Earlier this year I taught T.S. Eliot’s poetry to my college students in the morning and attended WWE’s Monday Night Raw that night. I enjoyed both. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of WWE wrestling, but my 12-year-old daughter loves it, and I have taken her to some of the big WWE events in Los Angeles and San Diego, including Summer Slam and several Monday Night Raw shows. I have also gone with her to meet some many of the WWE superstars, including her favorite wrestler, John Cena, at special access events before the shows.
I am writing not as a fan defending the WWE, but as an interested outsider trying to explain certain aspects of its appeal. I’m writing more for people who don’t like WWE than for people who do. Fans don’t think WWE needs any defense.
The most common criticism of WWE wrestling that I hear from its detractors is that it’s “fake.” The athleticism is certainly not fake. I have watched wrestlers climb high up on enormous ladders and then dive into the air, doing several flips on their way down to the mat to pin an opponent. I have watched them lift 300-pound wrestlers off the mat and toss them out of the ring. There are some fake elements to what they do. The seemingly brutal punches they land on their foes, for instance, are not as violent as they are meant to look. But these are truly gifted athletes who have not only wrestling skills, but also tremendous strength and impressive gymnastic abilities.
WWE is not only about wrestling matches. It’s about stories. Characters are created, and storylines are constructed that can be carried out for months or years. The major wrestlers have their own theme songs to which they strut out from backstage to the ring, wearing familiar costumes and sometimes accompanied by loud fireworks and gigantic video images. Rivalries are stoked for months leading up to big events such as the annual WrestleMania.
Do these created personas mean the wrestlers are not “real”? Fans, I believe, respond to the real person and also to the created character. To me, it is similar to how movie fans think of John Wayne. Was he real, or fake? He wasn’t really a cowboy. He was an actor. But when people compare someone to John Wayne, aren’t they usually talking about a composite of the characters he played rather than the real individual who portrayed them? Wrestling heroes are like that. They are a combination of made-up characters and real people, just as the shows are a mixture of reality and drama.
Events such as Monday Night Raw are dramas as much as sporting events. One twenty-something fan I sat next to called WWE a “soap opera for men.” New rivalries emerge, alliances are formed and broken, wagers are made, threats are delivered. Personas of individual wrestlers can change over the years, from evil to good and back again. Shows end on cliffhangers, and fans can’t wait to see what will happen next.
Millions of fans tune in to watch WWE each week, and around 60,000 of them fill the stadium for the biggest event of the year, WrestleMania. Although I don’t intend to keep watching if my daughter loses interest, I at least now have a better understanding than I used to about why some people find it appealing.