Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Wrestling and the breaking of the fourth wall

Most of you probably don't know this, but I am a bit of a wrestling fan. While I didn't follow the WWF (as it was known then) religiously as some of my peers did, I did enjoy the occasional match. When I was around 13, I remember actually following WCW for a few months - I thought they were more interesting than their more famous (in Southeast Asia anyway) competitors. I don't follow it that closely now, but whenever I'm home I would tune in to an episode of RAW just to see what was going on in the wrestling world.

I guess it was a combination of cartoonish elements, the soap opera storylines, the straightforward "good vs. evil" fights - and as I got older and understood better how the business works - the interest in how the creative team booked matches to further a particular angle that got me hooked. Of course, there were plenty of unsavoury elements as well, such as the shameless objectification of women or the ridiculous stereotyping, but it was quite enjoyable as a form of escapism. And I always thought that wrestling as sports entertainment also provided some fascinating insights into human psychology and behaviour (but that's a thought for another time).

Unlike most of my friends, I wasn't a big fan of people like The Rock (too mouthy for me), or Stone Cold Steve Austin (Austin 3:16 struck me as being blasphemous). But I remembered finding myself attracted to Chris Benoit. Even a casual fan like me could see that technically, he was one of the best, and that he was nothing if not professional. I find I naturally like quiet heroes(thus I am a big fan of Tim Duncan) so it's not big surprise Benoit became a favourite of mine. It seems that his on-screen persona reflected much of his true character as well.

Which is why I was as stunned as anybody to discover that not only has Benoit and his family died over the weekend, but it appears to be a murder-suicide. The details are a little bizarre and seem to be at odds with what everyone backstage knew of Benoit. It comes as the WWE had recently been running a storyline of the "death" of "Mr. McMahon" (the on-screen character of the WWE boss) and is just one instance of life imitating art in the most unfortunate manner. The story has been big enough to receive mainstream news coverage from places like ESPN and someone even called it "the biggest sports news of the year". I guess to non-fans it all seems a little bewildering, but someone mentioned that it was like OJ Simpson in that it transcended categories of sport.

I don't know, but the details don't look too good. If it is confirmed that Benoit was guilty, then he has tainted his own legacy permanently. And I guess that's what made people so confused, so unsettled: that the person they thought they knew could have done this. Secondarily, it would also turn the spotlight back on the wrestling industry and the problems they have with things like drug abuse, but primarily, it is is the human tragedy that people are dwelling on. John Cote, on the Slam Sports website writes:

I am so angry right now at Chris Benoit. I am do not know what led to these events so i will not voice my opinion on them, someone far greater than me will be judging Chris Benoit. From a selfish standpoint, Some of my greatest memories of pro wrestling involved Chris Benoit, and with this single act, he has tainted them, not just for me but for millions of people who looked up to him and admired his work.
One of the most obvious things I noticed is that many people's reaction is that of anger, a sense that some sort of justice must be exacted. In a very emotional piece and by no means untypical of what I've seen so far, GRUT rages:
The saddest death of the three is Chris Benoit. He got to take the shortcut...He gets to fade into the darkness instead of facing the truth...God, don't let him get off that easy. Let there be a Hell...
Best commentary at the time of this posting, complete with references to Dostoyevsky, is from Eric Szulczewski:
Until we get an explanation, we have to deal with this. We're fans of a medium where violence is inherent. But we know that the violence is make-believe. People do get injured, but it's accidental. They're not trying to cause injury in the ring. That's what makes this situation so shocking to us. We've seen Chris Benoit get down and dirty with opponents for two decades. We just can't imagine him doing it outside the ring. We certainly can't imagine him committing acts of violence on his wife and child...

There was once a man who was a specialist in this area, attempting to explain the inexplicable. Fyodor Dostoevsky's books are crammed full of irrational characters performing actions that violated every precept of what was considered moral society...Evil had this tendency to lose, because Dostoyevsky always had faith that morality would win out in the end, no matter how despicable his characters were...
Read the whole thing
. I don't really have anything profound to say. Have a look at some of the pieces above and I'm sure you'll notice quite a bit to chew on, on God, on justice and judgment, on humanity. Some of the people I quoted above have already made quite overtly theological statements, and I think the majority of my readers, as Christians, already know all about total depravity and the fallen world. I see no reason to expand on this for the moment, I have reflected on it more in this post from a couple of years back. I guess I just feel a little sad, a little disorientated. Kevin Jones on SLAM talks poignantly about being unable to convey the reality of death to his nine-year old son, who doesn't quite understand that the wrestling world is fake, but this isn't. Death and tragedy never gets old, never quite gets explained away.

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Blogger The Hedonese said...

:D I'm still a big fan of the ultimate warrior!!

2:40 am  
Blogger BK said...

Dave, you're showing your age; I was too young to remember Ultimate Warrior!

I've been looking at the continuing coverage of this story and have been struck by quite a few things:

1. People really struggling to reconcile a disjunction between the person they knew - whether personally ("one of the good guys of the business" is how just about all his peers describe him), or as a fan ("he worked so hard, and we cheered him on when he finally won Wrestlemania XX"), and the heinous act that he committed.

More specifically, quite a lot of the commentary generated seems to come from a Pelagian framework. People have had no trouble naming this act as "evil" but have more trouble figuring out why. In one sense, that's appropriate, since as I mentioned in my original post, death and evil shouldn't be completely explained away but should be felt as a tear in the fabric, a reminder that there's something wrong, something unnatural about it. On another level though, I can't help but feel it's tremendously difficult to say anything meaningful if you leave God out. Especially when the discussion sometimes assumes something external must have caused it and exclusively homes in on wrestling or drugs. This brings me to my next 2 points...

2. Justice be done somehow. GRUT, whom I quoted in the original post, confesses his functional theism - he doesn't believe in God, but he sure hopes that God is there right now to punish Benoit! The language of cowardice has also been used to describe Benoit. It reminds me of Tom Wright's comments about us hearing echoes of justice.

3. Idolatry. If another god replaces God. I talked earlier about disjunctions of perception, but there is an emerging picture of Chris Benoit not being the perfect family man - a possible history of domestic violence. Could fans have idolised Chris a little too much? Secondly, it is known he was very caught up in his work; could workplace pressures have contributed somehow? It is known that pro wrestlers have an extremely tough schedule, without an offseason like other professional sports - in other words, they're treated like commodities at the altar of the god Profit. Benoit must bear responsibility, but some other factors probably did come into play. There's that story coming out about his son suffering from Fragile X syndrome, which apparently is like autism and is extremely wearing on the family.

I've probably oversimplified or overstated matters, but those are some thoughts. Again, just like with the Virginia Tech killings, it's a fine line between "there but for the grace of God goes I" and "what Chris Benoit did is wrong and he is rightfully condemned for it".

8:46 pm  

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