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Masculinity, explained by WWE

An expert tells us how professional wrestling endlessly evolves to reflect changing masculine gender norms.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, right, takes on John Cena at the 2012 edition of WWE’s WrestleMania. Both men started out as wrestlers and have become huge movie stars.
Ron Elkman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

For several years now, I’ve been fascinated by the rise of a new crop of musclebound male stars, who are seemingly everywhere in film and TV.

Yes, there have always been musclemen in our pop culture, but in the past, they were largely assigned to very narrow archetypes: the brawny action hero or the snarling henchman to the main villain. In recent years, however, more and more big men are following in the footsteps of Arnold Schwarzenegger and playing all sorts of roles in all sorts of movies. Notably, John Cena seems just as comfortable playing an antiheroic superhero with a bad dad as he is playing an overbearing father who comedically gets super involved in his teen daughter’s sex life.

Cena, like fellow hulking hunks Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Dave Bautista, first rose to fame as a professional wrestler, and the more I thought about Cena’s surprising vulnerability, the more I realized that, perversely, the over-the-top shenanigans and violence of the wrestling ring might be key to his appeal. Especially in the 21st century, wrestling has turned its wrestlers’ private lives into fodder for its storytelling, creating a kind of need to authentically and vulnerably perform the self.

Was there anything to this idea? I asked Sharon Mazer, professor of theater and performance studies at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand. She literally wrote the book on this topic, Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle, and she dug into the ways that performance within wrestling has shifted and evolved, as well as the ways that shift has been influenced by our evolving ideas on what it means to be a man — and how wrestling has influenced societal notions of masculine performance right back.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

For as long as I’ve been alive, wrestlers have tried to break through as movie stars. Hulk Hogan was the biggest wrestling star when I was a kid, but he flopped as a movie star. And now Dwayne Johnson and Dave Bautista and John Cena have all had real success in movies. Do you think these guys are better actors than Hulk was? Or has wrestling changed in a way that better prepared them to star in movies?

If you look at the evolution of wrestling since the glam years of the 1980s, obviously, [WWE CEO] Vince McMahon has a lot to answer for. Vince brought the cameras into the arena in a much closer and more calculated way. He brought scriptwriters in in a closer and more calculated way. So wrestling itself began to leave behind its carnival roots and its improvisatory structures and became much more scripted toward the end of the ’80s and certainly into the ’90s. Now, it’s very heavily controlled and contained. It’s mapped for cameras. The live spectacle is much more controlled and contained and aimed toward the cameras.

In that late’ 80s, early ’90s phase, what was interesting was to watch the wrestlers who could work the camera versus those who were just very good at being caught by the cameras and to watch how deft that technology was starting to be in picking up the action and getting us in closer than we used to be.

As a consequence, I think there’s been a naturalization of the wrestler’s persona, especially male wrestlers. We hear about their wives and their children. They have storylines where one of the wrestlers is chasing the other and attacking his wife. This isn’t at all the same as the triangle between Macho Man, Miss Elizabeth, and Hulk Hogan in the 1980s. This is something entirely different because the cameras go into their homes — or what are meant to be their homes.

So performances that have become mobile, from the squared circle into the realm of film and television, is also a movement from a very social presentation of a wrestler’s persona into a very individuated, very personal persona, devoid of a larger social set of identifications.

Now, these guys present themselves almost straight [in the sense of basic and unaffected] to begin with. They’re usually in basic briefs, maybe a pretty robe here or there. But they’re so straight in their presentation as wrestlers. They’re just strong guys. There’s no exaggeration to let go of. They’re presented as regular, working guys. They’ve got muscles, but so do other working guys.

I wonder if their real role model is Arnold Schwarzenegger more than any other wrestler. He made a really good transition into film from his bodybuilding, and he was much more extreme as a bodybuilder. But if you look at Pumping Iron [the documentary that broke Schwarzenegger through to global fame], he was the breakout star in part because he seemed like a real person onscreen, and he worked the screen really well. He had a knack for it.

So these guys seem to have been brought into the game because of some humanist appeal, for lack of a better word. When he’s working, you can see who Dwayne Johnson is. You can see who John Cena is when he’s working. You get one generation beyond them [the group that came up in the ’90s and 2000s], and they’re looking much more like a normal person. The least looking-like-a-person wrestlers right now are Vince McMahon himself and his son Shane.

I do wonder if the camera coming into these guys’ houses, as scripted as it is, has added an element of their ability to be real and vulnerable and play some version of themselves on camera. It’s heightened, but it’s a heightened version of who they are.

The big innovations of the early Vince years were that the cameras would go backstage. You’d have wrestlers racing backstage, punching each other backstage, sometimes racing out into the street. But cameras have become much more mobile, and we carry cameras with us all the time, so people are much more used to staging ourselves that way and seeing ourselves staged that way.

Wrestlers have had to go through an evolution about dialing it back [as cameras have entered the ring more]. They do much more holding still. There’s a much clearer distinction between when they’re showing us a persona and when they’re actually doing the thing live. And a lot of that’s enforced because they go from town to town and have to deliver much the same show, in much the same way, from one city to the next, whether it’s in the United States or overseas.

