Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Levels of Kitsch in Wrestling, or a Note on Jerry Springer

Does Springer belong on RAW? Yes, but not right now.
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In the waking news of Michael Sam accepting a spot on the Dallas' Cowboys practice squad, and thus having no need for him to accept his open invitation on the upcoming episode of RAW, WWE rolled out another special guest star, going back to a familiar well in Jerry Springer. The former shock talk show host was announced yesterday on Twitter to mediate a sitdown interview between them fightin' Bella Twins, and the reactions around my neck of the Twitter woods have been predictably negative. If any televised product could be considered trashier than professional wrestling, it would be the line of talk shows to which Springer's daily telecast belonged.

While he wasn't the first to delve into seedy topics and exploitation of the poor and minorities for ratings, he certainly encouraged and popularized any tensions, spoken or unspoken, to bubble into fisticuffs. And really, what's funnier than seeing someone worse off than you having their dirty laundry aired to such a point that they get into a fight on TV, regardless of whether it's morally or ethically in the right?

Still, Springer's existence in popular culture doesn't always have to denote appealing to the lowest common denominator. He's lent his talents in ironic, self-effacing roles on plenty of other pieces of media, and no one would argue that his presence alone brought the experience down. Conversely, professional wrestling, in its most basic form, isn't trash entertainment. One can look to the territory era, modern puroresu promotions, or even high-concept American companies like Chikara as executions on a theme that don't appeal to the apparent dregs of society. If a theoretical competitor to WWE existed, one where wrestling was treated in such a way that it was socially forward and not perceived as lowbrow, Springer could appear for them and not cause much of a problem at all.

However, when WWE books Springer, everyone expects the worst because WWE has given no reason for anyone not to. Without context, no one in their right minds would be drawn to watching Springer set up a payoff to his interview piece that is anything BUT Brie and Nikki Bella attacking each other, more than likely in misogynistic display of catfighting. Of course, lifelong fans of wrestling have a hard time defending such entertainment with anything but a lazy and odious "Well, that's what wrestling IS" excuse, which begs the question why someone like still loves even the basest forms of the art. The reason is the same for the art collector who buys gaudy paintings with bright yet ill-matching colors, or why people willingly wear ugly sweaters at Christmas parties. Kitsch is alive, well, and still an appealing thing, at least to me.

Pro wrestling, at least personally to me, can't work without at least some element of kitsch to it. Kurt Angle was one of my favorite wrestlers in the world when he came up not because he was tougher and stronger and more ass-kickin' than anyone else, but because he was this stud Olympic athlete whose disconnect with what wrestling had become in the late Attitude Era/post-WCW purchase provided paradoxical amusement. Chikara intentionally plays with the boundaries of traditional kayfabe in ways that might seem like its making fun of the art itself. Hell, even the most "real" territories of the '80s always had a cheesy element to them. The exceptions to the rule exist, mainly in places like RINGS or other shoot-style promotions, but my observation is that a good portion of the audience that isn't in on the joke of what wrestling should be is at least a fan of both pro wrestling but also mixed-martial arts as well.

Then again, not all kitsch is good kitsch. For as adorably bad as a chartreuse-and-fuchsia painted windmill salt shaker set can be, it has no level of embarrassment on a social level the way that a hilariously exaggerated, blatantly racist ceramic figure of a black person from the turn of last century could be. Yeah, those figurines are kitschy, but they're also hella racist and not something I'd want to be associated with. The problem with judging Springer's kitsch value in this situation now must be discussed as whether it will be bad in an innocuous, entertaining way, or bad in such a way that continues to set women in wrestling back on a mainstream level. If this segment were happening at the height of the HLA era in 2005, the answer would be simple. Springer would be easy to decry, and no mention of dissent would need to be interjected into the conversation. Now, well, yeah, Springer is easy to decry mostly, but the chance exists, as slim as it might be, that this segment might play out along the knife edge.

Women are being given an increasingly bigger platform within WWE by the month, and the strongest single person in WWE right now is arguably Stephanie McMahon. If any other two performers were scheduled to sit down with Springer, I might be hopeful. Given the tenor of the angle, where Brie is expected to garner sympathy by whining "NO!" without refuting any of the terrible stuff Nikki has accused her of doing, glimmer of hope that this is part of WWE's sea change regarding the woman gender is slim. However, that glimmer is still there, which is something that could not be said ten years ago.

Regardless, the removal of kitsch from wrestling isn't a goal that should be striven towards. Rather, that intentional gaudiness and flamboyance should be honed to the point where it can progressively serve the players in the story. It can be done, and it's been proven to be possible in wrestling companies around the world, large or small, in various time periods. WWE right now may still not be equipped to handle Springer poking fun at himself while furthering an angle, but with some work, it can be. Wrestling without at least some self-effacing feels incomplete to me anyway.