Mania!

By Ryan Day

Essay

When I was 10 we lived in Augusta, Georgia. A friend of my mom’s adopted a baby. The baby was a giant. Not literally a giant. It was neither jolly nor green, nor iron, but it was a really big baby. My mom’s friend insisted that the agency told her that the father was a professional wrestler. She was convinced, due to the size of the baby, and the strangely morose eyes that sat above big black half moons, that the father was the Undertaker. This was a serious point of pride for the mother, not to mention a really cool origin story for a kid that may one day need one.

There was a boy named Travis who lived around the corner from us. He had all of the wrestling action figures: Rowdy Roddy Piper, Sargeant Slaughter, Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, the Million Dollar Man, and a little plastic ring where he put his miniatures into action, their short inflexible arms, and permanently crab-clawed hands pinning one another against the ropes at his will. He invited all of the neighborhood boys over to watch Wrestlemania one night. I wasn’t really into wrestling, not beyond the unavoidable kid-in-the-eighties glorification of the Hulk. I mean, I didn’t know how to put someone in a… well, I still don’t know… a Half Nelson?

The ever present debate about the reality of the action in Wrestlemania arose. Was it fake? Was it real? Were these characters? Did men really wander the Earth with these unlikely personas, expressing the endless rage that arose from the endless drama of lives that seemed completely immersed in what was supposedly a profession? Did they go to the supermarket in spandex and leather with handkerchiefs tied around their heads? Could we grow up to be like them? Would it be a good thing if we did?

This was an early and serious engagement with the borders of fantasy, and well timed to coincide with the years in which Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss gave themselves over to the Diary of Anne Frank and All Quiet on the Western Front. The first Gulf war was on, and for the first time, I was questioning the honor of G.I. Joe, not to mention my step dad, who was a Marine. Sadam Hussein was a cartoonish villain whose image pinned itself well to the bullies and bad guys that my cartoons and kids books had brought into my cops and robbers world, but it was just beginning to dawn on me that a villain as pure as the media depicted had no place in the real world. Kids in class would jumble the letters in his name to DAM AS, not fretting over the missing N or S, and then add INSANE, because it rhymed with Hussein. “DAMN ASS INSANE,” they would yell. The mustached man in military dress intrigued me. He looked like Stalin, and what was more mysterious than Russia, home of that strange and contrary ideology that I knew from overhearing adults “was a fine idea, but would never work because people were naturally lazy.” Hussein could easily have been one of the lovable bad guys of the WWF because he embodied so much charisma of the easily vilifiable kind.

We were also studying the Civil War… In Georgia… shades of gray abounded as my Southern bell of a fourth grade teacher told us of the heroicism of Lee, the alcoholism of Grant and the tangential relationship of slavery to the war. The Southern mythology of the classroom battered itself against the wider American mythology that I got from television, books and my mom. Heightening the awareness of the strange tension of the state I called home, was the ongoing debate over the Georgia flag’s continued use of confederate imagery. I became obsessed with the bizarre significance of this strange cloth that had always hung from important buildings… and by implication, the stars and stripes that hung at its side. It was becoming clear that nothing was clear.

Was it real? Questioning the authenticity of WWF heroes started fights. Travis, a white kid, and a fervent believer, became enraged when Sammy, a black kid, said that he’d read it was all an act. A fight was scheduled. Our fights never erupted spontaneously, but were allotted times in the not too distant future so that we could all elicit the fullest pleasure from the buzz of the wait. The news spread around the neighborhood accompanied by the perverse pleasure of drama to come. Factions, which would dissolve as soon as the fight ended, were formed. Weapons of minimal destruction were amassed: fragile sticks, water balloons, pine cones, pee-filled water guns, switch blade combs… it was strange how we innately knew to only bring implements that pantomimed our violent fantasies.

Travis and Sammy met by the tree in the creek. It was probably only 20 yards into the light wooded area that ran between two different sets of back yards, but it always felt as if we were miles into the jungle, away from the panoptic eye of the neighborhood elders. The other boys surrounded them, while I, as always, lingered back, pulse racing, afraid of catching a stray pine cone. There were lightly racialized lines drawn in the factions, but it wasn’t complete. There were a couple white kids backing Sammy, and a couple black kids backing Travis. We were still young, a few years later it would likely have been a complete divide. It seemed strange that as gray areas intruded further and further into our mental worlds, our physical ones grew more segregated.

Words were exchanged, balloons flung, fragile sticks snapped on contact with thighs and biceps, pine cones stung slightly against bare skin, switch blade combs were brandished in what must have been self-consciously faux threats, usually a punch was thrown. I don’t remember a punch that day. I just remember the rabble disintegrating into two sides, running away from each other, shouting hollow taunts, enacting our own flaccid version of the Outsiders.

A couple hours later we probably all met up in the alley behind the circle K and talked about the afternoons drama, remembering, or mis-remembering, each individual exploit, grudges forgotten until someone else challenged that sensitive border that kept real violence out of our fantasy world. Were these outbursts of soft violence preparing us for something? Were we imitating the world we thought we would have to enter? Were our fantasies playing some part in predetermining the nature of the society we would one day steward? Could we have done it differently?

