Note from Alyssa: I’m delighted to have convinced Betsy Phillips to appear on this blog twice in the same week. You should go read her on how country music defines itself here.
Many pundits have framed Donald Trump’s presidential victory as the rejection of the values of the liberal elite by “regular” people, which I find pretty hilarious considering how many billionaires Trump is putting in his Cabinet. If you compare Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick to head up the Education Department — with her billions of dollars of Amway money — and Betsy Phillips, me — a person whose 10-year-old car is missing three wheel covers — it’s not the liberal in that comparison who’s going to look like the “elite.” But then last week, I received a fundraising email from the Tennessee Democratic Party. The subject line was “WWE Co-Founder, Carl’s Jr. Head, and a Former Brain Surgeon Walk into a Bar …,” and the opening sentence read, “This sounds like the makings of a joke.”
I think Ben Carson and Andrew Puzder are, at best, pretty horrible choices for their jobs. But treating former World Wrestling Entertainment chief executive Linda McMahon, whom president-elect Donald Trump has chosen to lead the Small Business Administration, like a joke sure feels elitist to me. And that it was Tennessee Democrats being so snobby was really disappointing.
Usually, you can count on people from Tennessee to have a bristling pride in our cultural productions. We know you all see us as backwoods hicks strumming our banjos and drinking our moonshine, and we’re a little insulted by it because we know you mean it dismissively, but also, come on! Have you heard Earl Scruggs or Bela Fleck? Have you been at a party where the Mason jar comes out of the freezer? Our music and our liquor are second to none.
And even if people in the rest of the country don’t understand the intrinsic value of professional wrestling, Tennessee is home to Jerry “The King” Lawler, Jeff Jarrett and Miroslav “Rusev” Barnyashev. Randy Orton was born here, as was the Honky Tonk Man. Heck, I once couldn’t rent a tiller from Home Depot because they told me The Undertaker had just rented their last one to turn over his parents’ flower beds.
Tennessee is still a place where you can see ordinary people wrestling at the VFW or the community center. It’s an art form we have a great love for and a long-standing stake in. If we wouldn’t treat a country music industry executive as a joke, if we wouldn’t laugh if the head of Jack Daniel’s caught the president’s attention, we shouldn’t be sneering at a woman who gained her business experience running a professional wrestling company.
Don’t get me wrong, there are reasons to criticize McMahon and how she ran the WWE when she was the chief executive of the company from 1997 to 2009. The list of wrestlers who worked for her during that time who didn’t make it to their 50th birthdays is dozens deep and starts with Andrew “Test” Martin, winds through Chris Benoit and his family, and ends at Umaga, who was Vince McMahon’s surrogate against Donald Trump’s surrogate, Bobby Lashley, at the Battle of the Billionaires at Wrestlemania 23.
Though, to be fair, the WWE does a somewhat better job of acknowledging that the wrestling life contributes to these deaths than the NFL has done with its deaths. While the NFL still dithers about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and whether football is bad for you, the WWE has instituted a strict wellness policy to try to curb substance abuse and brain injury. Rather than hinder the company, these efforts have paid off financially. Forbes says the company has a market capitalization of $1.5 billion and estimates the McMahons’ net worth at $1.16 billion.
The cultural impact of the WWE extends beyond that, of course. Before Dwayne Johnson was Hollywood gold, he was a WWE superstar. John Cena is almost as famous for his philanthropic efforts as he is for his wrestling. Sports stars and celebrities love professional wrestling. Snoop Dogg has stopped by to support his wrestling cousin, Sasha Banks. Comedian and darling of the left, Jon Stewart has appeared in the ring numerous times as has our president-elect. If you want to reach young men, the WWE has the corner on your market.
So, what is it exactly that makes Linda McMahon a joke? Because it doesn’t seem like it can be that she successfully ran a billion-dollar company with a vast cultural reach. The problem must be that there’s something obviously worthy of disdain in professional wrestling itself that would taint a person who wanted to devote her life to it.
But what, exactly?
Certainly, liberals aren’t sneering at people who want to watch semi-naked men grappling each other or the men who make their livings doing that, since we’re supposed to be the sex-positive folks who don’t see anything wrong with homoerotic undertones in pop culture.
It’s also not déclassé to watch a film where a man with a seemingly impossible amount of muscles flies through the air and pounds on another similarly built man. That’s just a fun Saturday afternoon. The movie producers who make that happen have a place in the national discourse. No one thinks that’s strange. But McMahon once presided over a form of entertainment where real men with impossible muscles fly through the air without the use of wires or special effects to fight each other and that’s a joke?
Or is the problem that some people refuse to acknowledge professional wrestling as an art form? It is an art form, though, one that marries tremendous athletic prowess with serialized narrative in a live performance.
Former professional wrestler, now fiction writer, Matt Wallace wrote movingly about wrestling’s capacity for storytelling over at Tor.com a few weeks ago: “No extra context is required to understand the narrative of that match. If you’ve never watched wrestling, never heard of these two guys in spandex, you can watch that match from the beginning bell and fully understand the story of what they’re doing. More than that, you’ll still be deeply compelled by it. It speaks to everyone, and no frills or explanation or complex worldbuilding or monologue or exposition is necessary.”
The way Wallace talks about wrestling, it reminds me of the best of what stage actors or dancers do — using their bodies to communicate a story. And how often do Broadway shows sell out arenas? Or ballets fill football stadiums? For some reason, the fact that the WWE runs an incredibly long-lasted, popular kind of theater seems to mark it as not being real art. Its very popularity is the proof that it’s worthy of disdain. How is that not elitist?
I’m not arguing that you have to like professional wrestling. You frown in confusion at a good ladder match. I’ll sleep through the symphony. To each their own. But Linda McMahon is no joke and she deserves consideration based on her merits, one of which is presiding over an incredibly successful and popular form of American entertainment.