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Barbara Ruth Burke*

Wrestling Audiences:
An Ethnographic Study of Television Viewers

Volume 14, 2001

Television coverage has influenced professional wrestling, expanding its popularity and legitimacy as an entertainment form. The purpose of this study was to examine the culture of professional wrestling audiences as interpretative communities, and to determine how they understand and use wrestling. Using ethnographic analysis and unstructured interviews, five sets of observations were made of 18-23-year-old TV viewers in small-to medium-sized groups. The findings suggest when social viewers become fans, they collectively interpret, in creative and adaptive ways. These audiences also use knowledge of the wrestling viewing experience to shape their understanding of the world, and to bind together their particular, shared culture.

“Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages...WWF proudly brings you...the Champions of the World.”

Thus begins a televised segment, which at once promises “top-notch excitement,” yet also recollects the hawking of Barnum’s circuses and side-shows. Televised professional wrestling in America is a popular, widely-viewed phenomenon--both the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW) run programming on cable many nights of the week, and enjoy extremely high television ratings. For instance, the WWF’s “Raw is War [program] is viewed by five million households weekly, and by February 2000 it had ranked as the most watched cable television program for forty-eight weeks in a row” (DeVine, 2000, p. 6). Additionally fans can access more information about the “sport” and its participants in numerous magazines, books, and web pages, and buy wrestling theme products at countless outlets. In 2000, more than 2.5 million people paid admission to WWF live events, and the WWF corporation’s merchandise grossed over $400 million in sales. The rival WCW worked with Warner Brothers Studios to develop a movie featuring wrestlers, created wrestling associated or supporting recordings, and began opening wrestling theme restaurants (Katz, 1999; Katz, 2000). During 2000, autobiographies by WWF wrestlers were placed at number one and number three by the New York Times’ bestseller lists. Wrestlers appeared in MTV videos and feature films, and as action figures, T-shirt patterns, and cartoon characters.

Social commentators, parents, and cultural “watchdogs” have worried about the impact of wrestling on the American mind and American society. Many articles in the popular press aim to identify and discredit professional wrestling as a form of low-brow entertainment which will drag down the high-minded cultural tastes of the American public (Billups, 1999; Kranz, 1999; Lipsyte, 1999; Roberts, 1999; Rosellini, 1999; Stracham, 1999). The emphasis upon the impact of the grotesque, outlandish, overtly sexual, and aggressive representations assumes that our society would otherwise pick more refined fare, the level of collectively-held taste of our culture is facing a serious challenge, and media audiences are ill-equipped to handle the powerful onslaught of these vile, domineering messages.

This project assumes a different perspective. From an assortment of options of various types, mass communication audiences regularly select, consume, and interpret widely-disseminated, corporately-produced messages. Television audiences are not victims of the programmers who offer only “trash TV.” Rather, audiences choose what they do because the shows provide pleasures. Television viewing audiences and individuals who are mentally and socially active use mediated messages to create an “interpretative reality”—understood within social rule-following, historically-situated, specific contexts. When viewers become fans, this reality form is collectively applied in creative and adaptive ways to shape their understanding of the world, and to bind together their particular, shared viewing culture.
Ethnographic analysis allows for the possibility of describing aspects of the wrestling fan culture. Attaching a critical perspective to ethnographic methods also allows for examining the relation between the text and the viewers, and the complex of interpretative activities, in regard to questions of social status, power, and ideology. By observing audience groups in the process of interpretation, this project is able to note dialogic relationships with the text. The procedure allows for seeing ways which the audience is embedded in a network of ongoing cultural practices and relationships (Ang, 1989). Further, it opens the possibility to investigate the claim that the “ideological apparatus of television” (Morley, 1989) may actually offer a possibility for alternative readings—for cultural struggles over meanings, pleasure, and the connection of viewing to the fabric of everyday life.

The purpose of this research project is to determine how audiences and fans understand and use wrestling.

Review of literature
Two types of studies are pertinent. The first focuses upon the interpretation of live performances of wrestling. It also emphasizes the development and interpretation of particular wrestling “characters,” such as heroes or villains. The second examines the intersection between sports viewing and the mediated, packaged, dramatized experience of televised sports.

