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Editorial: Volume 3, Issue 2

The term adaptation enjoys a variety of applications, of which the scientific and cinematic use most immediately come to mind. While the term clearly resonates in these spheres, adaptation certainly can be found beyond them: psychology, education, politics, and economics likewise experience what could be termed adaptation in response to both external and internal forces. In this issue of Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, Adapting Our Approaches: (In)Formal Learning, Stereotype, and Traumas, authors from several fields, ranging from the visual and performing arts to rhetoric to social justice, explore the role of adaptation in a number of contexts. To introduce the concept of adaptation, Laurence Raw offers a guest editorial in which he considers the idea relative to a recent visit to the city of Albuquerque and the 2016 Southwest Popular/American Culture Association conference. Raw encourages the reader to move beyond a binary approach to adaptation, inviting an examination of the relationships between events, cultures, and people and how individuals might respond to adaptation.

Our first area of examination is that of education and literacy, as the initial articles address adapting learning in a variety of contexts. Janis Harmon and Roxanne Henkin examine the power of books in changing students’ perception of social justice, reminding us that learning takes place both within and outside formal classrooms. In keeping with this idea of lifelong learning, Magnus Persson discusses the paradox of high culture as entertainment, describing a live book club in which musicians adapt literary texts through performance. The final article within this section, by Sheldon Kohn, seeks to expand our thinking about learning and teaching in general, proposing a shift from grand narratives to everyday change.

The second group of articles delves into the tensions between stereotypes and reality, addressing first Native American rhetoric and then masculinity in the shifting narratives of professional wrestling. Edward Karshner considers Diné rhetoric and its ability to affect an individual’s perception of reality by means of participation in Navajo ceremonies. Marc Ouellette continues by examining televised professional wrestling in the 1990s, focusing on the roles of masculinity and corporatism in the genre into the twenty-first century.

The final section of the issue addresses trauma in two popular television programs. Adam Crowley discusses the impact of psychological trauma in the AMC series The Walking Dead, both to the characters on the show and, beyond the medium, to social movements. Further considering trauma, Courtney Weber presents the case for considering trauma as seen from the varied perspectives of detective and serial killer, with potential real-world application in responding to survivors of trauma.

We conclude this issue of Dialogue with a review by Lexey Bartlett of Laurie Kahn’s film Love Between the Covers (2015), a documentary which explores the creation and consumption of romance novels in historical and contemporary contexts. Together, the essays in this issue encourage viewers, educators, and readers to reconsider the interplay of various texts, the means by which we approach them, and the continued expansion and exploration of the field of popular culture studies.

Lynnea Chapman King
Editor in Chief

 

A. S. CohenMiller
Associate Editor

“High Culture as Entertainment”: Hybrid Reading Practices in a Live Book Club

Magnus Persson
Malmö University
Malmö Sweden
magnus.persson@mah.se

 

Abstract

The Bushwick Book Club (BBC) is a live book club in which invited pop musicians perform musical interpretations of a predetermined literary work in a nightclub environment. What can a typical BBC show, with its strong emphasis on popular music and performance, teach readers about the uses of literature? This case study will investigate which reading practices are at work and in what ways they challenge traditional ideas of the forms, functions, and values of reading. Another important aspect concerns how the borders between high and popular culture, and between the printed word and other media are renegotiated. Based on the findings of the case study and supporting theory, the article argues for a radically broadened conception of reading.

Keywords

reading practices; new media landscape; book clubs; popular literary culture; literary performances, Bushwick Book Club

 

The dominant conception of reading is the solitary, concentrated, and silent reading of a print literary text (Long, “Textual Interpretation as Collective Action”). Given the crisis of reading and declining scores in large-scale reading tests such as PISA, this dominant conception of reading is further underscored. However, this reduces the multiple uses of literature. In a similar vein, the collective, bodily, and material dimensions of reading tend to be forgotten in the theories and practices of literature instruction. In the multitude of passionate reading practices flourishing outside of the educational system, it is precisely these dimensions that are essential (Fuller and Rehberg Sedo 1–3). Reading practices in the new media landscape should be seen as inscribed in a vast network comprised of artifacts, new and old media technologies, people, institutions, places, and affects, as highlighted through empirical evidence from a case study of the Bushwick Book Club (BBC).

BBC is a live book club in which invited pop musicians perform musical interpretations of a predetermined literary work in a nightclub environment. Founded in 2009 in New York City, BBC has established new chapters in Seattle, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. The one branch outside the US, focused on in this article, is in Malmö, Sweden.1 A regular show in Sweden lasts approximately two hours; the founders and producers of BBC Malmö, Thomas Teller and Kristian Carlsson, function as hosts. A specific book, usually a novel, is the focus, and the selection of books leans strongly to high-quality contemporary fiction, although theme nights with classics such as Frankenstein and Orlando also occur. The producers/hosts generally invite three pop artists or groups, who must write at least one new song inspired by the novel in focus. The artists also play some songs of their own; the musicians usually discuss their impressions of the novel between songs. Since it began in 2012, BBC Malmö has produced between six and seven shows each year. On its webpage, BBC is described as a live book club, and its producers explain the following:

If there’s something we really like, it’s to try out new things: new combinations and mixes of genres. What always characterizes Bushwick Book Club is that a book (or a literary work of some sort) inspires musicians, artists, writers, etc., to create new works to perform during a thematic, entertaining, and interesting evening. And remember: it works just fine to come to the show if you haven’t read the book in advance. (Bushwick Book Club Sverige)

BBC offers multiple points of view on literature in a single setting and gives rise to a number of interesting questions regarding what characterizes a reading practice and where its borders and limits can or should be drawn.2 What can a typical BBC show, with its strong emphasis on popular music and performance, teach readers about the uses of literature? Which reading practices are at work, and in what ways do they challenge (or confirm) traditional ideas of the forms, functions, and values of reading? How are the borders between high and popular culture and between the printed word and other media renegotiated?

As part of a larger project about passionate reading within and outside academia, I have conducted a case study of BBC. I attended six of BBC Malmö’s shows during one year, and I conducted interviews with the two producers, Teller and Carlsson. I also interviewed the founder of the original BBC, Susan Hwang.3 Accordingly, my empirical material consists of interviews, field notes from the shows, and a vast number of texts in various media from the Swedish and the American BBC websites.  

The Performances

An important point of departure for this article is that ideas concerning reading must be broadened to take into account its collective, social, material, and bodily dimensions. Taking BBC as an example can hopefully serve this purpose well. Despite its simple premise, BBC is a complex and difficult-to-classify phenomenon, and it could thus be approached from a number of different theoretical strands, including intermediality, cultural studies, musicology, or sociology of literature.

There are similitarities with traditional book clubs (typically meeting in the homes of its members), in terms of the emphasis on socially sharing a reading experience (Long, Book Clubs) but the performative and public dimension is usually not in play in such instances. BBC is best understood as a popular cultural performance in which the simultaneous physical presence of artists and audience and the strong elements of play and ritual give new meanings to reading (Fischer-Lichte 38–40; Schechner 52–122). During a BBC performance, the values of reading and literature are renegotiated in ways symptomatic of what Jim Collins calls the popular literary culture in the new media landscape:

What used to be a thoroughly private experience in which readers engaged in intimate conversation with an author between the pages of a book has become an exuberantly social activity, whether it be in the form of actual book clubs, television book clubs, Internet chat rooms, or the entire set of rituals involved in “going to Barnes & Noble.” What used to be an exclusively print-based activity – and fiercely proud of it – has become an increasingly image-based activity in which literary reading has been transformed into a variety of possible literary experiences. (Collins 4)

In this new media ecology, where “high” literature is increasingly being packaged and consumed in ways earlier primarily associated with popular culture, the power of literary judgement has been multiplied and decentralized. Literature and reading are redefined and given new values in social contexts, and this process is carried out by actors not belonging to the old literary establishment (i.e., professional critics, literary scholars, and so forth); on the contrary, these actors often take a distanced position towards the traditional arbiters of taste. To assert that one does not have to read the book—as BBC does on its homepage—could very well be perceived by these traditional arbiters as a provocation lacking respect. Further, as show producer Kristian Carlsson explained in an interview, BBC’s conceptualization concerns “high culture as entertainment.” The selection of literature is dominated by serious contemporary literature and classics, but it should be transmitted in an unpretentious and pleasurable manner.

What does a typical Bushwick performance look like, and which reading practices can be discerned in it? As mentioned earlier, the shows follow a structured format, alternating between the performances of the invited artists and the hosts. The atmosphere at the shows is relaxed and jolly. When one group has finished its act, the hosts comment on what they have heard and discuss their own approaches to the book. Throughout the evening and through various means such as humor and direct audience interaction, the hosts strive to create a feeling of what performance theorist Erika Fischer-Lichte singles out as the most important sentiment of a performance: the feeling that we are all part of a unique community, albeit a temporary one (20, 24–29). Other recurring features of the show are shorter oral readings of the book and Thomas Teller and Kristian Carlsson performing two new works—one musical and one literary—based on the book of the evening. They explain the latter as follows: “Especially the fact that we write ourselves, as well—that’s very important for maintaining the pleasure and energy of the project. … It would have been creative anyway, but it’s something completely different when you yourself shall join in and interpret the book” (Teller).

The producers contend their own active participation strengthens the role of the book in the show; otherwise, there could be a risk of the literature being less important than the music. However, to return to Collins’ argument about literature in the new media landscape, it is precisely this open relationship to the printed text that is significant. Reading literature in the context of BBC is always a strongly mediated affair, in constant play with other media technologies. Accordingly, it is not surprising that a Bushwick show can also include screenings of shorter films, multimedia installations, or, occasionally, a group of acrobats. This cross-fertilization of different art forms and media is, as Denise Fuller and DeNel Rehberg Sedo have contended in their study of contemporary mass-reading events, typical of new collective reading practices:

The multiple mediation of the text through various kinds of formal performance by authors and experts, theatrical, cinematic and visual art adaptations, visits to the built or natural environment, and other participants may, of course, add to or alter an individual reader’s interpretation of the selected book. But it is the emotional connections and social intimacies that these multiple mediations make possible that intensifies the pleasures of learning about the world of the text. (Fuller and Rehberg Sedo 243)

On a general level, BBC can be seen as part of a long historical chain of reading communities (Rehberg Sedo) and oral performances of literature: from rhapsodes and bards to literary salons and the poetry slams of our own time (Lönnroth). Bushwick has certain similarities with poetry slam in particular, even if the key element of competition is missing. At BBC, as at a poetry slam, the person (producer or artist) is in focus rather than the poem. The audience is given an active role, and the whole concept is performative rather than text-based (Gregory 24). In these respects, both BBC and poetry slams differ from another important form of oral literature: the (academic) poetry reading. As Helen Gregory points out, there is a tension between these two arenas that can be characterized as a conflict between popular and legitimate cultural capital; however, this conflict should be seen not as absolute but as open for negotiation and exchange. In his historical study of American poetry readings from the 1920s and onwards, Lesley Wheeler points out academic poetry reading is fairly rigid in terms of structure and framing; it changes only slowly (128-130).

At an academic poetry reading, the audience is quiet and is seated in orderly rows. The props are very few and typically include nothing more than a glass of water and a microphone. The performer’s clothes are tidy and proper. BBC incorporates an important, albeit brief, element from academic poetry reading: the recurring feature of a piece of new written literature (often poetry) being read (by Kristian). Gregory and Wheeler both emphasize that the literary establishment has criticized poetry slam and other forms of popular cultural oral performances of literature. Wheeler writes: “Even when the poems themselves allude to and sometimes express yearning for the audible world, the poets themselves, their critics, and some audiences resist the mixing of poetry and mass culture. To read aloud is to hawk not only the words but one’s very body in public marketplaces” (Wheeler 11-12).

An example of this attitude is Harold Bloom’s verdict on poetry slam, which according to him is equal to “the death of poetry” (qtd. in Gregory 69). A more nuanced diagnosis is given by Dana Gioia, who points out that the printed literary text is backgrounded in performance poetry and poetry slam but that this also leads to a new and enhanced author function which she calls “the amplified bard” (29). BBC, thus, incorporates elements both from slam and the academic poetry reading, piecing it together into something new, a totality in which media technologies and art forms other than printed (and spoken) literature also play crucial roles. The boundaries between literary text, author, interpreter, and audience become less sharp (cf. Kolodziej 17-18). Further, the borders between “high” and “low” are disrupted, not least because most literary works taken up by BBC belong to “high” literature but are worked upon by pop artists and placed in a popular cultural context. This transgressive dimension returns when one more closely examines the artists and their interpretations of the literary works.

