Media coverage of WWE star Chris Benoit's murder of his 7-year-old son and wife last week, followed by his own suicide, has largely focused on the wrestler's use of steroids. Numerous commentators have failed to point out that this tragic incident contains many characteristics of a classic domestic violence murder/suicide. It is even more rare in media coverage of the Benoit case to find any discussion of the virulent misogyny in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). This omission is disturbing, although not all that surprising, as mainstream media have long ignored the incredible sexism, racism and homophobia of Vince McMahon's billion-dollar enterprise.
In the interest of providing domestic violence advocates, educators and others with material to use during this latest "teachable moment," I have included below a short section from my book The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help. This brief discussion of pro wrestling is from a chapter about rape culture, entitled "It Takes A Village To Rape A Woman."
People who have seen the Media Education Foundation film Wrestling With Manhood, produced by Ronit Ridberg, written and directed by Sut Jhally, and in which I am a featured presenter, will recognize some of the arguments below. Wrestling With Manhood is itself a great educational resource and can be used to spark thoughtful discussion of this case and the role played by entertainment media in the construction of social norms around gender violence, sex and power.
Excerpt from The Macho Paradox (2006):
Professional wrestling has escaped serious cultural analysis largely because of its spectacular surface appeal and the common assertion that “it’s only entertainment.” But its immense popularity and cultural presence, its consistently high ratings and its aggressive promotion across a range of media channels raises some basic questions: why is pro wrestling so popular? What does its popularity tell us about gender relations in this era? Given that the audience for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is comprised overwhelmingly of boys and young men, what are the stories it tells them – especially about what it means to be a man or a woman? How does pro wrestling contribute to rape culture?
In the past, discussions about wrestling's effects on "real world" violence have typically centered on the behavioral effects of exposure to it. Does it cause imitative violence? But that question misses the point. The issue is not, "are children imitating the violence they see?" but "are boys learning that taunting, ridiculing, and bullying define masculinity?"
People who do not watch wrestling are often surprised to learn that real (or simulated) violence actually comprises a small percentage of the length of a pro wrestling telecast. Most of the time is devoted to setting up the narratives, and to verbal confrontation and bullying. In wrestling video games, each combatant not only has signature moves, but also verbal taunts that can be directed against either an opponent or the crowd. The object of the game is to see who can be the most effective bully.
There are also numerous storylines that depict men harassing and humiliating women, and imposing their will on women’s bodies – often in sexually graphic ways. There are numerous instances of men forcing kisses on women, pouring beer down their throats, and commanding them to perform simulated sex acts. In one scene involving two popular characters, the woman is obviously passed out and lying on the ground. The man gets on top of her to simulate rape as the announcers shriek with delight about how much she enjoys it. “She’s liking it,” one of them exclaims. “She’s euphoric.”
We know from decades of research that depictions of violence in the entertainment media create a cultural climate in which such behavior is accepted as a normal, even appropriate, response to various situations. As the pioneering media researcher George Gerbner explains, the problem of violence in media is not so much its graphic depiction but the stories it tells about who has power and who does not, who has the right to use it and who is an appropriate victim.
In that sense professional wrestling tells a powerful story about how “real men” prevail -- through intimidation, humiliation, and control, all accomplished by verbal, physical and sexual aggression. Manhood is equated explicitly with the ability to settle scores, defend one's honor, and win respect and compliance through physical force.
Already, this definition of manhood is at the root of much interpersonal violence in our society – including men’s violence against women. While it might not be possible to demonstrate a direct relationship between pro wrestling and domestic violence, it is clear that the wrestling subculture contributes to a larger cultural environment that teaches boys and men that manhood is about achieving power and control over women. And when you combine this lesson about manhood with storylines that depict women as two-dimensional objects whose main entertainment function is to take off their clothes, you have a potent recipe for the normalization of rape.
The role of women in the WWE has changed over the past decade. Back in the 1980’s, in the days of Hulk Hogan and the Macho Man, women were essentially restricted to a couple of ornamental figures whose main function was to look good and titillate the audience. Today, they play a much more prominent role, either as wrestlers or as bimbo/prostitute sidekicks. In both cases they are highly sexualized and wear little clothing, and function effectively as strippers for the largely male audience.
