The Appeal of Illusion: Why a Choreographed Sport is so Popular

By Peter Oliver

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Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Some of the century's most infamous athletic figures arose out of a sport that depends on acting: Dwayne Johnson, Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and Ric Flair. They made it to stardom with excessive weightlifting, steroids, and choreographed fights. Yet, their matches often attract thousands of live spectators with millions more watching on their televisions. But how could World Wrestling Entertainment, an industry that relies on illusion, attract so many spectators and so much attention? The answer lies not within the sport itself, but rather, on the effect it has on the viewers. When watching a WWE match, the first thing an audience member would see is professional wrestlers enter packed arena with hyper-exaggerated, provocative entrance routines fit for the gods clad in spandex. Following the entrance, the wrestlers compete for dominance in the ring with blood flying, bones breaking, and fully-grown men getting flung about like ragdolls. Despite the audience's knowledge that the match is a performance with a pre planned destiny, WWE maintains incredible popularity through the inherently carnivalesque nature of the sport being amplified by the spectacle of suffering created by the garish nature of the wrestlers.

The Carnivalesque Nature of WWE can account for much of why WWE has attracted so much attention and popularity all over the world. However, exactly how the carnivalesque nature contributes to the popularity may be more subliminal than other themes present in wrestling. Carnivalesque natures can be found in everything from NASCAR to the NFL but it doesn't play as big of a role in attracting a devout fanbase as it does in WWE. In order to investigate how this happens, one must first understand what exactly a carnivalesque nature entails, and nobody has explained this better than anthropologist John Fiske. The history of this cultural phenomena helps explain just what the carnivalesque nature is and how it affects audiences, causing them to flock to performances in masses. During earlier times, many people indulged in animalistic, unsophisticated, and uncivilized hobbies or entertainment. However, as the amount of people participating grew, the upper class realized that "Popular pleasures were recognized to lie outside social control and thus to threaten it" (Fiske 75). This disorder, as recognized by the bourgeoisie, wasn't beneficial for the order of society. However, those participating in these carnivalesque activities enjoyed them for this exact reason. According to the bourgeoisie dislike of these vice filled activities, rules, supervision, and limitations were enacted, disallowing people from enjoying the break from societal oppression these activities afforded. In response, people then began finding new and different ways to still gain a taste of freedom, lessening profits of those in power. Of course, this created a need for an adjustment to current trends. The only way to do so would be to respect these disorderly actions in order to please the people but reorganize these events in order to maintain power. Therefore, the upper class began organizing these events in huge masses and placing monetary value on attendance which pleases the normal person's desire for an escape and those in power's desire for money and power. But what makes the carnivalesque nature so appealing? When an average person attends one of these events, they essentially have their identity stripped. They can leave their problems, mistakes, and other issues at home while they come to a disorderly event and simply become an audience member watching an organized chaos take place before their eyes. It is as though they are the performers, down in front of a crowd entertaining the masses before them. However, it is not as though the upper class in society completely abstain from participating in these events. In professional football, for example, common city workers and millionaires alike come to watch the teams play. The main difference between these two contrasting parties is really only where they sit. One may get a luxurious box seat well above the field and another sitting in the corner of the stadium packed together with tens of thousands of other fans. However, the focus isn't on them. The second every single person enters the stadium they are simply a fan. The focus isn't on any single one of them but rather the players competing. This stripping of identity brings in many fans to a variety of events due to almost every person's desire for a break from everyday societal standards.

