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


Pro wrestling is an appropriate avenue for researching broader themes in American culture because wrestling allows its fans a close involvement in writing and defining the text. Through the instant feedback available in wrestling shows, fans can directly influence the pacing of a show and can rewrite its meaning. Those viewing televised wrestling can mediate its meaning through their own interpretation of wrestling's often ambiguous messages and through their viewing patterns, around which the shows are written. Promoters and performers alter their fictional characters to change the character's meaning, similar to how musicians such as Prince, Pat Boone, and David Bowie "redefine" themselves for a new generation.

Meanwhile, fans alter fictional characters through their perceptions and interpretations, similar to the ways that another liminal star, Elvis Presley, has been appropriated to represent a variety of American values. As Doss (1999: 259) concludes in her study of Elvis, "Elvis, after all, is an American emblem, and debates and conflicts over who Elvis is and what he means are comparable to the debates and conflicts over what America is and what America means." Rodman (1996: 1) writes that Elvis surfaces "in ways that defy common-sense notions of how dead stars are supposed to behave," popping up not only in for-profit creations but in very personal ways in fans' lives--such as my editor at the Ohio County Times-News newspaper in Hartford, Ky., who jokingly refers to his former "Skinny Elvis" days and his current "Fat Elvis" days, in which Elvis' personal trajectory becomes a metaphor for my editor's own aging and physical change.

Foley's image remains an evolving wrestling text because of his continued presence in the WWE. After a brief feud with Randy Orton in 2004, Foley signed a regular contract by the end of 2005, once again wrestling on pay-per-views and competing as a member of the RAW roster on occasion. He has wrestled as both face (hero) and heel (villain) since his return but retains a strong fan following, based not just on Foley's character history but also on the strong verbal and physical performances of Foley the performer.

When scholars are personally invested in the area they study (and when are we not, in one way or another?), they tend to view their particular niche as singular in its importance, somehow unique when compared to other, similar phenomena. The editors of this book warned me when working on this chapter not to ensnare myself in this common academic trap. After all, almost all forms of popular culture rely on the interpretation of fans to construct any collective meaning if one does indeed exist. As Sandvoss (2005: 96, 121) writes, all fans internalize their fandom and see the object of their fandom "as part of the self" and thus fans read everything from this self-reflective lens.

With this qualification in mind, however, I would argue that pro wrestling is even more directly involved in the negotiation of meaning in its relationship with fans than many other texts because of the nature of a pro wrestling show--in its necessity for a more overt communal definition of what is happening. While a legitimate sports competition can take place without the need of an audience, pro wrestling defines itself as an exhibition which needs an audience.

But, because that audience almost unequivocally knows that the athletic performances are staged, the live audience is playing a role as well, and thus the performers in the ring need the fans to perform the role of sports fans as well in order to complete the overall spectacle. Wrestling promoters and performers constantly adjust their performances based on the performative cues of the live audience, and the nature of wrestling's weekly live events make incorporating audience feedback in the television programs and adjusting storylines based on the perceived communal audience reaction more instantaneous than in most other forms of fictional popular culture, where taping schedules are often months ahead of their airing.

Pro wrestling shows are then particularly rewarding texts in which to study the ways in which its characters and narratives reflect values and conflicts in American culture, as this case study of Foley has demonstrated.

And, while these texts may not be wholly unique in this capacity, they do open themselves up to a particular polysemic reading because of the spectacular nature of wrestling's visual performances that invite readers to bring their own experiences into their interpretations of what is happening the mythic characters in the ring. Pro wrestling simultaneously manufactures mythic events on a weekly basis while also presenting myriad potential readings of characters and performances. Thus, pro wrestling shows are popular texts through which one can examine broader issues in contemporary and historic American culture and gain a better understanding of the negotiations between producer and the consumers/performers, the fans, that happen on a weekly basis.

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On July 30, 2007 at 8:40 PM, Scott Ellington said:

Thanks! for this panoramic synopsis that opens a great many more questions than it closes, especially with regard to heroic marginality; the plasticity of heroes (and their fans).


Scott, thanks for the positive comments. I did hope to provide a view of the way academia and critics have looked at wrestling and the ways in which that is challenged by figures by Foley, but it is always nice to be able to facilitate or start conversations than it is to end them. As great as it sounds to be the definitive expert, I think we all agree that the whole idea of a definitive expert is quite troubled...

On July 31, 2007 at 1:26 PM, Scott Ellington said:

I've been wondering where in the history of live theater a camera has been placed at the back of the stage to record the integrated flow of audience participation with the interaction of principle actors/antagonists. Thanks for pointing my attention in a very correct direction.


Scott, fascinating. I am just finishing up my research on wrestling fandom and modes of engagement with the text, based on my ethnographic work of live events, which is referenced in the essay I posted here this week. Let me know if you would like me to send it your way.

On July 31, 2007 at 6:05 PM, Scott Ellington said:

Absolutely! Contact informtation via the appropriate link.