WWE – WWBS? (What would Barthes say?!)
Roland Barthes wrote about the fascinating “spectacle of excess” that wrestling brought to the world in the 1950s. He’d surely be happy that he isn’t alive to witness the vertiginous rise of WWE, in all its flabby falseness and commercial trickery.
This year, WWE held their 33rd annual ‘Wrestlemania’ event, now a coveted pay-per-view show, which I understand is a massive deal to many children and – rather more bafflingly – certain adults around the world. It makes so much sense that young children – so weak in mental perception and yet so strong in imagination – love to watch burly American men bash each other with plastic chairs and exchange potato punches for a couple of hours. Household names like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, with his painfully indiscriminate stance on accepting acting roles, are undeniably awe-inspiring figures, well beyond the reams of physical normality. This is, of course, especially breath-taking for a young boy in his ‘World’s Top Snorer’ football-themed jammies. Certain characters manage to cross over into the public eye in other ways. None more than John Cena, a man who’s been the subject of many a good meme, which somewhat excuses his WWE ventures. You’re excused, John.
But back to the young boy in his football jammies who loves wrestling. This makes sense. But what makes less sense is a world in which adults live for these flaccid ‘wrestling’ displays. According to Forbes, Wrestlemania has generated over $1 billion in economic value over the last decade. That is, by all accounts, a veritable shit-tonne of money, which vastly surpasses the amassed sum of little boys’ pocket money around the world.
Narratives sell, and I suppose watching enormous men bash each other in front of 125,000 spectators does indeed embody a certain American-ness. This is surely what Barthes was alluding to when he spoke of a “grandiloquence which must have been that of ancient theatres.” He was talking about one big, swollen orgy of sagging man-flesh, plastic chairs and scantily-clad female hostesses. US citizens have the right to bear arms and body-slam – it’s written in the declaration.
A friend of mine once recalled going to watch a live WWE show in Wembley Stadium, in London. He said that one of the wrestlers got pretend ran-over by a pretend car. It’s at this point when I instinctively want to chastise any adult who’s taken with such tomfoolery. But then I’m reminded that, to think like this, is to completely misunderstand the draw of Wrestlemania. As Barthes surmised, “Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle.” Upon reflection, any billion-dollar sports franchise that promotes characters like ‘Scotty 2 Hotty’ – a yellow lycra-clad, bucket hat-wearing fuckboy, is just that – it’s a spectacle. A silly, highly lucrative spectacle. Barthes often helps to make sense of contemporary conundrums, despite much of his work being written in the 1950s. That great brain is what made him such a good guy.