On “The World of Wrestling” by Roland Barthes (or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Blog About Professional Wrestling)

I have been consulting Roland Barthes as I percolate several thinky posts, and it occurs to me that I should share some of the original motivation for starting this blog. Even if you’ve read it before, Roland Barthes’ essay “The World of Wrestling” from his influential book of post-structural pop culture criticism Mythologies is great for wrestling fans to revisit. Every time I read it, I notice new things. But I also want to tell you where I was at in life when I first read “The World of Wrestling”, as it may offer some insight into my overall ethos and aesthetic here at this blog.

I first read Barthes’ wrestling essay in a graduate literary theory class as a creative writing MFA student and was thrilled, just thrilled to discover a canonical theorist taking professional wrestling seriously! I was living a double life that only a couple people knew about — teaching English classes, writing my novel, and working on my degree all week, and spending the weekends at indy wrestling shows and hanging out with a pack of smarks and indy wrestlers who were some of the most fun people I’ve ever made friends with. Back then I didn’t try to explain to people in the MFA program that I was snubbing their parties and boring as hell poetry readings to go to a garage in a light industrial/strip club district west of the Vegas strip to watch young men in colorful pants flex their muscles and toss each other around. They ended up thinking I was snobbish, too cool for you and your incoherent poetry. Which I guess I was.

I would sit through creative writing workshops in which variously catty, competitive, clueless, and mostly mediocre writers made every attempt to declaw my unorthodox writing, pressure me to dismantle and iron it out into what I call “workshop style”, which is what happens when you offer your writing to a room of random people who don’t particularly know or care where you’re coming from, and who also don’t have any idea how to help you get to where you’re trying to go. I would trudge through this dysfunctional process during the week (that, to be fair, allowed me a ton of free time to actually write) and waited for Friday night, when I could go down to the Ultimate Wrestling Federation and hang out with a bunch of people all wrapped up in various degrees of kayfabe and pageantry, but who felt far more authentic than my peers, colleagues, and professors at the university.

The week we read Barthes in my literary theory class I pored over the text, which is not something I normally did in a class in which the majority of assignments on the reading list are some of the most difficult texts in the world. I still don’t know what the hell to make of Lacan and Derrida. It literally hurts your brain to think about some of this shit. But suddenly here was this French guy from the 1950’s making cogent, even transcendent critical points about this thing I’d been too scared to admit I considered more important than the majority of the texts I had to read in grad school.

I went into class that week all charged up to talk about wrestling. Here was my opportunity to come out of the closet and represent for all these creative and hardworking people I had come to know and respect! The student who was presenting for class that week, a tightly-wound woman in her late thirties getting a masters in literature, discussed several other essays from the book. At the end of her presentation she said, “I liked most of these essays, but I didn’t read the wrestling one because, you know, I just don’t like all the violence.”

She said it like wrestling was the most distasteful thing in the world. I know wrestling’s not for everybody, but I know for a fact that this woman had read Crime and Punishment, Medea, Hamlet, and countless other classics that start or end in a bloodbath. Yet the idea of a couple big muscle men locking up and acting melodramatic about it was simply too much. It was beneath her.

My excitement deflated. I made some halfhearted defense of wrestling, and I remember the two bookish guys in the class chiming in to say something about how good the wrestling essay had been. I could see that they, too, probably spent their childhood Saturday  mornings captivated by WWF Superstars of Wrestling and were nurturing a secret love of the spectacle of excess they didn’t feel safe sharing in that snooty room. It was clear, there would be no critical discussion about the wrestling essay that day, for those of us who got it were greatly outnumbered by the “eew, it’s fake” crowd who, quite frankly, probably didn’t understand any of what Roland Barthes had to say about it.

The irony felt like a ton of bricks — I was spending my weekends with a rag-tag bunch of highly creative people who were all truly wise on the topics of story and character. Some of them were self-destructive as hell, but I learned so much from these people. (Incidentally, check out my short story “The Unshakable Kayfabe of Tommy Rage” if you would like to read more about the characters of the indy promotion I used to hang out with.) And yet here I was in a classroom full of well-educated people who would go on to be English professors and literary writers — our culture’s supposed venerated experts on and archivists of character and story — and they couldn’t see past their prejudices to consider the literary depths of this incredible art form so thematically similar to the ones they revered.