The artists’ musical interpretations of literature are at the heart of BBC. This is what makes the show unique and is what can be presumed to constitute an important part of the attraction for the audience. Musicians being inspired by literature is of course not a new phenomenon: in popular culture, such exchanges have been comprehensive and intense.4 From an intermedial perspective, BBC can be seen as an example of “musico-literary intermediality”; more precisely, it can be viewed as a “hidden” form of intermediality, where “literature may be transformed into, or appear in, music” (Wolf 54). Another way of putting it is that we have a “post-text” (the BBC-song) interpreting a “pre-text” (the literary work in question) (Lund 20). What these concepts and distinctions miss, however, is the performative dimension and the songs being part of a larger—and, intermedially speaking, even more complex—whole.

As mentioned, BBC values transgressive and unexpected mixes of genres. On a basic level, this is a foundation of the event itself, but it sometimes becomes particularly clear. During one BBC-evening, the novel Towelhead (2005) by Alicia Erian was in focus. It is a dark but humorous story about an Arab girl, Jasira, growing up in the US; its primary themes include sexual awakening and abuse. Three bands were invited to interpret the book: singer songwriter Anna Jadeus, a “murder ballads”-band named Your Saviour, and Floridaz, a band that parodies the specifically Swedish low-brow, cheesy, and sentimental music genre called “dansband.” Already, this mix of music styles says something about the eclecticism prevalent in BBC.

The artists approached the novel in radically different ways. They all felt it was a dark and unpleasant story. Anna Jadeus said her band usually “gets down to angst, but that this book was almost too heavy and dark.” Jadeus played a handful of her own compositions that clearly connect to the novel’s themes of young and fragile love, and she finished with a song written for the occasion and about the novel. The producers introduced the next band, Your Saviour, in the following manner: “Now we will finally see some of the evil characters in the book suffer.” The band consisted of two young women playing guitar and accordion, both wearing old white victorian dresses covered with lace. They told the audience that they indeed had some problems with the book and that they would let the music talk for itself. Dirty men were then “executed” in their songs, as if on an assembly line. Their final song was an example of explicit reinterpretation in the form of a dreadful portrayal of the neighbor, Mr Vuoso, who sexually assaulted the young female protagonist.

Floridaz’ front man began the performance for the last band of the evening by saying, “it’s hard to find a dansband-angle on anxiety” and they, therefore, would start off by acquainting the audience with the “vocabulary of the genre.” The musicians’ costumes were in-line with the corny aesthetics of the genre, the stage had new props (including a big green plastic palm), and the songs performed were musically faithful to the genre.5 However, the crooner’s voice and exaggerated vibrato, along with an increasing sentimentality and accentuated halting rhymes, made the performance a clear example of parody rather than pastische, something to which the setting itself also contributed (the venue is usually a hip rock club). The song written for the evening, “My Safe Place,” employed a more unobtrusive form of irony; it was a celebration of Jasira’s supportive and caring neighbor, Melina.

Based on these details of a BBC-show, its transgressive and eclectic dimensions are clear. It is striking how radically different the musical and textual strategies adopted by the participating artists are. As Susan Hwang states in an interview, the concept itself enforces both interpretative pluralism and increased creativity:

It’s so interesting to see how people will use the same material but come up with their own, and to respond to the same material in so many different ways. And of course you can have three different songwriters writing on the same character and each song is from a completely different perspective. Yeah, it’s fascinating.

An important feature of contemporary popular literary culture is the complicated interplay between old and new ideals of reading. We not only see a transformation of individual reading practices into collective and multimedial ones, we also see a rebirth of the Author and the belief in literature as an existential and therapeutic project of identity and Bildung:

This culture may indeed rely on twenty-first-century technologies of scanning, storage, and downloadability, but it also draws on early-nineteenth-century notions of reading as self-transformation, filtered through late twentieth-century discourses of self-actualization, all jet-propelled by state-of-the-art forms of marketing “aesthetic experience”. (Collins 10)

The author is not, as the new critics and post-structuralists claimed, dead but is a source of wisdom and aesthetic pleasure. This also holds true for the authors (writers and artists) of popular culture. In both cases, the question of authorship concerns complex and varied interrelations between strong notions of originality, on the one hand, and more sociologically inclined explanations, on the other (Negus 608–616). The rebirth of the author is, not surprisingly, accompanied by a new focus on the role of the self in reading practices—something that also becomes quite clear in BBC. The differences between the novels selected for the show can be great, ranging from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to Valerie Solana’s SCUM Manifesto, from Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. A common denominator, however, is that the chosen literature allows for strong personal reading experiences with rich possibilities for effect and existential reflection. What can be discerned, despite all the differences, is an ethos of reading, a belief both in the passionate reader and in literature as a fountain of insights into the deeply human. This ethos appears in the producers’ own interpretations of the literary works as well. During the Towelhead-evening, elements of autobiography and confession were employed.

In his oral performance, Kristian Carlsson movingly told attendees about his parenthood and about how his and his child’s nightmares seemed to be synchronized at night. Thomas Teller’s song evolved into a melancholy and self-ironic account of what it was like to be the same age as the girl in the novel. To increase the emotional strength and authenticity of the piece, the song was preceeded by Teller reading from his sister’s twenty-year-old (authentic?) diary. Explicit or implicit autobiographical elements were recurrent also during other shows. These can be viewed as markers of authenticity, but the self-revealing and confessional content is also constantly balanced with humor and irony. In conclusion, reading is about exploring and representing the self.

As Collins notes, the reader has been upgraded to an active co-creator in the new popular literary culture: “The fully empowered reader is a given—why else would they be passionate readers if they weren’t making books meaningful, and pleasurable, on their own terms?” (31). This is clearly the case for the producers and artists of BBC, but it is also the case, by extension, for the audience, as well; they can be presumed to share the same ethos.

It is not easy to summarize the multitude of reading practices that become (more or less) visible during a typical BBC-show. Several are obvious: the producers reading aloud from the book, the producers’ and the artists’ literary and musical adaptations of the novel, the producers’ and the artists’ comments on the book, members of the audience chatting about the book during the intermission, and the actual reading (or non-reading) of the book before or after the show. Does this list not widen the concept reading practice too much? Most people would probably agree that listening to an audio book is, in some sense, an instance of reading. But can the performance of a pop song really be considered reading? Not in the traditional, narrow sense of reading, but certainly in the sense that is foregrounded by Collins’, Fuller’s and Rehberg Sedo’s theories of social reading beyond the book. It is perhaps significant that the most traditional reading practice among those mentioned above, reading aloud, is at one point deprived of its monologic form. During the show on Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour tristesse, the audience was suddenly asked to shout out a number of a page and a line in order to reveal an “especially important passage of the novel.” A member of the audience shouted “page 34, line 12,” and Teller quoted, “Women were spotted on the path of the goats.” Laughter erupted, and Teller concluded, “Isn’t it nice to read aloud!” Thus, old reading practices are both reproduced and parodied, and new ones are created and hybridized. A necessary condition for this venture is the collective and social dimensions of passionate reading.

The Producers

The producers of BBC are independent cultural workers. BBC has no formalized ties to existing cultural institutions and is dependent on various forms of temporary cooperations and alliances. Funding is insecure: BBC in Malmö has received public funding a couple of times, while BBC in New York City relies on unpaid work and ticket sales. Advertising in newspapers is too expensive, so, both for BBC Malmö and BBC New York, social media is a necessary platform for marketing and information and for documenting the project (songs, film clips, lyrics, and so on).

Asked if they considered BBC to be a reading promotion project, the Swedish producers Teller and Carlsson state that they cooperate with public libraries, but they distance themselves somewhat from the term reading promotion, suggesting it could have a deterring or even intimidating function: “In our applications for grants we mention reading promotion, but that’s never our public face. I think it’s important to stress our cool and conceptual starting point” (Teller). To maintain a distance from explicit reading promotion can have several causes, but one plausible interpretation is it can signal duty and work. Also, at the bottom of many reading campaigns lies what has been called the literature myth, according to which the reading of good literature will make you a better person (Persson, “The Literature Myth”). Not wanting to be associated with this myth became apparent during one show when the singer of the garage rock band Baboon said the following to the audience concerning his not very positive experience reading the novel of the evening, The Tiny Wife (by Andrew Kaufman): “I still think I’ve become a much better person by reading this book, but it was nice that it was so short.”

Despite the producers’ skepticism towards reading promotion, they hope their project contributes to an increased interest in reading. Teller mentions that many in the audience approach them afterwards to tell them not only that they really like the concept but also that the concept has opened their eyes to the multitude of possible connections to and interpretations of the same book.

Even though one primarily associates reading promotion with idealistic activities outside the education system, it is still interesting to take part of the producers’ views on their own earlier experiences of reading literature in school. Both Hwang and Teller have positive memories of literature instruction in school, and they mentioned the value of commited and broad-minded literature teachers as positive role models. Conversely, Carlsson was more critical; avoiding his school’s literature classes stimulated his interest in literature: “The best way to develop my own reading was to jump class and stay at home to read, something I practiced quite a lot in high school. … I had more important things to do. But libraries and school libraries are extremely important. There you find this broad selection of books. I remember picking up Ginsberg’s Howl at my school library.” Carlsson made the same observation regarding his university studies in comparative literature: “I guess it was the same thing there; the reading you did by not going to class was better than the lectures.” He contended the ideal reading practice stems from freedom and from strong inner motivation.

BBC is, then, involved in a form of reading promotion “undercover” or “in disguise” and avoids any kind of duty, discipline, or morality which could lead the thoughts either to traditional reading campaigns or to literature instruction within the education system. However, this does not imply the producers would encourage a relativistic view on literary value—quite the contrary. As mentioned, the selection of books is very broad, both in Malmö and in New York. The producers further indicated that there is not any kind of literature that could absolutely not be part of a BBC-show. Susan Hwang said, “I don’t think there’s anything too high or too low.” The selection is in part random and is sometimes the result of current affairs, as when they chose Darwin’s On the Origin of Species on its 150th anniversary. Besides novels (one by Kurt Vonnegut every year), she has, amongst others, chosen a photography book and a dictionary of synonyms and wants to choose a cookery book for a future event. Teller and Carlsson do not see any limitations when it comes to genre, either. The only important factor is good language and literary quality: “It must be good and very well-written. And it, of course, is based on us two, who are very different kinds of readers. But we must think that it’s fun to do it” (Carlsson). Both emphasized there are many factors to consider before making the choice: length, availability, profile of the invited artists, variety, an exciting mix of genres, originality, and cultural and linguistic diversity.

A founding idea is, as mentioned, that high-quality literature must be presented in an entertaining manner: “We want the audience to understand that the prestige lies not in exclusivity but in quality. Not in the demand to be serious, to just sit quietly and not respond, as if it were in a classroom of comparative literature” (Carlsson). Here, a sharp dividing line is drawn between BBC and a central actor of literary evaluation: the academic discipline comparative literature. Simultaneously, Carlsson also draws a line between BBC and mainstream popular literature, albeit implicitly. According to BBC, you cannot compromise with literary quality. Consequently, there are no examples of popular, feel-good novels, bestsellers, or what Collins calls Lit Lit: a kind of popular highbrow literature that thematizes and celebrates the healing power of reading. As mentioned earlier, BBC Malmö welcomes books on the darker sides of humans—books that encourage existential reflection. These may appear as subtle distinctions, but they are crucial for BBC’s views on literature.

