When it comes to masculinity, America has feelings. We males are supposed to be aggressive yet easygoing, equally adept with a slap on the back or a punch to the kidney. We should like large quantities of meat, as well as drinks that double as drain cleaner. We must be hairy of head and voluminous of bicep. American culture communicates these requirements in many ways—Hollywood, men’s magazines, gym teachers—but perhaps no vehicle is more effective than that hallmark of pay-per-view: pro wrestling.
This summer, that I might finally attain masculinity, I attended my first pro wrestling event, “The Best in the World” hosted by Ring of Honor. As I understand it, ROH is the Off-Broadway of the professional wrestling scene. It’s for those who find the WWE “too commercial” and desire more artistic integrity in how men in speedos fake-punch each other.
(A note on nomenclature: you may have heard of the WWF. In fact, if you were me, you may have subscribed to their magazine in 1992. As it turns out, WWF and WWE are the same thing. A decade ago, the World Wrestling Federation was sued by the World Wildlife Fund over the acronym. Accordingly, wrestling-WWF changed its name to WWE both to resolve the lawsuit and to stay ahead of panda-WWF in the phonebook.)
ROH holds its New York events at Terminal 5, a warehouse turned temple of manliness. The central altar, the wrestling ring, rises from the middle of the floor. Heavily padded and triply roped, it’s designed to contain the physiokinetic sermons that will occupy the evening. Around the ring are the pews, metal folding chairs arranged in concentric squares. There sit the faithful, veteran and novitiate alike, all seeking guidance from very large men in very small swimwear.
Every temple has a dress code, and ROH is no exception. Most of the audience wears black shirts with messages in a large white font. These messages include the admonitory (“There Can Be Only One”), the imperative (“You Gotta Beat the Man”), and even the dada (“Hot Tub Watch Rinse Repeat”). I was not of aware of this requirement, so the only text on my shirt was “Xanadu: National Tour.”
Soon enough, the lights go dark, the audience falls silent, and a video introduces the wrestlers. The dialogue and delivery are as you would find in Star Wars prequels. Imagine the following spoken without any inflection: “We are going belt to belt,” or “I don’t care about winning I care about justice,” or “There will be blood on the hands of the red dragons as we kick the addiction.”
Once the crowd is sufficiently riled, the wrestlers parade down the aisle toward the ring, and the audience leaps to its feet. (As with weddings or Rocky Horror, somehow everyone knows when to stand up and sit down.) The competitors enter the ring, and the matches commence.
Professional wrestling trades in archetypes, and with each match, there are several roles to fill. The “heel” is the villain, the wrestler whom the audience wants to lose. The “face” is the hero, the wrestler whose merchandise the audience wants to buy. The categories are clear. However, the mapping of category to wrestler isn’t always as you’d expect.
Consider Dalton Castle, a wrestler who describes himself as “unique, different, and ostentatious” (the least subtle signifiers since the green carnation) and whose attire is Liberace meets Lycra. Mr. Castle is accompanied by literal fan boys who, clad only in Mardi Gras masks and sparkly loincloths, use peacock-feather fans to frame him whenever he enters or exits the ring.
In the other corner stands Silas Young, a burly, bemulleted figure who bills himself as “The Last Real Man.” With a glare in his eyes and a weather-beaten physique, he looks like someone who knows both how to crush your skull and refinish your deck.
In this battle of man vs. mince, I assumed that Silas Young would be the face. For isn’t he closer to what the audience aspires to be? However, they cheered for Dalton Castle, glittery boots and all. Why? My theory is as follows:
When identifying the heel, audiences use the shuffleboard approach to masculinity: being either too masculine or insufficiently masculine is a liability. However, too-masculine is the greater offense because it puts the audience’s own manliness in question. When the audience watches “the last real man,” his sobriquet implies that the audience is less-than and alienates them. Thus, he becomes the heel.
To summarize: in wrestling, as in location-based dating, it’s okay to be masc, but don’t be a dick about it.
For an activity that involves oiled men in barely-there underwear throwing themselves atop one another, pro wrestling leagues and their audiences try very hard to convince one another that nothing about the situation is gay. The best defense, of course, is being strongly offensive, so the crowd adopts chants like “Suck his dick,” each iteration punctuated by a v-shaped slap to the pelvis, or “Fuck off and be gay,” a song that was cut from Candide.
In fact, the wrestlers’ heterovirility is so unbridled that it requires a support staff to keep it under control. Here’s where the managers come in.
A manager is a former wrestler who, having aged out of the demands of professional wrestling (i.e. falling from an indeterminate height onto an indeterminate surface without dying), is now content to stand at the side of the ring and gesticulate. Each manager has a prop which they use in inverse proportion to its utility.
Consider one of the more successful managers: Truth Martini. (If the rule of naming your manager is favorite logical expression + favorite drink, mine would be Idempotent White Russian.) To inspire his wrestlers in moments of near-defeat, Mr. Martini holds up a book. You might think that, when a headlock is crushing your esophagus, oxygen would be more inspiring than literature. You would be wrong. Due to his successful book holding, Mr. Martini has collected a large stable of wrestlers, whom he calls the House of Truth. (Apparently, Mr. Martini has seen Paris is Burning.)
Though short in length, the matches are many in number. ROH mixes up one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three, and even three-for-all. (A three-for-all is where three wrestlers are in the ring at the same time, and they’re all attacking one another. Like a threesome, it seems like a good idea at the time, but then you never quite know who should be doing what or to whom.)
Now, match after match of high-octane manliness can be exhausting, so the evening’s pace is entrusted to two referees who do their best to keep the wrestlers in check. Each referee has a different method of interacting with his charges. The younger ref subscribes to Goethe’s Rules for Actors where every emotion corresponds to a specific gesture. For example, when angry, he waves his arms as if directing an aircraft. The older ref, on the other hand, is more into Strindberg-style naturalism. He’s also into food, so the audience calls him “fat pants” and whenever he starts a three count, they scream “twinkies” after each number.
Throughout each match, the referees gauge the crowd’s response and modulate the wrestlers’ actions accordingly. If the audience is getting prematurely excited, the referees will slow down the pace. If the audience is losing interest, they’ll crank things up. If the audience wants to roll over and go to sleep, they’ll cut the match short and reconsider the relationship.
After three or so hours—when alliances have been established and betrayed, when chants have been cheered, when combatants have been clubbed with elbows, ladders, and smuggled socket wrenches—a winner is declared and given a very large belt. But the winner is beside the point. At its core, pro wrestling is performative masculinity, a morality play that shows us what we must do to achieve the masculine ideal (think Everyman with body blows). As such, its lessons come not from who wins but rather from the actions they take to do so and the system through which those actions are judged. It’s a how-to guide for those of us/me who didn’t figure it out in the locker rooms of our pubescence. And it’s meant to inspire: for as long as we are large, loud, and aggressive, we too can be masculine.
And for those of us who are none of those things, we must content ourselves with standing outside the ring and looking in, like Stella Dallas or Truth Martini. We must wave our arms at the sidelines, hoping to catch the attention of the more viable competitors and perhaps to sway them in some tangential way.
Greg Edwards: Writing Wrongs