I mostly kept my wrestling habit on the DL around the university after that day. I did tell my wrestling cohorts that I was going to write about wrestling someday, though. I also told my faulty advisor, with whom I had a combative relationship, that my second book was going to be called “Slobberknocker”, which he thought was a terrible idea! I also thanked my wrestling friends and the UWF wrestlers in the preface to my dissertation, some of them by their wrestling names like “Sinful” and “Legacy”, said they taught me everything I knew about character and story. This is for real bound and cataloged at the UNLV library and available for check out if you are so inclined. Also if you go read that typo-ridden draft of my whimsical, unique, and ultimately unsuccessful first novel, you will find that the epigraph for the third to last chapter on this official document that earned me a degree enough to be a professor is the entire lyrics to Hulk Hogan’s entrance music “I Am a Real American.” No joke, I was totally trying to tick off my advisor!

After a number of years with brutal writer’s block and not watching wrestling (got married, had no cable, had kids, moved to Alaska, got sucked into a deep hole of debilitating chronic pain, just lost track of it), my husband and son started watching it a couple years ago. I got lured back in. I started mouthing off with my deep thoughts about wrestling to my husband, really lecturing him about what it all meant and how it all fit together. Allegories, metaphors, themes. It occurred to me one evening after a RAW that if I just started writing down everything I was saying, that would be the end of the writer’s block once and for (hopefully!) all. And thus, Notes On the Spectacle of Excess was born.

At first I didn’t tell anybody about it, got a few random hits here and there. Then I ended up getting myself a Twitter for other reasons and waded through the seas of wrestling fans until one by one I found like minds, creative and thoughtful people who see that wrestling is as legitimate a form of pop art as cinema or the graphic novel. Professional wrestling and its community have matured greatly in the internet age, even if we’re perennially dismayed by the state of the current product. Now after several popular posts I have a steady trickle of traffic most days, big spikes of traffic when a post takes off, and Google seems to like offering me as source material for curious queries such as leilani kai wrestling pics, ecw fans throw garbage at cena, chivalrous slam poetry, and my personal favorite, will pual hymen bring john cena thug in 2014.

Originally I thought of myself channeling Roland Barthes, trying to capture his voice as though he was watching and commenting on the contemporary wrestling scene. It was he who called wrestling “the spectacle of excess.” Several of my early posts (such as one about the hair of Daniel Bryan) have a distinctly Barthesian ring to them — he has essays about Einstein’s brain and “the face of Garbo” — but I quickly developed my own style, vocabulary, and angle, drawing also from Joseph Campbell, Michel de Montaigne, who else, Dennis Miller maybe?

Anyway, back to Barthes — who knew there was French professional wrestling in the 1950’s? Supposedly its genesis even predates the dawn of American and British wrestling. If you happen to know of any source material on this topic besides the Barthes essay, please let me know — I’ve read about it elsewhere but it’s always presented as a kind of mythic prehistory. I would love to read something more definitive. The other fun thing is that he calls heels “bastards”.

So here below are some of the passages that inspired me to read and write about wrestling. If you don’t know Barthes, it’s part of his theory that anything can become text if you choose to read its signs and signifiers (or, if you want to think about it more simply, its symbolism and metaphors). To be clear, I don’t approach Barthes like an academic, trying to pin down definitively what everything means in an intellectual sense. Instead I willfully misinterpret, letting Barthes’ ideas be an inspiration for my own. Read this stuff and tell me what you think. Some of it is not quite applicable to televised wrestling, which has become a whole other animal, but much of it is still relevant. I would love to talk about it if you have thoughts.