Live Performances and Characters
Several studies of wrestling have focused on the activities within the “ring,” the movements of contestants and their meanings. In a semiotic analysis of wrestling as a “spectacle of excess,” Barthes (1972) asserted the primary function of the wrestler is to perform expected motions. When done well, these motions have unambiguous, immediately-read meanings which are intelligible representations of moral situations (such as rightfulness, refined cruelty, and payback). The “visual data” of sport-related activities thus serves as the signs and symbols that the contest uses to tell wrestling fans about everyday, familiar struggles (Signorile, 1988; Turner, 1982). Wrestling moves are said to reflect many of the nuances of classical theatre (deGaris, 1999; Mazer, 1998).

Within the ringside drama, regional biases, racial stereotypes, political antagonisms, and contemporary political interests have been employed in the creation of recognizable wrestling characters (Kyriakoudes & Cocianis, 1997; Maguire, 1987; Mondak, 1989). The tensions between characters, played as “good” and as “evil” within the wrestling match, can thereby be used to understand the conflicts and embedded logic which frame both fan-subculture and dominant cultural sensibilities (Ball, 1989). The wrestlers regularly give socially-inspired performances, wherein the wrestlers create “what the public wants...the image of passion” (Barthes, 1972, p. 18).

Televised Sports
Television coverage, from the 1950s to the contemporary period, has influenced professional wrestling—expanding its popularity and legitimacy as an entertainment form. Brummett and Duncan (1992) claimed the “process of mediation” changes the sensibilities and the essential characteristics of sport watching, making it something very much unlike a live event. They asserted this is due to the mass media logics associated with objectifying and commodifying the experience. The entertainment experience of televised sport viewing becomes a form of “purchased” escapism. The manufactured emotional highs and lows of the “contest of the season” provide viewers vicarious short-term thrills, without any personal risks to themselves, and offer a subsequent conversation topic the following day back at the secure and predictable workplace (Himmelstein, 1984).

In place of athletic contests, sport on television is oftentimes depicted as a form of elaborate drama, with plots, characters, and actions the viewers are to understand in contrast to their own lives. Televised professional wrestling clearly follows this pattern, shifting sport into drama by presenting matches as ritualized or mythical presentations (Birrell, 1981; Deegan, 1989; Stone, 1971; Workman, 1979). It may even be argued that many of the more potent characters and relationships were defined centuries ago with the ancient myths; today’s dramas merely continue to work upon the themes and further reify present conditioned responses to stereotypes (Burke, 1990).
The literature reviewed in the areas of wrestling sports studies, wrestling character studies, and televised sport studies provides many conceptual questions for this project to explore or extend. First, although the symbolic interpretations of the live wrestling experience have been described by Barthes and others, the layers of decoding which take place when understanding televised constructions of wrestling have not been adequately explored. Also, whereas Barthes’ work examined French arena audiences in the 1950s, this project examines American television audiences at the end of the century. Second, whereas an extensive amount of research is devoted to character development and identification, this study expands the conclusions others have offered regarding wrestling personalities, asking rather if the viewer can empathize and identify aspects of the character as reflections of the self. And, lastly, as the sports viewing studies suggest but never fully explore, the experience of watching television is itself an activity requiring media literacy skills. One must be able to identify dominant readings in order to create the possibilities for alternative interpretations, for acknowledgments of dramatic conventions, and for the creation of a sub-culture which derives particular pleasures from being part of a story others don’t understand or fail to fully appreciate.

This research looks for answers by exploring the ways that communities of viewers of televised professional wrestling relate to shows as acknowledged, dramatically manufactured stories offering presented heroes and villains. Wrestling viewing is thus seen by this study to be one of the pleasures offered by television which may “evade, resist, or scandalize ideology and social control” (Fiske, 1987, p. 240).
The purpose of this research project was to determine if groups of contemporary fans of televised wrestling programs develop a unique set of interpretative strategies for filtering visual data and nonverbal messages. This study attempts to describe the ways in which fans construct readings of the televised professional wrestling viewing experience, and to understand what wrestling fans enjoy so enthusiastically.
This project applies this thematic focus while addressing the following specific questions: How do audience groups participate in the viewing experience? How do viewers make sense of the programs? And, with their “oversized men and women in Spandex battling nearly nightly” (Jurek, 1998), does the wrestling industry still successfully create a drama which can resonate with our cultural mythology?

Using ethnographic analysis, telling the stories of ordinary people through narratives built out of their own particular cultural understandings, this article shows how people participate in interpretative activities and construct meanings. This perspective frames the broader theoretical concepts about the way audience members use television, and the nature of relationships of interpretation and cultural formation (e.g., Brown, 1991).

