My students sometimes nail me for a tendency to overuse the metaphor, “wrestling” to talk about the work we do in making sense of a particular theory or cultural phenomenon in my class. But this term, rather than wrestling with a theory, we had a chance to study theory with a wrestler. A few weeks ago, WWE superstar Mick Foley, better known to his fans as Mankind, came to MIT to interact with our students.
The primary occasion for Foley’s visit was a class which we have been offering this term on American Professional Wrestling. The class was added to our curricular line up to take advantage of the expertise, experience, and connections of one of our graduate students, Sam Ford, a lifelong wrestling fan, who has performed as a manager as part of a minor wrestling circuit back home in Kentucky. In his fictional role, Sam plays the part of an arrogant young man who has left home to go off to the evil city and study at MIT. Sometimes, he wears his CMS t-shirt into the ring and confounds his rivals with a mixture of fancy theory speak and just play bad-mouthing. Sam did his undergraduate thesis at Western Kentucky University on professional wrestling but as a master’s student at CMS, he has been devoting his attention to the ways soap operas have responded (or more precisely, should be responding to) shifts in the media landscape. But we didn’t want to let him off that easily and so we have put him to work helping his fellow graduate and undergraduate students make sense of the controversial and complex world of professional wrestling, which he describes as an immersive story world, a term he also uses to explain the appeal of soap operas and comic books. Sam has tapped his network of contacts and has gotten the cooperation of World Wrestling Entertainment, which has sponsored talks at MIT by long-time announcer Jim Ross and Mick Foley.
The class has also attracted a fair amount of media coverage, including an article that recently ran in The Boston Globe: reporters have expressed astonishment that MIT now offers a class in professional wrestling (confounding expectations both about who MIT students are and who is interested in watching televised wrestling) but also more or less comprehending the reasons why anyone studying contemporary media culture needs to give at least a passing glance to the squared ring.
For me, the reasons why we should care about wrestling are the following:
1. As Sam suggests, Wrestling has been an early experimenter in transmedia storytelling. From the get go, moving its entertainment between televised buildup and arena shows, and gradually absorbing print magazines and comics, action figures and other toys, radio shows and podcasts, pay-per-view events, and so forth into its media empire. So, in that sense, wrestling gives us a glimpse into the future of the American entertainment industry, embodying most of the trends I discuss in Convergence Culture.
2. Wrestling also carries with it the rich legacy of late 19th and early 20th century entertainment forms, such as circus, vaudeville, and popular melodrama. When Jim Ross was on campus, he entertained us with stories of life on the road, which could have come as easily from the mouth of a traveling showman a century earlier. As I have written in my essay, “Never Trust a Snake,” (reproduced in The Wow Climax), professional wrestling borrows much of its core vocabulary from melodrama and much of its politics from American Populist traditions.
3. Wrestling gives us a glimpse into the culture of working class masculinity. I think elite Eastern institutions should be studying it for the same reasons I suggested a week or so back that we should be studying Evangelical media — because it can give us insights into other parts of American culture at a time of polarized political rhetoric and culture war discourse. Wrestling can be pure agit-prop, translating contemporary politics through the lens of its performance traditions, and as it does so, it helps us to identify the complexities and contradictions in American political thought.
Mick Foley was nice enough to speak not only with Sam’s students but to my graduate and undergraduate classes. I had long appreciated his frank, common sensical, and witty critiques of media effects research and the moral reformers in his book, Foley is Good. I have used it in other classes in the past to help get students to think about some of the challenges of quantifying concepts like media violence and some of the hidden agendas behind the attempts to reform and regulate media content.
Foley could easily find a second calling as a teacher if his presentation to my students was any indication: he was really attentive to each student’s interests, could think and speak on his feet, and brought a lifetime of experiences to bear on his discussions of media violence or the way the media portrays women in sports. (And of course, I doubt he would face very many discipline problems — just a hunch!) He could tell off color stories, bragging about how he became the first person to use the word, testicles, on American primetime television; he could share trade secrets about how professional wrestling gets scripted and staged; but he could also share stories about his conversations with Paul Wolfowitz about international relations or his work with the Make a Wish Foundation.
Mick’s visit culminated with his remarks at the CMS colloquium — a public event which packed the house not just with awe-struck MIT students but from a range of wrestling fans, some of whom had driven some distance to attend. Ford remarked to me that other day that in effect, the event had turned MIT in a cultural laboratory, where our students, some of whom had childhood memories of the WWE, some of whom were encountering it for the first time, could see not only the performer but his fan culture in action. (The students taking his class had already encountered the WWE fan base when their class blog took on a life of its own, attracting readers and commenter from around the country, interested in a serious discussion of sports entertainment.) Afterwards, Foley came back to Senior House, our dormitory, where he hung out with the CMS students in my living room. I was reminded of a series of advertisements from the 1980s which imagined having WWE wrestlers smashing through walls, crushing your couch, and watching the show with the happy little Hulkamaniacs. At last, I had a wrestling superstar in my house!
The rest of you will have to settle for checking out the webcast of the CMS event. We’ve run into some technical difficulties with the recording of Jim Ross’s talk at MIT but we hope to have it up soon.