I recently attended Wrestlemania with my girlfriend’s little brother and another friend of mine. It was Shawn Michaels’, who retired at the following Monday Night Raw (which I also attended with my girlfriend’s little brother), last fight. He was beaten after an epic battle with the Undertaker, the supposed father of my mom’s friend’s adopted baby. I was not a wrestling fan as a kid, nor am I now, but my world, as probably any boy’s who was young enough in the eighties, was one that was immersed in wrestling lore. Watching the Undertaker take down Shawn Michaels, and this time, unlike my ten year old self, being confident that the action was choreographed, made me think of the Georgia that I left for Chicago when I was 13.

My girlfriend’s brother had ringside seats, while my friend and I sat in the balcony. It wasn’t what we’d expected. The crowd was less lively and less violent than the crowd at a football game despite the occasional shout of ‘kill em’, or ‘rip his head off.’ Mostly, people sat calmly, laughed, yelled, taunted, heckled, but what was overwhelmingly clear was that everyone over the age of fifteen, well, almost everyone over the age of fifteen, was in on the joke. The crowd was diverse in every way imaginable, though admittedly male heavy. In my section there were flags flying: Mexico, Israel, Germany, Japan, France, Japan, Argentina, Japan, Canada, Japan… lots of Japan.

And then came the retirement speech. Shawn Michaels stood in the center of the ring and proceeded to bring a testosterone pumped stadium to tears. He cried, children cried, 40 year old men cried, I nearly cried myself. It was touching because it broke the same boundary between fantasy and reality that had been so sensitive to the tweens of my Georgia subdivision. In that moment, a person said goodbye to the fans that had supported him throughout a long and heralded career, and it was impossible to separate the persona from the body that stood there. It was as if at the age of forty-five Johnny Depp gave a bon voyage speech at the Oscars in character as Jack Sparrow, and we all felt it more deeply for the awkward defense of the disguise.

More cynically, it reminded me of conversations about good ol’ George W. The question that people obsessed over in the midst of the war he waged was one of authenticity, of intention. While many people did concern themselves with the results of his actions, the conversation always tended towards the topic of whether or not he perpetrated them from some sincere place, or he, like the DAMN ASS INSANE man that he deposed, was an impossibly evil persona rather than the inevitably conflicted mixture of intentions and neuroses that most of us are. In then end, why was it important to us whether this was an act of authenticity or duplicity? Shouldn’t we have been more concerned with the act itself? I realized most of us hadn’t come as far as we thought since our days of debating the authenticity of wrestling with fragile sticks and urine filled balloons. We were still trying to figure out which aspects of our violence were real, and we were still taking a perverse pleasure in the drama.

So, was our fake fight over whether or not the WWF fights were fake preparing us for something? Were we learning something in that lightly wooded jungle with our implements of minimal destruction? Almost certainly, but what? Were we preparing to be warriors, to run off to the distant deserts and take down whatever Stalin look-a-likes may occupy the sandy palaces? Were we trying on elements of an identity that we’d yet to assemble? Were we practicing the defenses that we’d have to put up to make it through year after year in an often inhumane society? Were we practicing to become the source of that inhumanity?

I honestly don’t have much in the way of answers to any of those questions. But, from my present stance, nearly nine years into the sequel of the war in the gulf that set off so many initial questions about personas of good and evil, I think I can safely say that to this day most of us still haven’t divided the fantasies from the realities of our aggression, even as the consequences become more and more real.

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Ryan Day is a writer who lives in Madrid. He runs The Toast Cafe, and Roll, restaurants that double as cultural spaces. His articles on arts and culture in Madrid can be found at Vaya Madrid.

19 responses to “Mania!”

  1. Becky says:

    Woah. Bait-n-switch. I started out ready to share a hilarious link to lamebook.com which shows a grown man defending professional wrestling in terms of its likeness to religion and other profound markers of personal and cultural identity.

    Now I’m not sure whether to do that or be serious and political.

    It’s taking too long to find the lamebook entry, so I’ll do serious.

    I think, if you want to know anything about human nature and human socio/political behavior, the WWF is probably not the place to look. It, like war, is a symptom of a condition, not the condition itself. Lying (and its fancy cousin, fiction) is an evolutionary mechanism, just like violence. And the two can work separately or in cahoots.

    Truth and falsehood seems to be a consequence of complex social interaction. So one would expect to find it everywhere and anywhere humanity goes, whatever situation it is in. Same goes for violence. I mean, hell. In other professional sports that are perfectly real, we often BUILD a dramatic story line into the competition if one is not given to us. Think of rivalries, for example. And our own relationships, same thing.

    • Ryan Day says:

      Well put. Though, I wouldn’t say there’s nothing to be gained from looking into the WWF a bit. I would have said so, until I went, and I realized, that much like you said, it is the home of lots of the same dramas and narratives that all sports are, only in wrestling the drama is laid a little more bare. And, for me, there is something very interesting about the need for spectacle, and the pleasure of drama that connects so well most obviously to kids, but later leaks over into our political worlds.