To examine the culture of televised wrestling audiences as interpretative communities, during 1998 and 1999 five sets of observations were made of viewers in small-to medium-sized groups, in public settings, in dormitory TV lounges, and in private homes. It was essential that the viewing was done socially, for the project specifically examines the activities and interactions of groups of viewers.

Volunteer participants in the study were recruited through campus and community announcements, and through acquaintance networks. Friends of the wrestling program viewers in the studied households or dormitories were invited to join in watching and discussing.
All of the viewers were between eighteen and twenty-three years old. The study consisted of nineteen males and eight females. This group represents nearly an average makeup for the regular viewing audience for televised, professional wrestling (Stracham, 1999; Dempsey, 2001).

Notes and audio recordings, which were later transcribed, were made during the viewing times. Interviews about the audience members’ relations to the programs, expectations for the characters, and viewing habits were conducted as participants left the experience.
In the study, participant-observations and unstructured interviews were meshed to investigate the ways meanings are constructed by wrestling program viewers. Follow-up e-mail conversations and secondary interviews were employed to elaborate some observation details and to study assertions about interpretations viewers suggested. Examinations of clusters of audience member responses were also used to investigate ways the viewer perceptions of television messages coincided with enduring American cultural myths.

The theoretical approach of reader-reception criticism was used, wherein the specific intersections between readers/ viewers and the “text” of television programs are examined to determine how meaning is constructed in particular cases. Reader-reception theory was also used to suggest how ideology is produced and how it functions to uphold particular types of relationships (Hall & Neitz, 1993; Liebes & Katz, 1989; Seiter, Borchers, Kreutzner & Warth, 1989).

The group setting
Professional wrestling programs are often two or three hours in duration, and different contests are shown on many nights each week. In explaining why the shows can be so long and so often, Mike, an enthusiastic, regular viewer who greatly enjoyed the camaraderie of the viewing experience asserted: “all good Nitro fans stay till the end.” He offered that the fans encourage each other to stay, and that friends have dared him to “blow off” other plans in favor of spending the entire evening with them watching wrestling shows.

Regular fans commit to the evening’s viewing, but some attempt to mesh the watching with other activities, especially when watching at home. Some of the female participants in the study cooked dinner, folded laundry, or attempted to read during portions of the show. Similarly, the male participants talked on the phone—to other friends also viewing the program in some instances; entered and left the room—with the television on the whole time; switched back and forth between the networks showing wrestling and the cable movie channels; acted as if they might attempt to start reading or complete other school activities. Whether in public or at home, participants always dressed casually, and often sprawled on the floor, propped themselves up with pillows, or reclined.

One evening began with just two viewers in the living room of a student apartment. I was seated at a couch away from most of the action, trying not to interfere. A college-aged male was in a ratty chair, and his girlfriend was seated on a couch directly in front of a large television set. Their sparse home’s coffee table held copies of Muscle magazine, some stray miscellaneous mail, and some chips in a bowl. Cindy was eager to explain what was happening, and to initiate me into the experience. She seemed especially interested in gaining a fellow female fan, and hoped to get me enthused. We were a bit early, and while we were waiting for some of their friends to come over, Cindy emphasized the social nature of wrestling viewing in saying, “You need more people to get excited.” She seemed genuinely relieved when three more folks entered and she could display the “real deal” for me more fully.

In other instances as well, it was roundly acknowledged that an essential part of the experience was watching with others. Many participants agreed that the crowd was an element in their enjoyment of the programs, and noted the construction of a community that existed because of the hype. Regular, collective viewing was deemed necessary to keep current with the wrestling characters and to maintain viewer status in the social group—“Everyone talks about the champion wrestlers, and that is pretty cool, if you can keep up,” said Bob, a relatively quiet and serious viewer.

Physical activities while viewing
Most wrestlers have theme music which viewing fans easily recognize, and often like. During my observations, on multiple evenings, Cindy, Bob, Tom, and Scott un-self-consciously sang along, or got up and somewhat awkwardly danced in the same way the television character moved. A favorite set of wrestlers were the New Age Outlaws. Their trademark “suck it” expression, crotch pointing, and hip thrusting move were copied enthusiastically by all of the groups of young men in the rooms of viewers. This copying seemed to be variously a show of masculine social empathy and a form of hero emulation.

