- The Wrestler
The blistering sound of the eighties metal band Quiet Riot hits your ears as the opening montage of The Wrestler unfolds. At the same time the audience is visually treated to a series of newsclippings, highlighting the wrestling career of “Randy the Ram” Robinson, played by the Oscar-nominated Mickey Rourke. These clippings emphasize the former greatness of Randy. The sequence ends with scrolling newspaper clippings and a narration of Randy the Ram’s last match against the Ayatollah.
The film then jumps to the present day, twenty years later. Randy is still wrestling but has now fallen to the bottom of the wrestling hierarchy. He now wrestles no-name characters in small arenas for little pay. The rest of the film follows his attempted return to the pinnacle of wrestling, a re-match against the Ayatollah, for a twentieth anniversary show. Framing The Wrestler between Randy the Ram’s two matches with the Ayatollah sets the stage for a traditional narrative where an athlete falls from grace only to pick himself up and rise to the top once again. However, structuring the movie in this manner also communicates larger narratives about race, gender, and the nation. [End Page 139]
The Wrestler was released in 2008. Since the events of September 11, 2001, the United States has struggled with its relationships with Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Iraq. Placing the film in this context as well as Randy’s symbolic matches against the evil Ayatollah, help situate Randy as an embodiment of American nationalism. Beyond this symbolism there are more overt signs of nationalism. For one there is an abundance of U.S. flags that appear in shots with Randy: above the ring in each of his bouts, in the locker room, in his van, above his bed, in the hallway of his trailer, and even in the bar he visits. The frequency of these flags constructs a clear connection between Randy and U.S. nationalism.
According to Kyle Kusz, the tragedy of September 11 has led to a resurgence of a white cultural nationalism. This movement is personified through the body of a white male that is characterized as having traditional “American” values and is devoid of any social or economic privilege, a form of nationalism seemingly absent of any direct connections to race.1 The celebration of men who represent values such as individualism or meritocracy is seen as an important return to traditional American values that have eroded due to the “politically correct” orientation of our current society.2 White men such as Randy the Ram then appear to be an embodiment of U.S. nationalism not because of their gender or race but because of the characteristics they display.
In this way, Randy’s connection to narratives of white masculinity is carefully masked. From the beginning of the film the audience is made aware that Randy is a man without any economic or societal privileges. He is forced to sleep in his van because he is behind on the rent for his trailer. He works at a grocery store where his short, surly manager emasculates him. Before his first match the audience learns there are societal barriers preventing men like Randy from getting ahead.
In discussing the choreography of the match Randy mentions to his opponent that advancement in wrestling is not about ability, it’s about politics. “It is the ones with the Cadillacs that run the show,” according to Randy. It then becomes apparent that in the world of wrestling, Randy does not control his own fate. Adopting the proper values and working hard are no longer a means for success. This narrative suggests discourses of the politics of white, male backlash, in the 1980s and 1990s, when policies such as affirmative action and movements towards multiculturalism created the fear that white males would be at a disadvantage in everyday life.3 In other words, characters such as Randy have lost an opportunity to live in an America where all that matters is hard work. What is obscured in this narrative is...