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, and sorry about the bait and switch. I wanted it to keep it funny, but I just kept being lead elsewhere.

  2. Joe Daly says:

    What Becky said about the ol’ bait and switch- and I liked it.

    First, growing up outside of Boston in the Seventies (ahem…), my friends and I watched wrestling every Saturday, and would then wrestle each other, of course limiting our wrestling only to the moves we saw on TV. The names then were Chief Jay Strongbow, Haystacks Calhoun, Bob Backlund, Andre the Giant, and George “The Animal” Steele, to name a few.

    I always suspected that most of it was real, although I would admit that even then, some of the moves were pretty hard to defend. Then my dad took me to see it live, probably around 1975. Up close I saw the punches missing by sizable amounts of air, and yet the wrestlers would fall as if hit with a hammer. After noticing all the other moves up close, I was a jaded young man, never to return to the sport I once loved.

    I later learned that there’s an Olympic sport called wrestling, where they didn’t hit each other with chairs. Who knew?

    As for the political angle, I not only have no answers, but I’m not sure I even have the right questions. I’ll say though that young boys are instilled with the notion that glory (which simply means being liked), goes to guys that win. The more guys want to be liked (by all or just some), the more they will do to secure victory.

    Nice read- thanks!

    • Ryan Day says:

      Thank you for the insightful response. I sort of think I liked it better when I knew for sure that it was fake. There’s something really comforting in these big angry facades taking so much care NOT to hurt each other, you know.

      Just imagine if they did all the acrobatics with none of the violent plotlines… It would be like Cirque du Soleil (spelling?).

      I’m not too sure about the political import either, and I definitely don’t want to say that there is any direct responsibility of the WWF for warfare. I just think it’s interesting that the spectacle around violence (shock and awe, anyone?) is something that starts in play and never really completely goes away… guess its a proscriptive/descriptive, chicken/egg kind of situation…

      anyway, thanks for reading and for your comments

  3. jmblaine says:

    Wrestling at best
    is theater.

    used to be at least.

    Shawn is a top notch actor.
    Emotion.
    Art is emotion.

    • Ryan Day says:

      Agreed in full. Especially the used to be bit. I was pretty dissapointed in the lack of variety in the new characters. They’re all shaved head, tattooed, crazy mad, speed-o wearing, frat boy types who come out to new metal anthems. Where did the wacky personas go? Lame.

  4. Greg Olear says:

    I think we can agree on this: George W Bush believed that pro wrestling was real. He was Sgt. Slaughter, Saddam was the Iron Shiek, and UN arms inspector Hans Blix was the hapless referee.

    Great piece, Ryan.

    • Ryan Day says:

      HA! That really clears it right up. Is there some WWE equivalent to the presidential throwing of the first pitch? Like the season opening body slam. That would’ve been a nice GW participation moment. And, speaking of the failure to come up with creative new characters, I think Hans Blix would be a really sweet model. He could be the unwitting tag team partner.

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    Bait and switch, all right…

    As an outsider, I have to ask: is it true that when Hulk Hogan was in a state of Hulkamania, nothing could hurt him?

  6. D.R. Haney says:

    I liked what you did with this, Ryan — that is, in lieu of playing it simply for laughs, you raised questions.

    My youngest brother, who’s now twenty-five, was obsessed with the WWF as a child, and whenever he watched it, I’d leave the room. He finally asked me why and I told him it was all fake. He didn’t believe me, but even if he had, I don’t think it would’ve made any difference.

    Meanwhile, The Wrestler has caused me to reconsider my dislike for all that stuff. It may be fake, but it does require athleticism, and I have to admire the showmanship.

    • Ryan Day says:

      Yeah, that movie was pretty amazing. It reminded me of a bartender friend from Iowa that was getting on forty but continued to harbor wrestling fantasies that broke out when he got a little drunk and resulted in airplaning (lifting someone above your head and spinning them around and around) innocent bystanders, which innocent bystanders had a tendency to be me as I offered the least resistance.

      I miss that guy… sort of…

  7. Thanks for this. I read with great interest as my boys–ten and twelve–are wrestling fans, and they have a whole group of friends who are really into it. They actually have that stage and those figurines that you wrote about. And Friday Night Smack Down is treated almost like a holy event. I’ve tried to figure it out. Why are they so into this crazy deal? My theory is that it’s a transitional deal between cartoons and reality. So it’s this pocket of time, this stage, right between the two–like a bridge. I’m sort of used to it now, but in the beginning, I was really kind of revolted by it all. My sons are very aware that it’s fake–that doesn’t seem to change their devotion. I think they like that it’s fake–the fantasy aspect. I’m hoping this phase passes soon. The loud music and theatrics and boys jumping around, mimicking moves. Like other things they love–Yu Gi Oh cards come to mind–I’m completely mystified.

    • Ryan Day says:

      Who can account for the tastes of children? It is mystifying. I like the transitional phase idea. It makes a lot of sense to me that it is a moment that helps kids move from the absurdity of the muppets to the brutality of fourth grade history class (that’s where I hit slavery and world war two anyway). It must be sooo interesting to have kids and see it all again from the other side.

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