An interesting question is how the producers describe themselves as readers, and if they see any difference between their reading for BBC and their private reading (in terms of technique, purpose, and interconnected activities). Susan Hwang explained she studied creative writing in school, and she has always loved to read. Reading for BBC, however, is special; she always performs herself, so she has not only to read much and regularly, she has also developed a special technique of reading. Susan reads with a pen in hand and underlines specific phrases. After reading, she collects the underlined phrases, and sometimes an idea for a song emerges based on patterns in choice of words, symbols, and scenes. This reading technique may seem to have much in common with the one practiced in the close reading of literary studies, but it is also an intensely bodily reading. Susan stated the song often comes to her before the whole reading is finished, an experience she compared to an orgasm: “I tend to focus on the words first. Sometimes as you’re falling asleep, or on a train, or sometimes in a dream, or whenever you’re relaxed, you hear something, and [you’re] like, ‘My god, that’s the song!’ It’s nice when that happens, but it doesn’t happen all the time.” Here, it is clear how reading is widened to encompass a host of other interrelated activities of varying degrees, such as writing, underlining, compiling, composing, dreaming, travelling, and falling asleep. Hwang’s narrative resembles the French author George Perec’s plea for a more comprehensive conception of reading:

Would it not be right in any case to investigate the environments in which we read? Reading isn’t merely to read a text, to decipher signs, to survey lines, to explore pages, to traverse a meaning; it isn’t merely the abstract communion between author and reader, the mystical marriage between the Idea and the Ear. It is, at the same time, the noise of the Métro, or the swaying of a railway compartment, or the heat of the sun on a beach and the shouts of children playing a little way off, or the sensation of hot water in the bath, or the waiting for sleep. (Perec 181)

Both Teller and Carlsson emphasize that the boundaries between their professional and private reading are fluid. Carlsson states:

BBC affects what I want to read. My private reading is never just private. Everything enriches each other. There is no such thing as private reading, and at the same time there is no clearly defined public reading either. … It is not both, and it is not either or, it is something else. Reading for BBC does not imply duty and discipline in any traditional sense. Despite one having to read widely and deeply with pencil in hand as a producer for BBC, this method of reading could also be considered freer: I have always been a reader, underlining and making notes, which you do for Bushwick, as well. And as a publisher I read a lot, and I’m an author myself. I feel rather that because of Bushwick I now can read more novels for pure pleasure, something I previously had to set aside in favor of poetry. Reading is more a goal in itself now. Even though we have to make a selection, there’s still more free reading. (Carlsson)

To the question what their ideal reading experience or reading situation would entail, all three producers responded that they prefer the printed book instead of Kindles or iPads. This corresponds to observations made both by Fuller and Rehberg Sedo in relation to participants of various mass-reading events and by Christina Olin-Scheller in relation to fan fiction: Despite the practices being intensely multimodal and virtually unthinkable without social media, the printed book is still singled out as the original and superior source. At the same time, the BBC producers distance themselves from the idea of reading being all about discipline and hard work; instead, they emphasize surrounding factors such as place, reading position, and various artifacts linked to reading:6

When you mention school, it’s sort of the opposite, sitting by a desk reading, and that definitely doesn’t appeal to me. I read lying on the sofa when everybody else is sleeping. I guess that’s ideal. (Carlsson)

I like that I have to focus, [to] put everything else aside. … It’s more of a mood I have to be in. If I’m preoccupied by other stuff, I first have to make a to-do list, and then I can begin to read. My surroundings don’t matter that much; I can be on a bus with loads of people. But it’s also about making it nice and comfortable: The sofa is great. You want to reward yourself a bit, like, “now, I’m going to disappear for a while.” (Teller)

The producers’ reasoning about themselves as readers complicates several strong ideas on the differences between professional and “ordinary” readers. Literary sociologist John Guillory’s influential discussion on this distinction (31-32) is clarifying but also problematic (cf. Persson, “On the Differences between Reading and Studying Literature”). According to Guillory, the differences between how one practices reading within and outside of academia have evolved into an unbridgeable gap. Professional academic reading is characterized by hard work, by analytical distance, through reading techniques that take years to master, and by reading that takes place in a collective context in dialogue with other professional readers. Conversely, ordinary reading—or “lay reading,” as Guillory calls it—is characterized by its taking place in your spare time, by it not being institutionally framed, by it being driven by pleasure, and by it being an individual activity.

When Guillory discusses professional reading, he is referring only to the kind of reading practiced in literary studies. There are many other professional readers (librarians, teachers, book reviewers, and so on) in other arenas, where the conditions for and evaluations of different kinds of reading may differ. The reading carried out by the producers of BBC must also be considered professional, albeit in a slightly different manner. One cannot criticize Guillory solely on this ground, of course; he isolates two different ways of reading and clarifies many factors. One must also take into account the changes in the literary sphere since his article was first published; for instance, what Collins and other scholars refer to as the new popular literary culture has certainly gained in importance since then.

However, based on the interviews with the producers of BBC, one can definitively conclude the borders between professional and ordinary reading seem less well defined than Guillory asserts. There are features of academic reading in the producers’ practices, not least the thorough close reading with a pen in hand or the commitment to literary value. This means the characterization of ordinary reading as only concerning pleasure must also be nuanced. The producers testify it is hard to draw any clear distinctions between professional and private reading. Close reading and a bodily and affective reading for pleasure do not preclude each other; rather, they function as fertile prerequisites for one another. Ordinary reading can no longer be seen as an isolated individual reading practice; on the contrary, events such as BBC show that reading literature can be—and often is—an intensely social, collective, and multimedial practice with fleeting boundaries between different actors, texts, media, genres, technologies, activities, and places.

Pedagogical Implications

A starting point for this article was the need for the predominant view on reading to be widened. Reading can mean and involve so many other and more things than the solitary reading of a printed literary text. The case of BBC provides an abundance of examples of how reading in its narrower sense is now interconnected with a plurality of other practices, media, places, and artifacts. The reading of a literary text is here transformed into a popular cultural performance where the scenic and dramatized meeting between the spoken and printed word, and music, becomes crucial. In this meeting, other media technologies and art forms are also very important. Focus is shifted from the literary work itself to its manifold “stagings,” from the text to its performers and performances. The social dimension becomes important, partly from the presence and participation of the audience, and partly because the event itself can be seen as a collective project, a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Work of Art) where the vantage point is still a specific book, but where, through the hosts’ and artists’ interpretations, it is inscribed in new constellations and networks in terms of medium, genre, style, and cultural circuit (“high” or “low”). Members of the audience might be drawn to the show because of the book, of course, but they might as well be there because of the performing artists. In either case, new and unexpected constellations of literature and music will unfold.

There are no pedagogical quick fixes or obvious moral lessons to be drawn from this case study. Nevertheless, BBC offers a rich map of different ways of working with literature in pleasurable and innovative ways.  The producers distancing themselves from the term “reading promotion” is not surprising, for the term connotes utility, duty, and work. The challenge seems to be to invoke genuine motivation for literature without expecting too much of a service in return.

The relationship between pleasure and achievement is especially critical in school and higher education. How does a teacher bring about optimal conditions for passionate reading at the same time as being obliged to evaluate and grade exactly these achievements? The challenge is a well-known one within literary pedagogy, and it has grown more important in these times of New Public Management, with increased focus on test scores and quantification of knowledge. This challenge must be addressed. Without passionate readers, there will be no critical readers and probably no high achievers in large-scale international literacy tests (such as PISA), either (Bruns 62-63). Trying out new and creative ways of mediating literature could be a start. A crucial insight to be learned from BBC is precisely that reading has amorphous boundaries to other cultural practices. A creative exploration of these boundaries has great aesthetic—and, by extension, pedagogical—possibilities. There are no guarantees the slogan “you don’t have to read the book” works for all. In school and college, you still have to have read the book, of course. These unavoidable compulsary elements could be balanced by a more open and curious approach, highlighting both the singularity of reading literature and its intimate dependance on surrounding factors and practices. This would also be in better harmony with the changing conditions for reading in the new media ecology. Reading should no longer simply be seen as threatened by new media; on the contrary, it should be seen as a (both specific and amorphous) kind of media experience in itself (Fuller and Rehberg Sedo 248). Further, even if the book sometimes seems to completely disappear in favor of other competing media during a BBC-show, the particular literary text in focus is the catalyst for the particular evening’s unique and complex media experience.

End Notes

1 In 2013, a local chapter with a similar design was started in the city of Helsingborg, and in 2015 in Gothenburg.

2 The concept reading practice has in recent years been theorized and applied most extensively within the field of new literacy studies, see, e.g. Barton. In literary and cultural studies, the influence of De Certeau cannot be overlooked.

3 The interviews were semi-structured, conducted by the author, and lasted between 60 and 90 minutes.

4 See e.g. Ganetz; Lindberg; Olsson for overviews and case studies.

5 For a discussion and rehabilitation of this genre, see Trondman 198–235.

6 Cf. Persson, “Reading around the Text.”

 

Works Cited

Barton, David. Literacy: An Introduction to the Ecology of Written Language. Blackwell, 2007.

Bruns, Cristina Vischer. Why Literature?The Value of Literary Reading and What it Means for Teaching. Continuum, 2011.

Bushwick Book Club Sverige. Bushwick Book Club, www.bushwick.se. Accessed 26 Sept. 2014.

Collins, Jim. Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture. Duke UP, 2010.

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. U of California P, 2011.

Erian, Alicia. Towelhead. Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Felski, Rita. “Suspicious Minds.” Poetics Today, vol. 32 no. 2, 2011, pp. 215-234.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. The Transformative Power of Performance.  Routledge, 2008.

Fuller, Danielle, and DeNel Rehberg Sedo. Reading Beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture. Routledge, 2013.

Ganetz, Hillevi. Hennes röster: Rocktexter av Turid Lundqvist, Eva Dahlgren och Kajsa Grytt. Symposion, 1997.

Gioia, Dana. “Disappearing Ink. Poetry at the End of Print Culture.” The Hudson Review, vol. 56 no. 1, 2003, pp. 21-49.

Gregory, Helen. ”The Quiet Revolution of Poetry Slam: The Sustainability of Cultural Capital in the Light of Changing Artistic Conventions.” Ethnography and Education, vol. 3 no. 1, 2008, pp. 63-80.

Guillory, John. “The Ethical Practice of Modernity. The Example of Reading.” The Turn to Ethics. Edited by Marjorie Garber, Beatrice Hanssen, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz,  Routledge, 2000.

Kaufman, Andrew. The Tiny Wife. Harper Collins UK, 2011.

Kolodziej, Agata. “Author as a Medium. Strategies of Embodiment of Text in Poetry Slam.” Journal of Literature and Art Studies, vol. 5 no. 1, 2015, pp. 16-21.

Lindberg, Ulf. Rockens text. Ord, musik och mening. Symposion, 1995.

Littau, Karin. Theories of Reading: Books, Bodies and Bibliomania. Polity Press, 2006.

Long, Elizabeth. “Textual Interpretation as Collective Action.” The Ethnography of Reading. Edited by Jonathan Boyarin, U of California P, 1993.

Long, Elizabeth. Book Clubs. Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life. U of Chicago P, 2003.

Lund, Hans. “Medier i samspel.”  Intermedialitet. Ord, bild och ton i samspel. Edited by Hans Lund, Studentlitteratur, 2002.

Lönnroth, Lars. Den dubbla scenen: Muntlig diktning från Eddan till Abba. Carlsson, 2008.

Martinson, Moa. Kvinnor och äppelträd. Natur & Kultur, 2012.

Negus, Keith. “Authorship and the Popular Song.” Music & Letters, vol. 92 no. 4, 2011, pp. 607-629.

Olin-Scheller, Christina. “‘I Want Twilight Information to Grow in My Head’ Convergence Culture from a Fan Perspective.” Interdisciplinary Approaches to Twilight. Studies in Fiction, Media, and a Contemporary Cultural Experience. Edited by Maria Larsson and Ann Steiner, Nordic Academic P, 2011.

Olsson, Ulf. “Den litterate rockmusikern.” Halifax vol. 7, 1993, pp. 157-164.

Perec, Georges. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. Penguin, 2008.

Persson, Magnus. “On the Differences between Reading and Studying Literature.” Why Study Literature? Edited by Jan Alber et al., Aarhus UP, 2011.

Persson, Magnus. “The Literature Myth.” Values of Literature. Value Inquiry Book Series. Philosophy, Literature, and Politics, vol. 278. Edited by Hanna Meretoja, Saija Isomaa, Pirjo Lyytikäinen, and Kristina Malmio, Brill Rodopi, 2015.

Persson, Magnus. “Reading around the Text: On the Diversity of Reading Practices in the New Popular Literary Culture.” L1: Educational Studies in Language and Literature, vol. 15, 2015, pp. 1-18. http://dx.doi.org/10.17239/L1ESLL-2015.15.01.11. Accessed 4 Sept. 2015.

Rehberg Sedo, DeNel (Ed.). Reading Communities: From Salons to Cyberspace. Palgrave MacMillan, 2011

Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Routledge, 2006.

Trondman, Mats. Kultursociologi i praktiken. Studentlitteratur, 1999.

Wheeler, Lesley. Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present. Cornell UP, 2008.

Wolf, Werner. The Musicalization of Fiction: A Study in the Theory and History of Intermediality. Rodopi, 1999.

 

Author Bio

Magnus Persson is Professor in Literature and Education at Malmö University, Sweden. Persson is the author of articles and books on reading, cultural theory, popular culture and pedagogy. His most recent book is from 2012, Den goda boken. Samtida föreställningar om litteratur och läsning [The Good Book. Contemporary Notions of Literature and Reading]. His publications in English include “The Hidden Foundations of Critical Reading”, in Paulette M. Rothbauer, Kjell Ivar Skjerdingstad, Lynne (E.F) McKechnie & Knut Oterholm (eds.), Plotting the Reading Experience. Theory, Practice, Politics. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier Press 2016, and ”Reading around the Text. On the Diversity of Reading Practices in the New Popular Literary Culture”, in L1: Educational Studies in Language and Literature (15), 2015.

