I have love/hate relationship with professional wrestling.
When I was a kid, my dad, my brother and I adored the WCW. We watched them on free tv and occasionally bought pay-per-views. We ate at Mean Gene Okerlund’s awful hamburger joint. We even went to a local show at the Civic Center where we got to see one of my favorites, Disco Inferno, LIVE and in person!!!
I thought Miss Elizabeth was the most beautiful woman on Earth and her romance with Macho Man Randy Savage was better than Romeo and Juliet.
We had two of those Wrestling Buddies (a Hulk Hogan and an Ultimate Warrior) that we would suplex all over the house and we would tackle and pin our dad so we could jump off of the couch and belly flop onto him (our version of a dive from off the top rope).
Dad and Z moved away from pro wrestling, but I stuck with it. My best friend in grade school used to come over every Monday to watch with me. We were devastated as good guy after good guy turned bad during the rise of the New World Order. As an adult, I now realize that this story line was a part of the Monday Night Wars between rival wrestling organizations, but as a kid it seemed like all of the good guys had gone mad with greed and let their egos transform them into monsters.
As the Attitude Era took hold, I moved away from wrestling fandom. My heart wasn’t in it anymore. It seemed to me as though all of the joy had been sucked out of it. Everyone had to be “gritty” and rude and gross. “Know your role and shut your mouth?” Um, no thank you.
Actually, now that I think about it, comic book movies were in a similar place not too long ago, with every new franchise eschewing colorful costumes and catchphrases and attempting to be as grimdark as possible.
Now, however, one of my colleagues at my new job in Texas and I have a Hate Watch Party on Mondays and WWE Raw is one of the programs on the list.
A note about “hate watching.” I think there is actually no such thing as hate watching. I mean, think about it. Hate watching a show looks, from the outside, exactly like being a super fan of a show. You dedicate time to it every week. You often watch it with groups of like-minded people. You watch in a participatory way, shouting out comments at the screen and ranting on web forums and reading up on the latest developments. Jonathan Gray calls these folks “anti-fans,” and points out that “many haters are performing a love for something else,” defining their identity against a particular text instead of alongside it as traditional fans are wont to do.
Rachael Liberman, writing about hate watching and reality tv, points out that there are often gendered and sexualized beliefs encoded into our hate watching patterns. For example, folks hate watching The Real Housewives of wherever are in part using the show to work out their feelings about what wives (and women in general) should and should not be. We watch these women and giggle at their foibles, secure in the knowledge that we would never act in such a way, that we have much more class, that we have much better taste then all the other women out there who adore the show unironically (whoever they may be). But of course, our obsession with watching them puts the lie to that statement. We are protesting too much.
Our Monday night hate watch consists of The Bachelor and WWE Raw and I can’t help but think that these two programs are actually basically the same show. Indeed, lots of people refer to pro wrestling as being like a “soap opera for men.”
The two shows are mirror images of one another: groups of people competing in exaggerated and flamboyant ways for tokens (roses, belts) as well as the affection of the fans. They loop through an unending cycle, with new people constantly entering the mix and old favorites occasionally returning to shake things up. They are not exactly scripted but they are not exactly extemporaneous either. And they both model extreme versions of gendered performance within a specific context: love or combat (although, watching both shows back to back, those two things start to seem more and more similar as well).
So I confess: my love-hate relationship to professional wrestling and to reality tv is actually more of a love-love relationship akin to how I feel about cult classic films like The Room or Troll 2. I love to critique and even cringe while I watch. But that also means I love to watch.