Oliver Lee Bateman comes to terms with conventional masculinity.
“Irony, while destroying appearance, maintains appearance as appearance. Even though we see the false as false, it is presented as true. In irony, then, there is a coexistence of truth and falsehood. The false does not fall away when truth is revealed: a dramatic tension is maintained. [In other words], things are not only other than what they seem to be, but they also seem to be other than what they are.” Brian Pronger, The Arena of Masculinity
I was raised in principal part by a father who harbored an abiding and perhaps even excessive interest in hair care, musicals, fancy clothing, and domestic tasks such as cooking and cleaning. He was also a large, densely built former college football player with a violent temper. As a young boy, it seemed to me that these parts of his character were in constant tension; was he a gentle, artistic soul or a lumbering brute? I had my own problems in school and at home, however, so such questions were often put aside in favor of hours spent watching and reading about professional wrestling in my bedroom. While thus engaged in furious, secretive fandom, I was struck by the transgressive way in which many male performers chose to depict themselves. Mind you, I had no idea what “transgressive” meant much less why such depictions mattered in a broader social context, but my sense of puzzlement existed from the outset.
I doubt that these performers realized they were doing anything beyond entertaining the multitudes and eking out a grueling living that offered them neither health benefits nor days off. Yet they were, in some small and unintentional way, suggesting a way forward to a generation of impressionable viewers. In his study of homosexual male athletes, University of Toronto professor Brian Pronger argued that the irony of male homosexuality offered the potential to gradually but significantly undermine hegemonic, orthodox masculinity:
With the clarity of a gay ironic perspective, orthodox masculinity is dismissed as insignificant and paradox is allowed to shine. So that while lifting heavy weights one needn’t pretend to be what one is not. It proves that you don’t have to be butch to be strong; you don’t have to be masculine to be an athlete. That insight has great power. It destroys the athletic arena of masculinity, exposing athletic masculinity as nothing more than a myth. Irony is power, the power to destroy superficiality, in this case, orthodox masculinity. It is a refusal to play by orthodox rules, declaring oneself to be above those rules. This is the triumph of paradox, the victory of irony: being a fine, strong athlete doesn’t mean you’re straight.
My sole criticism of Pronger’s book, rooted in personal experience, is that this ironic perspective needn’t extend only to males who are exclusively homosexual. I’ve had a long and enjoyable sideline in competitive athletics that has, at least in part, involved lifting some heavy weights; at no point in that process was I ever pretending to be something that I wasn’t. Recalling the examples of professional wrestlers from my youth such as Adrian Adonis and Buddy Rose, I would resolve this paradox–this challenge to orthodox masculinity–by embracing it. It is to their stories that I now turn.
Keith Franke was, for the better part of his career, a competent if unspectacular middle-of-the-card professional wrestler. Wrestling under the name “Adrian Adonis,” Franke worked a rather typical tough-guy heel gimmick: leather jacket, rule-breaking attitude, taunt-laden interviews. He enjoyed successful runs as the tag team partner for charismatic villains such as Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Dick Murdoch, carrying them in the ring in much the same way that they supported him on the mic.
As his career neared its conclusion, Franke, who had spent most of the 1980s employed by the WWE, was transitioned by Vince McMahon from badass tag team champion to gimmicky caricature. McMahon, who later crafted an angle wherein an African-American strongman would impregnate an 80-year-old female pro wrestler and who would entertain thoughts of running an incest storyline with his own daughter, repurposed the overweight and nearly washed-up grappler as “Adorable” Adrian Adonis, an updating of a “gay gimmick” that had successfully drawn heat from crowds since the halcyon days of Gorgeous George. What’s perhaps overlooked by history is the fact that “Adorable” Adonis, like Adrian Street and Gorgeous George before him, was never portrayed as an explicitly homosexual character (frequent references to his “San Francisco fans” aside), merely an effeminate and shockingly brutal villain who went to great lengths to emasculate his opponents.
Owing to Franke’s considerable wrestling ability–which somehow remained intact despite the fact that he was by this point well over 300 pounds and completely out of shape–the Adonis character came off, at least to a naive young version of me, as genuinely menacing. His well-worked “hair versus hair” match with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper at Wrestlemania III, which saw the mammoth Franke taking bumps and falls that would even make the legendarily masochistic Ric Flair proud, proved far more compelling than the dreadful Hulk Hogan/Andre the Giant main event. Although the bout ended with Adonis having his bleached-blonde locks shorn by interloping good guy Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, my sympathies were with the villain.
That was, alas, pretty much the end for Adonis, whose in-ring performance deteriorated significantly as his well-publicized substance and abuse problems worsened. A last-gasp comeback that saw him clean and sober and 50 pounds lighter was ended prematurely by the unfortunate automobile accident that took his life.
