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


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.

Melina self-consciously rubs her palms up and down Batista's expansive pecs. "My boys, Mercury and Nitro, have a match against the Mexicools, and they could really use this time to prepare. So if you could withdraw yourself from the match tonight?"

"Naw, I don't think so," rumbles Batista.

"I could really make it worth your while," whines Melina, straddling one of Batista's massive thighs.

"How you gonna do that?" Batista mutters.

"Let me show you," Melina pouts. She kisses him, wriggling her shoulders in a caricature of passion. Batista finally figures it out and yanks her down as they kiss, spreading her legs open over his lap.

The crowd is heard whooping. The scene cuts to a close-up of Melina's black bra strap. She turns around, pulling her tank top down over her bra.

"So we have a deal, right?" she simpers, blowing her hair out of her face.

"A deal? No, no deal," he chuckles. "Thanks for the warm-up, though. I feel great."

Batista flexes his chest muscles, making them jump. "I'm going to kill those guys." He cuffs her on the shoulder. "See you out there."

"Oh my God," sniggers the announcer. "Did he say thanks for the warm-up? What a backfire!"

The camera zooms in on a humiliated Melina. "No, no, nooooo!" Melina shrieks, clapping her hands to her face, squinting malevolently after Batista.

Fans chant "Slut! Slut! Slut!" when Melina appears in the arena. Melina, although the temptress in the story, later announces she had filed a lawsuit for sexual harassment against Batista.

Plato, in The Republic, imagines human beings chained for the duration of the lives in an underground cave, knowing nothing but darkness. Their gaze is confined to the cave wall upon which shadows of the world above are cast. They believe these flickering shadows are reality. If, Plato writes, one of these prisoners is freed and brought into the sunlight, he will suffer great pain. Blinded by the glare, he is unable to see anything and longs for the familiar darkness. But eventually his eyes adjust to the light. The illusion of the tiny shadows is obliterated. The immensity, chaos and confusion of reality is confronted. The world is no longer drawn in simple silhouettes. But he is despised when he returns to the cave. He is unable to see in the dark as he used to. Those who never left the cave ridicule him and swear never to go into the light lest they be blinded as well.

Plato feared the power of entertainment, the power of the senses to overthrow the mind, the power of emotion to obliterate reason. Plato, who was not an admirer of popular democracy, said that the enlightened or elite had a duty to educate those bewitched by the shadows on the cave wall, a position that led Socrates to quip: "As for the man who tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could somehow lay their hands on him and kill him, they would do so."

We are chained to the glittering shadows of celebrity culture, the spectacle of the arena and the airwaves, the lies of advertising, the endless personal dramas, many invented, that have become the staple of news, celebrity gossip, new-age mysticism and pop psychology. Daniel Boorstin in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, writes that in contemporary culture the fabricated, the inauthentic and the theatrical have displaced the natural, the genuine and the spontaneous from life until reality itself has been converted into stagecraft. Americans, he wrote, increasingly live in a "world where fantasy is more real than reality." He warned, "We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so 'realistic' that they can live in them. We are the most illusioned people on earth. Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very experience."

Boorstin goes on to caution that "an image is something we have a claim on. It must serve our purposes. Images are means. If a corporation's image of itself or a man's image of himself is not useful, it is discarded. Another may fit better. The image is made to order, tailored to us. An ideal, on the other hand, has a claim on us. It does not serve us; we serve it. If we have trouble striving towards it, we assume the matter is with us, and not with the ideal."

Those who manipulate the shadows that dominate our lives are the agents, publicists, marketing departments, promoters, scriptwriters, television and movie producers, advertisers, video technicians, photographers, bodyguards, wardrobe consultants, fitness trainers, pollsters, public announcers and television news personalities who create the vast stage for illusion. They are the puppet masters. No one achieves celebrity status, no cultural illusion is swallowed as reality, without these armies of cultural enablers and intermediaries. These techniques of theater, as Boorstin notes, have leeched into politics, religion, education, literature, news, commerce, warfare and crime. The sole object is to hold the attention and satisfy an audience. The lurid sagas played out for fans in the wrestling ring mesh with the ongoing sagas on television, in the movies, celebrity gossip and the news where "real life" stories allow each news report to become a mini-drama complete with a star, a villain, a supporting cast, a good-looking host and a neat, if often unexpected, conclusion.

The whole nation can sit rapt in front of one of these "real life" stories, as happened when O.J. Simpson went on trial for the murder of his estranged wife and her purported lover. Life, real or contrived, rather than simply invention, provides the fodder for entertainment. The problems of existence are, through the medium of entertainment, domesticated and controlled. We measure our lives by those we follow on the screen or in the ring. We seek to be like them. We emulate their look and behavior. We escape the chaos of real life through fantasy. We see ourselves as the stars of our own movies. And we are, as Neal Gabler wrote in Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, "all becoming performance artists in and audiences for a grand, ongoing show."

We try to see ourselves moving through our lives as a camera would see us, mindful of how we hold ourselves, how we dress, what we say. We invent movies that play inside our heads. We imagine ourselves the main characters. We imagine how an audience would react to each event in the movie of our life. This, writes Gabler, is the power and invasiveness of celebrity culture. Celebrity culture has taught us, almost unconsciously, to generate interior personal screenplays in the mold of Hollywood, television and even commercials. We have learned ways of speaking and thinking that disfigure the way we relate to the world. Gabler argues that celebrity culture is not a convergence between consumer culture and religion, but rather a hostile takeover of religion by celebrity culture. Commodities and celebrity culture define what it means to belong to American society, how we recognize our place in society and how we conduct our interior and spiritual life.

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