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Between 1984 and 1988, I was a master control operator at a small television station in Atlanta, Georgia. I was responsible for rolling the videotapes with our station’s TV shows and commercials, making sure they aired in the right order and at the right time. I worked second shift. During the day, our receptionist dealt with angry viewers who called to complain about our programming. At night, along with putting TV shows and commercial videotapes on the air, the second shift master control operator had to deal with those callers.
One gentleman called twice a week to complain about our professional wrestling programs. On Tuesday and Thursday nights, we aired two World Wrestling Federation (later renamed World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.) shows in a row. His main beef was that professional wrestling wasn’t a legitimate competitive sport like the Greco-Roman wrestling he did in high school. The guy called after the programs were over, which meant he waited until after he watched them before he picked up the phone.
The caller argued that professional wrestling was fake and therefore World Wrestling Federation was lying. He wanted to know if he could sue WWF for misrepresentation; as if a second shift master control operator earning minimum wage would have enough legal training to answer that question.
At first, I thanked him for his comments and hoped that he’d stop calling soon. But after weeks of his calls, I tried to reason with him.
“When you’re watching a romantic movie,” I said, “and the man tells the woman that he loves her, you know that the man and the woman are actors. You know that he doesn’t actually love her. Would you sue the actor for lying?”
“That’s a movie,” the caller said. “But this is wrestling!”
There has always been an unspoken understanding between the fans and the wrestlers that professional wrestling is a performance. Wrestling as entertainment has its roots in sixteenth century England. Men grappled in circuses alongside acrobats and clowns. In post-Civil War America, P.T. Barnum’s circus included wrestlers with colorful costumes, made-up histories, and pre-determined winners of their bouts. The wrestler Lou Thesz said it best in his autobiography, Hooker: An Authentic Wrestler’s Adventures Inside the Bizarre World of Professional Wrestling. “Professional wrestling was the exclusive domain of…people more interested in dollars than true sport.”
The station I worked for aired World Wrestling Federation, a local wrestling group called Deep South Wrestling, and G.L.O.W., Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. When G.L.O.W. first aired in 1986, women’s wrestling had been around as long as men’s wrestling, but was often considered a novelty act. G.L.O.W. focused on just the women. There were no male wrestlers. The show was a hit.
Were the G.L.O.W. wrestlers empowered or exploited? The answer is both.
The women wrestlers on G.L.O.W. were treated the same as men wrestlers on other shows. The women wore skintight leotards and threw each other around the ring. Male wrestlers wore skintight wrestling trunks and tights and threw each other around the ring.
G.L.O.W.’s wrestlers performed as stereotypes like Palestina, Spanish Red, Amy the Farmer’s Daughter, and Ebony, while over at WWF, there were stereotypes like the Iron Sheik, Mr. Fuji, Sgt. Slaughter, and the Junkyard Dog.
G.L.O.W. had short comedy skits between the matches. The WWF had the soap opera satire Fuji General with Mr. Fuji mangling soap opera dialogue, and Piper’s Pit, a talk show with Rowdy Roddy Piper interviewing fellow wrestlers, insulting them, and then bashing them with a chair.
I’m sure there were many men who watched G.L.O.W. to see hot chicks in tight clothes rolling around and grabbing each other’s bodies, but what I loved most about the show was that it mocked and embraced professional wrestling in equal measure. The best examples of this were the sisters Sharon and Donna Willinsky. First, they were the Housewives and they wore face cream, fuzzy slippers, and bathrobes. When those characters didn’t catch on, they became Spike and Chainsaw, the Heavy Metal Sisters. The sisters shrieked like maniacs and Chainsaw waved around an actual chainsaw. Their act either scared the bejeezus out of the audience or had them cheering.
The G.L.O.W. wrestlers were just as athletic in the ring as the men. They performed elbow drops, battering rams, and clotheslines. They showed how dangerous the sport can be when a wrestler accidentally does a move incorrectly. In what is easily the most famous episode of G.L.O.W., the Cheerleaders Susie Spirit and Debbie Debutante were in a match against the Headhunters Meena and Mika. While performing a sunset flip, Meena’s knee landed on Susie Spirit’s arm and dislocated her elbow. The camera lingered for the longest time on Susie rolling on the mat in pain. That might seem cruel, but that’s wrestling.
Jenji Kohan, the executive producer of Orange is the New Black, recently came out with a new Netflix comedy series called G.L.O.W. starring Alison Brie. Kohan’s G.L.O.W. is based on the 80s wrestling show. I was glad to see the series had the same mix of satire and sincerity as the original program. I binge watched the entire ten episode series and loved it.
There is a pivotal moment in the series where the character Debbie Eagan, played by Betty Gilpin, realizes that professional wrestling is a soap opera. Debbie is a former soap opera actress who is reluctant to join G.L.O.W. as their main face, good guy until she makes the connection between her old job and her potential new job. I came to the same conclusion the first time I watched an episode of WWF.
I was also glad to see Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, the creators of the Netflix series, incorporate one of the odd facts about the original G.L.O.W. into their storyline. Instead of hiring women wrestlers, G.L.O.W. hired actresses and trained them to be wrestlers. They’re just like the Monkees, actors hired to play a rock n’ roll band that became an actual rock n’ roll band.
The TV station I worked for in the 80s made a deal with Deep South Wrestling to send us to record their matches and edit them into thirty-minute programs. I don’t know how other wrestling organizations do it, but at Deep South Wrestling a wrestling match was like a one-act play in which the beginning and the ending were written, but the middle was improvised. The managers had a signal for when it was time for the face to defeat the heel. The promoter would walk around the ring three times. Before the promoter went on his round the ring stroll, the wrestlers would basically beat the hell out of each other.
People ask if wrestling is fake. That’s the wrong question. The question should be how well did the wrestler do his job? Did he or she execute amazing stunts in the ring? Did the wrestlers make the audience cheer for the face and boo the heel? That was what my late night caller didn’t understand. Professional wrestling has always been about entertainment. The joy the audience experiences isn’t fake. The fact that professional wrestling is not a true competitive sport may feel like lying. But that’s wrestling.
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