Soaps between the Ropes:
The Rebirth of Professional Wrestling
Don't look now, but the most popular programming on cable television is professional wrestling. But this isn't your father's pro wrestling, with big sweaty good guys pitted against big hairy bad guys in a largely wholesome (if somewhat violent) exhibition.
WCW's Bill Goldberg, a former NFL linebacker, puts the hurt on an opponent. Goldberg is one of the new superstars of pro wrestling.
Today's grapplers, pumped up to implausible levels, are doing everything from grabbing their crotches and giving the finger to partaking in simulated sex and Satan worship. Pro wrestling, now a billion-dollar business, is huge at America's high schools, colleges, and universities.
Wrestling's popularity is booming. It's been described as "soap operas for guys", and it's not just for trailer trash anymore. The mid-1980s saw the rise of "Hulkamania" and NBC's weekly Saturday Night's Main Event, and kids that grew up cheering for guys like Hulk Hogan and booing The Iron Sheik are rediscovering the joys of wrestling — and in some cases passing them along to their own children.
"It appeals to the lowest common denominator... It's a comic book and soap opera all rolled into one. It also doesn't hurt that they've added a few hot chicks."
The three major leagues of pro wrestling are the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and the upstart, somewhat lower budget Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). They are all televised several times a week on cable, in addition to regular pay-per-view events.
According to a recent USA Today cover story, one potential risk of the rebirth of pro wrestling in its newest form is not just the potential increase in back yard wrestling injuries... it's the mimicking of sexual gestures and blue language that kids see on TV wrestling.
High school teacher and wrestling fan Raymond Butler regularly comes in contact with some of pro wrestling's biggest fans: high school boys. He says that while the kids do copy some of the moves they see in the ring, they don't go overboard. "I don't see them jumping off tables or anything."
Wrestling as Theater
In fact, today's wrestling shows don't seem to be so much about wrestling as theatre. The athletes don't just enter the ring and take care of business; they grab the mike and whip up the fans with outrageous taunts and insults.
"It appeals to the lowest common denominator," Butler says with sheepish pride. "It's a comic book and soap opera all rolled into one." Butler, 28, isn't the stereotypical pro wrestling fan, but he is part of the new breed of rasslin' devotees. The well-educated teacher says he enjoys the story lines and athleticism and recently got together with friends for a "Wrestlemania" viewing party.
"People accept it for what it is and know it's fixed. Also, it doesn't hurt that they've added a few hot chicks."
Sex is now a much larger part of the formula as well. Sable, the WWF women's champion and prototypical blond bombshell, recently posed nude for Playboy. Vince McMahon, owner of the WWF, knows well that sex and violence will sell his product.
Pushing the Envelope
McMahon told USA Today, "We push the envelope, and then we pull back. But we're not killing anyone. We're not maiming anyone. Do we slug each other with steel chairs? Yes. Do we think it should be copied? I don't advocate anyone picking up a chair and slugging anyone.
"I don't advocate anyone picking up an M-16 like Arnold Schwarzenegger does in his movies, either."
Wrestling shows are rated TV-14. Wrestling officials claim that they are aimed at 18 to 34 year olds but admit that adolescents, pre-teens, and teens make up much of the viewing audience.
Indiana University and the TV program Inside Edition recently surveyed 50 episodes of USA Network's Monday night fixture WWF Raw between January 1998 and February 1999. Researchers found 1,658 instances of crotch grabbing, 128 simulated sexual activities, 157 flippings of the finger, 47 instances of simulated satanic activity, and 42 cases of simulated drug use.
Given its high TV ratings and rabid fans, pro wrestling is not likely to disappear any time soon, despite questions of its family value.