The application of carnivalesque nature into WWE is apparent from immediate investigation. Every moment any audience member spends ingesting WWE media is saturated with examples. Wrestling is, by nature, a disordered sport. A victory in and of itself requires beating your opponent so harshly they are completely inundated and unable to get back to fighting their opponent. The moves are wild and high speed with a high risk of injury and death if not executed properly to both the attacker and the victim. WWE was founded in 1982 by "Mr. McMahon" when he purchased Capital Wrestling in hopes of turning it into a media powerhouse (which he did). Since then, few events have helped WWE grow quite as much as the formation of "Rock n' Wrestling", a collaboration between MTV and WWE in order to boost sales for the fledgling studios, and just that was accomplished. This is one of WWE's most notable eras due to its appeal the youth and their natural desire for disorder. It created a new wave of fans across the country yearning for an escape from the incredible amount of control that found them in their everyday life, from high school to their parents. This new media outlet allowed them to indulge in a newfound and violent vice by simply turning on their televisions. They saw icons such as Ric Flair or Hulk Hogan perform high flying stunts well above the mat with the ultimate goal of inflicting pain upon their opponents. The rebellious teens saw grown men getting in yelling matches before the fights even began over legacies and titles, eventually battling to the end of the match whether that be on the mat or behind the stage. Teenagers were able to experience their needed disorder and anarchy vicariously through wrestlers which in turn attracted more and more fans. MTV's audience quickly became WWE's and the superstars shown on MTV were soon being matched by the superstars of WWE. With the rise of popularity of WWE on TV eventually came the rise of live matches. These live matches were planned to last for hours and attracted fans from all over the country. The matches eventually led to packed arenas and tours around the country which created a multimillion-dollar company. WWE used its audience natural desire for disorder to gain a profit. This carnivalesque nature that the WWE used to grow rapidly is still being utilized today in ways never thought of before. Wrestlers are now acting like more standard professional athletes with television specials and interviews solely focused on the wrestler and their background. Matches quickly go viral and trend online, inspiring people to go to matches themselves in order to experience this viral nature in person. WWE essentially became an enterprise catering to people's desire to experience over the top, unbridled violence, the means of which they couldn't experience in their everyday lives.

While the carnivalesque nature is what gets people from all ways of life to come to WWE, the aesthetic of the matches is what get people to stay and really tune in. To investigate what is so unique about the overall aesthetic of WWE, it is crucial to first break up the aesthetic into two different areas. The first of these is the spectacle of suffering as defined by anthropologist Hans Gumbrecht. The spectacle of suffering essentially is "about suffering to the point of near-death and then, if possible, returning from the near-death experience to decisive physical dominance" and the appeal of this grand return to dominance (Gumbrecht 163). It's part of what draws in the NASCAR fans that only want to watch a crash or boxing fans that watch solely to observe a knockout. However, the spectacle of suffering in WWE is completely different due to the choreography involved in the matches. In sports like boxing or other martial art events the suffering is completely spontaneous and there is no guarantee of anything too spectacular happening as the true main focus of the event is the art behind it and the technique and mastery of each competitor. On the contrary, in WWE it is not a matter of if but rather of when. An audience member walks into the arena to watch this match knowing they will observe something so over the top and outlandish they will be greatly amused. The appeal of the actually match comes from people enjoying watching something so grandiose happen to somebody so mighty and have the ability to observe and participate in the event. Some of the most infamous instances of the spectacle of suffering have happened to some of history's most iconic athletic figures. Take Cassius Clay, more popularly known as Muhammad Ali and one of the greatest boxers ever, for example. In the words of Gumbrecht, some of the fights that Ali will forever be known for will be the ones "…in which he suffered to the verge of physical destruction" yet was able to recover in an unexpected way to still achieve victory (Gumbrecht 163). In one of Ali's later fights such an event took place against the younger champion, George Foreman. In this fight Ali took an incredible beating. His usual "rope-a-dope" strategy in which he would sit against the ropes and dodge most of the punches caused him to take a beating to his torso. In the eighth round, Ali looked all but beaten, ready to call it quits. Then, in an unexpected twist, Ali ended up knocking out Foreman, the clear leader. This particular event is an incredible display of the spectacle of suffering because not only was there a knockout, but Ali, arguably the greatest boxer of all time, took one of the worst beatings in his career only to come back and end the fight in a spectacular fashion that only he could. Part of human nature is the desire to root for an underdog. When anything or anybody is put in a vulnerable position it is instinctual to solely root for its escape. The spectacle of suffering takes a different approach to this. In nature, many encounters are a predator-prey encounter, but with sports it is a predator-predator encounter. Therefore, when the predator becomes prey the audience members become more invested in not only the fight but with the fighter itself, forming a personal attachment to the otherwise distant participator.