From “The World of Wrestling” in Mythologies by Roland Barthes, translated by Annette Lavers (originally published in 1957, translation published in 1972 by Hill and Wang):

Even in the most squalid Parisian halls, wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve. (p. 15)

A boxing-match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time. (p. 16)

It is said that judo contains a hidden symbolic aspect; even in the midst of efficiency, its gestures are measured, precise but restricted, drawn accurately but by a stroke without volume. Wrestling, on the contrary, offers excessive gestures, exploited to the limit of their meaning. (p. 16)

This function of grandiloquence is indeed the same as that of ancient theatre, whose principle, language and props (masks and buskins) concurred in the exaggeratedly visible explanation of a Necessity. (p. 16)

Wrestling is like a diacritic writing: above the fundamental meaning of his body, the wrestler arranges comments that are episodic but always opportune, and constantly help the reading of the fight by means of gestures, attitudes and mimicry which make the intention utterly obvious. (p. 18)

What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in theatre. (p. 18)

Each moment in wrestling is therefore like an algebra which instantaneously unveils the relationship between a cause and its effect. (p. 19)

What is thus displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. (p. 19)

But here again, only the image is involved in the game, and the spectator does not wish for the actual suffering of the contestant; he only enjoys the perfection of an iconography. It is not true that wrestling is a sadistic spectacle: it is only an intelligible spectacle. (p. 20)

In wrestling, unlike judo, Defeat is not a conventional sign, abandoned as soon as it is understood; it is not an outcome, but quite the contrary, it is a duration, a display, it takes up the ancient myths of public Suffering and Humiliation: the cross and the pillory. (p. 21)

But what wrestling is above all meant to portray is a purely moral concept: that of justice. The idea of ‘paying’ is essential to wrestling, and the crowd’s ‘Give it to him’ means above all else ‘Make him pay’. (p. 21)

Wrestlers know very well how to play up to the capacity for indignation of the public by presenting the very limit of the concept of Justice, this outermost zone of confrontation where it is enough to infringe the rules a little more to open the gates of a world without restraints. For a wrestling-fan, nothing is finer than the revengeful fury of a betrayed fighter who throws himself vehemently not on a successful opponent but on the smarting image of foul play… This explains why sudden changes of circumstances have in the eyes of wrestling habitues a sort of moral beauty: they enjoy them as they would enjoy an inspired episode in a novel, and the greater contrast between the success of a move and the reversal of fortune, the nearer the good luck of a contestant to his downfall, the more satisfying the dramatic mime is felt to be. (p. 21-22)

Since Evil is the natural climate of wrestling, a fair fight has chiefly the value of being an exception. It surprises the aficionado, who greets it when he sees it as an anachronism and a rather sentimental throwback to the sporting tradition (‘Aren’t they playing fair, those two’): he feels suddenly moved at the sight of the general kindness of the world, but would probably die of boredom and indifference if wrestlers did not quickly return to the orgy of evil which alone makes good wrestling. (p. 23)

It has already been noted that in America wrestling represents a sort of mythological fight between Good and Evil (of a quasi-political nature, the ‘bad’ wrestler always being a supposed Red). The process of creating heroes in French wrestling is very different, being based on ethics and not politics. What the public is looking for here is the gradual construction of a highly moral image: that of the perfect ‘bastard’. (p. 23)

What then is a ‘bastard’ for this audience composed in part, we are told, of people who are themselves outside the rules of society? Essentially someone unstable, who accepts the rules only when they are useful to him and transgresses the formal community of attitudes… He takes refuge behind the law when he considers that it is in his favor, and breaks it when he finds it useful to do so. Sometimes he rejects the formal boundaries of the ring and goes on hitting an adversary legally protected by the ropes, sometimes he reestablishes these boundaries and claims the protection of what he did not respect a few minutes earlier. This inconsistency, far more than treachery or cruelty, sends the audience beside itself with rage: offended not in its mortality but in its logic, it considers the contradiction of arguments as the basest of crimes. (p. 24)

In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture when separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible. (p. 25)

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  1. Dan Glenday
    September 23, 2016

    For those interested in cross national comparisons of professional wrestling, please see the following article. Google will take you directly to it.
    “Professional wrestling as culturally embedded spectacles in five core countries: the USA, Canada, Great Britain, Mexico and Japan”, Revue de Recherche en Civilisation Américaine, Volume 4, 2013, pp. 1-12.

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