Grappling with pop culture storytelling and personal identity
A frank Presentation on the Power, Performance and World-Building of Pro Wrestling
“If this be play-acting, then it is play-acting of the highest order and comes close to being the best entertainment in town. To cavil at it for being play-acting is to cavil at a Booth or a Barrymore for getting up off the floor and putting on his street clothes after the final curtain has been lowered on ‘Hamlet.’”
– Joel Sayre, “The Pullman Theseus,” The New Yorker, March 5, 1932
I majored in mythology long before I got my undergraduate degree in Classics. I’d been mesmerized by epic stories and timeless narratives for nearly three decades before my job title had the word “communications” in it. But the gods and monsters, dragons and giants, journeying heroes and lowdown villainy I feared and revered in my earliest years weren’t from storybooks or scripture. They were professional wrestlers.
My fandom began at the tender age of four, right as the World Wrestling Federation’s Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan changed the industry and the very face of evil was the Iranian bad guy, The Iron Sheik. The WWF's Manichaean storytelling of the Noble American vs. Sinister Foreigner (which has long played out across wrestling promotions since the days of the traveling carnivals and across our politics since the first European colonizers set foot on Indigenous land and pretended they were, in fact, the natives under threat) led to my earliest political awakening and sense of identity. It allowed me to see myself not in the assumed hero, but in the maligned villain, and question the very myths of American imperial power, of race and ethnicity, of class and culture, being proffered, pushed and promoted with every leg drop and Camel Clutch.
Of course, the trope of wrestling as an epic conflict between good and evil has been with humanity forever. Wrestling matches are featured in the Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh and the Greek legends of Heracles. But as a communicator and political commentator, a media critic and narrative strategist, I’ve always been struck by how pro wrestling, as distinct from the kind of grappling seen in high school gyms and the Olympic Games, has woven its swagger and showmanship into the cultural fabric of our society for decades.
The in-ring flamboyance of the heel (that means “bad guy” in wrestling jargon) Gorgeous George from the 1930s to ‘50s inspired icons from Bob Dylan to Elton John, Elvis to Prince, Muhammad Ali to Liberace, James Brown to Little Richard and did much to popularize television as a legitimate medium for broadcasting entertainment to millions of households.
Since then, wrestling has had a profound and lasting influence on American culture and politics; it’s everywhere from hip-hop lyrics to Guy Fieri’s Tournament of Champions on The Food Network, where competing high-profile chefs get superstar entrances and vie for, among other prizes, a sparkling heavyweight belt.
Wrestling has always been about more than just the ring and the ropes. It’s also about communication - sure, the communication of showmanship and spectacle with fans who are in on the overall conceit - but also deep communication between the performers themselves. Combining the highest levels of acrobatics, athleticism, acting and improvisation, professional wrestlers work together to keep each other safe in this ring; it’s about care and choreography, not actual combat and carnage. Ultimately, their communication is their protection.
At this year’s frank gathering, held by the University of Florida’s Center for Public Interest Communications, I opened the proceedings with a presentation on storytelling and identity, community and - yes - wrestling.
As I said on the frank2023 stage, professional wrestling “is fundamentally a storytelling medium; an athletic, allegorical art form of archetypes. It is pedestrian and Shakespearean all at once. It’s low-brow and high-concept, small-minded and larger-than-life, a gladiatorial soap opera that never stops.”
As communicators, how can we understand the intersecting and ever-evolving stories that impact our communities, the audiences we seek to meet and move, the struggles and imagination that can lead us to a world of justice and liberation? How can we better analyze the deep narratives that underpin the worldviews of our allies and our ideological adversaries? How can we use our language - spoken, written, visual, digital, symbolic, physical - to build solidarity and protect each other from the coordinated attacks dedicated to our destruction?
Look, I’m not the first person to point out the cultural impact of pro wrestling on our politics. David Shoemaker's deft analysis has explored this territory for years. Brandi Collins-Dexter, formerly of Color of Change and currently Associate Director of Research at the Technology and Social Change Project (TaSC) at Harvard's Shorenstein Center, wrote about wrestling in her excellent book, Black Skinhead: Reflections on Blackness and Our Political Future, teasing out some of the allure and power of race-class identities in pro wrestling in a chapter that's partially excerpted here. She also delivered her own wrestling-inspired frank2023 talk, closing the conference with a beautiful meditation on finding joy, escape, strength and restoration within problematic and imperfect systems of entertainment and narrative. Another new book, Abraham Josephine Riesman's Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America, similarly examines how pro wrestling has influenced our current American political hellscape.
But I am probably the only one to discuss this beautiful and bestial pop cultural phenomenon from the center of a theatrically staged wrestling ring, after getting every fan's dream of a superstar entrance in strobe and smoke.
And, to be honest, that’s the bottom line.
Watch Nima Shirazi’s full talk here:
***This entry was posted on Monday, May 1, 2023 at 10:02 am and is filed under Coalition, connection and network building, Ethical and visual storytelling and Frame, narrative and message development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.