Theatre

Theatre of the mind

John Bemrose July 26 1999
Theatre

Theatre of the mind

John Bemrose July 26 1999

A groin-grab for ratings

Bob Levin

Say this for the brains behind the World Wrestling Federation, they have no shortage of bad ideas. Over two hours, minus commercials, the Raw is War scriptwriters (or “creative team,” as WWF.com calls them) have their muscled menagerie bash each other with fists, feet, a broom, shovel, guitar, nightstick, houseplant, trash can and several steel chairs, one of which leaves its 500lb. victim dripping with lovingly photographed fake blood. The combatants—with names like The Rock, The Undertaker, Meat, Mr. Ass and Stone Cold Steve Austin—fight in the ring, in the halls, in a cage, they flip the finger, grab their groins, dress up as women, though mostly they favour manly ensembles of spandex and leather. They hurl obscenities, they hit low. Mega-babes abound, there to strut, stomp, pull hair and whatever else will help their men; the women project surly stares and impossibly prominent breasts, which the tittering announcer calls “puppies.”

In case you’ve never seen it, there it is. If you’re a dad who says you watched wrestling when you were young, meaning it’s fine for your kids, too, watch again.

Pro wrestling is a pop-culture phenomenon, a megabucks marketing success story (cable’s top draw in the States), and at its raunchiest, WWF-style, it’s scary stuff: not merely violent and vulgar but trafficking in crude racial and sexual stereotypes, in S and M and soft porn, all loosely wrapped in twisted soap plots and hyped with fireworks, pounding rock and Jerry Springer-type “talk.” With this concoction Vince McMahon’s WWF has slammed rival Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling in their ratings war; McMahon has even put himself into the act as the despotic boss—sort of Dave Nichols meets Dr. Evil. Match that, Ted and Jane.

And how do peace-loving Canadians take to McMahon’s mayhem? Quite nicely: TSN’s three Raw is War broadcasts average a combined 770,000 viewers each week. In February, the WWF not only put 43,000 people into Toronto’s SkyDome (the show will be back in Toronto this week) but drew aTV audience of 789,000 for that single telecast—compared with 400,000 for a typical Blue Jays game. TSN insists only 20 per cent of its wrestling viewers are under 18 years old. But that’s still a lot of kids, and they respond as only kids can.

Last January, Winnipeg educators complained that grade-school kids were imitating TV wrestlers by grabbing their crotches and yelling “Suck it”—in some cases at teachers. They asked networks to air wrestling late in the even-

Allan Fotheringham is on vacation. Bob Levin is Executive Editor of Maclean’s.

ing, which sounds reasonable enough. But TSN spokesman David Rosenbloom says the network was already running a may-offend warning, and after the Winnipeg complaints it tightened the editing of its 4 p.m. show, which airs when kids are just home from school. Bottom line: TSN has to balance the opinions of all its audience, says Rosenbloom, “and the majority of people say, ‘Hey, show it to us more, and stop editing.’ ”

No surprise there—some people can’t get enough of Springer or Howard Stern, all of us slow to look at car wrecks. So why bother wondering why TSN—The Sports Network—runs wrestling’s scripted chaos in the first place? Well, it’s “sports entertainment,” comes the reply, just like spelling bees, dog shows and strongman competitions. Any use pointing out that those others actually are competitions?

Nor have the shots at wrestling come only from outsiders. On May 23 in Kansas City, Mo., 33-year-old Owen Hart of Calgary’s famous wrestling clan—the father of two young children he refused to let watch the WWF—plunged 78 feet into the ring while being lowered by cable. The crowd thought it was part of the act; the show went on. The Hart family has filed a wrongful death suit against the WWF, seeking unspecified damages. Owen’s widow, Martha, says pro wrestling, zealous for ratings, “has become a showy display of graphic violence, sexual themes and dangerous stunts.” Then there’s Rena Mero—the wrestler Sable—who’s also suing (for $ 110 million), claiming the WWF tried to bully her into obscene acts. A surgically boosted blond who had posed nude for Playboy, Mero balked at a dress-ripping scene that would have left her topless on national TV. That cost her the championship, she says, and later in the change room she found “all my things smeared with human feces.” The WWF, she says, is “out of control. It not only reflects everything that is bad in society, it condones it and takes it a step further.” OK, so Meros attack of social consciousness seems a mite self-serving. And heck, what’s the big deal? Wrestling is pretty cartoonish, rough fun that may even be cathartic for some, and anyway, it’s free enterprise and if you don’t want your kid watching then turn off the TV Sure, except that what kids can’t watch at home they watch at someone else’s home, or soak up by playground osmosis. The sanctioned sadism, the blatant sexism, the up-yours bravado: it’s inescapable, a form of air pollution. And kids are such wonderful mimics.

Last May in Dallas, a seven-year-old boy ran at his threeyear-old brother, thrusting one arm at his neck and killing him. The seven-year-old, in tears, said he meant no harm, he was just imitating a wrestling move he’d seen on TV.