This whole generation of young wrestlers has lived in a different world than Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage came up in. And they’re just different men more generally. Men have changed, and this might just be changing norms of masculinity. They’re still exaggerated from what we would hope to see in everyday life, but not in the same way that they were 20 to 30 years ago.

I don’t know how big of an evolution of masculinity it is, but the shift toward more personal stories in wrestling from the days of Hulk Hogan or whoever feels of a piece with something larger in the culture, to me at least.

In the US, there are competing masculinities, and whatever war is being fought this week or the next, even the war on women’s bodies, those wars are being fought about definitions of masculinity at base and whose ideological stance is going to prevail in terms of masculine performance.

We have assumptions about the 1950s and ’60s and homophobia and masculine dominance and how it was a truly oppressive era. So you have the wrestler Gorgeous George, who’s a villain, fluffing his hair and his robe and doing his fancy thing. The crowd just loved hating him. And yet when he stripped down and started wrestling, yes, he cheated in the end of his matches, but there’s always a period where you could say he was a really good wrestler. At the same time, you’d have Ricky Starr, a ballet dancer from Greenwich Village, prancing around in ballet slippers with little miniature ballet slippers that he would fling into the audience. And they loved him! He was so tiny that he could leap on his opponent’s back and legitimately win.

The point seemed to be in the ’50s and ’60s that just being a man was enough. If you had a penis, that was enough. The only thing that matters is that, at some point, you could beat another guy up, and you could demonstrate that in wrestling in a way that was unlike any other arena. It was a very reassuring portrayal of masculinity. Yes, it was rife with sexism, homophobia, all of that, but at base, its message was: You’re a man, and therefore, we’re all men, and that’s all that matters.

The symbol of a real man is that he shows he can win. He loses often, but he gets back up and he fights again. The only difference is a good man wins by following the rules and defending the community, and a bad man wins by breaking the rules and thumbing his nose at the community. Those were the moral, ethical, ideological paradigms of the period, and they held even through the ’80s.

What makes [wrestling] so fascinating is that it is so representative of and informative to whatever is going on in the dominant culture at any given moment, and the thread that runs through it is one about defining what a real man is and somehow extending that definition to every man.

Yeah, our political battles, especially in the US but everywhere around the world, are so often about what masculinity is. But wrestling and action movies externalize that question in really interesting ways. So how has wrestling evolved along with our idea of what being a man is? Or hasn’t it?

To some degree, what you’re observing in these wrestlers-turned-actors is reflective of the evolving understanding of what a real man is and how a real man is to behave in the real world. But these are not exclusive. It’s not like the representation is on one side and the reality is on the other.

One of the things that was always fascinating to me about wrestlers is how gentle they were with each other. When wrestlers greeted each other back in the day at the gym, they would go, “Hey, man,” and they would slide two fingers [on both sides of the other man’s wrist] and barely touch. And that was how they would touch each other in the ring. You’d barely feel it. Because they have to work together to make the spectacle, wrestlers have to be extraordinarily sensitive to each other’s bodies and spirits in the ring. You can’t throw someone across the ring safely unless the two of you are communicating really well and your bodies are touching in exactly the right way.

I always felt in the wrestlers’ gym that the point of the gentle greeting that I saw was that they were saying to each other, “I can hold it back. I am in control of this. I don’t have to hurt you. But if you push me the wrong way, I will pound you into the pavement.” And I’ve seen that as well. So masculinity [in the wrestling gym] was about having the power but also the restraint and following the rules.

If you’re talking about the guys on Fox News or Donald Trump, they didn’t learn that lesson. What’s appealing about a John Cena or a Dwayne Johnson is that they’ve had that lesson. What’s revolting about these other men is that they didn’t get the memo that first you learn to cooperate, and then you beat someone up.

Donald Trump in 2007 for the Battle of the Billionaires was taught very carefully his stunt with Vince McMahon where he threw him down and pretended to punch him. And then he actually almost hurt Vince McMahon in throwing him down and punching him. He didn’t pull his punches. He wasn’t gentle. He missed the lesson he was given and went for it because he didn’t know the difference between how one is supposed to perform in this context.

When I was teaching a women and drama course at Columbia over 30 years ago, I used to argue with the women in my class. “Do you simply want to hear what everybody playing by the rules says, or do you want to see what they’re suppressing, what violence, what impulses are really there? Is it better to have those things repressed so that we can all get along and pretend to be civilized? Or should we, once in a while, open up and see what’s really going on here?” It’s no less violent for being oppressed. It’s no less violent for being gentle. It just means that we know how to be acceptable in those performances.

It may be appealing to see these wrestlers-turned-actors being vulnerable and showing us their feeling selves. But I wonder what is not being seen as a result and if that’s still the more meaningful takeaway from these performances.

Correction, May 26: An earlier version of this story said Sharon Mazer’s class was about women and trauma. It is women and drama.

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