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Empire of Illusion: Why Millions of Fans Get Their Dose of 'Real Life' from Pro-Wrestling on TV

An excerpt from Chris Hedges' new book: A culture that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion dies.

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Chris Hedges' book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (Nation Books, 2009). This is the 2nd excerpt AlterNet has published from Hedges' powerful work. ( Read the first here). Uprising Radio host Sonali Kolhatkar gave an excellent summary of Empire of Illusion: "Chris Hedges' latest tome is a systematic deconstruction of the matrix of American illusions: the overwhelming ways in which our culture and our lives, are severed from the complexities of reality into the one-dimensional world of celebrities, infotainment, pornography, advertising, and nationalism. This veteran Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist takes us from the lurid world of World Wrestling Entertainment, Jerry Springer and the annual Adult Video convention in Las Vegas, to the sanitized halls of the White House and corporate board rooms and the ivory towers of ultra-specialized academia, without missing a beat. Hedges makes the case that as Americans retreat into worlds of televised and commercial fantasy, the corporate stranglehold on our lives has simultaneously devastated the very fabric of our reality: our homes, our jobs, our civic participation." 

This excerpt is from Hedges chapter on that "lurid world of World Wrestling Entertainment" and the dangers facing a society awash in celebrity culture.


I watch Dave Finley enter the ring in Madison Square Garden with a 4'5" midget known as Hornswoggle who is dressed as a leprechaun. The two are battling a massive African-American wrestler known as Mark Henry. Mark Henry, who weighs 380 pounds, is bearded, always has a grimace and shouts insults at the crowd. When Hornswoggle enters the ring in the middle of the match to assist a beleaguered Finley the referee tries in vain to get Hornswoggle back to his corner.

Finley, now unobserved by the referee, grabs his shillelagh—a traditional wooden club from Ireland—that was used as a prop during his entrance. He hits Mark Henry on the head with his club. The referee, preoccupied with Hornswoggle, sees nothing. Mark Henry holds his head, spins around the ring and collapses. Finley, who is from Northern Ireland and wears a shamrock on his green wrestling costume, leaps on Mark Henry's bulk. He attracts the attention of the referee and with the count of three wins the match. The crowd roars in delight.

Wrestling works from the popular and often unarguable assumption that those in authority are sleazy. Finley is a favorite with the crowd, although tonight he cheats to win. If the world is rigged against you, if those in power stifle your voice, outsource your job and foreclose your house, then cheat back. Corruption is part of life. And the most popular wrestlers always defy and taunt their employers and promoters.

Women, although they enter the ring to fight other women wrestlers, are almost always cast as temptresses. They steal each other's boyfriends. They are often prizes to be won by competing wrestlers. These vixens, supposedly in relationships with one wrestler, are often caught on surveillance tape played to the fans in the arena flirting with rival wrestlers. This provokes matches between the jealous boyfriend and the new love interest.

The plot lines around the women are lurid and overtly sexual, often bordering on soft-core porn. Torrie Wilson is a female wrestler engaged in a long and popular feud with another female wrestler named Dawn Marie. Dawn Marie, who was originally called Dawn Marie Bytch, announced, on one occasion, that she wanted to marry Torrie Wilson's father, Al Wilson. This enraged Torrie Wilson. Dawn, however, also supposedly found Torrie attractive. Dawn told Torrie that she would cancel the wedding with her father if Torrie would spend the night with her in a hotel. The two women, in a taped segment, met in a hotel room. They kissed and fondled in their underwear. As they begin to undress the clip went black on the screens in the arena.

Dawn, despite Torrie's agreement to a tryst, married Al anyway. The two held their ceremony in the ring in their underwear. Al, fans learned later, collapsed and died of a heart attack after marathon sex sessions on their honeymoon. Torrie Wilson then had numerous grudge matches with Dawn, whom she blamed for murdering her father. The lurid scenario, which resonates in a world of broken and troubled families, is also a staple of television talk shows.

The divas in the ring are there to fuel sexual fantasy. In fact, they have no intrinsic worth beyond being objects of sexual desire. It is all about their bodies. They engage in sexually provocative "strap matches." Two women are tied together with a long strap. During the bout the women use the length of the black strap to whip each other, including smacking exposed buttocks. They grab a short length of the strap between their two hands and wrap it around the neck of the opponent to simulate choking them. In "evening gown matches," the women wrestle in long evening gowns that are ripped and torn to expose lacy bras and thongs. Evening gown matches between two and sometimes three women have also been filmed in swimming pools. These female wrestling matches frequently result in the "accidental" exposure of breasts, which ignites the crowd.

The female wrestlers often attempt to seduce male wrestlers who oppose allies or members of their clan to fix the outcome of matches. A female wrestler named Melina, in one episode broadcast onto the big screens in the arena, enters the locker room of a male wrestler named Batista. The scene has the brevity and stilted dialogue of a porn flick. Melina, in a sequined red tank top and micro mini-skirt, stands awkwardly behind the brawny and tattooed Batista, who is seated on the bench, dressed in a tiny bikini brief.

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