The spectacle of suffering obviously plays an incredible role in the success of wrestling. In almost every single WWE match there is a wrestler getting beat to the point that they look as though they could die and somehow come back to fight. However, not all are created equal. One of the most infamous WWE matches came when 6'11 500-pound Andre the Giant suffered an onslaught of takedowns from wrestlers King Kong Bundy and Big John Studd as Andre was cheaply double teamed and was mercilessly beat until other wrestlers intervened. What was particularly interesting about this incident was that Andre the Giant actually suffered a broken sternum during the altercation that was so bad you could see the bone's bump under Andre's skin. This event caused so much mayhem and chaos that the crowd members had no choice but to be drawn into the event. As a fan, it is difficult not to see a god-like figure that is a worldwide superstar and more capable than most people on the planet earth get taken down like that and not be invested in the event. After the beatdown, Andre still ended up winning the belt and remaining the WWE world champion. Andre, a seemingly unstoppable force, suffered a grotesque injury at the hands of cheating opponents and was still able to win the belt. This moment went down as one of the most iconic because it contained such an appeal to not only the fans who looked up to Andre and rooted for him but also those who don't want to see somebody get injured due to a cheap shot. Sometimes a truly memorable match doesn't require just one sufferer but two.

The other part of the unique aesthetic of WWE comes in the athletic beauty as defined by Immanuel Kant. Similar to the spectacle of suffering, athletic beauty is a subjective subject with a fluid definition. However, according to Kant, "'Beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object, insofar as it is perceived in it without representation of an end.'" (Gumbrecht 44). There is also a difference between athletic beauty and the athletic sublime. The beauty "concerns the form of the object, which consists in limitation; the sublime, by contrast, is to be found in a formless object insofar as limitlessness is represented in it." (Gumbrecht 46). Essentially, athletic beauty is the flawless execution of a move or form with a grand effect that is easily memorable by a fan, while the sublime is the meaning of that move or form. For example, take Ray Allen's shot in the 2013 NBA championship series to send the game to game 7 in which the Miami Heat would eventually win it all. The beauty of the shot lied in the form itself – a jump shot three pointer from the corner with a defender in his face ending in a swish. However, the sublime of the shot lied in the impact felt by the fans afterward. The legacy that Allen would leave behind, Miami winning the incredibly close game to get just one more shot at the title, and eventually winning the 2013 title. The beauty found in athletics is also different than the societal standard of beauty. Typical beauty is found in people, artwork, or even architecture. However, what this typical beauty lacks is what make athletic beauty so incredible. When observing a piece of art in a museum, for example, the piece is static. The artwork is there for the reader to dissect, interpret or even relate to. In athletic beauty, the beauty lies in the implementation of the move. The flawless technique, perfect placement, and ultimate payoff from said move. This is not to say, however, that this standard of beauty and grace doesn't translate directly into other fields of study-this is what made Bob Ross so popular. Bob Ross is an infamous "TV Painter" that would make works of art live while instructing the audience how to do so. This draws incredible parallels to that of athletic beauty because the art that Ross creates is incredible the program is to observe the form and Ross's grace and effortlessness while creating a true piece of art. Whereas a professional athlete has incredible form, Bob's strokes are flawless and simple. While a viewer of Ross's program sees the technique necessary, they often recognize they simply couldn't duplicate perfectly to the best of their abilities. Similarly, the common audience member can watch as many of the events as they'd like but simply couldn't replicate what the athletes due. It is this desire to do something so incredible that draws an audience member into these sporting events. The members want to experience an athletic feat greater than they but can't do it themselves, therefore they turn to professional events.

