April’s WWE Extreme Rules pay-per-view event featured a “Kiss Me Arse” match between Sheamus and Dolph Ziggler. A relatively minor interlude between the pre-show warmup and the main event, lasting only two minutes longer than the Divas (women’s) match which is traditionally always the shortest of the night, it was designed as a piece of fluff to keep the crowd’s attention until the real action happened. As the name suggests, the rules of this particular match prescribe that the loser must kiss the winner’s ass.
Dolph Ziggler, a tanned bleach-blond, conquered the pale Irish Sheamus and proceeded to chase him around the ring with his ass exposed while Sheamus made a show of pure and abject horror. Finally, in a pretty predictable turnaround Sheamus ignored the rules of the match and forced Ziggler’s face against his ass. The match itself was relatively boring compared to the five minutes in which Sheamus and then Ziggler in turn hurled themselves around the ring dry-heaving at the prospect of putting their mouths where their hands had just been during the match. After nine minutes of sweaty muscle-on-muscle action, both had to perform homosexual panic as if they hadn’t just been pressed against each other’s bodies in any number of compromising positions.
The Kiss Me Arse match beautifully dramatizes one of the most enchanting things about mainstream pro wrestling: both the wrestlers and the audience must negotiate the close proximity of male bodies in a highly performative event in a way that both plays on but leaves normative masculinity (more or less) intact. It’s a subtle dance, especially in a space in which the male body is so fetishistically focused on.
Like many women, I suspect, I begrudgingly began to watch pro wrestling because my boyfriend does.* Before that, the only thing I knew about wrestling was that The Rock—featured on a poster on my elementary school cafeteria wall—got his start in the erstwhile WWF before transitioning to action movies. Before I began to watch in earnest, I dismissed pro wrestling for many of the standard reasons: it’s sexist and racist, female wrestlers are both marginalized and subject to the male gaze, the narrative moments are both contrived and inconsistent, and nationalism and violence are fetishized for easy pops.
And these things are true on the surface. But the point is that wrestling is all surface, all performance, all glitz. The entire production is so self-consciously performed that even the more unsavory aspects of its operation become caricatures of themselves. It’s difficult to read Ziggler and Sheamus’s homosexual panic as anything other than a cheeky jab at the undisguised homoeroticism of the wrestling enterprise itself—as, that is, a reminder to the viewer that the pleasure of the spectacle is precisely the sweaty grind of two (or more) muscular beefcakes.
Masculinity occupies a strange position as the golden calf of the pro wrestling world. Both the privileged fetish and the false god of the ring, it must continually be set up as a sacred image only to be spectacularly revealed as empty. This is not to say that an empty masculinity is by necessity barren or vapid. In fact, in the hands of the WWE’s stable of talent masculinity becomes a deeply captivating and seductive exhibition, but one that is nevertheless produced insistently on the surface as image, persona and drama.
There is no such thing as essence in the world of wrestling.
In the 90s when academic queer theory was just beginning to codify itself, the drag queen held a privileged position in the canon for the way she revealed the non-essential and performative aspects of gender. We’ve talked about this before at Acro. Judith Butler, the fairy godmother of queer theory, suggests that the drag queen is a particularly apt way to think about “gender performativity” and citationality precisely because she proves that gender has no essential tie to bodies or body parts but is rather continually reproduced in repetitive acts of performance and language (hailing someone as “she,” for instance).
I find this both compelling and a little gross. Historically, queer theory has had a way of objectifying drag queens and trans* people in order to prove theoretical points about gender as if drag performance and trans* identity were a theoretical rather than deeply personal identity. Luckily, however, the same point about gender performativity can be made using any number of figures—there is nothing theoretically essential about the drag queen, although early queer theory paradoxically seemed to treat her as such. Since the 90s, the canon has expanded to include drag kings and other forms of what Jack Halberstam calls “female masculinity,” meant to reveal perverse and prosthetic aspects of normative masculinity.
Enter pro-wrestling. Masculinity is as much a prop in the wrestling ring as it is on the floor of a drag king show. An image to be lovingly lambasted and playfully ribbed by friends who love you for your flaws.
