Is Wrestling The Purest Iteration of Camp?
A whole lot of Susan Sontag's 'Notes on Camp' feels like it was specifically written for...the world of wrestling.
Wrestler "Gorgeous" George (Wagner) introduces another new hairdo, "The Parakeet." Photo via Getty Images.
“Camp is antithetical to high culture,” Susan Sontag writes in her seminal essay “Notes on Camp”, and so, too, is professional wrestling. Sontag posits that to talk about Camp is to betray it, which the dwindling old guard of wrestling would still have you believe. To break “kayfabe” (the fictional reality wrestling exists in) is to disrespect the tradition of the sport. But, in the spirit of Sontag, these notes are for wrestling fans and non- who want to understand how wrestling is camp in advance of the camptastic Met Gala this Monday. (I mean, Gorgeous George. Need we say more?)
- “Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content.” Modern wrestling certainly has an emphasis on the former, with sequins, feathers and latex adorning the bodies on World Wrestling Entertainment—the largest and most visible company that holds a monopoly on the wrestling industry—TV which self-identifies as “sports entertainment”. Occasionally, content—the act of wrestling—wins out and the bodies alone are permitted to make the art.
2. “Nothing in nature can be campy.” The bodies found in the wrestling ring are seldom the result of nature, whether that's thanks to working out for hours per day, controlling calorie intake, tanning, augmenting, taking performance enhancing drugs, and undergoing surgery to repair damaged body parts.
3. “What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine…a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms.” Some of the most fetishized men in wrestling, such as Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins, have long, feminine-coded hair and “the looks that drive the girls wild”, to borrow a line from camp wrestling icon Shawn Michaels’ theme song. Women in wrestling, regardless of how stereotypically feminine they present, are automatically inducted into the world of the masculine by virtue of performing in a male-dominated industry that still holds prejudices about what women are permitted to do in it.
4. “Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (‘camping’) is usually less satisfying.” Wrestling in itself is blatantly homoerotic yet the funniest response to it is from the heteronormative, cissexist, homophobic and, indeed, naive men who claim that only the straightest and most masculine (because the two are obviously synonymous) of their tribe are interested in wrestling.
5. “Camp is the glorification of ‘character.’” So is wrestling. Wrestling is not just a bunch of people hitting each other, it’s a performance. “Decorative art”, as Sontag writes above. And you can’t have a performance without characters, the most fundamental of which are the babyface (good guy) and the heel (bad guy). It’s Stone Cold Steve Austin* (good guy) and Mr. McMahon (bad guy). Hulk Hogan (good guy) and Randy Savage (bad guy). Daniel Bryan (good guy, though recently turned bad guy) and The Miz (bad guy, though recently turned good guy). It’s Ronda Rousey (supposed to be a good guy, but her entitlement and personal opinions have soured fans to her) and Becky Lynch (the underdog who turned on her best friend and finally stood up for herself, which made her the good guy as juxtaposed against her opponents). As narratives and entertainment evolve, so do the characters wrestling has orbited around.
6. “When self-parody lacks ebullience but instead reveals (even sporadically) a contempt for one’s themes and one’s materials… the results are forced and heavy handed, rarely Camp. Successful Camp… even when it reveals self-parody, reeks of self-love.” This is why wrestlers who attempt to campify their characters, such as the Velveteen Dream in his early days and Billy and Chuck, a fake gay couple whose publicity-stunt fake gay wedding in 2002 duped GLAAD, without an appreciation for or identification with Camp seldom “get over” (be believed by fans). On the other hand a group such as The New Day who exemplify positive black masculinity, friendship and open affection for one another while wearing pink and unicorn iconography are successfully Camp.