A justice which is at last intelligible: Some thoughts on Novara FM’s “Trash Cultures” episode

Here’s something a little different. Novara Media recently dedicated an episode of their podcast Novara FM to wrestling – or, more specifically, to the issues of “trash cultures”, framed through the case study of Wrestlemania 33, but also taking into account alt-right memes, Drake and Paris is Burning, among other things. It’s a good episode and I’d recommend listening to it, just as I’d recommend listening to more or less every episode of Novara FM and its sister show Killjoy FM. What I want to do in this article is offer a brief response to some of the points raised around wrestling in the episode; what I’m offering here is very much a pencil sketch of a project yet to be realised, but I feel it’s an important enough project to set pencil to paper on nevertheless.

For the episode, regular hosts Ash Sarkar and James Butler are joined by poet Bridget Minamore and writer/artist Joseph Guthrie. Guthrie is the only full-on wrestling mark on the panel; Sarkar and Minamore have nostalgic attachments to the old stuff and Butler is decidedly not a fan (a fact which I don’t begrudge him one bit; I wish I could extract as much joy from a poetry reading as I can from a Kazuchika Okada match). Sarkar prefaces the discussion by briefly outlining the panel’s commitment to not talk down to the material they’re examining, which makes sense: roping in an exotic (in this context at least) entertainment medium just to dismiss it wholesale (which is different from calling it “trash”) would not an interesting podcast make. The tack Sarkar chooses instead is to drill down as “guilelessly” as possible into the specific aesthetic qualities of the Wrestlemania spectacle. It’s interesting – and challenging for a wrestling fan – that so much of the discussion that ensues focuses in on a slim segment of that monster seven-hour show, namely the entrances made by Seth Rollins and (particularly) Triple H.

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I think the panel have every right to get stuck on those entrances, chock-full as they are with fascist and Neo-Nazi insignia (H’s iron cross, Seth’s cross-in-a-circle) and an actual motorcade from the Orlando Police Department. Fash graphic design is a problem that crops up elsewhere in wrestling too: I found it mind-boggling when I watched my first Progress show that they were using a fucking Nazi-style eagle staff as the physical representation of their main championship, and I continue to find it mind-boggling that a company that seems so switched-on in other respects – implementing a very rudimentary safe-spaces policy by making its fans chant “don’t be a dick” at the beginning of shows, harnessing the ground-swell of support around the openly-pansexual wrestler Jack Sexsmith and turning him into a mega-babyface – hasn’t cottoned on and dispensed with this imagery entirely. The only thing I can hold in my mind to help with this cognitive dissonance is the notion that these aesthetics are not being appropriated directly from Neo-Nazi political groups and so on, but are arriving filtered through certain musical subcultures (like Hardcore) that initially (more or less nefariously) dallied with these symbols.

I have less invested in defending WWE from charges of fash flirtation than I do with Progress, but I do think the same can be said of those entrances at Wrestlemania: Rollins and H are noted aficionados of certain genres of music that are liable to trade in these kinds of aesthetics, and there’s a strong case to be made that it’s to these genres – and not the raw material of extreme right-wing politics – that they are most loyally wedded. This doesn’t answer the overriding question of what’s being normalised through these aesthetics (and doesn’t tell us anything for certain about either man’s politics), but I think there is an important point to be added to the discussion: wrestling is nothing if not an omnivorous appropriator of things deemed cool in other media, and has for decades been trying to supplement its own aesthetic cache (think pre-Gorgeous George) with material borrowed from elsewhere. There are multiple layers of appropriation at work here, and they need to be read carefully if we’re going to figure out how ideology works in this particular facet of visual culture.

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If we’re going to work on a serious cultural critique of wrestling, we should also think about the way heterogeneity plays out within the spectacle as a whole. I mean this both in terms of the variety of spectacles wrestling produces and within its fan community. Even if our intention is just to use wrestling as a frame through which to read “trash cultures” – I appreciate that it’s not Novara Media’s job to offer a unified cultural theory of wrestling (it’s ours), and I don’t need or expect Sarkar and Butler to keep tabs on Lucha Underground or Pro Wrestling EVE or Ice Ribbon or Kaiju Big Battel – it bears noting that alongside all the fash imagery, Wrestlemania featured two huge grandstanding entrances for young black women, and was hosted by The New Day, and was headlined by a big Samoan dude going over everyone’s favourite nostalgia act, and maybe turning into a villain in the process, which would, paradoxically, result in everyone cheering for him. On no account do I feel the need to argue that WWE has become woke (not least since there are huge problems with the idea of brands presenting themselves in this way, as Minamore explores in the podcast), and clearly the company is still run by loathsome, abuse-apologising, Trump-endorsing individuals. But I do think it’s important when analysing  how a “low” cultural platform like Wrestlemania serves to circulate images and ideology that we start from a picture of messy heterogeneity, acknowledging its entanglement with all manner of underground formations,  accounting for the many different kinds of subject positions that might be found in relation to the same stimuli based on degrees or kinds of exposure to these formations, and paying attention to the ways in which reception of the product itself is affected by all sorts of other cultural influences and commitments.

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Speaking of subject positions, here is Minamore drawing a neat ring around mine:

I’m really obsessed with cop dramas. I find it so interesting that I love cop dramas, as someone who deeply hates cops…I don’t know what this means but I’ve been talking with friends who are survivors of sexual violence and loads of us watch these…Law and Order style shows…and I think it’s because fundamentally as humans we want things to last half an hour…we want there to be a clear arc where the cops are good…or even if they’re not good, they’re flawed…but at the end of the episode the survivor gets justice, the end. And that’s why we like wrestling, because there is a winner…I think we just want clear endings, you want there to be clear narrative story arcs. The problem with our world is that there isn’t that, you know? We keep on saying “oh god we’ve started a new…fascist era” and it’s like, did it ever end?…Actually, the more I think about it it’s always been there, and we go through cycles where things are more obvious and it feels like things are maybe getting “worse”, but of course we have the means to see how bad it’s getting, we have the internet, we have media everywhere…even if the media is flawed and is telling the stories badly, they’re still telling the stories. And so, for the first time in human history…anyone on this planet has access to a vast amount of knowledge that is very depressing…

I think that if there’s one thing that unites an awful lot of wrestling fans in my peer group it’s that we all use wrestling as an escape from bad cycles of mental health. I’ve written on here before about how the sheer giddy ridiculousness of Kairi Hojo’s entrance gear helped me to experience some joy in the terrible, terrible summer of 2016, and even The Guardian have published words to this effect (although Clem Bastow’s excellent article sadly makes no mention of Kairi Hojo). For me, Minamore hits the nail on the head here by linking wrestling’s therapeutic effects specifically to temporal cycles and to media oversaturation. There’s so, so much stuff I see on my social media feeds on a daily basis that reaffirms what a terrible place this world is to live in right now, and a lot of this stuff has the particular quality of affirming that things are both getting worse and have a deep structural historical basis that may prove impossible to overturn. What better escape in these circumstances than a world that seems to run on its own logic, where justice gets dispensed at (more or less) predictable intervals, in a performance medium predicated on co-operation for mutual benefit? It’s a world peppered with visions of social justice as well: Jack Sexsmith rises through the ranks in Progress, Pro Wrestling EVE builds a reputation on challenging toxic masculinity, Sasha Banks and The New Day become some of the biggest stars on WWE TV, Sexy Star pins Mil Muertes to win the Lucha Underground Championship. But really it’s the linearity and the shortness of wrestling that makes it such a comforting thing to cling on to in a world that seems dedicated in the long-term to dismantling comfort for the greatest number possible. It’s not enough, but I couldn’t do without it.

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