The groups of viewers often became physically animated—jumping up, re-enacting the wrestlers’ signature entrances, reciting their mottoes, or performing their winning moves on other members of the home audience. During a session in a crowded campus TV lounge, with a collection of two females and five males sprawled across all of the chairs, upon the floor, and standing against the window sill, the action on television became unbearably exciting to the group. The viewers seemed unable to control their shouts and enthusiasm. Almost spontaneously, the audience started posing as the depicted contestants. They began to wrestle in the lounge, grunting, shoving each other, and rolling around. During the fast-paced activity, Sue’s blue jeans were ripped up to the thigh by Justin and Tom during a mock move. They offered no apology, and when I asked them later about the incident, they all seemed to think such behavior was “normal for a night of Nitro.” This scenario was not uncommon. In many observations, different viewers began to pretend to beat each other up, using “professional moves” like the “diamond cutter” or “suplex.”

Televised actions and depictions, which I would label as violence, the viewers saw as character moves of the staged play within the wrestling ring. The actor/wrestlers would inflict injury with fancy moves that involved beating others with their feet or fists, or available hard and heavy objects; biting; hair pulling; and body slamming. The idea that it was acceptable for members of the home audience to hit, kick, and bite each other, or tear someone else’s clothing did not seem to be a “reality boundary”-violation to the audiences I studied. Rather, the groups’ behaviors suggested that they viewed the specific environment they constructed during group television watching to be an extension of the show. It was seen as a place with its own reality and rules, within which a set of interactions that may be surprising to outsiders were acceptable and normal among those who understood the values of the special setting they had constructed.

Real, though minor, injuries, and damage to clothing and furniture were considered acceptable consequences. Being “caught in the moment” was the explanation, which was rarely offered as an apologetic excuse, for no forms of guilt or remorse seemed to be felt. Rather, being “in the moment” seemed to be among the primary reasons fans returned to watch, with the same people, again and again. Here, with their friends, they could act up and act out ridiculous forms of stylized aggression with few negative ramifications, because the group understood each other. They knew fighting was tolerated, bickering and swearing was permitted, and that friendships centered around shared entertainment choices would last, at least through the programs.

Viewer rule and role establishing behaviors
This ad-hoc community has several explicit rules about the types of viewer behaviors permitted. Channel “surfing”—switching between the two competing wrestling programs, especially during commercials and skits—is common. It is usually done by the home owner/ television owner. In dorms and bars, the rule seems to be that the first viewers may stake control, until the most socially dominant members of the viewing group arrive. Females are rarely allowed control of remotes within this community, and when viewing in couples, females oftentimes go along with the program choices of their partners. On one particular night, when channel switching between wrestling shows on WWF and WCW was taking place during a group viewing in a campus TV lounge, Sara strongly exclaimed “Don’t switch it!” and when she didn’t get her way she whined “go back. I want ‘War’ [the nickname of a WWF program]. Usually it isn’t better, but today it’s better.” The change was explained by Beth (who had the TV’s remote control) as “I don’t like the outfits.” Sara and Beth had been in the lounge first, and had selected the evening’s programming, but soon were forced out of the privilege of decision-making. Their discussion regarding decision criteria (“outfits”) was followed by “over-the-top” verbal outrage and mild physical aggression from other viewers. Joe, Steve, and Scott ganged up, put Beth in a wrestling hold, took away the remote control and effectively silenced her “inappropriate reasoning” for the rest of the evening.

On a different night, during a WCW wrestling match the following exchange occurred. Steve boasted that he had performed the particularly flamboyant wrestling move just shown on television. Sara replied, “That was the dumbest move I’ve ever seen.” Steve defensively fired back the retort “You know what? You should just stop talking, you don’t know anything about anything.” This quieted Sara, and emphasized Steve’s dominance within the group. Several laughs from other viewers were made at Sara’s expense.
Unpopular evaluations from less socially-powerful men were also replied to with group-tolerated, abrupt or crass criticism. When Scott said “That wrestler sucks” about a viewing group’s favorite, Steve’s defensive exclamation was “shut up, YOU suck.” When Dave complained about the acting quality, he was told by Steve, “You know what Dave, you analyze everything too damn much. Just shut up and enjoy it.” It was clear that Steve set the rules, and that the others in the viewing community accepted the way his authority was maintained.
Steve regularly acted stronger and more aggressive in the viewing group than in his other social encounters. Perhaps the program encouraged, or at least normalized, the shouting and crass forms of interaction. Steve’s dominating behavior was considered part of the regular, overall wrestling watching experience for his group. Despite the insults and bullying, when asked, all of the viewers in the groups considered themselves friends, looked forward to collective television watching, and seemed generally unbothered by the level of criticism and control Steve demanded.

