermined by Foley's superior nature as a wrestling veteran. As with Atticus Finch, the fans know of Mick Foley's power and know that he can no longer be the underdog in the ring because he has already proven his superiority by winning the championship on multiple occasions.

Furthermore, Foley's guise as an innocent and honest force in the dangerous world of pro wrestling is undermined by the audience's knowledge of Foley's capacity for violence. Foley's mythology is an example of what Mazer (1990: 97) describes as wrestling's ability to dramatize the most basic violent urges repressed by socialization. Through his reputation as Cactus Jack and Mankind, Foley is perhaps the most violent wrestler to ever come through the WWE. Stone (1971: 59) posits that these contradictions are key components of all pro wrestling texts because the wrestling hero is depicted as someone who wants to overcome the uncompetitive spectacular element of a sport that is corrupting true competition but is, in reality, a part of that spectacle as well. This irony is very much at the heart of the current ambivalence regarding the depiction of the traditional masculine American hero and is particularly appropriate when using Foley as a case study.