While the sublime can be found in WWE, the athletic beauty found in the matches has more of an impact on the fans and their attachment to the sport. It is no small feat to lift up and throw a fully-grown man the distance of a WWE mat, but what is even more impressive comes in the more grandiose moves. Moves like jumping off the top of a ladder to land on the opponent, lifting up your opponent and throwing them out of the ring and onto the announcer's table, or slamming an opponent so hard the mat actually breaks in half. These are all incredible feats in and of themselves. However, the ability to execute such moves without seriously injuring either of the parties is equally impressive. As a fan, it is genuinely inspiring and incredible to see these moves take place. As a result, the fan gets drawn in more and more, wanting to watch these true athletes put their abilities fully on display in front of large crowds. The athletic beauty in WWE is one of the most apparent facets of the sport. While each move may be planned out, it takes a special type of person to actually execute. Due to the fact that the WWE does have such incredible wrestlers at its disposal, the displays of athleticism are often overly-eccentric and therefore iconic. Take the Randy Orton finisher for example. Professional wrestler Randy Orton finishes his opponents off with a move called the RKO in which he runs from behind the opponent and jumps up, swinging his legs out in front and grabbing the opposition by the back of the head and slamming them into ground, knocking them out. This move is a tough athletic feat, but the trend that it ignited is what makes it so interesting. As the RKO got popular, amateur renditions of the move became very popular. Some people would sneak up behind their friend and RKO them into a pool or just onto grass and would often be narrated by an "announcer" saying "Watch out, watch out, watch out!" This trend shows just appealing these athletic moves are to the common person. Everyday people saw Randy doing this over-the-top move to his opponents and felt inspired by it, so they felt the need to recreate it themselves. While the RKO is already planned to take place, this does not make the athleticism of the executor invalid. By no means is it easy to jump up high enough and throw somebody down hard enough so as to where they'll get slammed on the mat. According to Joseph Bentz, an English professor, "The most common criticism of WWE wrestling that I hear from its detractors is that it's 'fake.' The athleticism is certainly not fake" (Bentz). The choreography of the sport doesn't take the value out of the athletic accomplishments, no matter how obviously staged. Jumping off of ladders, flinging men around the ring, or even just jumping across the stage with the appearance of flying cannot be done by the average human, and in order to be done safely requires both athleticism and beautiful movements. If there is one thing all admirers of athletic beauty can agree on, it is that safe wresting is no easy feat and requires a certain amount of grace and, according to Gumbrecht, "…our individual acts of aesthetic judgment always imply the expectation, perhaps even the invitation, for everybody to agree" (Gumbrecht 43). In this case, however, the feats of athletic beauty are so outlandish and unbelievable, it is hard to disagree with the beauty.

The WWE has many formidable assets that it contributes to the global media market. Incredible performers, unbelievable drama outside of the ring, and media personalities unlike any others. However, what WWE does best is use a combination of a carnivalesque nature and its unique aesthetic comprised of the spectacle of suffering and athletic beauty in order to appeal to a large cult like following of wrestling enthusiasts. Yet many believe that the predestined performances lack in genuine appeal due to its choreography. However, what many fail to realize is that the choreography is exactly what makes this well-oiled machine work so well. In many common sports events there are very boring games or matches, some even considered blow outs. Super Bowl 48 is the perfect example of such disappointments. The Super Bowl is one of the most widely watched television events regularly with people paying thousands of dollars to get tickets to watch the games. In this particular matchup, it was the number one offense of the Denver Broncos versus the number one defense of the Seattle Seahawks. Looking at any and every stat and prediction, this game should have gone down as one for the ages. What ended up happening, however, was quite the opposite. At the end of the day, Seattle won 43-8. There was no point in the game in which there was even a doubt that the Seahawks would be winning at the end of the day. It is this sort of unpredictability that is a major downside to many popular organized sports. WWE has a major advantage in this way because no matter the publicity, the matches will be incredibly entertaining. There will be blood, gore, drama, and spandexed gods battling in the rim. Every single WWE match takes advantage of each audience member and will leave them with memories. One of the most infamous matches of all time that displayed WWE's advantages came in 2001 when "Stone Cold" Steve Austin faced off against Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. This match, as described by the official WWE company, "…still hurts. But such a classic can only hurt so good" ("The 100 Best Matches"). During this legendary match that was a part of the "No Disqualification" series, Austin and Johnson were both powerhouses in the sport, two titans facing off to claim dominance. In this particular series the wrestlers have virtually no rules and access to what may seem like out of place objects (metal chairs, particularly). The wrestlers do everything they can to gain the upper hand on their opponent, no matter how cheap they must play or how dirty they must hit, getting more and more invested with each strike. However, Austin was able to get to the metal chair conveniently under the stage first, using it to pummel Johnson into the ground with 16 strikes to the head. The match ended with both severely bloodied all over their bodies, bruises scattered across their body, and obvious exhaustion displayed on their faces. Crowd members enjoyed this thoroughly and the "No Disqualification" series proved just how attractive unbridled violence is to the common audience member and is still running (and very popular) to this day. This epic matchup between Austin and Johnson is the perfect example of the WWE's utilization of the carnivalesque nature, the spectacle of suffering, and athletic beauty which draws in millions of audience members from all backgrounds and walks of life. The carnivalesque nature is present in everything from the introductions in which athletic humans are brought into the stadium as larger-than-life figures worthy of praise to the bright and flashy (and sometimes revealing) costumes that each wrestler sports. Even the excess of the wrestlers' bodies is carnivalesque nature. The use of steroids to achieve peak physical performance was and is rampant throughout the sport and only added to the fire of mayhem that was professional wrestling. Professional wrestler Ken Patera once said, "Who didn't do steroids? The word came down from the promoters, especially Vince McMahon, that you had to be 'bigger than life'. The only way to do that was to take anabolic steroids…" The use of HGH and other anabolic steroids was used by many wrestlers to gain a physical lead but also in order to keep up with the lifestyle. Professional wrestlers have had to do as many as 330 matches, according to Superstar Billy Graham. Traveling took a huge tole on the athletes, but their training never took a break. Keeping at top physical performance training was often required every day with no breaks. That, combined with the amount of matches a wrestler often had to take part of, often led to injury. Steroids was simply the only way to keep up with that regiment during the 80's. But recently, the WWE has cracked down on the use of steroids with strict performance enhancing drug tests. They are also offering drug rehab to formal wrestlers in need of rehabilitation.

