Sports Entertainment Defined
The world of “sports entertainment”, a term coined by the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) in the late 1980s (Bernthal & Medway, 2005), is unlike other forms of televised athletic competitions because it employs highly theatrical and fictionalized stories that predetermine competition outcomes in order to create a spectacle and generate audience interest. Due to its scripted nature and pre-determined outcomes, the WWE is often “discounted as a legitimate sport” (Soulliere, 2006, p. 2) and criticized for devaluing the traditional notion of sport, which is based on competition, sportsmanship, athletic ability and discipline. The theatrical framework of the WWE “takes on the structure of sport and enhances it to induce emotional and crowd responses” (Ramesar, 2014, p. 16). In essence, the WWE can be characterized as a pseudo-sport that often glorifies violence and misogyny for the sake of entertainment and shock factor.
Since 2013, the WWE has been broadcast in over 145 countries in 30 different languages (Barrett & Levin, 2013) and, according to Forbes, had a staggering annual revenue of 658.8 million US in 2015.This revenue came from multiple ventures, including video games and action figures, across a number of media platforms, such as pay per view TV and film products, around the globe; this demonstrates the permeation of the WWE spectacle, achieved by the spread of its media programming and commercial ventures. Its sheer popularity warrants an examination of the underlying narratives that form the spectacle that is WWE; in particular, the gender discourse embedded within the WWE spectacle.
Furthermore, the success of the WWE is largely predicated on its unique take on the traditional concept of sports that focuses on the audience as oppose to the game itself. It has established a niche in a competitive capitalist market by carefully creating a soap opera in the form of a highly dramatized version of sport that eschewed traditional athletic competition. Amalgamation of carnival pageantry and outlandish wrestling characters tapped into what the fans—the consumers—wanted to see. The object of sports entertainment is not winning; rather, the main goal of the WWE spectacle, and its underling narrative of male dominance, requires male wrestlers to evoke an emotional reaction to draw viewers into the narrative. An advantage of sports entertainment is that it can be adapted to fit the preferences of the audience to maximize consumption, and, subsequently, maximize profit. In traditional athletic competitions, winning or losing can’t be manipulated—doing so is called match fixing. As such, traditional athletic competitions do not have the level of audience control that WWE does.
Friedman defines spectacle as an illusion that “serves as total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system” (Friedman, 2010, p. 186). The WWE functions in a way that not only portrays inequitable gender norms, but also helps reinforce gender roles, often in highly dramatized way. By bombarding audience with carefully constructed storylines that contain idealized gender norms, the WWE encourages participation in activities that maintain a heteronormative system of gender dynamics. Yet, the WWE, like all spectacles, is a system of power that does not encourage audience members to ask questions and challenge its power. In order to deter audience members from questioning the status quo, the WWE’s extravagant production hides the structural inequalities of the status quo. The dramatic sporting events comprises of WWE Superstars with distractingly perfect bodies to divert the attention of audience members away from the sexist undertones in order to normalize the underlying misogynistic discourse in the WWE storylines.
An illustration of how John Cena perfectly chiseled body serves as a distraction tactic.. and it’s definitely working
The multilayered gender narratives that exist in sports entertainment create the WWE spectacle, which helps reinforce gender norms in real life. The presentation of WWE gender norms mirrors—or rather, parodies—real life gender roles. At the same time, due to the spectral nature of sports entertainment, gender norms within the WWE narrative deters spectators from critique these hegemonic societal ideals of gender. In essence, the synergy of sports and the soap opera drama that characterises sports entertainment have broader societal implications.
Dominant hegemonic masculinity serves as one of the most central narrative in the WWE spectacle. Masculinity in the WWE is predicated on the dominance of others. To be strong and powerful is not enough; it is dominance that makes one masculine. Male wrestlers prove their masculinity by dominating other wrestlers; this is exemplified by Ric Flair’s catch phrase:
“To be the man, you gotta beat the man!”.
Indeed, the male narrative of the WWE spectacle is one of male dominance and superiority that values the traits of “aggression and violence, emotional restraint, and success and achievement at all costs” (Souillere, 2006). Male wrestlers exhibiting any traits that run counter to the hegemonic male gender norms of the WWE spectacle are considered feminine and therefore shamed.
The conventional ideals of masculinity and femininity that exist within the WWE universe are both opposite of and complimentary to one another; what masculinity lacks, femininity has and vice versa. For example, male aggression is complemented by female submission. As a result, the WWE storylines are compromised by a gender binary framework that delineates gender inequality. In recent times, women in the sports entertainment have redefined gender dynamics by changing the dominant hegemonic masculine ideologies through the inclusive of alternative female narratives, particularly female narratives that undermine traditional hegemonic masculinity. This has resulted in a “masculinity crisis” due to the new threats of “girl power roles” (Gauntlett, 2002, p. 251), resulting in an over-emphasis of traditional masculinity norms. The asymmetrical change within the WWE gender narrative has essentially created new roles for women, but further pressures men to adhere to strict traditional notions of masculinity. In essence, despite the evolving female narrative, the male narrative has remained virtually the same. In fact, it has arguably become even more focused on the macho male image in response the growing image of female strength. The subsequent sections of the blog will examine this change in female narrative through the juxtaposition of the Attitude Era with the PG era.
Changing the Female Narrative: The Transition from the Attitude Era to the PG Era
The WWE Attitude Era—the late 1990s to the early-mid 2000—began when the WWE underwent a drastic transformation to adult-oriented storylines focused on sex and violence in order to attract a larger audience (Fargiorgio, 2014). During this era, we saw more sexist matches, including the “bras and panties match”, in which female competitors had to strip her opponent to nothing but her bra and panties to win. The shock factor of the Attitude era was seen as a way to draw more WWE spectators. Stephanie McMhanon, chief brand officer of WWE, has said that “risk taking and storyline” are the keys to the audiences’ heart and center to the WWE operations.
