What can a cartoon character like former WWE superstar “Ravishing” Rick Rude teach us about masculinity?
What I’m about to write has nothing to do with Richard Rood, the performer, and everything to do with “Ravishing” Rick Rude, the character he played in the WWF.1 Rood is dead, which means his performances as Rude are fixed in amber. We can expect no subsequent appearances, no critical reappraisals, no sudden turns. He is what he was: a monster heel who had the bad fortune of peaking in a cartoon superhero-fronted federation that never put the world “strap” on heels, monster or otherwise. Like the Honky Tonk Man, the Macho Man, and the Million Dollar Man—but better than either, really—he generated heat and then carried his hapless face opponents through better matches than they had any right to perform. He wore the airbrushed likenesses of other women, and eventually himself, on his wrestling tights. He gyrated his hips. He insulted the “sweat hog” fans who had paid to see him get his butt kicked. He kissed unattractive momjeans-wearing women and caused them to swoon.
By the standards of 1980s beefcake grapplers, Rude was an excellent performer. His matches against the Ultimate Warrior were somehow not terrible. His later WCW matches against Sting and Ric Flair are borderline classics. He could work the mic, work his gimmick—do it all, really. In his excellent and opinionated autobiography, booker and hard man extraordinaire “Cowboy” Bill Watts derided him as a steroid creation who’d be 170 pounds soaking wet if he weren’t abusing performance-enhancing drugs…though hey, it’s not like Watts is bitter or anything.
But like fellow Minnesota native and “perfect” competitor Curt Hennig, Rude never succeeded in putting all the pieces together and supplanting the no-talent megastars of the era. Injuries constituted a big part of the problem in both cases, but for Rude, I think it was also something deeper: the Ravishing One rose to fame playing a designated hitter, and how could a designated hitter ever really win anything?
Wait, what? What the hell are you talking about, bro? Srsly bro, do u even lift?
Bear with me here, brahski, as I’m about to make a Really Important Point that 1 out of 10 readers of this blog (there are actually only 9, so I’m not sure how that will work) will find enlightening.
Before I reach that point, let me exhort you to watch the video at the top of this post. I suppose it’s classifiable as “NSFW” if you’re in one of those workplaces where viewing homoerotic striptease acts happens to be against company policy, but why on earth would you want to answer to such heartless paymasters?
At any rate, the video gives you a good sense of Rude’s in-ring persona. Although others have expatiated on the implications of his act vis-à-vis gender and sexuality, I’m not interested in taking that discussion any further. Instead, I want you to focus on how joylessly he goes about his paces. He’s hip-gyrating and kiss-stealing almost as enthusiastically as Ralph Wolfpunched the clock at the end of a long workday spent getting his shit tossed by the invincible Sam Sheepdog.
In spite his extraordinary heat-getting abilities, Rick Rude clearly wasn’t a threat to anybody. Kissing the wives and girlfriends of the “sweat hogs” he detested was a chore. Showcasing his washboard abdominals was an obligation. And the “real” women he lusted after in storylines—insofar as he lusted after anyone, since he seemed to be more interested in proving Lacan’s point about desire being a desire for recognition from the ‘Other’—wanted nothing to do with him. Cheryl Roberts, wife of soft-bodied ring general and eventual cocaine casualty Jake “The Snake” Roberts, did everything short of puking up her guts to express his distaste for Rude’s crude come-on lines.
Rude-as-designated-hitter was the “ideal man,” but he was also a nobody. The audience didn’t so much boo him as serve as a mirror for his own insecurities. Women might enjoy copping feels along his obliques, but to what end? None of them wanted to go home with him. Rude was so “ideal” as to be ridiculous, and out of this ridiculousness arose selfish indignation: when would he everbe good enough to be worshipped like the demigod he knew he had become?