Wrestling is a show. Devoted to neither narrative continuity nor pure athletic exhibition, it has too much plotting to be a sport and not enough control to be a dance. While every wrestler in the promotion is undoubtedly a talented athlete, the true mark of success in the WWE is the ability to captivate crowds with one’s persona. Impressive moves mean very little if the crowd isn’t invested in the outcome of a match. Whether the audience loves a wrestler or loves to hate him, charisma is paramount.
Beyond the pleasure of watching talented and buff men dance around each other in twenty minutes of choreographed violence, one of the joys of the WWE spectacle is the unabashed absurdity of the narratives and characters. There are good guys (faces) and bad guys (heels) which change sides as the match-ups dictate, and the heels seem always to be trying to take over the world one wrestling match at a time. The personas are playful and occasionally compelling, but their job is to get the crowd interested. Before he became the iconic America-loving face, for example, one of John Cena’s early personas was as an evil rapper playing on levels of gender and race that eventually disappeared as his persona became more vanilla.
The point here is that the playfulness with which these wrestlers negotiate performance, masculinity and race is precisely the thing that makes them so compelling. Pro wrestling is a special space in which more or less normative audiences get the chance to enjoy the kind of play with masculinity that is thought to only exist in queer spaces. Violence might provide a plausible cover for the obvious queerness investing the wrestling ring, but it cannot erase the pleasure we get from watching beefcakes simper and strut.
Ric Flair, a wildly popular heel for over four decades, is a perfect example of the ways in which masculinity is revealed as a performance in the very moment of its exaltation. After sustaining a back injury in a plane crash in the 70s, Flair modified his persona and style to accommodate a lower-impact performance. Known for talking big game while avoiding actual time in the ring, Flair carried the crowd’s affection almost exclusively on the power of his charismatic persona.
Almost disturbingly blond, he was known for showing up to the ring in wildly bejeweled, custom-made robes to throw shade at his opponent before ducking out again. From brawler to “chicken-shit heel” (a technical term), and macho even in feathers and rhinestones, Flair is quintessential WWE masculinity.
In a famous promo spot, Flair performs this masculinity as only a pro wrestler could: aggressive but cheeky, excessive yet charming, abbreviated with energetic Woos! “Last year,” he begins, “I spent more money on spilt liquor in bars from one side of this world to the other than you make. You’re talkin’ to the Rolex wearin’, diamond ring wearin’, kiss-stealin’, wheelin’ dealin’, limousine ridin’, jet flyin’ son of a gun.”
Between the Rolex and the gun I count five different phallic symbols in a single sentence. The sheer number of times Flair identifies himself with the phallus reveals both his masculinity and the phallus itself as effects of performance. It’s not quite that he’s compensating for something—since to compensate is to contain a hidden depth that in the case of pro wrestling does not exist—but rather that he is reveling in the empty flatness of his persona through which the phallus becomes another prop in the performance rather than a core quality in need of protection.
The queerness of Flair’s performance is, in many ways, what has sustained his popularity over the decades. A trend I have noticed in my relatively short time watching wrestling is that performers with normative masculinity are far less beloved than those who embrace their flamboyance. John Cena, for instance, has a strikingly normative persona—macho, nationalistic, sporting jean shorts (the straightest of all sartorial options) and a dull smirk—that is also notoriously boring. Consistently booed by audiences despite playing the good guy, he is simply too normal to incite good will. Young children are the only demographic that like him, perhaps because he has the feel of a superhero, but his earnestness and apparent lack of ironic distance seem to rub adult audiences the wrong way.
Queerness seems to be the standard condition of the wrestling world. Even lady’s man personas such as The Rock’s are a little bit queer. His act is insolent and precious, and his famous raised eyebrow expresses a brand of masculinity that cannot take itself seriously.
The WWE offers a popular space in which queerness can be embraced and masculinity can be enjoyed as a performance. It is a space in which straight boys can take pleasure in watching sweaty men tussle and prance. It is a space in which violence is not provoked by the threat of queerness but is, in fact, the condition for queer performance itself.
*A boyfriend whose vast body of knowledge about wrestling, it should be said, I have to thank for making this piece possible.