America’s latest cultural obsession lies in the wrestling ring, where the likes of Sting, Triple H and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin have become testosterone-amped heroes for the young and old alike.
No longer a trailer-park fixation, wrestling has moved far beyond its salad days when veteran pitchman Gordon Soley hawked his bouts on the local airways featuring a stable of finger-shaking, carnivalesque goons.
With the advent of cable TV, the pseudo-sport has evolved into a curious amalgam of soap-opera drama and rock-concert spectacle, a guilty pleasure among city-dwellers and suburbanites.
“You guys get ratings that I couldn’t get if I had Monica Lewinsky and the pope on the show,” quipped “Politically Incorrect” host Bill Maher during a recent episode that featured old-school grappler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and three other guests from wrestling’s upper crust.
The name-calling, mat-pounding competitors, experts at staged gymnastics of pantomimed violence, also bring in the big-name sponsors.
The World Wrestling Federation (WWF), which jockeys with its industry competitor, World Championship Wrestling (WCW), recently set television-advertising sales records, logging a 230 percent increase in gross sales over the same period in 1998.
Even a recent protest over excessive wrestling violence, launched by the Parents Television Council in Los Angeles, did little to squelch the interest of advertisers. While Coke pulled its ads for the soft drink Surge, those slots in WWF shows were resold to other sponsors at even higher rates, the WWF said.
Literature, music and fashion also have seized upon wrestling’s enormous cross-cultural popularity. The rewards have been substantial.
A book by wrestler Mick Foley a garish hulk called “Mankind” who sports a Goth-like black mask and who lost an ear during one particularly brutal match in Germany debuted at No. 3 on the New York Times best-seller list last month.
A compilation CD of the all-important theme songs wrestling superstars use to enter the ring rose as high as No. 2 on a Billboard magazine music chart.
Even wrestler-inspired apparel remember the shredded Hulk Hogan shirts a few years back continues to sell briskly today.
For those who want to better understand wrestling’s allure, “don’t watch the show, watch the advertising,” urges Jim Twitchell, a University of Florida professor and author of “Preposterous Violence: Fables of Aggression in Modern Culture.”
“The reason these shows are all over the TV airways is not because they draw a huge audience, but because they get an absolutely perfect audience of males,” he said. “In other words, it’s a sort of Valhalla for advertisers when they can get an all-female audience or all-male audience or a teen audience or anything that is a pure catch. Then your ad dollars are not being wasted.”
Mr. Twitchell, a professor of English for 20 years, compares the story lines created for professional wrestlers to the “penny dreadfuls” or “bloody pulps” of the Dickens era. Those books, filled with violence and sold chapter by chapter on street corners for a penny, were written for males, who passed them around until they were in tatters.
“The genre is soap operas, and they have these little crescendo stories leading up to a climax of violence,” Mr. Twitchell said of wrestling today. “The story line is sophisticated, and I think it’s getting more than its 15 minutes because it really is well done.”
Doug Martin, a native of Alabama and a wrestling fan for years, says its appeal hearkens back to the “almost paranormal inversion that occurred with Elvis.”
Before Presley, people had looked to the upper classes for their entertainment and their cultural cues. “With Elvis, you had your first white-trash god and suddenly, low culture become cool,” he said. Today, with the “blandness” of the American culture because of television and mass media, “there is a constant search for new subcultures to enliven our entertainment diet.”
Wrestling fills that void nicely, and its broad appeal is not unlike the intense popularity of NASCAR, he said.
The sheer spectacle of wrestling, the characters, the lights, the chintzy drama, appeals not only to blue-collar fans, but to yuppies as well. There is a growing audience of younger fans who incessantly watch cable programs like “WWF Raw” and “WCW Monday Nitro.”
That has many educators concerned that students who like wrestling and they make up a substantial portion of the viewing audience may transfer the behavior they see glorified in the ring to the way they treat their friends and classmates, said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in West Lake Village, Calif.
“My take is, wrestling whether perceived as imagined or real has in fact had a dramatic effect on young people across the country,” he said. “The images that are seen on the television screen provide an example for a number of youngsters in terms of the way to solve problems.”
In the past few weeks, Mr. Stephens visited 19 schools and the topic of wrestling came up with at least half of the administrators.
“I’ve been working in the school-safety area for 16 years and it’s been within the last year and a half that the impact of professional wrestling, the WWF in particular, has begun to have a much greater level of concern with school officials around the country,” he said.
Some schools, fearing a child could be injured seriously, have created behavior codes that bar sparring or WWF-type wrestling moves. In October, about 60 students at Niskayuna High School in Albany, N.Y., were arrested for their roles as part of a crowd that cheered on two other students at a grudge fight at a neighborhood park.
Those students formed what was described as a human boxing ring for their classmates, who were ready to rumble. One of the students sustained a broken nose.
In April, the principal of Pleasant Grove Elementary in Indiana’s Johnson County banned all professional wrestling apparel, accessories and maneuvers at his suburban school after teachers complained of students gesturing in class and trying out their big-time wrestling moves during recess.
Michael Cunningham, a professor of social psychology at the University of Louisville and the father of two sons, said he is concerned that adolescents may be inappropriately influenced by wrestling.
“We’re a culture that likes acting out,” he said. “Like anything else, any extreme sport can be dangerous when practiced without proper respect. What people don’t always recognize is that those moves are scripted.”
Some young people are able to recognize the distinction between entertainment in wrestling and what is permissible behavior in specific locations and real life, he said. For others, “the lines blur.”
“I’m a little worried that adolescent males say that’s the way males can act,” he added. “Given the fact that attractive young females are hanging on these [wrestlers], it might convey to teen-agers that this is the way to get women to like you.”