 

Reference Citation:

APA
Persson, M. (2016). “High culture as entertainment.” Hybrid reading practices in a live book club. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(2). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/high-culture-as-entertainment-hybrid-reading-practices-in-a-live-book-club/

MLA

Persson, Magnus. “‘High Culture as Entertainment.’ Hybrid Reading Practices in a Live Book Club.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3.2 (2016). Web. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/high-culture-as-entertainment-hybrid-reading-practices-in-a-live-book-club/

“If you want to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man”: Masculinity and the Rise of Professional Wrestling in the 1990s

Marc Ouellette
Old Dominion University
Norfolk, Virginia, USA
mouellet@odu.edu

Abstract

This paper traces the relationship between the shifting representations of masculinity in professional wrestling programs of the 1990s and the contemporaneous shifts in conceptions of masculinity, examining the ways each of these shifts impacted the other. Most important among these was a growing sense that the biggest enemy in wrestling and in day-to-day life is one’s boss. Moreover, the corporate corruption theme continues to underscore the WWE’s on-screen and off-screen coverage, well into the second decade of the twenty-first century. Thus, the paper provides a template for considering a widely consumed popular cultural form in ways that challenge the determinism of sex, violence and fakery.

Keywords:

Masculinities, Gender, Popular Culture, Television, 1990s, Cultural Studies

 

Men in their Underwear

Especially in terms of its plots, professional wrestling was transformed radically in the mid-to-late 1990s. Not only did this coincide with a contemporaneous reconsideration of masculinities, the change in wrestling adopted, portrayed and ultimately reinforced the concurrent shift in masculinities. In the 1990s, the most easily and readily identifiable enemies were corporations such as Enron, Merck, WorldCom, Adelphia, Kmart, and Arthur Andersen, companies known for corruption and whose officers have been indicted for illegal activities. During this period, the “sports entertainment” industry achieved unprecedented box-office success along with unprecedented critical condemnation. During the height of their competition, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW) typically placed four of the top five programs in the Nielson ratings for basic cable networks (Canoe).1 Even a change in the network that hosts WWE’s top-rated show, Monday Night Raw, had little effect.2 Audiences responded to a greater emphasis on plot development than on muscle development. This fact in becomes even more significant given the staying power of wrestling since promotions stopped denying that the action is staged and given the rise of mixed martial arts fighting as a competing media draw. In a rare television interview during wrestling’s rise, on TSN’s Off the Record, WWE owner Vince McMahon explains that without its storylines, or “angles,” professional wrestling would be “just two men, in their underwear, fighting.” Many critics condemn wrestling for exploiting women, for obscuring reality and for portraying violence, yet this obscures the importance of the plots to the success of the formula.

So important are the stories that even WWE video games contain a storyline feature which allows players to create their own ongoing plot. Although wrestling depicts “men in their underwear,” it also relies on plot structures borrowed from other genres, most notably westerns and action films. Beginning in the 1990s, wrestling writers began to adapt these themes to broader contemporary social themes in order to attract viewership among the male demographics.3 Curiously, part of wrestling’s past and current appeal derives from critical denunciations which reinforce — even duplicate — the underlying narrative, which depicts the powerful corporate leader as the principal enemy of the hero. The pleasures of wrestling, then, compensate for the perceived diminishment of and threats to traditional forms of masculinity in North American culture at the end of the twentieth century. Moreover, the corporate corruption theme continues to underscore the WWE’s on-screen and off-screen coverage, well into the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Men in their Underwear: Wrestling Plots

Like action and western films, wrestling reflects the culture that produces and consumes it. For example, the post-war era featured “German” wrestlers, most notably the “von Erich” family. Similarly, the 1970s and 1980s saw an increase in “Soviet” and “Iranian” wrestlers. However, the threats posed by the enemies of the Cold War and World War II are not part of the immediate experience of contemporary culture. Threats became more varied and not as easily defined; indeed, the largest organizations have largely avoided post-9/11 themes and characters. Therefore, a formula more complex than a simple good-vs.-evil dichotomy has developed. In his study of action movies, especially Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo series, William Warner proposes that “in the seventies and early eighties the rise of the hero film offered audiences a pleasurable way to work upon an insistent historical problem — the perceived decline of American power both in relation to other nations [following Vietnam and the oil crisis], as well as a recent, fondly remembered past” (672). Warner’s view is echoed by Susan Jeffords, both in The Remasculinization of America and in Hard Bodies, as well as Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner in Camera Politica. Wrestling, westerns, and action movies such as the Rambo and Missing in Action series are often dismissed because they lack “authenticity”: the movies for their lack of historicity and wrestling for its “fake” action. This type of dismissal obscures and ignores their intrinsic appeal, especially in the case of professional wrestling, and overlooks the fact that any theatric production has a predetermined outcome. The majority of fans know the action — billed as “sports entertainment” performed by “sports entertainers” — is staged. As well, the current variety of professional wrestling places as much emphasis on plot as it does on spectacular action. The key difference is that the decline is domestic — inside the borders of both the United States and the home — in terms of shifting employment and economic patterns, especially based on the pattern of corporate “downsizing” amid record profits and executive salaries, many of which came as a result of accounting and trading fraud.

In “Looking at the Male,” Paul Willemen suggests that male heroes in western movies perform in two distinct but inter-related ways: first as spectacle and second as a physically beaten body. Paul Smith, in “Eastwood Bound” adds a third and final stage occurs when the hero triumphs. Eventually, action films supplanted westerns, but as William Warner points out in “Spectacular Action: Rambo and the Popular Pleasures of Pain,” the genres’ appeal

depends upon subjecting hero and audience to a certain masochistic scenario — the pleasure of intensely felt pain, and crippling incapacity, as it is written into the action, and onto the body of the hero. Secondly, each [production] supports the natural virtue of the hero through a display of technology’s magic. Finally, each [production] wins the audience an anti-therapeutic relief from confining subjectivity by releasing it into a vertiginous cinematic experience of spectacular action. (673)

Professional wrestling depends on just such a structure and has since the 1990s. Indeed, such a reality is reflected in wrestler Ric Flair’s motto, which forms the first part of the title of this article. The highly structured and ritualized matches position the wrestlers as both spectacle and beaten body. Each wrestler’s entrance is announced and accompanied by music. Convention dictates that several momentum shifts occur during matches. The outcome necessitates spectacular action: slams, jumps, landings, and chairs over the head. These involve actual physical exertion and actual physical contact even if the move is scripted. In a move known as “blading,” the wrestlers cut themselves on the forehead with a razor blade kept in the tape around their wrists. Thus, the blood, the sweat, and the tears are often real. Moreover, the action almost always produces a victor. While there are several possible results for a match — pinfall as in amateur wrestling, submission, disqualification, or time limit draw — there is always a winner in the minds of the fans.

Wrestling programs function more like serials than complete cinematic productions, which interferes with the third stage mentioned above — hence the cliché of wrestling as “soap opera for men.” The recent change in the role of women in the industry further complicates (an examination of) the narrative framework. Currently, characters portrayed by female body builders and fitness models, often with “masculinized” physiques, can and do “compete” physically with the men. Regardless, since former WWE mainstays, “Diesel” and “Razor Ramon,” left to join WCW, plots have depicted masculine diminishment. The wrestlers, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, respectively, appeared under their own names and called themselves “The Outsiders.” Wrestlers usually adopt a ring name and a persona to go with it. In the case of Nash and Hall, WWE actually owns the trademarks “Diesel” and “Razor Ramon.” The Outsiders were so-named because of a (real life) contract dispute with WWE’s owner, Vince McMahon. They then appeared, without invitation, at WCW events although the latter’s officials denied having signed them to contracts. Eventually, they were joined by several prominent “heels,” or bad-guys, to form “The New World Order,” or “NWO.” The format, and the NWO, were so successful that WWE reintroduced the unit and its storyline following the takeover of WCW. The purpose of NWO was to destroy the existing structure of WCW and to take over the corporation. They were among the most sadistic rule-breakers in the history of wrestling. They rarely, if ever, engaged in matches, but rather interrupted matches involving other wrestlers to “punk” everyone, regardless of affiliation.4 Frequently, they would force one combatant (or set of combatants) to leave the ring while they singled-out a fan-favourite, or “babyface,” to assault.

When WCW’s then president, Eric Bischoff, revealed his membership in the group, the implications of the NWO’s on the narrative structure became clear: the “fix was in,” because the boss sold out his employees. Professional wrestling now follows the conventions of

a series of films which took up an old theme of American film and culture — the individual’s struggle against an unjust system — and gave that scenario a distinct new turn. The protagonist did not challenge the system by teaming up with an ambiguous woman to solve a crime (as in film noir), or organizing the good ranchers against the Boss who owns the whole town (as in some Westerns). (Warner 675)

The contemporary character is almost always a loner. While he does take on the boss, who also owns the whole corporation, and the boss’s henchmen, the hero does so with neither female companions nor male allies. A further shift away from westerns and film noir is the increased violence in action movies and professional wrestling. In addition, Warner perceives a more important alteration in action films as opposed to westerns, one that reflects changes in social and technological configurations. He observes:

 Now the System — sometimes a state, sometimes a corporation — is given extraordinary new powers of surveillance and control of the individual. The protagonist, almost entirely cut off from others, endures the most insidious forms of manipulation and pain, reaches into the primordial levels of self, and emerges as a hero with powers sufficient to fight the System to the point of its catastrophe. (675)

According to Warner, the 1980s variation on this theme manifests itself in movies such as the  Rambo, Missing in Action and Iron Eagle series. These films were intended to redress the powerlessness caused by the perceived national failure of the Vietnam War. Indeed, according to Warner, “this is the crux of the [films’] explicit discursive project: not only to reclaim the American vet [. . .] but further, to discover that what Rambo is and represents (pride, strength, will) is precisely that which is most indispensable for America today” (674). While the Vietnam veterans finally have been acknowledged, the current generation of men is faced with another perceived failure.

Susan Faludi’s contemporaneous study, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, details the contemporary situation of (North) American men at the close of the last century. Stated briefly, her premise is that instead of a lost war, the powerlessness and failure North American men feel stems from losing “a useful role in public life, a way of earning a decent living, [and] respectful treatment in the culture” (40). In addition, Faludi finds that this situation causes many men turn to “the fantasy realm [of a] clear-cut controllable world of action movies and video combat, televised athletic tournaments and pay-per-view ultimate-fighting bouts” (32). The writers for the professional wrestling organizations are cognizant of this trend and incorporate it into the stories; the writing is so important that WWE has hired script writers away from Conan O’Brien, MTV and elsewhere (Leland 51). Further evidence of the emphasis on the stage-play can be gleaned from the box office success of wrestling stars, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, John Cena, and Stacy Keibler. When the WCW began to lose ground to WWE in the ratings, Eric Bischoff was reassigned. In his place, Turner Broadcasting poached Vince Russo and Ed Ferrara who had been the head writers for WWE. Following WWE’s takeover of WCW, Russo and Bischoff were both hired by Vince McMahon to reinvigorate the company. Whereas the old stories pitted a character like Sergeant Slaughter, a gruff-voiced United States Marine Corps drill sergeant (played by Robert Remus, an actual former Marine), in feuds with all of the stereotyped enemies of the United States — from Baron von Rashke, a Nazi, to Nikolai Volkoff, a Soviet, to The Iron Sheik, an Iranian who later became the Iraqi Colonel Mustafa during the Persian Gulf War — Remus himself now doubts “whether his All-American babyface character could have achieved stardom in this generation” (Marvez, 27 May 2000). Unlike the post-war or Cold War eras, but like the Vietnam War, there is no obvious enemy of the state.

Indeed, the American “war on terrorism” has had no influence on wrestling’s storylines. While Sadam Hussein fit the bill as a villain who (supposedly) sent Colonel Mustafa and General Adnan to defeat America (and its wrestlers) in 1991, he receives no mention today. There was a brief memorial which included the sounding of the ring bell following the attacks of 11 Sept. 2001 (as there was following the in-ring death of wrestler Owen Hart), but neither Osama Bin Laden nor his cohorts rates a wrestling persona. Furthermore, no one is winning the current “war” that Faludi documents. For wrestling, this means that today’s “All-American babyface,” played by a former Olympic Gold Medalist in freestyle wrestling and multiple WWE Champion, Kurt Angle, can be hated by the fans; he often plays a “heel.”5 The irony is that Angle was a “real” wrestler who combined athleticism and hard work to achieve his Olympic dream — another popular plot — but upon his entry into WWE, Angle was given an immediate “push,” or promotional emphasis, before “proving” himself against the competition. Thus, he has not “earned” his position at the top. The fans most resent Angle’s sense of entitlement. Angle has parlayed his status into being the most-hated heel in WWE, “whose arrogance overshadows his patriotism” (Marvez, “Babyface”). The proverbial “boy next door” is an arrogant phony and braggart. Angle associates with a group known as “Right to Censor,” which “attempts” to rid WWE of its foul language and sexual content. Currently, Angle heads “Team Angle,” which features two more former amateur wrestlers. The members of Team Angle sport red, white and blue singlets, wave the American flag and wear their medals to the ring. Needless to say, Team Angle constantly tries to curry favour with the boss, Vince McMahon.