However, the combined mayhem of these choreographed, outlandish matches draws in audience members and therefore money. Because of this, the company capitalizes on this profit and choreographs fights to maintain control all while keeping the fans entertained and under control, but, most of all, paying. The spectacle of suffering in this 2001 matchup is apparent. One of the most infamous photographs of this match is Dwayne Johnson about three feet off the floor with blood dripping all down his face with Steve Austin towering above him with a metal chair still swinging and blood dripping down his overwhelming frame as well. WWE fights do not end with each fighter exiting the ring unscathed. Instead, the choreographers tap into the audience's desire to see these god-like men bleed, suffer and recover against all odds only to fight back and fight for victory. But the action in the ring isn't the only area where crowd members get drawn in. Before the match has even started the wrestlers have already began stirring up emotion. Now that the WWE is heavily televised and even has its own channel, the drama behind the ring never stops. This is another unique part of WWE that sets it apart from normal athletic competition. While there are rivalry games, grudge matches, or turf wars. However, they occur less often and aren't as individually personal. In WWE, the drama is personal. Ego clashing with ego. Take the infamous beef between John Cena and Dwayne Johnson. They had been feuding for quite a while over Johnson's acting career and how he was simply using WWE in order to gain more fame. This led to an ongoing conflict between the two that never seemed to end and would create only more intense fights in the ring. However, these fights aren't solely contained to fighters. One of the biggest disputes in WWE history that affected the structure of WWE is the dispute between Steve Austin and Mr. McMahon. Mr. McMahon was the CEO of WWE but also picked favorites among the wrestler. Steve Austin wouldn't take any more of it and began calling out Mr. McMahon. This eventually led to Austin's departure from the league and created a large ruckus due to Austin's popularity. This sort of "behind the scenes" action that only further drew people into fights. The drama and action that go on before that match only contributes to the carnivalesque nature of the fights. According to Graham Gordy of American Oxford, the reason why people enjoy drama so much is because every person falls short in some way. However, when humans see somebody else fall short it in turn creates a sense of empowerment. Therefore, when people see professional athletes getting caught up in petty arguments, the audience members feel better about their shortcomings. It is because of this that people get caught up in the vices that WWE embodies.

The athletes fighting in WWE matches are caricature-like humans, capable of doing almost anything, whether that be flipping through the air to body slam their opponent or breaking objects over their opponent's head. The WWE never fails to put on a show that taps into the animalistic desires of their audience and does so through choreography, rather than despite choreography. When the WWE is able to produce a wonderfully entertaining show without fail, audiences from all walks of life will tune in and be entertained. This, however, relates to so much more than WWE. It relates to social media and reality TV. These two sources of global media are filled with vanity and lust, yet they still attract so much attention. This is because people tune into this entertainment to see people suffer, the beauty involved in life, and to tap into their animalistic desires of drama and chaos. The WWE is able to retain such a staggering popularity through carnivalesque spectacles of suffering that express the profound athletic beauty by utilizing a preplanned destiny of each fight that takes place. The WWE's popularity will endure so long as people allow their animalistic desires to steer them.