A typical “Bras and Panties” match during the Attitude Era
During the Attitude Era, female wrestlers were portrayed as almost antithetic to the dominant male ideals. The resulting female discourse was one that definitely embraced female sexuality, to the extent that females were portrayed merely as sexual objects. With the WWE centered on notions of masculinity, females served as actors secondary to their male counterparts and whose bodies were objects of sexual objectification as opposed to venues for female empowerment. Female wrestlers regularly partook in matches like, the lingerie pillow match, that their male counterparts would never be subjected to.
An illustration of the lingerie pillow fight
*Warning: Misyognisitc portrayals of women above*
The term “WWE Diva” was coined during the Attitude Era, in contrast, male wrestlers were called WWE superstars; the WWE linguistic framework further enforced a paradigm that led to a less-than portrayals of female wrestlers. However, despite the repressive Attitude Era, the original female wrestlers laid the groundwork that brought more attention to the female division of WWW and set in motion the “Original Diva’s Revolution“. There is no denying that the WWE did include a female narrative, despite its misogynistic undertones. Female wrestlers fought through the politically incorrect characters and controversial storylines created solely for shock factor.
Not surprisingly, the Attitude Era drew a plethora of criticism for its “depictions of violence and misogynistic representations of women”. In June 2008, the WWE rebranded itself again, marking the beginning of the PG (Parental Guidance) Era and more family-oriented entertainment (Barrett & Levin, 2013). The WWE internalized this censorship and as a result became more conservative, at least compared to the Attitude Era. The PG Era ushered in a self-censorship, most likely not out of a desire to create gender equality and serve as a medium for gender activism, but rather out of fear that political incorrect programming would cause a loss of advertising; specifically, the WWE self-censorship was put in place to prevent loss of advertisers after the Parents Television Council’s campaign against WWE “indecency”(Lowney, 2003). Undeniably, the shift towards a family-oriented WWE was largely motivated by profit-drive capitalist ideals.
In addition to the economic reasons for the change in WWE female narratives, on a socio-cultural level, we have seen the rise of women such as UFC fighter Rhonda Rousey, who, in similar non-WWE combat sports, represent strength and female empowerment. Female athletics, like Rousey, are popular because they represent an alternative female narrative. In response, the WWE had to adapt to the changing norms, abandon its hyperbolized gender stereotypes, and change its exclusionary brand of binary gender dynamics. The WWE recognizes that to ensure long-term economic growth it not only must maintain its current audience, but also gain new audiences. As such, it cannot afford to alienate any sectors of society, certainly not the female population, which accounts for 50% of people. Like all sources of media, if WWE does not change with the times, it will get left behind through alienation of increasingly larger sectors of potential audiences. As such, there exists a symbiotic relation in which the WWE spectacle enforces societal values, and in turn, societal values shape the WWE.
Present Day: The Equal Inclusion of Women into the WWE Spectacle
The immense shift in which the WWE has approached the female narrative in the PG Era resulted in female participation moving well beyond sexual objectification, first to a point where female wrestlers served as equals to their male counterparts, and more recently, establish their own alternative narratives in tandem with society values. Prior to the PG Era, female wrestlers were not participating in matches focused on athletic abilities, but on their ability to strip their female competitors to their lingerie, as in the sexist “bra and panties match” in the Attitude Era.
Furthermore, stemming from the Attitude Era, female wrestlers were called WWE Divas, whereas male wrestlers were Superstars. Previously, this coded language entrenches a paradigm of gender dichotomy. However, recently, the WWE has stripped the term “Diva“, and now, WWE female wrestlers are referred to as WWE Superstars, just like their male counterparts. This has ushered in a new a paradigm of gender egalitarianism. With the riddance of the term “Diva”, gone too are images of catfights, lingerie matches and lack of real wrestling skills. This revaluation can be seen as a smaller segment of a much larger societal gender revolution.
The WWE is likely not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of institutions fighting for gender equality; however, the rebranding of WWE female performers shows that, in a profit-driven capitalist society, any forum can be used for political change if it means increasing profits. In essence, despite doing so for the wrong reasons, the WWE has changed their female narrative to account for alternative female narratives; thus, showing progress towards gender equality.The portrayal of WWE female wrestlers can have broad socio-cultural impacts because WWE serves as a mode of socialization where relations are reproduced over and over, which “reinforces and normalizes particular, limited representations of gender” (Couture, 2016, p. 129). Over the years, in relation to female gender norms, the WWE has considerably shifted its narrative to adapt to alternative forms of femininity; this was primarily motivated by an economic incentive to be more appealing to a wider range of audiences. The male narrative, however, remains relatively unchanged.
Implications of the WWE Spectacle
Indeed, the spectacle of the WWE deters from institutional thinking. As such, it’s important to look beyond the spectacle of sports entertainment, particularly when it comes to the scripted WWE, which can essentially be characterized as a “spectacle of excess” (Barthes, 1972). Indeed, professional wrestling, as a spectacle, is a reflection of the broader society. Throughout the history of the WWE, socially-constructed pop culture moments have been a reflection of culture, but also functioned ideologically to reinforce existing gender cultural narratives.
Sports entertainment serves as a conduit for ideas that shape its audience. At the same time, media socialization is not a one-way process; people choose what programs to watch because they fit with representations of society that appeal to them. This process of “self-socialization” (Soulliere, 2006, p. 9) further reinforces established gender expectations. As such, it is crucial for audience members to see beyond the grandiosity of the WWE spectacle, or any spectacle for that matter, and critique the underlying systems of power it seeks to enforce.
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