OCTOBER 23, 2003
Twilight of the Icons
Among contemporary America's many media spectacles, professional wrestling is perhaps the most spectacular. Indeed, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the most prominent "all-star" wrestling outlet, can hardly be matched for its sheer grandiloquence. Its larger-than-life heroes and villains, bedecked in costumes of seemingly infinite variety and unsurpassable pomp, engage in battles whose outcomes, if often predictable, are only achieved by way of a stunning parade of power and might. Dealing and enduring exaggerated violence, participating in flamboyant feats of strength, engaging in melodramas of deific proportions, and embodying personas whose features are nothing but glorious dimensions of Justice or Infamy, the characters of the WWE exceed the sphere of the strictly mortal. The WWE is inhabited solely by "superstars" -- men and women transfigured.
Observations along these lines led French critic Roland Barthes, in the 1950s, to cite grandiloquence and transmutation as essential features of pro wrestling. Comparing the grappling matches "hidden in the most squalid of Parisian halls" to "the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights," he suggests that wrestling partakes of "a light without shadow," which "generates an emotion without reserve." And what was true of French wrestling then is all the more true of American wrestling now. Today's WWE abundantly affirms Barthes's conclusion that "wrestling holds the power of transmutation which is common to the Spectacle and to Religious Worship."
No single wrestler more patently manifests this religious and glorious aspect of wrestling than Hulk Hogan. Since the early 1980s, Hogan has been the very embodiment of grandiloquence. Entering the arena to blaring strains of rock music, the six foot-seven inch, 275-pound Hogan parades to the "squared circle" amidst the impassioned chants of worshipful fans who typically bow to Hogan in exaggerated reverence, or wave hand-made signs proclaiming that "Hogan is God." Once in the ring, Hogan shakes off his red feather boa and, in a calculated display of maniacal strength, tears the t-shirt from his bronze torso. Upon defeating his opponent, Hogan never fails to engage in his hallmark "pose down," in which his sweat-soaked, and often blood-drenched, body is displayed in all its muscular, embattled glory. At the age of fifty, Hogan still rouses fans and delivers a dependable shot of excitement.
Hogan, one of wrestling's perennial heroes, is nonetheless among its most flagrant rule-breakers. Fans who normally decry rule-breaking adopt the logic that Hogan's transgressions are permissible by virtue of the fact that it is Hogan committing them. Sacrosanct, the apotheosis of Justice, Hogan can do no wrong, even when doing wrong.
Hogan's seemingly eternal power to fascinate has often been coupled with the trappings of patriotism. His now legendary victory over the (apparently Iranian) Iron Sheik for the championship title in 1984 saw Hogan waving an American flag to zealous chants of "USA!"
And recently "banished" from the WWE, Hogan returned, transfigured, under the guise of Mr. America, a hero wearing a blue mask emblazoned with a white star and bearing the familiar prop of an American flag (which doubles as a weapon). Before his appearance in this patriotic incarnation, Mr. America was billed by the WWE as the embodiment of American "fighting spirit" and "justice." A video montage heralding the advent of the hero-god included clips of American bombers and tanks cruising over foreign terrain. Footage of a blooming mushroom cloud concluded the series of images. Frequently called an American icon, Hogan has been transfigured into an icon of America -- an America defined by its justified violence and violent justice.
The unassailable goodness of Hogan, whose rule-breaking serves justice, finds its counterpart in the notion, exploited by the WWE, that American violence is good because it is America committing it. And if the aging face of an "immortal" icon is hidden behind the mask of patriotism, it may be because it would belie this "ageless" truth about America. The real, and troubling, truth that Mr. America's grandiloquence brings to light is this: the combination of Spectacle and Religious Worship may issue in a dangerous emotion -- patriotism without reserve.
Jeremy Biles is a wrestling fan and a PhD candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He would like to acknowledge here his indebtedness to Bruce Lincoln's analysis of all-star wrestling in Discourse and the Construction of Society.