“Playboy” Buddy Rose somehow managed to be both the apotheosis of three decades of effeminate villains and utterly sui generis. Like Keith Franke, he had what most wrestling promoters would consider a “bad body.” Like Keith Franke, he could flat-out wrestle. And he was a revelation: an overweight, and later obese, grappler who carried on as if he was the prettiest man in the world. Even when he was well over 300 pounds, the vicious, invective-spewing Rose would invite young, fit people from the audience into the ring, only to humiliate them by watching them fail at his one-arm push-up challenge before proceeding to perform five actual one-arm push-ups (“actual” as opposed to those quarter-motion jobs Sly Stallone would do in his various Rocky training montages).
Buddy Rose was good at everything. He could work the mic. He could “sell” his opponent’s moves. He outshone most of his opponents, including a young “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, whose career he helped launch while both were wrestling for Don Owen’s Portland promotion. And he too was saddled with a ridiculous gimmick later in his career, in this case a “Blow-Away Diet” program from which Vince McMahon, who was allegedly pressuring most of his late-80s roster to use steroids to enhance their physiques, derived considerable enjoyment. Rose made the most of that gimmick, as well as the series of opening-card bouts with lesser lights like Tito Santana (whom he also wrestled, under a mask, at Wrestlemania I) that comprised his final run in the WWE. Following his retirement from the sport, he struggled with diabetes and morbid obesity before passing away in 2009 at the age of 57.
There were others, of course. Dusty Rhodes, an endomorphic former lineman at the University of West Texas (now West Texas A&M University) turned lisping, rhyming, ass-wiggling, and belly-jiggling spokesperson for the “common man.” Dusty’s son Dustin, who reached his greatest fame playing the androgynous, masculinity-imperiling Goldust character. Handsomely mustached “Ravishing” Rick Rude saw nothing wrong with performing a seductive striptease that seemed to be intended for gay male viewers rather than the scattered handfuls of women in attendance at the arena. Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who never met a feather boa he didn’t like. But it was Adonis and Rose, particularly Rose, whose examples most resonated with me. They were, like my father, superlative if unprepossessing athletes; they also, like him, played effeminate characters with hard, menacing edges. Except my father wasn’t playing. I’m not sure what he was doing, actually. But he did somehow succeed at instilling in me a contempt for thoughtless, knee-jerk masculinity: sitting at a bar, guzzling beers and remarking carelessly about women and past sporting exploits, was anathema to him. His own views about women were hardly progressive, colored as they were by the prejudices of the 1940s and the tiny community in which he was raised, but neither did they bear any relation to the sort of thoughtless misogyny that continues to manifest itself whenever men are assembled in large clusters.
Buddy Rose was perfectly capable of sashaying to the ring, doing one-armed push-ups, and then “blading” both himself and his opponent as they proceeded to deal pretend-yet-real damage throughout a fifteen-minute match. Perhaps alone among the innumerable users of the “Playboy” gimmick in wrestling, Rose overcame this central tension between masculine and feminine: he was an obnoxious asshole who transcended easy categorization. As I watched him spread “Blow-Away” powder over his ample midsection and thereafter pound away on Tito Santana, the doughy, nine-year-old version of me attempted to reconcile outperforming older students at my elementary school’s “field day” despite having no interest in anything save at a handful of solitary and not-at-all masculine hobbies. While watching old video footage of Adrian Adonis–already dead by 1991–kick the crap out of whatever less talented opponent Vince McMahon or head matchmaker Pat Patterson (McMahon’s right-hand man and quite possibly the most successful openly, albeit discreetly, gay professional athlete of the 1960s and ’70s) had set against him, I struggled to fit together the conflicting, contradictory pieces of myself.
It is, to be sure, a silly and solipsistic question: “Who am I?” As if the answer to that question was as important as life itself, as if the question’s resolution meant anything to anyone who wasn’t you. But while the answer matters little, the process of arriving at it, when shared with others, can be of significant value. My father, himself trapped in this gender paradox, demanded from me and my half-brother the unbridled manliness and aggression that enabled him to succeed on the football field. Although both of us came to look the part, and could when prodded act the part, such pressure was too much to bear. His own contradictory behaviors, the ways in which he and Adonis and Rose and many others weren’t manly, proved far more instructive.
I now work in a field where refinement and intelligence allegedly rule the day, and in which it is possible that my down-to-earth manner of self-presentation and gym rat tendencies–as far removed from the Ivy League sports canon of rowing, fencing, sailing, etc. as can be–are viewed at times with bemusement or even suspicion. But I have long ago reconciled these contradictions; I am not what I am, and I prefer to let my work speak for itself. This is concededly no grand solution to more deeply rooted and intractable problems of gender construction in our society, but it is one way of obviating pressures to conform to orthodox gender roles, pressures that are felt every bit as acutely by men as they are by women.