In a Newsweek article about wrestling’s surge in popularity in the 1990s, Jean Paul Levesque, better known to wrestling fans as WWE wrestler Hunter Hearst Helmsley, or The Game, explains that the reason for this dramatic change in focus is that “in the post-cold-war era, ‘there is no horror now. To the average person, the real-life enemy now is their boss’” (qtd. in Leland 54). Susan Faludi finds the same perspective among the men she interviews. According to Faludi

The handful of men plucked arbitrarily from the anonymous crowd and elevated onto the new pedestal of mass media and entertainment glamour [are] unreachable [not] because they [are] necessarily arrogant or narcissistic, though some would surely become so; they simply [exist] in a realm from which all lines to [other men] have been cut. [The others become] unseen backing for the corporation’s real star: its brand name. (33)

The Kurt Angle storyline, like many others, exemplifies the situation. He does not deserve his status. It has been given to him as the corporation’s chosen star. Merit never enters the equation in such storylines. The corporation’s only allegiance is to its brand name, not physical prowess. Thus, the ability to enact masculinity is not necessarily the measure of the man.

Rather than taking care of its employees, the corporation only takes care of itself. McMahon has famously double-crossed several wrestlers, most notably Bret Hart, in real life. This often makes its way into the plot. R.W. Connell finds the corporate setting to be an important site of masculine formations:

The corporate activity behind media celebrities and the commercialization of sex brings us to [another] arena of hegemonic masculinity politics, the management of patriarchal organizations. Institutions do not maintain themselves; someone has to practise power for power effects to occur. [But] the fact that power relations must be practised allows for divergence in how they are practised. (215).

Instead of a “patriarchy,” Connell suggests that different modes of “hegemonic masculinity,” each with different methods of deployment, vie for power. Despite criticism to the contrary, this occurs because “There is no Patriarch Headquarters, with flags and limousines, where all the strategies are worked out. It is common for different groups of men, each pursuing a project of hegemonic masculinity, to come into conflict with each other” (Connell 215). Relationships and personal ties are no longer important in an era in which there is no greater common purpose, or more likely, a greater common enemy. Competing forms of hegemonic masculinity — here, economic and physical — come in contact with each other. In professional wrestling plots, this competition results in arbitrary deployments of power and enacted rage.

At any given time, several angles involve a wrestler (or group of wrestlers) as the victim(s) of the evil corporation and its “boss.” The basic plot remains consistent to the present day and indeed has been refined since the WWE split its “brands” into the Smackdown and Raw offerings. Whereas Eric Bischoff and Vince McMahon previously appeared on camera only as announcers — for many years McMahon’s ownership of WWE was hidden — they are now central characters in the plots. In a plot mimicking a current corporate trend, the NWO replaces the older, hardworking, loyal, traditionalist wrestlers, those who rely on their performance in the ring and the classic good vs. evil construction, following a hostile takeover. The message is clear: get with the New World Order or be beaten up and “downsized.” As if the hundreds of methods of beating on a human anatomy are not enough, the NWO spray-paints their logo — graffiti qua branding in the corporate as well as physical sense, because this is how the logo appears on the T-shirts they sell — on the defeated body of the victim. Finally, since the entire proceedings are always videotaped and photographed, “the System” has extraordinary powers of surveillance built into it. One of the most familiar scenes is a supposedly candid scene featuring a wrestler “back-stage,” watching the in-ring proceedings on a monitor. He never likes what he sees, so he smashes the monitor, but not the camera that is filming him. This act seemingly symbolizes resistance: he uses the features of the system against itself by watching without being seen and then smashes the equipment that makes this possible. Such an act is typical of the action movie genre. For example, in Running Man, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character destroys the “Cadre” satellite TV network. Similarly, Rambo machine-guns the computerized reconnaissance systems that guides, or controls, him on his mission. Warner concludes that “by destroying, or interrupting, the operation of the system, the audience is left [. . .] with a freeze frame image of Rambo as a nuclear subject, a self etched against a landscape where no supporting social network seems necessary” (676). He is alone against the system and self-sufficiency is his best method of resistance. No supporting social network exists in wrestling; all that exists is subjection. Smashing the surveillance equipment is a futile act since a camera is still present, watching the wrestler as he watches. Moreover, destroying the monitor does little to stop the action that so upset him. He only thinks he has control, when the corporation has complete control.

While the NWO’s treatment of the older wrestlers is exaggerated and (physically) violent, it echoes the treatment the same generation of workers — the spectators — are receiving from the large corporations that employ them. Downsizing, outsourcing and forced early retirement do not cause bodily harm, but they do create violent disruptions in people’s lives on a large scale. Faludi lists some of the larger examples:

The deindustrialization and “restructuring” of the last couple of decades [has] scythed through vast swaths of industrial America, shuttering steel and auto plants across the Midwest, decimating the defense industry, and eliminating large number of workers in corporate behemoths: 60,000 at Chrysler, 74,000 at General Motors, 175,000 at IBM, 125,000 at AT&T. Though going “postal” [is] an extreme reaction, downsizing [is] a violent dislocation, often violently received. Yet those prototypical workingmen [are] taking their bitter disappointment with remarkable gentility. (60-1)

Daimler-Chrysler later cut 28,000 more jobs world-wide. Nortel Networks eliminated 50,000 of its 90,000 positions in a two-year period. These cuts affect workers at all levels of seniority. The remaining workers must be available to work all of the time. Legislators are moving to enforce what had been mere business practices.6 Monitoring and surveillance of employees actually are increasing through the use of passive means. According to an American Management Association study, “About 74% of companies do some form of electronic monitoring of employees.” Companies monitor employees’ computer use through “firewalls” on the servers which prohibit the reception or transmission of “inappropriate” materials and catalogue attempts to do so. John Cloud wonders, “Which is more stifling, the paternalistic company with its gold watch as a reward for lifetime service, or the new paradigm: all work, all the time, all your life?” (54). Given this type of unsettled environment, it is not surprising that many employees act out their frustrations. Professional wrestling capitalizes on this situation by virtue of its inherent structure: the co-workers are necessarily rude and belligerent; the boss is completely unreasonable and occasionally gives his workers ultimatums of “win your next match or lose your job;” each wrestler is hated by a significant proportion of clients, or fans, who chant epithets, spit, and throw objects at the wrestlers. Where the average worker might be reduced to tears, wrestlers are supposed to seek revenge by damaging either the competition, the equipment or the boss.

Eventually, professional wrestling’s most recognizable and most marketable performer, perennial fan-favourite, Hulk Hogan, became Hollywood Hogan when he joined the NWO. This was a major coup for the NWO and a major departure for Hogan since he had preached a gospel of “say your prayers and take your vitamins” to all the “little Hulkamaniacs” for well over ten years. Hogan’s entrance music, “Real American,” with lyrics proclaiming that he “fights for the rights of everyone” was replaced by Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (slight reprise).” This indicates that the “American” way of life no longer matters in the new world order. Hollywood and Bischoff became the leaders of the NWO. Hogan’s new moniker and transformed behavior symbolize his allegiance with the corporatized world, or what Faludi calls “a culture of ornament” (40). In such a culture, “manhood is defined by appearance, by youth and attractiveness, by money and aggression, by posture and swagger and ‘props,’ by the curled lip and flexed biceps, by the glamour of the cover boy and by the market-bartered ‘individuality’ that sets one astronaut or athlete or gangster above another” (Faludi 40). The colourful ring attire many of the NWO members traditionally wore was replaced by a uniform of black pants and a black shirt with the NWO logo on it. Thus, in the New World Order, individuality ceases to exist, and their motto, “NWO for life,” is a constant reminder.7 This is a simplified — black and white, if you will — version of the current world order, but the basis of the storyline clearly resonates with audiences and accounts for a great deal of wrestling’s popularity.

“Stylin’ and Profilin’”: Ric Flair

The foremost example of the cruel corporation vs. the solitary male involves Ric Flair and Eric Bischoff as the principle players in a strange mixture of art and life. Flair is one of the greatest performers in the history of wrestling. However, even Ric Flair can fall victim to the New World Order and the new corporate reality. This should not have come as a surprise given that the convention involves what Warner describes as:

a version of the fable of self and system which dichotomizes fictional space into two positions. The self, often associated with nature and the erotic, becomes the locus for the expression of every positive human value, most especially “freedom.” Opposite the self is the System, which in its colorless, mechanical operations, is anathematized as a faceless monster using its insidious powers to bend all human effort to its own service. (676)

In stark contrast to the NWO’s austere uniform and amateurish logo, the flamboyant Flair is known for his outlandish robes, one of which “has 7,200 rhinestones and weighs 45 pounds,” countless colourful sayings, and his entrance music: Also Sprach Zarathustra (AP). He could not be more closely associated with nature since his nickname throughout his entire career has been “The Nature Boy.” Flair is so-named because he seems natural in the ring; that is he “sells,” or makes the actions seem real, better than anyone. Flair’s association with the erotic is ensured by more than his platinum blonde hair, perennial tan, and brief wrestling attire. He has always portrayed, even at fifty, a playboy. In his words, Flair is a “stylin’ and profilin,’ limousine-riding, Learjet-flying, wheeling-dealing, kiss-stealing, love-making, heart-breaking son-of-a-gun.” Of course, sexual freedom is one of the ultimate freedoms.

The plot began with a “real-life” dispute between the wrestler and WCW. Flair’s contract allowed him flexibility in terms of his performance schedule. Thus, Flair decided to forego a WCW event in order to go the AAU national amateur wrestling — that is, real wrestling — championships so that he could watch his nine-year-old son, Reid, compete in the tournament. Nothing could be more natural than wanting to watch one’s son. Apparently, Eric Bischoff did not agree because in a “suit filed by World Championship Wrestling [the company] claims Flair’s failure to show up at a series of bouts this year played havoc with ‘story lines’ planned out for the performances” (AP). The lawsuit was settled eventually, but not before Flair’s entire family was drawn into the action when the script was changed to include elements that occurred outside the ring. When Ric Flair had a heart attack — a “work,” or well-guarded part of the script — Eric Bischoff appeared to have a change of heart and called Ric’s wife Beth, along with sons Reid and nineteen-year-old David, to the ring so that he could say he was sorry. In a classic heel move, Bischoff said that he was sorry that Ric Flair is an old, broken-down man who cannot provide for his family and rudely kissed Beth Flair. An NWO thug then held Reid while Bischoff  beat David. A few weeks later, on the night of Flair’s triumphant return to WCW following his (actual) reinstatement, Bischoff crashed the proceedings fire Flair. Flair responded, “You can’t fire me, I’m already fired” and condemned Bischoff’s “abuse of power” (Gardner). When Bischoff entered the ring, Reid Flair, with his AAU medal hanging around his neck, tackled the president. In other words, the boss is not man enough to defeat a child. Nevertheless, Bischoff’s hubris led him to challenge Flair to a winner-takes-all match for the presidency of WCW. Naturally, Flair won, but triumph is not complete until the wrestler is champion of the world. In the weeks leading up to the title match between Hollywood Hogan and Ric Flair, Bischoff and the NWO made Flair’s life miserable. Of course, Flair won the title. However, at the moment when Flair was both president and champion, he turned heel by abusing his power and refusing title matches. Thus, the continuity of the narrative is never in danger.

Beating the Boss: Stone Cold Steve Austin

While WCW’s plots involving Ric Flair and the NWO present the new approach to sports entertainment, Vince McMahon has seemingly perfected the ruthless boss vs. employee format. The longest running such feud involves McMahon and Stone Cold Steve Austin and is detailed in the video, Austin vs. McMahon: The Whole True Story (AvM). It is interesting to note that the video has the feel both of a work and of an actual documentary, including narrator Jim Forbes of VH1′s Behind the Music documentaries. Fans consider the Austin-McMahon feud, now more than five years old, “The greatest feud in sports entertainment history” (AvM).8 Forbes summarizes the phenomenon that is the angle: “WWE fans have embraced a new attitude in the past two years, leading to explosive growth in our industry. And, the happiness these fans feel is in large part due to hatred; hatred between two men: Vince McMahon, the owner of WWE, and Stone Cold Steve Austin, his most popular and rebellious employee. [. . .] Their conflict changed the face of sports entertainment” (AvM). Former wrestler turned WWE booker Terry Taylor explains the heart of the angle: “You’ve got a guy like Stone Cold, who says, ‘To hell with the boss,’ and makes the boss the target — which has never been done” (AvM). WWE announcer and Vice-President in charge of talent, Jim Ross, puts it, “Stone Cold will never be employee of the month” (AvM). In the characterizations of Vince McMahon and Steve Austin, WWE writers encapsulate current corporate trends and their impact on employer-employee relations and the resultant impact on masculinities.

