Spandex, shticks and spectacle – wrestling takes performing hyper-masculinity to the point of drag. Annie Fell discusses gender performativity, homoeroticism and Camp in professional wrestling.
Considering the respective mainstream ascents of lip synching competitions, contouring, and Cher’s twitter account, it is, by now, essentially common knowledge that the hetero hegemony of pop culture owes quite a lot to queers. At the heart of these trends is a performance of gender that generally doesn’t make its way to the forefront of public consciousness, especially when it comes to the more masculine side of the spectrum. From Bruce Springsteen’s working class hero act to Justin Timberlake’s Man of the Woods mishegas, mainstream pop culture has been marked by decades’ worth of caricatures of traditional “manhood.” It’s this normalization of performative masculinity that has allowed professional wrestling – the kind of wrestling replete with costumes, characters, and vaguely erotic melodrama – to go unnoticed as one of our culture’s most successful genres of drag.
If I remember anything from my high school Latin class, it’s that really all the ancient Romans and Greeks did for fun was dress up as women and fight each other (though not at the same time, as hot as that would have been). Because filthy, idiot women were not allowed to disgrace the sacred theatre, men assumed the female roles in productions. Not quite La Cage aux Folles, but still technically drag. Also toeing the line between aggressively masculine and extremely homoerotic, classical Greco-Roman style wrestling involved a lot of “grappling” and “holding,” if its Wikipedia page is to be believed. Modern professional wrestling of the WWE/ECW/SmackDown variety is nearly unrecognizable from the days of sweaty Greek men sparring over who gets to take home their young male “apprentice,” and drag has gotten exponentially better since straight people lessened their involvement, but the two undeniably emerged from the same cultural lineage.
In the millennia since its inception, drag has evolved into perhaps the most fabulous facet of queer culture, with wigs, lip synching, and contour for the gods, henny. Professional wrestling, meanwhile, has become the pastime of rednecks and tween boys alike, mainly for its high-flying stunts, character arcs, and good ol’ fashioned dude-on-dude action. However, while these two time-honored traditions have each shifted into seemingly polar subcultures, they have only grown increasingly similar throughout the years.
Wrestling and drag are perhaps the two most mainstream schools of Camp in America. Each performer creates and constantly develops their own elaborate, flamboyant character, often complete with signature costumes, theme songs, and catchphrases. Take Mr. Ass of WWE fame for example: he has a very clear shtick, which is that he loves ass. In his song “AssMan,” he declares “I love to love ‘em/ I love to kick ‘em.” While he’s obviously a fan of asses at large, the crux of Mr. Ass’s character is that he loves his own ass, as evidenced by his signature shirt that demands, “Four words: check out my ass” (which, by the way, I’m shocked has not been recreated by Wacky Wacko).
Though not necessarily always the explicit intention behind the characters and their performances, drag and wrestling function as gender kabuki. Drag is very obviously meant to be a performance of gender, often satirizing the standards to which women are held by fully embodying literally all of them at the same time. However, the humor intended in the intense hyper-masculinity of wrestling tends to go undetected.
Taken at face value, wrestling is the embodiment of toxic masculinity: aggressive dominance, extreme and altogether unnecessary violence, and offensively bad style. Though there’s a level of self-awareness, wrestling’s ultimate glorification and rewarding of violent machismo doesn’t make for effective social commentary when a substantial chunk of the paying audience – i.e., the people shelling out money for tickets and pay-per-view as opposed to those nostalgically watching old Royal Rumble clips on YouTube – probably isn’t particularly socially aware to begin with.
Violence and aggressive confidence are tropes of conventional masculinity, and it’s not a coincidence that they’re also the very basis of professional wrestling. Wearing an alarmingly tight outfit designed to showcase borderline cartoonish muscles and provide the mobility necessary to Sweet Chin Music, wrestlers takes masculinity to its furthest, most laughable extreme. This is similar to the motivation behind a drag queen tucking their junk back with duct tape, squeezing into a corset, and contouring their face into oblivion – it takes what we aspire to, abhor, or are just amused by about our identities to outlandish heights. Whether subconsciously or not, the urge to live up to or reject your gender is probably one of the biggest factors in defining yourself. Gender is already basically a form of performance in regular day-to-day life, so to see that called out and taken to its furthest extreme is invigorating.
Stone Cold Steve Austin showering himself in Coors Light may not have the same capacity for contributing to the discourse of gender politics as drag often does – at the risk of making an ass out of you and me, tween boys and rednecks are probably not as naturally socially aware as drag’s overwhelmingly gay and female audience – but their roots of their humor remain the same. Even if Mr. Ass’s hot pants won’t make a tween boy in the Bible Belt consciously question his relationship to his own gender, it’s undeniable that, with a decent tuck, Mr. Ass could totally be America’s Next Drag Superstar.