As the WWE’s Torie Wilson explains “To put it bluntly, (her character) has gotten a little sleazier, the clothes have gotten a little skimpier. I learned through trial and error that I got more popular as the hemlines got shorter.” But women in the WWE are not just objects for young men to stare at. As female characters have become more common, they have increasingly been drawn into the narratives. The sight of women being pushed, punched, and brutally slammed by men has become normalized through sheer repetition.
There are countless scenes of men knocking women to the mat, punching them in the face, breaking chairs over their back, or mock-raping them. Wrestling might not directly cause men to be abusive to women, but there can be little doubt that it contributes to an atmosphere in which men’s violence against women is not taken seriously.
What is perhaps most disturbing about the role of women in the WWE is the deliberate sexualization of men’s violence against them. Examples: a scantily clad woman – not a wrestler -- is slapped by a male wrestler on her bare buttocks and then pushed out of the ring and onto the ground. A large male wrestler picks up a woman half his size, drapes her semi-nude body across his knees, licks his hand, and spanks her on the butt as the crowd cheers wildly.
And in one of the most disturbing sequences of sexual bullying ever shown on television, Trish Stratus, a WWE icon and “one of the most sultry divas ever in sports entertainment,” according to her official web site, is confronted by WWE CEO Vince McMahon, playing himself. Backstage, he accuses her of some transgression, and then demands that she publicly say she is sorry. Once out in the ring, she does, but he presses on. “If you’re really sorry,” he says, “if you’re really, really sorry, take off your shirt!” She cowers and then complies as the audience roars its approval. He continues to verbally coerce her in this fashion until she is stripped down to her panties, barely covering her surgically enhanced breasts, at which point McMahon shouts at her to get on her knees and bark like a dog. She complies.
The entire time, boys in the live arena audience and watching at home on television are treated to a kind of forced strip show, where their sexual arousal is linked to the sexually degrading treatment of an attractive but subservient woman at the hands of a powerful (white) man.. On the WWE, men’s abusive treatment of their fictional girlfriends and wives is also commonly depicted within a storyline that presents the violence as deserved – a pattern that mirrors similar justifications in the “real world.”
In one sequence where the wrestler Triple H confronts his “wife” for supposedly lying to him and angrily throws her down on the mat, the announcers literally say she deserves the beating he then inflicts on her. Similarly, wrestling plotlines regularly involve the sexual humiliation of women in the workplace, and treat the entire notion of sexual harassment as a joke.
And until the character was discontinued a couple of years ago, in one of the most overtly racist and sexist characterizations on contemporary television, the Godfather, an over-the-top stereotype of a hustling pimp (and one of the few important black figures in the WWE) led out his "ho train" of scantily-clad women to the leering and jeering crowds.
Also, as female sexuality is increasingly prominent in the scripts, the line between the bimbo/prostitute sidekick and the female wrestlers has eroded. During one pay-per-view event Miss Kitty, a one-time WWE women's champion and a former hyper-sexualized sidekick, removed her top. Big contests for female wrestlers often involve “bra and panties” matches, mud or chocolate baths, jello matches, or the "evening dress" contest (where you lose by having your dress ripped from your body).
The most popular female wrestler ever, Chyna, (whose real name is Joanie Laurer), built her reputation on her powerful physique. But after numerous cosmetic surgical procedures on her face and body, she posed nude in Playboy in 2000 in what became one of the largest-selling issues in that magazine’s history.
People who love pro wrestling defend all of this by claiming that it is fantasy and harmless entertainment -- and if you don’t like it, don’t watch. But what does it mean when stadiums around the country are filled with young men cheering and laughing at the staged humiliation and abuse of women? What does it mean that millions of boys and men are entertained by scenes of bullying and ritualized sexual degradation?
And how realistic is it that boys who are immersed in pro wrestling’s cartoonish world of brutish male thugs and compliant female sex objects can switch all of that off and relate to their female (and male) peers in a spirit of equality and mutual respect? It is clear that the WWE sets up girls and women to be little more than compliant victims. But it also sets up boys and men either to be abusers and rapists – or to think like them. (pp. 169-172)