In keeping with the archetype of the hero, Stone Cold Steve Austin is a white heterosexual male. As mentioned earlier the protagonist in this form is a loner. Austin is no different and this is reflected in his nicknames and character. Like Ric Flair, Austin’s nom de guerre, “Stone Cold” more than implies his association with nature, in this case at its harshest and most heartless. He is not like “stone cold;” he is stone cold. In addition, Jim Ross gave Austin the nickname, “The West-Texas Rattlesnake,” or simply, “The Rattlesnake.” Such a nickname enhances Austin’s connection to nature and signifies several aspects of both the man and the form of masculinity he represents, all of which are connected to popular American myths. The rattlesnake is a species peculiar to North America but is especially associated with the southwest, which is in turn associated with the rugged masculinity of the frontiersman and the cowboy.  The rattle indicates that the snakes wish to be left alone; they are not aggressive but will defend themselves with deadly force, if necessary. As well, Texas is the “Lone Star State” which gained independence in a purportedly rebellious war with Mexico which featured the legendary battle of the Alamo. As the story goes, Texas stood alone against tyranny then and Austin does so now. Austin further removes himself through his philosophy of interpersonal relations: “D.T.A.: Don’t trust anybody.” He frequently repeats this line and it has appeared on T-shirts. On the rare occasions when Austin has accepted the help of a partner, it has been forced upon him by circumstances beyond his control and then accepted only begrudgingly. Finally, he has no romantic life. While certainly indicative of Austin’s independence, his approach also reveals his self-destructive streak.

For Austin, relenting to McMahon’s demands or accepting help from a partner means giving up freedom. In dichotomizing the self and the system, the producers of action movies create what Ryan and Kellner find to be the genre’s “essential ideological gesture, [by which] no middle ground is allowed [. . .] anything that departs from the ideal of pure individual freedom (corporations, but also socialism) is by implication lumped under domination” (256). Warner surmises that “Such a fiction no doubt has deep roots in American populist paranoia about global conspiracy” (676). In Austin’s case, a partner precludes his total independence. Austin will ultimately have to suffer alone.

Austin’s solitary style has a doubly detrimental effect: it incites the wrath of his vindictive boss and eliminates any possibility for help. In hero films, “the exchanges of self and system are given the insistently Oedipal configuration of a struggle between overbearing fathers and a defiant son” (Warner 676). In the action genre, however, the father possesses added authority because his “authority is linked to the state” (Warner 676). It is worth recalling that Warner posits that corporations can take the place of the state. Plot suspense, then, “pivots upon a personal drama, meant to allegorize the struggle of every modern person who would remember their freedom: a contest between the system’s agenda for the self and the self’s attempt to manipulate the system to his own ends” (Warner 676). On several occasions both Flair and Austin attempted such a manipulation. During a broadcast from Minneapolis, his hometown, Ric Flair enlisted the aid of the city’s mayor and local sports heroes John Randle, of the Vikings, and Kirby Puckett, of the Twins, to remove Eric Bischoff from the arena. Similarly, in Chattanooga, TN, Steve Austin turned the tables on Vince McMahon and had the boss “arrested” by local police after McMahon admitted to having assaulted Austin the previous week. In both cases, the victory was only temporary. Although these manipulations temporarily even the score, Warner finds that victory does not suffice: “two ideas are developed about loss [. . .] Both emphasize the cruel sadistic sources of this pain and loss: ‘we were unfairly beaten [. . .] and experienced loss’; ‘others were responsible for that loss, and they should now be punished’” (Warner 677). Wrestling operates around these two ideas. Rather than the state, the source of the pain is now the corporation and its chief executive. Instead of Vietnam, the loss is at home, in the battlefield of the workplace. This is not an entirely new viewpoint, especially when one considers that many magnates of the early twentieth century — Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie — were reviled for their (violent) treatment of workers. To an extent, World War II and the Cold War overshadowed worker-boss enmity. Labour unions have lost much of the power, where they exist at all. The fact that the site of the dispute is now on North American soil means that the enemy is within — a traitor, as it were — rather than from without makes the scenario more sinister. This framework contains a third idea “which is never allowed to reach consciousness [. . .] but nonetheless motivates and informs the narrative diegesis: ‘I am responsible for the losses, and I should be beaten” (Warner 677). The result is that “unconscious guilt for failing [. . .] is deflected away from consciousness, but it motivates that defiant and risky behavior which repeatedly throws [the hero] into the position to receive punishment for failing” (Warner 677). As mentioned above, both Flair and Austin attempt to use the system to their advantage. However, their efforts invariably fail. Since the boss — either Bischoff or McMahon — is allied with the system (and is the system), he will always have greater access to power. Each small victory for Flair and Austin results in massive retribution by the corporation. Thus, in a palpable way, Flair and Austin are the sources of their own pain through their defiant behaviour toward their bosses. By continuing to be involved in the feud, they ultimately are submitting to pain and defeat.

One of the most dramatic and revealing series of episodes in the Austin-McMahon feud occurred during the fall of 1998. At the September pay-per-view, McMahon conspired with  “Undertaker” and “Kane” to beat Austin and retrieve the WWE Championship Belt. Following the match, in typical McMahon style, he reminded Undertaker and Kane that they might both be over seven feet tall and weigh over 300lbs but he is the boss and they owe their success to him. With his power, McMahon can reverse the fortunes at any time. This is an expected feature of many storylines. Once Undertaker and Kane turned away from McMahon following Austin’s removal from the ring, he mouthed the words, “Fuck you!” and flipped his middle fingers at the pair. Unfortunately for McMahon, Undertaker saw the gesture and with Kane retaliated by “breaking” McMahon’s leg by “crushing” it between the metal ring steps. The pummelling forced McMahon into hospital where he was assaulted by Austin, who was disguised as a doctor. The routine began as slapstick comedy, with Austin hitting McMahon over the head with a bedpan and zapping him with a pair of defibrillator paddles. However, the scene ended in a more disturbing fashion. Austin grabbed McMahon, the latter clad only in his underwear and a hospital gown, and bent him over the bed. Austin positioned himself behind McMahon and lifted WWE owner’s gown, saying “I’ve always known you were full of shit, Vince, so let’s find out how full of shit you really are” (Raw). Austin then appeared to slam an enema tube violently into McMahon, while shouting, “This is going to hurt you a lot more than it’s going to hurt me, I can tell you that” (Raw). The scene fades to black as the tube disappears, McMahon screams, and Austin ends up belly-to-back with McMahon.

The bedpan is reminiscent of a beer shower Austin gave McMahon in Chattanooga and serves to level the playing field. The effect is to say “You might be the most powerful man in sports-entertainment, but you still have to piss and shit like the rest of us.” McMahon is so enfeebled — that is, less than a complete man — that he is confined to a bed and needs a bedpan to relieve himself. McMahon also looks silly and clumsy in his underwear and hospital gown because his frailty is exposed. He may as well be naked, because he has been stripped of his power, or at the very least, it is useless to him in the hospital; you cannot buy unbreakable bones.  Moreover, in this context, McMahon’s power does not stem from any intrinsic ability. He has not earned it and he is not “man enough” in a tangible, physical way, to hold power, but Stone Cold Steve Austin is. The defibrillator paddles also symbolize McMahon’s reduced power. An actual jolt to a functioning heart could seriously harm a person. The effect is to say that McMahon, and by extension, all corporate leaders, do not have a heart in both the literal and the metaphorical sense. He is only interested in the “bottom line.”

Finally, the insertion of the enema tube into McMahon serves a greater function than to ensure that the boss is no longer “full of shit.” Given that the tube is forced into McMahon, the scene evokes anal rape. This point is reinforced by the positioning of the pair when the scene ends. Both men are at an angle to the camera, facing the bottom-right of the screen. The probe disappears into McMahon as Austin’s belly slams into WWE owner’s backside. Whether or not Austin’s body or a phallic object is penetrating McMahon’s is of no significance since the effect is the same. It is still Stone Cold who controls the “phallus” and who uses it. Again, McMahon appears as something less than a man. As Connell writes, “Anal sexuality is a focus of disgust, and receptive anal sex is mark of feminization” (219). Austin is physically doing to McMahon what the boss figuratively does in business: “fucking him up the ass.” It is worth recalling that neither the boss nor the wrestler is fixed in the position of spectacle or beaten body. Instead, the genre depends on an oscillation not just between good and bad, but between beating and being beaten. Whenever one of the players triumphs, the third and final part of the formula, it is temporary and fleeting. However, the difference is that Austin is able physically to assume the role of the sadistic abuser while McMahon must use manipulation and deception, practices typically projected onto femininity, to achieve a similar result. Corporate power, then, is illegitimate power since it is obtained through means that are not essentially masculine.

As male heads of patriarchal organizations, Eric Bischoff and Vince McMahon can be considered the figurative fathers of their respective federations. When Austin attacks McMahon with the enema tube, for instance, he is figuratively raping his “father” in a violent revision of the Oedipal configuration. Such a formation is typical of action films. As Warner observes, “pain becomes the occasion for pleasure through an encounter with figures of ‘the father’ — but not the mother. In each film that father is bifurcated into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fathers, so each becomes emblematic of public aspects of America” (677). The major difference in the contemporary is that the absence of the “good” father. As held by McMahon, Bischoff, and CEOs of aforementioned companies, the position traditionally occupied by the good father, the provider and head of the household, becomes the domain of the bad father, the “entirely cynical bureaucrat [and] duplicitous organization man” (Warner 678). Rather than a complete break with the formula, McMahon and Bischoff represent a progression of the type. In the films on which wrestling is based, “there is enough evidence of the complicity between [the] rival fathers to suggest that they are in fact two sides of one father” (678). McMahon and Bischoff represent two important progressions: first, bad fathers currently control the order of things; second, good fathers can become bad fathers at any given moment. This attitude reflects a lack of trust in institutions and leaders. This is hardly an original observation, given the critical view that postmodernity is marked by a lack of faith in institutions and “grand narratives” and a resultant tribalization of society. However, one must also consider that patriarchies have reproduced themselves seemingly without interruption during this same period and that the current lack occurs on a microcosmic scale.

Standards and Practices: The (Actual) Effects of Criticism

According to William Warner, Rambo, and other action films construct “a subject position — one which is Western, white, and male — which hails spectators to an ethos for being in the world [that] values isolated self-assertion, competitive zeal, chauvinist Americanism, and the use of force” (675). Although the hero in professional wrestling is a Western male, he is not necessarily white in the currently popular formula. What is telling in Warner’s analysis is the popular reaction to the criticisms of the Rambo films, which decried the films’ overt “Reaganism;” that is, their endorsement of Ronald Reagan’s policies. He explains:

by reading Rambo as a filmic expression of Reaganism, an approach used repeatedly by film critics and cultural and political commentators [. . .] the film hero and the president become each other’s latent cultural truth. This reading uses the popularity of Reaganism to gloss, explain, and (for many commentators) discredit the popularity of Rambo. In a complementary fashion, Rambo becomes the dream-fantasy in film, the “truth” of Reaganism, now blatantly exposed as in various ways mendacious. (675)

Critiques of Rambo and of professional wrestling very successfully point out the social ills the forms glorify, especially violence and sexism. However, as Warner recognizes critiques of Rambo and Reagan had a

paradoxical effect within the political culture of the 1980s: [they] helped Rambo become a generally recognized cultural icon. [C]ritical condemnation of Rambo, almost as much as the film itself [. . .] allows Rambo to emerge as a cultural icon in the mid-1980s. Thus, Rambo as a cultural icon includes the idealized filmic projection, and its scathing critique, condensed in one image. (675)

The people who watched Rambo then and the people who watched wrestling in the 1990s — and continue to do so now — consume the productions in spite of and because of the critical reaction to them. In fact, the turn of critics to the extreme, sanctioned, and real violence of mixed martial arts events has allowed wrestling to mimic its competitor while receiving reduced attention. Criticism, especially from sources perceived as elitist or self-righteous, makes wrestling more attractive. Fans take dismissals of wrestling as dismissals of themselves, which adds to the list of oppositions (in fans’ minds) which led to the popularity of wrestling. Even for those who refuse to become consumers of the shows professional wrestling, with its “icon[s] of the masculine, the primitive, and the heroic, becomes the site of a (bad) truth about American culture” (Warner 675).  Rather than enlightening viewers, critics become class enemies.