When I was a kid, I thought Dusty Rhodes was the best wrestler in the whole wide world. He was my cynosure; everything else was secondary to whatever kind of nonsense feuding and interviewing he happened to be engaged in. I began watching WWF programming in earnest because he’d signed with McMahon’s company, after which he would spend the better part of six months wearing polka dot tank tops and straight-up “cooning” with his heavyset African-American valet Sapphire. But Rude soon proved to be the guy I found myself relating to, for reasons that I then saw through a glass darkly.2
Say wha? You’re telling me you related to this dude, who was playing a misogynistic, egotistical piece of garbage? Broham, u out ur mind? Dude rly, u even lift bro?
No, that’s not it. I didn’t relate to the substance of Rick Rude’s performance. How could anybody relate to the substance of anything that was on display in McMahon’s WWF of the late 80s and early 90s? Save for a handful of Ultimate Warrior interviews that mirrored my father’s tirades far too closely for me to take any comfort in them, it was mostly a lot of stupid shit, performed stupidly, and lacking even the patina of redeeming postmodern subversiveness that it would develop during the “Attitude Era.”
But Rude—Rude was a sad bunny rabbit. Here was this wonderful specimen, this self (and steroid) made creation, and he couldn’t catch a break. He just wanted so badly for everyone to recognize his greatness. His hatred was an outgrowth of this lack of recognition, recognition that would never be forthcoming because, ye gods, what could be more loathsome than giving credit to someone who actually craves it? Screw you, meathead!
It was only years later, after I had undertaken a regimen of self-improvement in order to slough off the bitter memories of this period, that I understood precisely how this fictional character felt. I knew what dark forces ravaged the soul of “Ravishing” Rick Rude. I had gone to ludicrous lengths to impress other people…because I just wanted, for once in my godforsaken life, to be impressed by myself.
Such a perfect fate: after years of practice, you’ll be lucky if you become the man of your dreams. When you’re a designated hitter—the man who has everything except something to offer—it’s the utter pits. The Cheryl Robertses, those fair maidens whose attention you crave because they’ll validate something about yourself, are repulsed by that excessive persona you’re always toting around with you. Like Rick Rude, you’re always trumpeting your mad skillz to the world…yet who the heck cares? Your flaws are only made more manifest because of your assiduous efforts to conceal them.
You know that one real jacked guy who wasn’t the love of your life but you kinda didn’t hate dating him only he wasn’t really all that memorable and now every few years you look him up on the ol’ Facebook to see what he’s doing and it turns out he’s doing okay or even better than okay and you wonder if maybe it could’ve worked out better than it did before finally concluding que sera sera and getting back to whatever hot new iPhone app is occupying your time? “Ravishing” Rick Rude used to play one of those guys on TV. So did I, only in real life.
- Go and read wrestling critic David Shoemaker’s new book for a more extensive treatment of Rude’s significance. Shoemaker hits paydirt when he writes: “Not long after, Rude began decorating his tights with his own face, a level of narcissism previously unmatched even in wrestling’s ego parade. To be self-absorbed and overconfident was perhaps an act of sensible egomania; to paint ones own treasured visage with crotch as canvas was an unprecedented affront to our wrestling sensibilities. Previously, ring gear had largely been an afterthought, a series of unspectacular mini-billboards reminding us of catchphrases, nicknames (‘Mr. #1derful’), and the names of special moves (‘Thump’). If anything, such sewn-on words distracted us from the fact that we were looking at a man’s pelvic region. Rude’s attention-grabbing ensembles inverted such convention. They underscored the fundamentally homoerotic nature of the enterprise: his comeliness was indistinguishable from his physique and also from his, er, manhood. The masturbatory allusion was not ambiguous. When Rude rotated his hips in the ring, hands behind his head, he wasn’t showing off for the crowd or playing mind games with his opponent: He was sucking his own dick.”
- The character he was playing, I mean. The WCW Rude, who actually won a major “strap” there while also having the best matches of his career, wasn’t nearly as compelling as this earlier, more colorful version. Usually, I found McMahon’s buffoonery and squash matchery to be insufferable, but Rude, like “Adorable” Adrian Adonis before him, benefited from this sort of makeover. Both men were good as “mean heels,” but they were amazing as cartoon super villains.