Shared interpretative assumptions
The groups tolerated some types of on-going interpretative commentary from viewers. They would, with varying degrees of seriousness relative to the status of the speaker, scold statements which the group deemed as displaying inappropriate readings of the material, or a lack of knowledge about the sensibilities of the matches.

“Are you ready to RRRrumble!!” was announced before the last match of a particular night. The crowd around me became particularly attentive. For my behalf, with pity for my perceived, enduring ignorance, the importance of the match was explained by Bob, who spoke for the gathered viewers. He was in his apartment he shared with Cindy. Jeff, Sue, Karen, and Andy were also there, laying on couch cushions thrown on the floor, draped over the arms of chairs, and sitting on the coffee table. This match featured Brett Hart and Hulk Hogan, teamed against Sting and the “Ultimate Warrior.” The history of the contestants, the team combinations, and the developments of the “villains” were told with conclusive statements. It was clear they wanted me to cheer along, but only for their favorites. In filtering and describing the discrimination values and sensibilities of the fan community, Bob emphasized that we were there for the entertainment, not the sport. Cindy added, “WWF is more for people who like wrestling, and WCW (What we were then watching) is more to see people bicker and beat each other up.”

Between wrestling matches, skits and “off-ring” activities are shown to TV viewers. Program producers use them to further the character definitions, and to explain or amplify the grudges between wrestlers, teams of wrestlers, or wrestlers and the fight organization. In a lengthy discussion in a dormitory TV lounge, during a generally ordinary skit starring wrestler Hulk Hogan announcing he had political aspirations, Mike suggested Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky “would be a cool celebrity guest match.” The viewing group erupted in laughter and approval. The idea of “really angry chicks having at it” seemed especially appealing to the audience.

On television, Hogan was promoting himself and his newly-announced candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Hogan started a diatribe about Jesse “the mind” Ventura, suggested he could always beat Jesse, and so he was a reasonable contender for high office. Sara cringed and whimpered to no one in particular, “How embarrassing, Minnesota is represented by an ex-pro wrestler.” Almost unanimously, the group members grumbled that voting is usually meaningless, and government is usually laughable. To assert his difference in this discussion, and probably to impress me that he is the “intellectual” leader in the group, Steve stated with conviction “I wouldn’t vote for any wrestler“ because although wrestling is fake, politics are a different kind of fakeness, which takes itself too seriously.
The assumed shared opinions about “political” issues and knowledge, the celebrity focus in American politics, and the lack of potency of the election system were implied throughout the exchange. Furthermore, Steve and the others clearly believed that politics were just another form of grudge match, carried on by people who inhabited a foreign social strata, but were every bit as (potentially) violent and ridiculous as the wrestlers. As a group, the viewers believed that this conclusion was something they knew about the world, that other, non-wrestling fans didn’t understand.

“Reading” villains and dirty tricks
In many instances, the viewers dismiss portions of the produced skits as “filler,” as narratives which are artificial and amplified entertainment. The wrestlers’ claims, boasts, stated tensions, and needs for vengeance are all perceived as staged events to fill time between the matches. However, they are still perceived as meaningful for this fan community, within the broader understanding of the wrestling viewing experience. Discussion of skit content provides an opportunity for the TV viewer to share and cement interpretative biases concerning the fairness of the real world as well as that of the wrestling world. Viewers who may laugh about the wrestler antics still use the portrayed information to discern who is on which team, which alliances are strengthened or severed, and ultimately who are the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Additionally, since villains have the potential to be transformed, and heroes can slide from favor, the text, in all of its perceived silliness, also serves to emphasize the transitory nature of popularity and success for many fans.

Viewers seemed to personalize or clarify their interpretations, based on ideas from these skits and associated available texts on web pages, in e-mail chat rooms for fans, in wrestling association magazines, and in wrestler “biographies.” Additionally, in interviews and discussions, viewers offer their own culturally-specific readings and reasoning to explain the popularity of certain personalities and enduring wrestling sensibilities.

Quiet people like Joe suggest that villains like the “Undertaker” are admirable, and Karen confesses she wishes she could be a sexy and slutty wrestling diva like “Tori.” In several other instances as well, especially rude characters are named as favorite wrestlers by fans who admire, but would never in their own lives (outside the group TV wrestling viewing experience) actually allow themselves to emulate the celebrity’s behaviors. The gruesome, extreme costumes and exaggerated displays of pain and suffering are seen by some fans as a reinforcement of what they already understand—that evil and ugliness can win and prosper, and that “life is unfair.”
When members of the “front office” are ridiculed and attacked in skits and at ringside, viewers tell me they like the notion of “sticking it to the man.” Viewers often assert that the management of WWF and WCW are the real moneymakers, and that wrestlers are encouraged into escalating levels of danger in matches.