Much of the criticism of wrestling looks at what is “wrong”: authenticity, violence, and subject matter. Conversely, wrestling as a text — how it functions, how it is consumed, and why it remains popular despite condemnation — remains ignored. Michael Jenkinson, of the Edmonton Sun recognizes, “the debate isn’t really about the validity of wrestling [. . .] but a broader one about who defines acceptable forms of culture. [. . .] It’s really a debate over who sets the canon — the elites or the populists. And pro wrestling is one of the quintessential expressions of mass populism” (“Wrestling Studies”). Several recent events highlight the paradoxical effect of criticisms. One centers around the doll of “WWE character Al Snow, complete with a tiny severed female head in one hand. He’s holding it by the hair. Lovely” (Haskins). Following several protests, the doll was pulled from stores, including Walmart and Toys-R-Us, across North America. Eventually, WWE recalled all of the dolls and absorbed a considerable loss to appease critics like Sabrena Parton, of Kennesaw State University, who claims that the doll, and the character , “promote the brutalization of women” (qtd. in Jenkinson, “Feminists”). An Edmonton Journal editorial suggests that when WWE “produced and sold a doll whose gimmick was to carry around the severed head of a woman, they showed their true colours. [The doll] is a horrifying toy with a violent message” (qtd. in Jenkinson, “Feminists”). Psychologist Lori Egger claims that Al Snow depicts a “television image [that] draws a link between sexuality and violence and implies it’s normal male behaviour” (qtd. in Jenkinson, “Feminists”). In a line of defense frequently adopted by wrestling fans, both then and now, the critics are accused of never actually having watched the WWE, otherwise they would notice that the character is a “lunatic” who has escaped from an asylum. He carries the detached head of a mannequin named “Head.” Snow only calls it Head, which furthers the notion that he is crazy. Within the story, he, and everyone who watches, knows it is a mannequin, yet he still believes the mannequin talks to him. Truth be told, the Al Snow doll, along with Head, is among the least violent of the toys WWE sells.9 Al Snow belongs to the “J.O.B. Squad,” which refers to the wrestling slang, “to job,” which means that one is paid to lose. Snow then becomes a lovable loser.

This is not to suggest that the character is flawless but to point out that superficial analyses and knee-jerk reactions produce an opposite reaction among the wrestling fan souls that are supposedly in need of saving. In the words of Michael Jenkinson, fans see the critics as “humourless, politically correct busybod[ies]” (“Feminists”). The critics of the entertainment become the enemies of the fans; upsetting the critics is definitely part of the enjoyment for the fans. Vince McMahon has exploited this phenomenon in two recent storylines: a gay wedding and a “hot lesbian action” match. In both cases, protesters were active at wrestling matches. In fact, McMahon’s daughter, Stephanie, disguised as a prototypical “feminazi,” led the protests. Stephanie, according to the plot, wants to wrest control of the company from her father and used the protests to help. Actual protesters were completely duped by the plots and their own involvement in them. Once again, academics and cultural police appear to be talking only to themselves. They merely cause fans to resent the critics and the “establishment,” the perceived powers that would be.

Beyond the social and cultural factors which attended the rise of professional wrestling in the 1990s, an increase in men’s involvement in bodybuilding corresponds to the rise in wrestling’s popularity. Not surprisingly, this contemporaneous trend also reflects the then prevalent sense of masculine diminishment. Sport sociologist Philip White suggests that this “preoccupation with muscularity is [. . .] best explained as a response to contemporary male feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness. Men individually and men in general are experiencing a crisis of masculinity and are drawn to areas of social life where they feel comfortable and safe” (116).10 While it may be argued that men remain(ed) the privileged gender, White notes that

with the growth of large and impersonal bureaucracies, whether public or private, there has been a transfer of power away from individual males [. . .] Power has shifted into the public domain, leaving many men feeling privately powerless — small cogs in large machines. Consequently, because men feel increasingly confused and insecure about what “real men” are like in a time of shifting expectations, they are also impelled to seek out ways of bolstering and validating their masculine identities. (116)

White also contends that due to advances in technology and a shift away from a production-based economy in the last quarter of the twentieth century, “[North American] men are increasingly doing work where physical strength is not needed and where women are steadily breaking barriers to occupational mobility and success” (117). White suggests that in conjunction, “these factors represent threats to traditional masculinity and have made symbolic representations of the male body as strong, virile and powerful more prevalent in popular culture. A man may have to increasingly compete with a female colleague on an equal basis in the competitive world of work, but he can still display his muscles in a compensatory display of masculine power” (117). Connell notes that the military-industrial trends of the twentieth century have led to a “split in hegemonic masculinity. Practice organized around dominance [is] increasingly incompatible with practice organized around expertise or technical knowledge” (193). This split often results in competition between and/or among different versions of hegemonic masculinity.

Connell describes the schism between management and labor, economically, socially, professionally, as a chronic problem for corporations and for the state. Connell concludes that eventually a polarity “developed within hegemonic masculinity between dominance and technical expertise. However, neither version has succeeded in displacing the other” (194). This plays out in the wrestling ring and in the workplace as the opposition between those who “know,” the bosses, and those who “do,” the workers. Exacerbating this situation is the widely held sense among workers that those in positions of power have not earned their place through hard work—that is, physical work, which remains the essence of the “honest” day’s work. Sadly, the statistics seem to support the suspicion. In a contemporary survey of American corporate executives, USA Today found that 63% of male executives landed their job through networking. This compares with only 13% who turned to classified ads or search agents.11 In other words, privilege begets privilege. The myth of America as a meritocracy is just that. Like wrestling, the match is fixed, the outcome is predetermined. The workers have no chance. Wrestling, then, exposes the boss as undeserving through his weakness in the ring.

Another trend arising in the 1990s and continuing in professional wrestling makes it another site of the growing power and presence of females in areas that traditionally have been the strongholds of men. Moreover, the presence of women as wrestlers furthers the sense of powerlessness that men feel, especially when the women win. Former WWE star Chyna, a.k.a. Joanie Laurer, best exemplifies this situation. She is physically as large as, and as strong as, most of the men in WWE. She has held the Intercontinental Championship belt, which signifies the top-ranked contender for the federation’s World Championship. While Laurer has undergone several surgeries to enhance her feminine attributes (several were necessary to correct a serious underbite with which she was born), she has maintained all of the muscle and all of the wrestling ability. It is arguable that Chyna’s enhanced beauty might be for “eye candy,” but her mat skills are not. Thus, she and the women who have followed in ever-growing numbers pose a significant threat to masculinity because she can be a sexually desirable woman and at the same time, can assert her power over anyone. More importantly, there is also the possibility for a male-to-female cross-gender identification among the identification processes involved in the consumption of a visual medium like a televised wrestling match. Chyna has been placed in the same type of situation as Austin and Flair, and it results in a similar viewing process.

Professional wrestling is not a fantasy-world in the same manner as professional sports, or even as the Ultimate Fighting Championships. These most often are purely masculine domains that depend on actual fighting. Professional wrestling is fiction, the audience knows it and, since the 1990s, the corporations have admitted it. Wrestling is not fantasy, but meta-fantasy. Herein lies one of the greatest ironies of this form of entertainment. Despite the notions of class revolt it might appear to exhibit, in terms of content and consumers, the multiple layers of containment ensure this possibility never occurs. First, the action occurs between character types rather than actual class constituents. The ring literally boxes in the action and television, the usual method of transmission, further mediates the content and adds another layer of containment. Finally, the outcome is predetermined, but more importantly, it changes nothing. When the bell rings, Vince McMahon still owns the company. The fact that criticism has no effect indicates that McMahon continues to win the fall, as it were. Professional wrestling is not necessarily the nostalgic look back to a lost era that some (or most) westerns are, nor is it altogether the reclamation project William Warner outlines in his analysis of eighties action films. Nor is it necessarily of the type Connell describes: “The imagery of masculine heroism is not culturally irrelevant. [. . .] Part of the struggle for hegemony in the gender order is the use of culture for such disciplinary purposes: setting standards, claiming popular assent and discrediting those who fall short. The production of exemplary masculinities is thus integral to the politics of hegemonic masculinity” (214). Instead of a project of maintaining hegemonic masculinity, professional wrestling should be seen as exemplifying the reifying reach of commodity capitalism. Masculinity and class revolt, both inside and outside the ring, come pre-packaged and staged. Every pay-per-view purchase confirms the consumers’ consent and containment. Given the poignancy of the plots and the increasingly threatening female presence — not as a companion, but has competitor — professional wrestling might yet be a small acknowledgment of a possible new order and the increasing impossibility of an old one. Masculine privilege is no longer a certainty because masculinity is tenuous rather than dominant. One of the ultimate lessons of the cultural shifts of the 1990s, shifts exemplified by the rise of professional wrestling, is that men can be replaced.

Works Cited

Anderson, Arn. “Pro Wrestling Demographics.” Arn Anderson Forever, Aug. 1999, www.arnanderson4ever.com/demograp.htm. Accessed 14. Sept. 1999.

American Management Association. “Are you being watched?” USA Today, 23 June 2000, www.usatoday.com/snapshot/life/lsnap/169.htm. Accessed 19 Oct. 2000.

Associated Press. “WCW – Flair lawsuit reveals truth.” SLAM! Sports, 24 Apr. 1998,  slam.canoe.ca/SlamWrestlingArchive/ apr24_flair.html. Accessed 28 Mar. 2000.

Canoe. “TV Ratings.” SLAM! Wrestling, 26 Aug. 1999, slam.canoe.ca/SlamWrestling/wrestlingratings.html. Accessed 26 Aug. 1999.

Cloud, John. “When Will We Finally Get a Gold Watch?” Time 21 Feb. 2000, p. 54.

Connell, R.W. Masculinities: Knowledge, Power and Social Change. California UP, 1995.

Faludi, Susan. Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Morrow, 1999.

Gardner, Matt. “A Return With Flair.” SLAM! Wrestling, 15 Sept. 1998, www.canoe.ca/SlamWrestling/Archive/sep15_flair.html. Accessed 27 Mar. 1999.

Haskins, Scott. “WWF has a firm chokehold on bad taste.” SLAM! Sports, 9 Nov. 1999, slam.canoe.ca/SlamWrestlingGuestColumn /home.html. Accessed 9 Nov. 1999.

Jenkinson, Michael. “Wrestling studies are a real mindbender.” Edmonton Sun, 16 Aug. 1999, slam.canoe.ca/SlamWrestlingGuestColumn/ Jenkinson_99ug16.html.  Accessed 9 Nov, 1999.

—. “Feminists lose their heads over a doll.” Edmonton Sun, 8 Nov. 1999, slam.canoe.ca/SlamWrestlingGuestColumn/Jenkinson_99nov8.html. Accessed 9 Nov, 1999.

Leland, John. “Why America’s Hooked on Wrestling.” Newsweek, 7 Feb. 2000, pp. 46-55.

Marvez, Alex. “‘Babyface’ Sarge would not make go of it today.” Windsor Star, 27 May 2000, p. E6.

—. “TV’s Raw is War a ratings victory.” Windsor Star, 30 Sept. 2000, p. E8.

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Smith, Paul. Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production. U of Minnesota P, 1993.

“Snapshot: Top ways executives found jobs.” USA Today, 19 Feb. 2001, www.usatoday.com/snapshot/money/msnap022.htm.

Warner, William. “Spectacular Action: Rambo and the Popular Pleasures of Pain.” Cultural Studies, edited by Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler. Routledge, 1992, pp. 672-688.

White, Philip. “Muscles don’t make the man.” Taking Sport Seriously: Social Issues in Canadian Sport, edited by  Peter Donnelly. Thompson Educational Publishing, 1997, pp. 116-17.

Willeman, Paul. “Looking at the Male.” Framework 15-17, 1981, p. 16.

World Wrestling Entertainment. Monday Night Raw / Raw is War. USA Network, 28 Sept. 1998.

—. Austin vs. McMahon: The Whole True Story. USA Network, 1999.

Notes

1 During the period of growth, there were two wrestling corporations, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW). WWF has purchased its competitor. As well, it was forced to change its name to “World Wrestling Entertainment” (WWE) by the World Wildlife Foundation. WWE operates as if the latter change never occurred. Fans do not seem to have noticed either. Neither major corporate change affected the stories. Therefore, I use “WWE” throughout for the sake of consistency.

