The World of Wrestling
Roland Barthes is a favourite of college syllabuses spanning the breadth of humanities subjects. If you've studied anything with even a slight hint of airy-fairy, namby-pamby humanities about it, you've probably had at least a brush with Barthes. However, if there's one thing he doesn't get enough credit for, it's the degree to which he 'got' wrestling.
The prospect of Mythologies, a collection of essays written by a French philosopher/theorist/semiotician in the 1950s, may not seem particularly enticing. However, the subject matter that Barthes chooses to inspect in his search for myth in the the modern world - such as depictions of the Romans in film, the techniques used to advertise detergent and, of course, professional wrestling - are tangible enough to any reader that his essays are completely compelling. Barthes demonstrates that ideas that only high-brow subjects are worthy of study are false, and proper consideration of just about any cultural artefact can produce an interesting result. Even though Barthes only discusses pro wrestling for a few pages, Mythologies as a whole is proof that there is a lot that we can learn by looking, as he does, at things like hokey movies, TV ads and Monday Night Raw.
That being said, let's focus on 'The World of Wrestling' for now. In the essay, Barthes breaks down his experience of watching a wrestling match unfold based on his experience of a single bout. As you can imagine, Barthes shows less interest in the vanilla face of the day that the 'bastard' heel, Thauvin. Thauvin is described as a 'fifty-year-old with an obese and sagging body' (p. 5) and as possessing a 'type of asexual hideousness' (p. 5). Whilst a wrestling villain by no means has to be physically unattractive to work a crowd, this technique has never gone out of fashion, whether it be the supposedly burned face of Kane in the 1990s or the similarly horrifying visage of Christian to give a more current example, the sort of face that provokes some form of disgust in an audience is an undeniably effective way of getting a crowd to react.
The match that Barthes describes has no doubt played out countless times from bingo halls to the Tokyo Dome, as the moral hero overcomes the 'treacheries, cruelties and acts of cowardice' (p. 5) that the villain throws at him. The crowd loves to see Thauvin reap what he has sown, and Barthes' analysis of the basic semiotics of how they are shepherded into this reaction by the wrestlers is as pertinent now as it was back in France during the 1950s.
But, the construction around the wrestling match that Barthes saw is very different to a wrestling match that you would watch today.
What Barthes saw was a travelling show running through the town perhaps for one night only. Any narrative that the wrestlers wanted to construct had to take place over the course of that one night - the crowd did not expect a story with any real sort of complexity as several such stories would have to be told, in full, over the course of but a few hours. The framework that Barthes provides still holds up when looking at the most basic mechanics of a wrestling match, but various changes in the very form of a wrestling show over the past sixty years have significantly widened the scope of what there is to prod and poke at when studying professional wrestling.
In another excellent essay about pro wrestling, 'WWF Wrestling as Masculine Melodrama', Henry Jenkins III the effects that the 'narrative mechanisms of television' have had on wrestling, explicitly referencing Barthes' focus on the 'discrete event' (p. 34), one of many such forces then unknown to Barthes that have helped shape pro wrestling as we know it today. Since Barthes was writing about Thauvin's exploits, the 'world of wrestling' has no doubt expanded exponentially, and with it, the scope of elements large and small to examine.