It is not uncommon for people in the US who watch lucha libre to also be huge fans of American Pro wrestling (1). As such, I’ve had several people try to convince me that I really should watch some American Pro. But you know what? I’m not even remotely interested, and have no shame admitting it. My avoidance of American Pro wrestling started out as a visceral reaction; an immediate “nope” based on simple lack of interest. Then I began examining exactly why “nope” was my first response.
Despite the fact that I regularly devote over ten hours a week to practicing lucha libre and watch lucha libre matches wherever I can find them (mostly online, unless I’m in Mexico), you would have a very difficult time getting me to sit down and watch a single American Pro match. Fun fact: I don’t even know the English names for 99% of the moves I use on an almost daily basis that have American Pro equivalents… which seems to really aggravate and confuse American Pro fans who try to talk wrestling with me. However, since I have no intent to train (or even watch) American Pro at this point, I have little practical use for that knowledge.
I am not a fan of American Pro wrestling mainly because I did not grow up watching it. I lack the apparent sense of nostalgia shared by most American Pro fans I’ve talked to. Even people who no longer watch American Pro because they understand how problematic it is can still seem to reminisce about matches they’ve seen, their favorite wrestlers, and so on. In my case there is nothing about American Pro wrestling that appeals to my current sensibilities in any way, shape, or form, nor can I rely on any residual sense of nostalgia for it. I am largely an outsider to the American Pro culture and mentality, and since I came already primed with the ability to see problematic trends in the sport, they give me pause and generally turn me off from the whole event.
On its face, one can argue that lucha libre and American Pro wrestling are virtually the same sport. They deal in similar move sets and are both simultaneously athletic and theatrical. Wrestlers take on larger-than-life personas to violently defeat their enemies in the ring. Gender performances are exaggerated, as are all other forms of cultural signs that give a performance meaning. However, there are two very significant differences I see between the sports of lucha libre and American Pro wrestling that, for me, make all the difference.
Item 1- Speed and presence of acrobatic stunts
The difference in pacing between the lucha libre and American Pro is immediately visible to even the casual observer. As one whose first exposure to pro wrestling of any form was training and then watching lucha libre, to me American Pro moves at a snail’s pace. Well, worse than a snail’s pace if you count all the time taken to cut promos, rig a back-story, stomp around the ring after a big-man move, and sit in rest hold for far too long (2). The lack of agility demonstrated by American Pro wrestlers blows me away me after seeing luchadores bound across the ring at a breakneck pace and throw in backflips, handsprings, and cartwheels without dropping pace. I recognize that there are high spots in American Pro, and some wrestlers do move swiftly, but they are few and far between when compared to lucha libre. Simply put, it’s hard for me to be impressed by the athletic content of American Pro wrestling.
Item 2- Toxic hegemonic masculinity (3)
Speed aside, what it really comes down to for me is the prevalence of a particular depiction of masculinity typically found in American Pro wrestling. This greatly affects the way gender is portrayed in American Pro, which differs pretty significantly from lucha libre.
While male luchadores are often no less conventionally masculine in physical appearance than American Pro wrestlers, a luchador’s masculinity does not tend to be reinforced through verbal abuse, homophobic slurs, or misogyny as seen in American Pro. A luchador (or luchadora’s) dominance is more often demonstrated through skilled acrobatics, agility, speed, and feats of strength. What’s more, not every successful, popular luchador exhibits formulaic signifiers of manliness (4).
And this problematic portrayal of gender is by no means limited to men. Strong women are the rule in lucha libre rather than the exception, but this is not generally the case in American Pro wrestling. Since American Pro tends to be targeted toward a largely male audience, the result is often a highly-sexualized portrayal of women in the ring. While every so often a strong, skilled female wrestler like Chyna or Awesome Kong will enter the spotlight, it is much more common to see the heavily made-up, scantily-clad models like those of the WWE Diva division parading skills that would be more apropos in a catfight than a wrestling match. On the other hand, lucha libre is billed as more of a “family” spectacle, and therefore provides a wider view of acceptable behaviors for men and women. Rarely if ever will one find a competent luchadora in a bra and panties spanking her opponent and calling it a “match.” If a women is in the ring (5), she is there to wrestle rather than to look sexually appealing.
Although conventional masculinity and femininity are also exaggerated in the lucha ring, the hulking macho men and busty Barbies commonly seen in American Pro wrestling are not the only cookie-cutter options for a lucha libre ring persona. The limited array of acceptable gender performance options in American Pro and what they teach the audience about who wins and who loses (in life as well as in the ring) are highly problematic to me. If I wanted to watch domestic violence or general bigotry… well, let’s just leave it at “I don’t.”
Mind you, again, I am an outsider when it comes to American Pro wrestling. And by no means am I trying to imply that these problematic tendencies are completely absent in lucha libre. I am simply always struck by how slow, overtly sexist, homophobic, and unnecessarily crass American Pro wrestling appears by comparison. These are really just my surface impressions of what I’ve been shown and what I’ve read in scholarly literature on the sport. Don’t take this all to mean that I don’t have respect for those American Pro wrestlers who train hard and dedicate themselves to good technique, a quality show, and not hurting themselves or others in the ring to prove a point. No offense meant, I just don’t want to watch it.
Just because I don’t like American Pro wrestling doesn’t mean you can’t… but perhaps it might behoove you to examine exactly why you like it.
[2017 Author’s update: I’ve recently added to my thoughts on this topic. Check out “Addendum to ‘Why I’m NOT a Pro Wrestling Fan’.”]
1: Think WWE. This is probably the best-known example of American Pro wrestling.
2: Unlike American Pro wrestlers who spend an abundance of time with a microphone, luchadors craft their characters swiftly in the ring through their actions alone. Luchadors generally do not rely on an entrenched story arc or reactions to a long-winded promo and back-and-forth shit-talking. From what I have seen of American Pro, it seems like all talk and no walk.
3: Let me take a second to clarify what I mean by “toxic hegemonic masculinity” Simply put, assume society gives men power and privilege and also indicates that the most desirable and successful man is the “manly man.” If the only woman the typical “manly man” wants is a “sexy model”, then all women must aspire to be a “sexy model” in order to be valued in society and all men must aspire to be the “manly man” in order to get what they want (i.e. the “sexy model” woman, respect, etc). This makes all other ways of performing “male” and “female” less valid than the conventional options, and perpetuates negative stereotypes and unrealistic expectations of both genders.
This is a drastic oversimplification of the toxic hegemonic masculinity, but you get the gist. I will also note that the assumptions I outline here can only be made with some certainty when discussing US culture. Other cultures have their own standards for behavior and the presentation of masculinity and femininity, and the interplay between the two can vary.
4: Consider exoticos as especially poignant examples of alternative male performance.
5: I am excluding “ring girls” from the current discussion. They will likely be discussed in a later blog post.