2 In Sept. 2000, Raw moved from USA Network to The National Network (TNN) in a deal worth a reported $28 million per year, over four years. The latter broadcaster had only recently changed its name from The Nashville Network, and modified its format — originally, a schedule based on outdoors and country and western shows and aimed at a specific, regional audience — to a content mix aimed at a more diverse audience. The plan, according to Brian Hughes, Senior Vice-President of TNN Sports and Outdoors, is to “position some programming that fits within the 18-to-49-(year-old) demographic” (qtd. in Marvez, “TV’s Raw”). WWE fans followed Raw to TNN. In its first week it drew a “5.5 rating, which translates into an average of 7.14 million people in 4.28 million households” in North America (qtd. in Marvez, “TV’s Raw”). When Hughes mentions the target demographic the unstated focus is on males, who comprise the vast majority of professional wrestling’s viewership.

3 Former wrestler turned advertising consultant, Arn Anderson, reports that approximately 63% of professional wrestling’s adult viewers are male and 70% are between the ages of eighteen and forty-four. Half of the 69% of the viewers who are employed work in “blue collar” jobs (Anderson). This statistic also indicates the youth of the viewership since 22% of them are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, ages at which many still live with parents or custodial guardians.

4 This practice, known as the “run-in” ending, usually takes the form of a “save,” in which a wrestler is rescued from a defeat or a beating. For the NWO a run-in serves neither purpose. They “punk” or beat on everyone with an array of chair-shots, slams through tables, and other moves. They then leave their victims in the centre of the ring in a display of might-makes-right.

5 In fact, the WWE attempted to give a serious “push” to a babyface character known as “The Patriot” shortly before the terrorists attacks occurred. The character wore an outfit of stars and stripes, waved the American flag and defended the helpless. Despite the push, the character never “got over” with wrestling fans and disappeared from storylines mid-way through a feud.

6 The Canadian province of Ontario is among the most aggressive in this regard. The province’s Bill 147 increases the work week from forty to sixty hours and removes employees’ rights to choose overtime and be paid for it. Bill 74 expands the definition of “essential services” beyond police, fire, and medical workers, and forces Ontario’s teachers to be available at all times to supervise children.

7 Shortly after Turner Broadcasting (now part of Time-Warner/AOL) purchased WCW, Vince McMahon briefly attempted to play the family-owned WWE as the little guy fighting the massive multi-national conglomerate. These included parodic skits with bumbling characters based on wrestlers who left for WCW. Ironically, McMahon lured most of his talent, including those he parodied, away from other promoters at the expense of many small, often family-run, independent and local organizations. In any case, McMahon first employed the “us vs. the corporation” narrative to attack Turner. Eric Bischoff subsequently elevated the structure, but McMahon may have perfected it with the Stone Cold Steve Austin plot as will be shown later.

8 Angles involving Austin were suspended after the arrest of Steve Williams, who plays Austin, in the summer of 2002, on charges of domestic assault. Williams then entered a rehabilitation program to treat addictions to alcohol and to pain-killers which allegedly stem from his several knee, back, and neck injuries. In a case of reality mimicking a fiction that mimics reality, WWE has no employee benefits program and has a history of quickly dropping performers who have medical and/or legal problems. Some are welcomed back once they have completed treatment. Thus, all that matters is the ability to make money for Vince McMahon. For example, Austin returned for the next “Wrestlemania,” in mid-2003 and remains a regular.

9 I acquired the dolls at a factory outlet for less than one-third of the original price. Even in the doll version, the mannequin’s status as just that — a mannequin — is emphasized.

10 This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail, 25 Nov. 1992.

11 Equally telling are the statistics for female executives. While 41% of them found their jobs through networking – indicating that the “old boys’ club” might function for females – more than two-and-a-half times as many, 31%, found their jobs through the classifieds or search agents – which suggests that the club is not actively pursuing new members.

 

Author Bio

Marc Ouellette is an Assistant Professor of English at Old Dominion University. He is currently the Learning Games Initiative Research Fellow. Twitter: @burnedprof

 

Reference Citation

MLA

Ouellette, Marc. “‘If you want to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man’”: Masculinity and the Rise of Professional Wrestling in the 1990s.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 3, no. 2, 2016,  http://journaldialogue.org/issues/if-you-want-to-be-the-man-youve-got-to-beat-the-man-masculinity-and-the-rise-of-professional-wrestling-in-the-1990s/.

APA

Oullette, M. (2016) “‘If you want to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man’”: Masculinity and the Rise of Professional Wrestling in the 1990s. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(2). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/if-you-want-to-be-the-man-youve-got-to-beat-the-man-masculinity-and-the-rise-of-professional-wrestling-in-the-1990s/

Review of Love Between the Covers by Laurie Kahn (Blueberry Hill Productions, 2015)

Lexey A. Bartlett
Hays, Kansas, United States
Fort Hays State University
labartlett@fhsu.edu

 

Dear reader, I have a confession to make: I am not a reader of romance fiction. But do not count me among those who denigrate it, for I have another confession to make: I, too, am a reader of genre fiction (mysteries being my particular pleasure). And as a reader of genre fiction, I am familiar with many, but not all, of the aspersions cast upon romance, and Laurie Kahn’s Love Between the Covers has admirably explored the range of perceptions that romance writers and readers struggle with, as well as showing the value of the genre and the remarkable community that creates and consumes it.

One of the most important ideas that emerges from the film is the one that unites us as readers: We all need a story. We may like different kinds of stories, but the need is real. And one of the aspects I liked most about the authors and readers (often the same people) interviewed in the film is that when the story they needed was not available, they wrote it themselves.

The film includes several interviews with scholars who explain the historical context of the genesis of popular romantic fiction from Jane Austen through nineteenth-century popular domestic fiction and the economic motivation for bashing writing by women. Nathaniel Hawthorne is quoted as referring to these popular writers as “the d—-d mob of scribbling women,” and as a scholar of nineteenth century British and comparative literature myself, I can attest that that comment is pretty PG compared to some of the ways writers like Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert talked about women’s writing. Of course, as my mother told me when I was a child, people make nasty comments when they are jealous, and the women who were targets of these nineteenth-century misogynists were often more commercially successful writers than their male counterparts. And let’s not forget simple misogyny: Riptide editor Sarah Frantz Lyn notes, “Romance is sneered at because it’s written by women, it’s written for women, and it’s written about women.” But women continue to buy romance, despite the sneering.

The commercial viability of the romance market serves as one of the first points in the film and is returned to a couple of times in the film. Apparently, the market for romance fiction provides enough income that publishers use it to subsidize less lucrative niche markets, a point underscored by the enthusiasm and voracity of the readers interviewed in the film.

While economics are important in the publishing industry, as a feminist and a scholar who teaches literary theory (and a human being), I was more moved by the ways the readers and writers in the film spoke about their motivations for reading and writing. The film’s greatest strength is the individual testimony of romance readers who became writers or otherwise connected to the industry. I teach in a fairly conservative environment with limited diversity, and although my students are wonderfully accepting of peers who identify as LGBTQIA+, or who have disabilities both visible and invisible, or who are people of color, I wonder whether they have ever really felt the struggle of being someone who doesn’t see themselves represented well in a text, or even represented at all. This representation is one of the film’s greatest strengths.

Two of the most powerful voices in the film in this respect are those of Beverly Johnson and Len Barot. Beverly Johnson speaks about her experience as a romance reader who didn’t see herself represented in the genre she liked to read, so she began writing romances with African American characters. In more than one scene in the film, her fans express their jubilation at seeing characters like themselves in her novels, especially from a reader who notes that a character in a story finally thought a dark-skinned heroine was beautiful. She also has explored the genre of historical romance, including the history of slavery, in which it can be difficult to balance realism with the sacrifices we often associate with high romance, a topic that Johnson addresses in the film. Johnson has undertaken tours of historical sites with her fans, and some of the more poignant moments in the film are clips of Johnson and her fans coming to terms with being the descendants of slaves while visiting sites like a former slave market.

Another thread running throughout the documentary, the story of lesbian writer Len Barot, whose pen names are Radclyffe and L. L. Raand, addresses the difficulty of finding stories representative of her sexuality as a younger reader. She talks about discovering her own sexuality in college but also of discovering Giovanni’s Bookstore in 1973, which stocked love stories featuring characters like her. However, early lesbian romances often featured negative outcomes for characters, a factor that has inspired many writers to write more positive stories that reflect themselves. The interesting trajectory of Barot’s story begins with her writing as a side job while working as a surgeon and ends with her current work managing a publishing house that specializes in LGBT writing, showing a career that spans the full spectrum from fan to writer to publisher.

Another writer featured in the film is Mary Bly, daughter of poet Robert Bly, a Shakespeare scholar and romance writer under the pen name of Eloise James. While Bly’s own story is interesting, since she defied her family’s preference for poetry over narrative literature and began moonlighting as a romance writer to supplement her academic salary in her early career as an assistant professor, the story that emerges of her business partnership with reader Kim Castillo offers a greater insight into the relationships between writers and readers in the romance genre. Their relationship began when Castillo wrote to Bly thanking her for creating a character with a plump figure, and Bly wrote back to Castillo to see if she were representing that character’s feelings accurately, as well as the kind of comments she might have heard about herself. Castillo wrote back that she was being too kind, since she’d heard much worse herself, and a relationship was born. When Bly realized Castillo’s own talent for writing and her business sense, the two created a partnership in which Castillo helps to handle fan correspondence, newsletters, and shipping autographed books, and through Bly’s recommendations to other authors, Castillo now runs a business helping authors with social media and other aspects of fan correspondence.

This story highlights the message of female empowerment that runs through the film in a number of ways, from romance’s economic empowerment of women to sexual empowerment and identity politics. These examples highlight just a few of the writers and scholars interviewed in the film, including celebrities like Nora Roberts and writing teams like Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan, as well as writers just getting started.

This documentary has much to recommend it for a variety of pedagogical purposes, whether the course in question is about theory, creative writing, genre or traditional literature, or popular culture. As noted, the film addresses issues of diversity in literature and publishing in a variety of ways, such as the quite poignant connection between Beverly Johnson and her readers on their historical tour of sites related to the history of slavery, as well as diversity in terms of sexual preference, body size, and even different levels of conservatism regarding sex. The presentation of these ideas is very even-handed, but it is moving to see the way women talk about how they recognize themselves in literature for the first time. These topics would be relevant in a course introducing literary theory, but the film has much to offer on the mechanics of writing and the publishing industry, too—writers talk about their processes and what it’s like to work with publishing houses, which also shows publishers’ processes and what they are looking for from writers. Popular culture scholars and faculty could use this film as an excellent example of the interface between fans and authors and the overlap between those two groups in the field of romance. The film would also be relevant in addressing fan fiction and the ways that social media and online communities represent a reciprocal relationship between writers and fans—one key example is the focus on the business developed out of the fan-author relationship between Castillo and Bly. Even for more traditional literature classes, many scholar interviews make connections between modern works and the canon in clear and thoughtful ways, so this film could have wide application in a variety of courses (the film’s website, http://www.lovebetweenthecovers.com, includes more in-depth information created by Eric Selinger, president and co-founder of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR), about these connections with traditional literature).

One insider term mentioned early in the film is the acronym HEA, which stands for “happily ever after,” the stereotype of the ending of most romances and the reason so many look down upon the romance genre. However, if you are a reader, you read because you need stories, and stories fulfill some kind of specific function for each of us. As a reader of detective fiction, my desire is fulfilled when justice is done, and in a fictional world, I can relax into a story and see the writer make that happen, when in the real world, I know justice may never be done. Thus, I can sympathize with my fellow genre literature readers’ desires to get the happy ending they want. As one reader/writer notes in the film, it takes energy to imagine a happy ending, and these stories give their readers hope that they, too, could have a happy ending. It seems churlish to deny anyone that hope, and the ultimate message we take away from this film is a hopeful one in which everyone’s desires are reflected and fulfilled and readers and writers have created a supportive—and commercially viable— community.

 

Author Bio

Lexey A. Bartlett is an Associate Professor of English at Fort Hays State University. Her primary research and teaching interests lie in British literature from Romanticism to the present and critical theories, but she also teaches courses in writing, mythology, and world literature. She currently serves as Area Chair of the SWPACA’s Mystery/Detective Fiction and Disability Studies areas.

Reference Citation

APA
Bartlett, L. (2016). Review of Love Between the Covers by Laurie Kahn (Blueberry Hill Productions, 2015). Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogyhttp://journaldialogue.org/issues/review-of-love-between-the-covers-by-laurie-kahn-blueberry-hill-productions-2015/

MLA
Bartlett, Lexey. “Review of Love Between the Covers by Laurie Kahn (Blueberry Hill Productions, 2015).” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 3, no. 2, 2016, journaldialogue.org/issues/review-of-love-between-the-covers-by-laurie-kahn-blueberry-hill-productions-2015/.