Sharon Mazer. Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle. Second Edition. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2020. Pp. 198. $30 paperback.
Reviewed by Łukasz Muniowski
From the beginning of her book, Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle, which was originally published in 1998, Sharon Mazer makes it clear that she is just a tourist in the world of wrestling. She is by no means a devoted, lifelong fan. Nor did she fall in love with the athletic performances and simple, yet emotionally engaging, storylines. Instead, Mazer took an excursion from “serious” scholarly work in order to explore wrestling beyond its perception as a modern morality play. However, she soon got hooked and in the conclusion to the second edition of her book admits that she indeed became a fan.
There is no need to go into detail about wrestling’s dualistic nature. It is not considered a sport, as who wins the given competition is secondary. Yet, the sport still requires the performers to not only look the part of professional athletes, but also perform incredible athletic feats. The performative aspects of wrestling are not limited to matches, as it is the context which makes them so special. The discussion of what is real and what is fake, which is a vital part of Mazer’s book and is more or less common knowledge for the regular wrestling fan, enriches the understanding of the spectacle. It is not just a mere distinction between the realness of the performance and the fakeness of the outcome. Instead, Mazer argues that a wrestling match does not require a suspension of disbelief, but exactly the opposite––identifying the realness in the fake.
The distinction between faces and heels––or heroes and villains––does not have to apply to how the wrestlers are outside the ring. There are numerous compilations of professional wrestlers breaking kayfabe and acting according to the situation. This includes stopping mid-match to help an injured opponent or smiling to a young fan. In fact, being the heel requires more work. Those wrestlers are not simply allowing themselves to be hated, but inviting the hate, making the good guys look better in the eyes of the fans. Understood that way, heels are more company men than the faces. While wrestling exhibitions are all about the community of fans, who share the understanding that the contests are staged, the community of wrestlers is what makes wrestling so engaging. A heel’s willing ability to make the opponent look better makes them more important to the overall impact of the performance. The fans need somebody to boo just as they need somebody to cheer for, which corresponds with the understanding of wrestling as a modern morality play or a soap opera, as one of the main characters in the Netflix’ series GLOW loudly notices.
Loosely based on the Glamorous Ladies Of Wrestling promotional run, the show takes something supposedly manly and inverts it, proving that wrestling can be feminine as well. The notion of femininity, or rather non-masculinity, is another issue that Mazer tackles in her book. The duel between the wrestlers––exhibiting their beautiful, chiseled physiques as they constantly touch each other––is supposed to be devoid of sexuality, but this works only on the surface level. Underneath there is a constant battle in which both performers try to emasculate one another. This does not apply to female wrestlers though. As noticed by Mazer, “[W[hile women in wrestling are free to act as men, what they are, ultimately is not men,” (117). Women inside and outside the ring serve as affirmations of heterosexual masculinity. Outside of it, women are the targets of wrestler’s advances, with male wrestlers proudly presenting their bodies as they make eye contact with female fans. Inside of it, women are supposed to present their own bodies for the pleasure of the male audience, affirming the heterosexual masculinity of the men in the stands.
Mazer’s book serves as an important artifact of the Golden Era of cable television wrestling. While she does not explore in the depth the competition between the WWF and the WCW, her observations are valid into the present day, as she explains the cultural relevance of wrestling and the status that it once enjoyed. Although wrestling is no longer as popular as was during the 1990s and 2000s, crowds still gather to see athletes perform in a version of a live-action ballet.
Łukasz Muniowski received his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021),and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021).