There was a moment just about a year ago that had profound a effect on popular culture. Wrestlemania 32, the single largest attendance at a wrestling event with easily 97,000 fans in attendance, had a moment that stood out amongst the superstars and incredible events. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a man who made his name being the most charismatic figure in sports entertainment, came to Dallas, to Wrestlemania, wielding a flamethrower. Johnson did not need to wrestle. But, for the first time, pro wrestling had a crossover star that was not simply a popular wrestler or a celebrity working an angle. Dwayne Johnson has grossed over $2 billion in box office roles since 2000. He did not need the boost in his Hollywood pursuits, as past returns to WWE had pointed towards. WWE did not need him either, as this was the highest grossing Wrestlemania ever. The truth is, pro wrestling had taken the spot as the impactful art form and force in popular culture that it always said it was.
Wrestling fans know the argument that gets made before people even say it. “You know it’s fake, right?”, is the constant refrain from friends of those who watch when they reveal their viewing preferences. The condescension that comes with this statement is dripping off their words, as it’s usually said with a smirk or some level of pretension. Commonly thought of as a lower level of entertainment, as being trashy or backwards, pro wrestling has long been looked down upon by cultural elites. In sports circles, it is given short shrift due to its predetermined nature. In entertainment/art circles, wrestling is often simplified as large men in tights jumping and grabbing each other, with no real rhyme or reason behind it.
Beyond the criticism that most movies, TV shows, musicals, mainstream sports, and other performance can garner in the same vein (you all know that Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are fake too, right?), the biggest secret that seems to elude the non-fan critics that fans have grasped since they were young is that the fans are in on it too. Fans know that there’s a story behind it, that promos lead to conflict with a match or series of matches with dramatic elements strung along so that when there is a payoff, it elicits a reaction, good or bad. Reaction is what pro wrestling is based on. The electricity from the entire crowd booing a heel (bad guy) when he cheats to win, or cheering when a babyface (good guy) beats up a heel.
But what wrestling has done has taken the mantle of important popular culture and is the defining art form for the 21st century. Real world politics, culture and art cross into the ring with regularity. The current president is a WWE Hall-of-Famer and has played a major role in past WWE events. John Cena hosted the ESPYs and Saturday Night Live in the past year. Like all art and entertainment, there are times wrestling is boring or falls short of its goal. Unlike all other forms of sport or entertainment, wrestling never stops. 300 plus days a year, WWE puts on a show of some sort and there is always a story. In the ring, throughout the night, fans see story after story, some long-term and some just for that night, that excite and reflect the atmosphere in the arena and the culture at large. WWE has some of the biggest stars in the world now, with some of the best storytelling and some of the most exciting moments you can pay to see. With Wrestlemania 33 fast approaching, the company and the industry as a whole have the opportunity to impact popular culture, art and sports in ways they have always wanted. Only now, they actually have people’s attention, for real.
Jackson is a senior Political Science major.