By Jennifer Lowry
Description of Article
The whole of Barthes’ essay examines wrestling in light of the theatre, and wrestling being a theatrical act. Like theatre, wrestling is based upon a sign system. Each element of wrestling, whether the wrestler’s physique or his gestures indicate an “absolute clarity, since [the spectator] must always understand everything on the spot” (16). In the theatre, the private becomes public; in wrestling this “Exhibition of Suffering […] is the very aim of the fight” (19). Like the theatre, the public watches wrestling for the “great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. As in the theatre, “wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks” (19).
The comparisons to theatre continue as Barthes argues that wrestling (and I am thinking of the WWF type wrestling) is not a sport but a spectacle (15) one in which the audience is not concerned with “what it thinks but what it sees” (15). He compares wrestling to boxing and judo, which he considers sports, but unlike sports, wrestling, has no winner (16). It is not the function of the wrestler to win, “it is to go through the motions which are expected of him” (16).
The bastard or villain is usually the sufferer in wrestling. Barthes describes how the body of the bastard sums up all of his “actions, his treacheries, cruelties and acts of cowardice” (17). “The physique of the wrestlers therefore constitutes a basic sign, which like a seed contains the whole fight” (18). The costumes, like those of the theatre, represent the tragic play of wrestling.
According to Barthes, Defeat and Justice go hand in hand. Defeat is not an “outcome”, but a “display” (21). Defeat of the bastard “is a purely moral concept: that of justice” (21). The defeated must deserve the punishment (21) which is why the “crowd is jubilant at seeing the rules broken” (21) as long as it is just. “In wrestling, nothing exists except in the absolute, there is not symbol, no allusion, everything is presented exhaustively” (25). Again, as compared, there is no question of truth, the spectator just accepts what is presented to them as the way it is and should be.
Comments and Questions
This article does not lend much to commenting and is more of a summary… and my own personal thoughts.
Barthes begins his essay by arguing that wrestling is not a sport because there are no winners – at least that is not the point of the fight. He states:
The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees. (15)
While I have not experienced wrestling in France during this period I have watched wrestling on television (and I am quite sure that it is the kind of theatrical wrestling Barthes is discussing). I think it is pompous of him to assume that no one is interested in whether the contest is rigged. I also think there are many that would argue that wrestling is a sport. There are winners and losers and the winners are not always the good guys.
I do understand his contention that wrestling is like the theatre. Clearly, this type of wrestling is much more dramatic than that of the “sporting” kind. The use of costume and masks separate wrestling from recognized sporting competitions and do represent a theatrical appeal. Barthes argues in “Myth Today” that “myth is a system of communication, that it is a message” (109). He is clearly trying to get this point across in his examination of wrestling. Everything about the wrestler carries a message. The body of the wrestler, Barthes argues, carries the first message. The repulsiveness of the wrestler, his ugliness and the crowd’s reaction to that reflect on the characteristics of the wrestler. Even the wrestler’s commentary reflects upon his character, the gestures he engages in only further represent the character he is meant (assigned) to be.
What really strikes me as important is Barthes idea that the private is publicly displayed through wrestling as it is in the theatre. Using wrestling, spectators are able to identify with the characters and inflict the punishment that they feel is deserved. It seems to me that the caricatures of wrestling are exaggerations of real life. But by portraying them in exaggeration, the spectator is able to separate himself from the feelings associated.
Barthes argues that French and American wrestling are different in that the “heroes in French wrestling […are] based on ethics and not on politics” (23). He also states the American wrestling is based on “a sort of mythological fight between Good and Evil” (23) with the bad wrestler always some sort of Communist (which I don’t really think is always the case). But at the end of his essay he states:
In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible. (25)
I understand that he is probably using these references to “Good and Evil” in different contexts, but isn’t it possible that some Americans actually do view Communism as Evil? This clearly explains to me why they would portray the villain as a Communist.
I don’t really have any questions… the only thing that really struck me was my defensiveness at his comparison between American and French wrestling. Of course, only being familiar with the one and not the other doesn’t really give me much of a foot to stand on. I am curious as to why he even felt he had to throw in this comparison of French and American wrestling, as I don’t really see it necessary to his argument.