A light without shadow, an emotion without reserve , or, Why I am a Fan of The Undertaker
Sunday, August 2, 2009
A few days ago I got a Facebook message from Alfonso Annunziata. The message had no subject line, and was only one line long:
Hello Linda, why are you a fan of The Undertaker.
While I have no idea who Alfonso Annunziata is (though I assume he is somehow involved in The Undertaker’s Facebook fan page), it seems like a reasonable question, one that I have been asked before and will try to answer here.
In many ways my interest in professional wrestling could be described largely as the kind of interest one has in car wrecks - I am both fascinated and appalled by the sexism, racism, tastelessness, un-age-restricted explicit violence and general unadulterated Americanness of World Wrestling Entertainment, but it is still the only thing that I ever watch on South African television. Of course, this is also because it’s basically the only thing on etv, but nonetheless… Like Barthes, I believe professional wrestling to be the ultimate ‘spectacle of excess’ and as such combines most of my major research areas – sex (and sexism), violence and simulacra.
Unlike any other kind of sporting event, everybody knows that wrestling is faked, and although wrestlers do often get seriously hurt, no one in the audience cares that the people in the ring are not really fighting each other. As in theatre, there is a tacit agreement between the spectators and the actors that the events are unreal. Unlike with theatre, though, the spectators (fans) are as much a part of the lie as the actors (wrestlers) – doggedly supporting their favourite player, as though the wrestler’s actions (as opposed to those of the organisers) could actually affect the outcome of a particular match.
And I am one of those fans. I love the Undertaker. As a twelve year old girl I went with my father to watch him, waving a giant foam finger and cheering tirelessly as he won a championship belt. In fact, this piece took me an age to write merely because I spent hour upon hour gazing adoringly at photographs of the man. While my own sexual fantasies about The Undertaker (and his tattoos and his 7 foot frame and his amazing delicacy and bright blue eyes) are not entirely relevant here, as a character he has an undeniably attractive presence, and not just to me…
Though Barthes rightly suggests that professional wrestling relies largely on the clear-cut relationship between good and bad, patriotism and terrorism (there was, briefly, and ‘Arab’ wrestler who was announced as “suicidal” and “homicidal” till he was beaten by an all American John Cena), right and wrong etc. The Undertaker has consistently defied the organisation’s attempts to bill him as a bad-guy. With almost 20 years of wrestling with WWE (formerly WWF) under his belt, The Undertaker remains one of the most popular wrestlers of all time despite the fact that he is definitively unfriendly, dark and, according to his extensive back stories, downright evil. A good example of such a back story involves his alleged brother, Kane, whose ‘manager’ (Paul Bearer, previously the Undertaker’s mentor) accused the Undertaker of burning down his parents funeral home, intentionally killing them and scarring his brother. In many ways, the Undertaker is billed as a caricature of evil, one that exists in an arena that is known to be unreal, and thus an evil that is safe to love. Unlike the Russian, Arab or even Canadian wrestlers that have entered WWE’s hallowed rings, The Undertaker is an All American, unthreatening kind of evil, and thus is loved by his legions of fans. As someone who apparently is aware of the mechanisms of his fandom, I suppose I should be less excited by the guy – but although I may not be fooled by his appeal (which was never anticipated by his character’s creators over at WWE), I am still undeniably drawn to it. And have a three disk DVD set of his greatest matches to prove it.
More than just a harmless bad guy, The Undertaker’s appeal also lies in his thinly veiled Messiahnisitic mechanisms. Though continuously killed off (and often buried alive), The Undertaker is always coming back, each time with a more impressive, more magical entrance than before. With his neck tattoos, black outfit, Harley Davidson and funeral march theme-tune, he seems a pretty unlikely Christ figure (although his tall frame, mysticism, reticence and seeming immortality suggest purposeful Jesusesque traits), but that is exactly why The Undertaker’s continuous returns are so eagerly anticipated; a bad guy who can still come out on top in the end. Reliable, eternal and full of good party tricks.
Of course, for those in the know, each hiatus represents a human side to the wrestler – he has taken time off for knee injuries and a heroine addiction and, as he gets older (he was born in 1965) Mark William Calaway must take increasingly regular breaks from being The Undertaker – that beautiful bad boy who I will continue to cheer for each time he rolls his deathly eyes back into his head.
When the hero or the villain of the drama, the man who was seen a few minutes earlier possessed by moral rage, magnified into a sort of metaphysical sign, leaves the wrestling hall, impassive, anonymous, carrying a small suitcase and arm-in-arm with his wife, no one can doubt that wrestling holds that power of transmutation which is common to the Spectacle and to Religious Worship. 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. - Roland Barthes, ‘Mythologies’. 1957.