Groups of viewers often commented on the performers’ “dirty tricks” that they simultaneously criticized and admired. Fairness was a relative concept, related to who “had it coming” and “payback” as much as to a balance of strengths and talents for any given match or depiction. Fans of the wrestler Goldberg, such as Justin, explain that his favorite is strong, but wins because he is fast and clever, and that he regularly “comes out and kicks ass!”

Viewers suggested that wrestlers had amplified the very real struggle of the good man who can not get ahead by playing by the rules. Tricks and surprises were deemed necessary in order to stay competitive in a world where everyone else was taking shortcuts, hiding secret weapons, and making dirty deals. Rules were also seen by televised wrestling viewers as artificial and non-enforceable. In a world of “dirty tricks” and celebrity privileges, wrestling referees were seen as “bumbling idiots” by fans such as Andy, who quietly watched wrestling several times per week, often in friends’ apartments. Authority figures were thus perceived by the groups of viewers as symbolic of the inability, indifference, or ineffectiveness of socially controlling institutions (such as police or government) to protect the interests of people like themselves.

Ironic interpretations
The question about whether a wrestling contest was legitimate sport, or “real” was considered moot. In multiple instances my groups of television viewers stated their conclusion that it was “all fake.” In fact, ironic interpretation seems key to the pleasure that fans find in the wrestling viewing. For instance, in an interchange about the meaning of the wrestling contest the announcer is mocked. When the commentator says, “Do you have the feeling there is going to be history? Something makes me feel like this will be a Nitro to remember,” Bob chides in, for my benefit, “They say that every week.” Noting the absurdity of the situation, Jeff thoughtfully remarks, “I couldn’t be a commentator, I’d just be laughing.” Shortly thereafter, as the announcer says “Incredible maneuvering!” everyone in the room erupts into laughter at the obviously scripted comment. Within the avid viewing community they all act as if they all know the canned responses will be forthcoming, and find it hilarious that anyone believes comments from commentators are spontaneous or genuine responses to unexpected wrestling ring occurrences.

Research participants are keenly aware that they watch programming, rather than sport. When asked during individualized interviews who will win next, several declared the wrestling fake and predictions a strange interest. Many claimed they watched because friends did, because they were known by others to be wrestling fans, or because they enjoyed being seen watching by acquaintances who passed the common-space, public TV areas in disdain during WCW or WWF viewing times.

The drama of televised wrestling programs
Wrestling promoters, like other television program producers, attempt to use a variety of techniques to create drama for the loyal viewers. Wrestling associations regularly offer the stories of recurring passionate and vibrant characters which develop and change over time.
During one program, between fights the following on-going story was offered as a way to keep viewers involved: Before a commercial break, the wrestler “The Rattlesnake” gives Stone Cold Steve Austin a gun. Austin threatens he will shoot WWF owner Vince McMahon in center ring. The audience at the arena is depicted as cheering affirmation to the plan, and at home the viewers also exclaim “hell, yes!”
Returning from commercials (advertising a different wrestling show on the same network), the program shows Austin with the gun, and then shows McMahon on the phone, in his office, saying he wants a camera “on everything.” John and Tom are watching in John’s small apartment, while his girlfriend is in the kitchen cooking dinner. They laughingly explain the paranoia for me. They tell me it comes from a previous episode, wherein Austin filled McMahon’s car with cement, and that McMahon “had it coming for being such a hard-ass.” Because the syndicate owner is difficult, following the ethical code of wrestling fans, they feel any abuse he receives is deserved. John and Tom think the gun is strange, but do not comment otherwise on the suspense the “dramatic tension” hoped to suggest.

After a wrestling match, the program producers return to the story. Steve Austin gives “Brett the cop” an autograph in the parking lot. Tom says directly to the TV screen “smoozin’ with the coppers—now he’s gonna get in” and then explains that because of the car incident last week, Austin was supposed to be banned from entering the arena. The viewers believe power can be corrupted, and figures of authority such as the police are easily dazzled by the wrestler’s celebrity and wealth. John laughs, as if he and Tom are secretly conspirators in Austin’s plans.

