What is the appeal of half-naked uber-muscled men (and later scantily-clad women) pretending to fight each other and acitng out soap-opera-style storylines on live TV? If you don’t get it, I can’t explain it to you. But I’ll try:
I grew up with professional wrestling, so I might be somewhat biased. My dad and I used to watch together when I was little, and still one of the coolest memories I have is when my dad surprised me and my sister by driving us up to Toronto so we could go watch a WWF House Show. I’ll never forget watching the Undertaker fight Ric Flair in a Steel Cage. For me, it was ingrained from a young age. I was a Hulkamaniac back in the 90’s, and proud of it.
So…if you know its fake, why do people even care? That’s kind of a complex question. Through the 90’s into the 2000’s Professional Wrestling became Sports Entertainment, which to be honest is probably a more accurate term for what these people do. While still fraught with danger, the punches and kicks and throws are not real…but at the same time there’s only so much you can fake about getting thrown off of a 20-ft cage or getting dropped through a table.
But that’s not even the key appeal. What’s fun about it is cheering or booing your favorite face or most hated heel, and letting yourself get caught up in the moment. It takes a certain suspension of disbelief, sure. But that’s also why it can be fun. In the same way you might not understand a sports fan’s devotion to a crappy team, you won’t get a WWE mark. It’s about being invested, but in this case there’s the wink and a nod that the actual competition is fake, and the stories are fabricated.
For lack of a better term, it’s live reality TV (which is also scripted) where people get body-slammed and hit with chairs. Probably closer to a soap-opera than a TV show, since it’s often a little over the top. Why do people like crappy reality TV shows? Because you just want to see what happens next. I would caution people not to judge too harshly until you go to a live WWE event. The real magic of these characters, men and women alike, is how they can manipulate a crowd, and sway them to cheer riotously or boo vehemently with little more than a few words or choreographed fight moves.
Like it or not, this is probably a mutation from Shakespearean theater more than television, and it’s the most successful, long-running theatre drama in history. It’s live, over the top, and designed to get live crowds roaring and invested. That’s right, word nerds. Never thought about the relationship there, did ya? I now fully expect Old Bill’s ghost to haunt my dreams for eternity. Totally worth it.
If you want to read something that kind of makes sense of all this, try Have a Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks, the Mick Foley Biography. Even a snooty literary nerd will respect how well this is written, as it tells the story of an ugly, out-of-shape kid with dreams of becoming a pro wrestler, and all that it took to get there. If you ever wanted to try and understand the appeal of pro wrestling, read this book. You should probably read it even if you don’t want to understand.
Once more, I’ve tried to explain the unexplainable. I expect your thank you letters soon.