As children, adolescents, and adults we are ubiquitously exposed to images regarding gender in the media; we are bombarded with messages reinforcing gender stereotypes and social norms. The World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) provides examples of how to be a man by wrapping displays of hegemonic masculinity around what many consider to be a male version of a soap opera. In the WWE world, men define their masculinity by bullying others, often using vocal taunts which include derogatory comments as regards to women and gay men. Women are portrayed in a hyper-sexualized manner while beaten, humiliated, and at times stripped of their clothing. This behavior is reinforced by the WWE’s story lines that lead announcers and audiences to conclude that these women have somehow brought the punishment upon themselves. With a worldwide viewing audience of more than 14 million fans weekly, the WWE inundates viewers with messages about gender roles thereby reinforcing the acceptability of violence against women in our culture.
Men & Masculinity
Masculinity in our culture is often represented in one of several ways. The version discussed here is often referred to as hegemonic masculinity. Men are expected to possess qualities such as being physically strong, in control of their emotions, and dominate. This type of masculinity is often represented in our popular culture through beer commercials and sporting events. Research has shown that the WWE frames masculinity as: real men are aggressive and violent, men settle things physically, a man confronts his adversaries and problems, real men take responsibility for their actions, men are not whiners, and that men are winners (Soulliere, 2006). In an effort to defend their manhood, wrestlers will question other men’s masculinity. This can be done by referring to other men in terms reserved for women, such as bitch, sissy, and pussy, or by questioning their heterosexuality. Other ways of reinforcing their manhood is by using women as props, sometimes forcing themselves on the women of the WWE world. In this imaginary world women are portrayed as enjoying this forcible kiss. In one episode we see Lita, a female wrestler who is unconscious, and Dean Malenko who walks up to her lifeless body, we see him grab her and make out with her. We then hear one of the announcers, Jerry Lawler, saying “She likes it, she likes it!” (Jhally, 2003). So we see this image of men perpetuating violence against women in a sexual manor and it is being glorified.
Men’s heterosexuality must also be reinforced because of the homosexual overtones that exist. These connotations are squashed with images of men forcing themselves upon women and by devaluing wrestling characters in the WWE world that display any nuance of homosexuality.
The women of the WWE are primarily used as demonstrations of the men’s heterosexuality, thus dispelling any notion of homosexuality.
Women of the WWE
Before the 1990’s women were not represented much in the WWE except to accompany a man to the ring, generally as a girlfriend or wife. Now “the conventions of pornography have made their way more and more into the main stream” (Jhally, 2003). Women resembling porn stars are used to “provide a spectacle for men” (Jhally, 2003), all the while reinforcing their heterosexuality. Women play small parts in the WWE and are often seen as “bit players in a male narrative, as sexual playthings” (Jhally, 2003). Men abusing and humiliating women is offered as entertainment; when this occurs it is almost always presented in the context that the woman deserves it or her actions have led to the punishment. “When you make this sort of abuse fun and entertaining, it has the effect of normalizing, justifying, and rationalizing men’s violence against women” (Jhally, 2003).
In the WWE there is also glamorization of sexual assault in the workplace and the humiliation of women in relationships. During one episode Trish Stratus’ punishment for crossing Vince McMahon, the owner of the WWE and her theoretical lover, is to get on her hands and knees and bark like a dog. That wasn’t enough though, she was then told to remove her clothing, further humiliating her. Vince McMahon’s justification for this when questioned by Debra Austin, Steve “Stone Cold” Austin’s wife, is that Trish deserved it because she is trash (Jhally, 2003).
All in the Name of Entertainment
It has been argued that the WWE is just entertainment; it’s a soap opera for men, and there is no harm in a little fun. Soulliere’s study (2006) found there to be positive messages in the WWE such as “encouraging responsibility, accepting defeat gracefully, and success through winning” (p. 9). But the messages that are being sent and received by the audiences who watch WWE programs are more insidious than the fans may realize. The WWE’s display of hegemonic masculinity leaves little room for alternative forms of masculinity, “such as non-violent, emotionally centered masculinity,” (Soulliere, 2006, p. 9) which is often ridiculed. Men who internalize this dominant form of masculinity may be putting themselves at physical and psychological risk and men who emulate this hyper- masculinized culture “provide erroneous justification for physical and sexual aggression against women . . . the WWE messages stifle both minority and homosexual versions of manhood” (Soulliere, 2006, p. 9). The beating of women shown in the framework of a story line creates desensitization to this violence and makes it more difficult for fans to relate to the victim because they are rooting for the aggressor. In order for us to change the culture of abuse and violence we need to “confront the jokes that are at the basis” (Jhally, 2003) of it.
The WWE is a part of the culture that is represented in the spectrum of violence against women. On one end of the spectrum there is physical violence that actually occurs in reality and on the other end are culturally significant mediums that create imaginary worlds, where there are no consequences for the violence. This is what creates a culture that is more accepting towards violence against women. There is no causation between professional wrestling and violence against woman, but it does provide a culture that is conducive for it. It provides a narrative where women become objects and are viewed for their sexuality, not as human beings. In addition to its degrading depiction of women, the WWE also provide a “hyper-masculine wrestling subculture” that is “infused with homophobic anxiety” (Katz, & Jhally, 2000). By only providing a hegemonic form of masculinity the WWE has taken us back fifty years to where sexual harassment in the workplace is deemed acceptable, beating up women is OK if they deserved it, and alternative forms of masculinity are deemed as weaknesses. So while many may argue that this is just entertainment and to not take it seriously, there are lasting effects on our popular culture and the viewers who watch it.
Jhally, S. (Director). (2003). Wrestling with manhood boys, bullying, and battering [VHS]. Northampton: Media Education Foundation.
Katz, J., & Jhally, S. (2000, February 13). Manhood on the mat: the problem i snot that pro wrestling makes boys violent. the real lesson of the widly popular pdeudo-sport is more insidious. The Boston Globe, Retrieved from http://www.jacksonkatz.com/manhood.html on 2010, December 5
Soulliere, D. (2006). Wrestling with masculinity: messages about manhood in the wwe. Sex Roles, 55. Retrieved from http://www.springerlink.com.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/content/h10w36l087v288k5/ doi: 10.1007/s11199-006-9055-6
Written by Kari Anne McDonald