Although some skits are short or inconsequential, this one continues. Almost thirty minutes later, the program returns to the saga, McMahon answers the phone—Austin is calling. Austin mutters “Your time is up, I’m coming for ya’. Ha ha.” This is followed by another commercial break, and upon return we see Austin waiting for McMahon. The viewers laugh because they decide Austin will beat up McMahon. Austin corners his boss, shows the gun and says “Squeal like a pig…louder.” McMahon replies “Oink Oink Oink,” with fear in his eyes. The viewers laugh about this abuse, and although they do not recall this as being part of a movie, they are delighted with the level of fear the owner seems to show.

Wrestling continues, then the story picks up. An hour after it began, we are shown the conclusion of this saga. Austin duct tapes McMahon’s mouth shut and threatens him. It is then revealed Austin had only a toy gun, but that McMahon was so frightened he (appeared to have) wet his pants.

The viewers thoroughly followed this plot, even though it was interspersed between several matches and other skits. Tom and John even filled in details and offered interpretations as friends dropped by to join them watching. With the others they laughed about much of the acting quality, and they explained probably more than usual because they were aware that they were being observed. The viewing group suggested not every show would have such an extended story, but that it was not uncommon for the program to spread something across an hour or two of wrestling. Tom asserted that the producers used the skit to try to keep people viewing the entire program, and that he was “on to” their tricks. John laughed and concluded that Austin and McMahon “probably go out and get a couple of beers” together after the show, and that he also was aware that this artifice was a “lame tool” to hook viewers.

These TV wrestling viewers were able to identify the manipulations and constructions which were presented specifically as “drama” or acting in the programs. From their comments, it was clear that although mainstream American culture may value hard work, authority, and wealth, instead of a story of “good guys finishing,” the theme most relevant for the enduring myth of wrestling fan culture was “payback.” These viewing fans were committed to continuing their relationships with wrestling programs because week-by-week they wanted to see the unfolding of stories such as the revenge of Austin against his boss.

Understanding drama means that the audience understands the patterns inherent in the course of action and the ways that actions are brought to conclusion. Also, as John suggests as he guesses about after-show activities, within a theatrically framed understanding, audiences know there are consequences for characters, but not for performers. All of the groups of viewers I studied would acknowledge the distinctions between wrestling characters and the actor/ athletes who played them. The viewers suggested that there were layers to reality, and that truth could be found in things which may not be real.

Wrestling fans said that real meaning could be found in actions that told about life struggles using understandable tensions which resonated with their everyday experiences, and which offered conclusions and relief. The shows were offered as displays viewers could use to construct ideas about masculinity and men’s lives. The wrestling programs contained stories about morality, duty, loyalty, and honor. Fair play and hard work were balanced against opportunity and tricks; with a logic and value system specific to wrestling fans, but nonetheless consistent and recognizable. Most importantly, the groups of viewers commented, once assumptions about evaluating realism could be discarded, they were able to identify with characters, and find pleasure in wrestling performances.

Using critical ethnographic analysis, this project investigated the ways audience groups participate in the viewing experience, make sense of the programs, and decide to be regular members of the wrestling fan culture. It found that groups of viewers create voluntary communities with agreed-upon, specific rules for speech and behavior. Members within viewing groups establish their own techniques for forming power relationships and for maintaining group ideology. The fans also negotiate their own forms of preferred readings for situations which are televised, and for those ritually and spontaneously performed by their community.

Viewing is historically, socially, and culturally situated. Because multiple aspects of the wrestling fan experience are framed by this study within locally-negotiated understandings, constructed by members of a culture drawn together by shared interpretations, the opinions and conclusions of the viewing groups studied can not be fully representative of all possible fans. Nonetheless, this projects suggests that the practices, the values, and the culture of the wrestling fan community deserve further serious scrutiny.

The members of the studied groups truly enjoyed wrestling. Many stated they received pleasure from seeing others beaten. And, the televised depictions of aggression seem an invitation to use similar language or perform similar actions within their circle of friends. The many critics of wrestling would say this means the programs teach such behaviors, or at least foster acceptance of the glorification of violence within contemporary society. Critics also suggest because the programs are offered so frequently, they displace shows with greater artistic and cultural merit. The fans studied are aware of the aesthetic placement of wrestling within this evaluative, high culture/ low culture continuum, and dismiss those who attempt extensive analysis and categorization of pleasurable entertainment. Questions about if this is good for society seem as irrelevant to the viewers as questions asking if wrestling is real. Some questions about social impact, however, should be important to the rest of us.

