- The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations, and Mexican National Identity, and: Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America, and: Slaphappy: Pride, Prejudice, and Professional Wrestling
There was a time when real scholars did not write about professional wrestling. After all, professional wrestling was, and is, notoriously fraudulent, both a fake fight and a spectacularly superficial performance practice that straddles a pop culture gray zone between globalized, mediatized entertainment and a more localized, carnivalesque con game. Its endless recycling of the grandiose claims of the announcers, wrestlers, and fans, and of the conflict between hero and villain, make its social meanings seem obvious, undemanding, and unworthy of scholarly analysis. Yet, increasingly, academics from a wide range of disciplines have turned to professional wrestling as a way of digging more deeply into the populist strata of cultural experience. For my part, it's been 20 years since I was first encouraged by Richard Schechner to leave my medieval theatre studies to one side for a while and, instead of spending my days in the library, to sit ringside at Gleason's Arena, watching Johnny Rodz initiate starry eyed, muscle-bound [End Page 184] hopefuls into the (then) secretive and (still somehow) magical world of professional wrestling (see Mazer 1990).
The books under review here represent three distinctive corners of the squared circle of the emerging literature on professional wrestling:1 the anthropological, the historical, and the journalistic. Heather Levi's meticulous investigation into lucha libre's2 dynamic engagement with Mexican social history and contemporary politics is informed by her experiences both in and out of the ring. Scott M. Beekman fills his history of American wrestling with a mass of archival detail and anecdote. And Thomas Hackett spins his tale from the perspective of the prurient and the puritanical to expose the fakery, injuries, degradation, and corruption he finds by taking to the (low) road with wrestlers and their fans.
Of these, only Levi's lucid working through of her fascination with lucha libre fully manages to temper enthusiasm with skeptical inquiry. Drawn into the ring as a participant ethnographer, she nonetheless resists getting sucked into wrestling's hyperbole, the infectious rhetorical delirium that, without being so meaningful in itself, is central to wrestling's production of theatrical and social meanings. The World of Lucha Libre begins with the story of Superbarrio—the luchador (wrestler) who, in 1987, briefly stood as a candidate for President of Mexico and then served as emblem and spokesman for left-wing opposition to the corruption of the ruling party. Levi asks,
[…] why did it make sense for grassroots activists in the mid-1980s to choose a professional wrestler (or at any rate, someone dressed as a professional wrestler) as their representative? Why, in particular, did it make sense for members of the left-wing opposition to see professional wrestling as a source of symbolic legitimation?(xiii)
For Levi, the possible answers to these questions are to be found in "the capacity of lucha libre to invoke a series of connections between sometimes contradictory domains: rural and urban, tradition and modernity, ritual and parody, machismo and feminism, politics and spectacle" (xiii). The grace of her book can be seen in the parenthetical statement above; she acknowledges that Superbarrio's status as a wrestler itself might be in question but also allows for the possibility that this additional uncertainty might contribute to (rather than detract from) the significance of his performance.
Levi recognizes lucha libre as "a practice of staging contradictions" (xiii). The richness of lucha libre is that, like US wrestling, it sits uneasily but also productively in a stage of "category crisis" (8). The fix in the fight makes it not quite sport, not...