In 1957 the cultural theorist Roland Barthes wrote an essay entitled ‘The World of Wrestling’. Using his progressive technique of semiotic analysis, he effectively outlined the conventions of contemporary professional wrestling and their uses as a means of delivering a moralising image of good vanquishing evil. Many of the customs Barthes identified in professional wrestling remain today, but there are likewise certain aspects of the spectacle which have evolved in the decades that followed the publication of the essay.
One of the most vivid images Barthes invoked was that of Thauvin, the perfect example of the stock “bastard octopus” character. Barthes Thauvin as “a fifty-year-old with an obese and sagging body”, whose physicality alone is enough alone to excite a mixture of hate and nausea in the audience. In modern wrestling, however, where the arena is only the setting for an event viewed by a worldwide television audience, the episodic nature of the performance means that wrestlers can no longer be defined by their body type. Their character is part of a limited cast on a television show, and has to be altered periodically to keep the action fresh and the viewers watching week-on-week. Professional wrestling has always been a performance of great efficiency, and naturally, the audio-visual aspects of television production have been exploited by modern wrestling companies. With the body of the wrestler now having no essential bearing on their character, the audio-visual aspects of television serve as a substitute in giving the audience an immediate sense of characterization.
The medium for this characterization is the entrance performance of the wrestler. The music and accompanying video emphasises what Barthes calls “the obviousness of [the wrestler’s] roles,” meaning that any particular wrestler with any kind of body can portray both a good (‘babyface’) character or an evil (‘heel’) character. This quality is essential in any modern professional wrestler, and was perhaps best and most obviously exemplified in the different characters (or ‘gimmicks’) of Samon-American wrestler Rikishi Fatu. Initially a slapstick babyface, Rikishi’s entrance involved upbeat party music and a brightly-coloured video of him dancing and smiling which, crucially, showed no actual wrestling. This video also makes an icon of his large, sagging posterior as a figure of harmless, comic fun, in complete contrast with the treatment of the body of Barthes’s Thauvin. This entrance presentation signals to the audience not only that Rikishi could be expected to behave in a way they would approve of, but that more specifically, he will fulfill his role as comic relief from the more emotionally and physically intense bouts on the match-card.
When Rikishi later underwent a ‘heel-turn’ by admitting to running down fan-favourite Stone Cold Steve Austin in an arena parking-lot, his entrance presentation immediately reflected this change in character. Duly, his theme music became a threatening, ominous score, in which the word ‘bad’ is repeated over and over again, while the accompanying video was dull in colour (predominantly black and white) and depicted him taking apparent pleasure in the violence he was inflicting.
Modern wrestling’s close relationship with television has also allowed the wrestlers to utilize speech when characterizing themselves. Barthes described wrestlers fulfilling their roles through their actions in the context of a regulated fight – a feature which remains to this day – but the modern televised wrestling product has fostered another form of characterization known as the ‘promo.’ One of the purposes of promos delivered by babyface wrestlers is to solidify support among the audience for their campaigns in the ring. The techniques at the disposal of babyfaces to secure this support vary in subtlety, but always aim at the same result: Mick Foley, one of the most endearing wrestlers of his time, would be warmly welcomed with the cheers of the audience as soon as he mentioned the city he was in as part of his promo. Indeed, a sense of involvement for the audience is the most important aspect of a face promo. With that in mind, the most recognisable tool used by faces is the catchphrase. Call-and-response is a major feature of these speech forms: As soon as Dwayne ‘The Rock‘ Johnson, for instance, would launch into a rendition of his popular catchphrase “If you smell …what The Rock is cooking”, the psychology of group identity would impel the audience to complete the phrase for him. Audience approval was thereby guaranteed. Conversely, heels will insult the city they are in, its inhabitants, and even its local sports teams. Their promos will often reject catchphrases, criticize those that use them, and mock the audience for responding to them. Indeed, they will exaggeratedly exclude the audience from their storyline (‘kayfabe’) lives and thereby instill in them a sense that they are inferior to the wrestler, a sense that is usually roundly rejected by the audience with a torrent of boos, which is of course exactly the response the heel has been trying to encourage.
A direct implication of the relationship of modern wrestling with television is the introduction of extended storylines. In 1957, Barthes wrote that “the spectator is not interested in the rise and fall of fortunes,” and with regards to the singular, unconnected matches that he was watching, this is broadly true. This rise and fall, however, is the very heart of modern wrestling, bringing it even closer to antiquated dramatic conventions than Barthes himself had suggested when he wrote that “it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolph or Andromaque.” Wrestling’s narratives are growing evermore sophisticated and multi-faceted: take, again, the example of Rikishi Fatu. His aformentioned heel-turn narrative had specific political connotations in Rikishi’s belief that he and other wrestlers of a non-American ethnic background were being deliberately, and discriminitively, held at a lower status within the company. Rikishi was the heel in this storyline, but not because of his anger at being held back due to his ethnicity (kayfabe): rather he was negatively portrayed because of how he had acted on his beliefs (running over Steve Austin (a pin-up of ‘the Great White Hope’) had enabled The Rock (a fellow Samoan, and relative of Rikishi in real life) to reach the top of the WWF). The story became a Tragedy in which the Hero, Steve Austin fell from grace by trying to run Rikishi over in vengeance, leaving the two men vanquished; Rikishi in defeat, and Austin in arrest.
Not all of modern wrestling’s narratives are Tragic, but it is by far the most commonly-used dramatic mould. Another notable Tragic storyline began with the dismissal of Randy Orton from Triple H’s ‘Evolution‘ stable. That moment has become the foundation of much of Orton’s characterization, and four years later the moment resurfaced in a new storyline. Orton, under the influence of deep-seated anger and jealousy, went about physically dismantling the family (or faction) that Triple H was most associated with: the McMahon family, and in doing so, underwent his fall from grace, eventually being defeated by Triple H at Wrestlemania, a settling where wrestling narratives often find their zenith. Such advances in the dramatic content of professional wrestling only really became possible when it started to incorporate the conventions of television.
This focus on narrative has had positive implications for the messages projected by professional wrestling. A resultant underlying moral is that ‘badness’ or Evil is not inherent in people, but created. The babyfaces never have to justify their Goodness, but heels are never evil without reason, and their actions always have a (deliberately flawed) logic behind them. Rikishi, for instance, acted in an ‘evil’ way because he believed violence and espionage were appropriate ways of combating racial discrimination, and Orton’s actions were a direct result of the evil done to him in the past. Good doesn’t always defeat Evil in modern Wrestling, as in real life, but the narratives of modern wrestling suggest that humanity is generally Good and that those that are turned to Evil should not be forsaken if they learn the error of their ways: both Rikishi and Randy Orton have since been rehabilitated as popular babyfaces since the climaxes of their respective stories.
These evolutions in the conventions of wrestling are ultimately (though not exclusively) indebted to the innovations in the mediation of the spectacle and the consequent importance of extended narratives. This is an evolution that Roland Barthes could not have foreseen, and this response to his essay is not to debunk his observations. His perceptive essay still makes for interesting reading for those wishing to understand or engage with the art-form (for I have no qualms about calling it an art-form) and will continue to explain why the spectacle of wrestling is so compelling to those that follow it.
by David Jackson