The first concern involves the nature of the social contact. For the people studied, watching professional wrestling is a collective experience during a decade in which Americans are reported to have fewer social/ leisure experiences. The fan community relies on the group to have the fullest level of enjoyment. They are joined together because they all regularly watch the same television content—fantasy-based consumer products designed to sell viewer time and attention to advertisers. Unlike other social pastimes, such as participation in fraternal or philanthropic organizations, sport teams, or hobby groups, the fans do not directly create the pretense for their interactions. This external control implies some amount of passivity, and minimizes some creativity. Hours spent watching television also replace the opportunity to be otherwise positively socially-engaged.

A second concern involves the nature of the program content. Wrestling involves as its core theme an undercurrent of aggression and potential acts of violence, and for the fans studied the potential for ritualized enactment of violence adds to the group-related thrills of participation. Why viewers desire and enjoy such fare, so frequently and with so much enthusiasm, is troubling if we believe that it can develop into the essential, defining part of a regular fan’s life. However, this does not seem to be the case.
Fan beliefs and attitudes have been suggested by the actions and statements recorded in this study. The fact that enjoyment is derived from the witnessing of portrayals of harmful acts, or those acts and images which the people in this study claim are meant to be interpreted as parodies of harm, is noteworthy. Similarly, any situation wherein wrestling another or ripping a friend’s clothing is seen as “normal” offers the suggestion that wrestling fans may have different values and social boundaries. It is therefore uncontroversial that while being members of the program viewing groups, televised wrestling fans create and enforce a series of rules which constitute a specific, somewhat less gentle culture than we may hope for.

In wrestling fan culture, power is maintained by aggression, by force, and by shows of strength. The control relates clearly to levels of dominance within the groups—for instance some people may lead, make comments, or change channels only when the more powerful others approve or are absent. Power seems directly linked to gender and secondarily connected to wrestling knowledge. This means the wrestling fan culture is oftentimes overtly sexist and hierarchical.

Some could argue these conclusions inadvertently transfer into the fans’ other social encounters. However, for the most part, members of the viewing groups studied realize wrestling nights are different times and spaces than the “ordinary world.” In “normal life” fans accept with some resolve the conventions of mainstream culture. During collective viewing, the greater society’s ideas about “being nice” or “being aggressive,” and the conventions associated with touching or injuring others, are temporarily modified. For this study of group viewing of televised professional wrestling, the behaviors and discourse described—including audiences swearing and shouting, shoving and spontaneously wrestling—seem extreme activities which are accepted and enjoyed. With their friends who understand the rules of the fan community, members of viewing groups feel they can watch the action on television, relax, be “in the moment,” act out, and be fully connecting at a physical level with the experience.

The mental reasoning associated with fan interpretations of the dramatic underpinnings of wrestling can also be seen as a contrast between viewer culture and their experiences with the broader, more “mainstream” American culture. The popularity of wrestling viewing in groups suggests that wrestling narratives are unlike other television fare offered. These programs “work” because they provide an opportunity for this particular collective culture to construct ironic interpretations of material they perceive to be camp, or anti-modern/post-modern physical activity and extreme slapstick. The target audience, of mostly male teens and young adults, are often perceived to be cynical folks. In their own life experiences they have heard about or seen the lack of reward given hard work, the success of (perceived) villains, the lack of shock associated with increasing levels of lewdness or vulgarity, the domination of brute aggression, the charm of celebrity, and the on-going need to construct alliances with unsavory partners. In wrestling they see all such interactions replayed as farce, with power replacing futility.
In this way, the consumption of wrestling, seen by members of my study to be a badge of “bad boy behavior” and deviance, can also be configured as a site of cultural struggle and derived strength. The particular interpretative community, the wrestling fans studied, have developed shared strategies of decoding messages, and shared rules concerning patterns of involvement. The presented interactions and familiar movements are used by fans to create larger explanations for understanding the social and personal tensions they regularly encounter. Wrestling functions to provide an explanation and clarification that these people do not find in other situations.
For fans of televised wrestling, meaning is a negotiated concept, discussed by the collective group. Viewers of televised professional wrestling participate in an on-going, yet shared, struggle related to meanings and pleasure, central to the fabric of their everyday lives. By watching an empowered audience considering the tension between the forces of good and evil, exploring various interpretations for concepts like justice, fairness, and patriotism, and creating their own endings for mythic struggles, we may begin to understand the popularity of televised professional wrestling.

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* Barbara Ruth Burke (Ph.D., Purdue University, 1995) is an assistant professor of speech communication at the University of Minnesota, Morris. She would like to thank Rachael Jurek for access to her field notes and transcripts, and Professor Loreen Olson for her advice on earlier versions of the manuscript.