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Never Trust a Snake WWF Wrestling as Masculine Melodrama See, your problem is that you’re looking at this as a wrestling battle —two guys getting into the ring together to see who’s the better athlete. But it goes so much deeper than that. Yes, wrestling’s involved . Yes, we’re going to pound each other’s flesh, slam each other’s bodies and hurt each other really bad. But there’s more at stake than just wrestling, my man. There’s a morality play. Randy Savage thinks he represents the light of righteousness. But, you know, it takes an awful lot of light to illuminate a dark kingdom.1 —Jake “The Snake” Roberts There are people who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque.2 —Roland Barthes Like World Wrestling Federation (WWF) superstar Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Roland Barthes saw wrestling as a “morality play,” a curious hybrid of sports and theater. For Barthes, wrestling was at once a “spectacle of excess,” evoking the pleasure of grandiloquent gestures and violent contact, and a lower form of tragedy, where issues of morality, ethics, and politics were staged. Wrestling enthusiasts have no interest in seeing a fair fight but rather hope for a satisfying restaging of the ageless struggle between the “perfect bastard” and the suffering hero.3 What wrestling offers its spectators, Barthes tells us, is a story of treachery and revenge, “the intolerable spectacle of powerlessness,” and the exhilaration of the hero’s victorious return from near-collapse. Wrestling, like conventional melodrama, externalizes emotion, mapping it onto the combatants ’ bodies and transforming their physical competition into a search 4 75 for moral order. Restraint or subtlety has little place in such a world. Everything that matters must be displayed, publicly, unambiguously, and unmercilessly. Barthes’s account focuses entirely upon the one-on-one match as an isolated event within which each gesture must be instantly legible apart from any larger context of expectations and associations: “One must always understand everything on the spot.”4 Barthes could not have predicted how this focus upon the discrete event or the isolated gesture would be transformed through the narrative mechanisms of television. On television, where wrestling comes with a cast of continuing characters , no single match is self-enclosed; rather, personal conflicts unfold across a number of fights, interviews, and enacted encounters. Television wrestling offers its viewers complexly plotted, ongoing narratives of professional ambition, personal suffering, friendship and alliance, betrayal, and reversal of fortune. Matches still offer their share of acrobatic spectacle , snake handling, fire eating, and colorful costumes. They are, as such, immediately accessible to the casual viewer, yet they reward the informed spectator for whom each body slam and double-arm suplex bears specific narrative consequences. A demand for closure is satisfied at the level of individual events, but those matches are always contained within a larger narrative trajectory which is itself fluid and open. The WWF broadcast provides us with multiple sources of identification, multiple protagonists locked in their own moral struggles against the forces of evil. The proliferation of champion titles—the WWF World Champion belt, the Million Dollar belt, the Tag Team champion belt, the Intercontinental champion belt—allows for multiple lines of narrative development, each centering around its own cluster of affiliations and antagonisms. The resolution of one title competition at a major event does little to stabilize the program universe, since there are always more belts to be won and lost, and in any case, each match can always be followed by a rematch that reopens old issues. Outcomes may be inconclusive because of count-outs or disqualifications, requiring future rematches . Accidents may result in surprising shifts in moral and paradigmatic alignment. Good guys betray their comrades and form uneasy alliances with the forces of evil; rule-breakers undergo redemption after suffering crushing defeats. The economic rationale for this constant “build-up” and deferral of narrative interests is obvious. The WWF knows how to use its five weekly television series and its glossy monthly magazine to ensure sub76 | Never Trust a Snake scription to its four annual pay-per-view specials.5 Enigmas are raised during the free broadcasts that will be resolved only for a paying audience . Much of the weekly broadcast consists of interviews with the wrestlers about their forthcoming...


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