Masculinity on Display in the Squared Circle:
Constructing Masculinity in Professional Wrestling


Danielle Soulliere
[email protected]


Boasting a television audience of millions each week, mostly comprised of young males, what professional wrestling says about men and masculinity is particularly revealing and significant. Analyses of WWE television programs and pay-per-view events were undertaken to uncover the way in which masculinity is presented and constructed. The findings reveal that the culturally dominant masculinity, hegemonic masculinity, is emphasized with themes of aggression and violence, emotional restraint, dominance, achievement and success, competition, toughness, risk-taking, courage, and heterosexuality most prominently presented. Masculinity was constructed for the television audience by the performers and the announcers, in concert with the live audience, within the context of the heel-face dynamic. The dominant masculinity was also constructed in opposition to femininity and alternative masculinities. It is suggested that the lessons learned about manhood from televised professional wrestling may be costly to men and have larger social implications that need to be addressed.

In the last few years, televised professional wrestling has experienced a wave of popularity like never before, with the self-proclaimed field of “sports-entertainment” achieving a certain venerable status in North American popular culture. An estimated 35 to 50 million people tune in to watch professional wrestling programs each week in the United Status (Ashley, Dollar, Wigley, Gillentine, & Daughtrey, 2000; Atkinson, 2002; Rosellini, 1999) and televised wrestling programs consistently rank among the most popular in weekly television ratings (Albano, Sugar, & Woodson ,1999; Ashley et al., 2000). One World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) show, RAW, is consistently the number one rated regularly scheduled cable television program (Haley, 2003). Its affiliate, Smackdown!, consistently falls within the top ten of network broadcast sports events (“Top Sports Events”, 2002) and is the top-rated program on the UPN network (“WWE Programs”, 2002). WWE events also consistently rank among the top grossing pay-per-view events, drawing in about 7 million buys yearly (Haley, 2003).

A study which examines masculinity in professional wrestling is important for several reasons. First, while there have been various analyses of professional wrestling (see, for example, Atkinson, 2002; Ball, 1990; Barthes, 1972; Jenkins, 1992), few have focused on or have examined gender roles, gender identity or displays of masculinity/femininity. To date, only a handful of theses or dissertations have attempted to explore gender roles (see Cherry, 2002) or masculinity (see Obenaus, 1994) in professional wrestling, and only a few published works have addressed issues of gender or gender identity in professional wrestling. For example, using a drama perspective, Mazer (1998) has discussed the performance of masculinity in wrestling based on an ethnographic study of wrestling schools and select events, while Romanowski (2000), focusing on popular culture, has commented on professional wrestling as part of a larger cultural system of meaning regarding masculinity and femininity. As well, Jhally and Katz (2002) have recently released the video Wrestling With Manhood, which explores the way in which televised professional wrestling aids in the construction of contemporary manhood.

Moreover, although masculinity has been addressed, in some depth, in the context of sport (see, for example, Dworkin & Wachs, 1998; Kane & Disch, 1993; Messner, 1992; Thornton, 1993), few of these analyses cover professional wrestling, as this form of wrestling is considered to be entertainment foremost and only pseudo-sport at best (Atkinson, 2002).

Finally, what makes an investigation of masculinity in professional wrestling particularly important is its appeal to a wide and diverse audience made up of mostly males, 12 to 34 years of age (Ashley et al., 2000; Jhally & Katz, 2002; Lemish, 1998). Although 17 to 34 is the primary age demographic for wrestling viewers (“WWE Programs”, 2002), there is evidence that the viewing audience consists of very young males. Rosellini (1999) reports that an estimated 15% of the audience for wrestling programs is11 years of age or younger.

With an audience primarily comprised of males, some very young, the cultural message presented by wrestling events about what it means to be a man becomes an important one. As cultural icons, male wrestling performers become role models for young males who may be influenced by displays of masculinity presented in and outside of the squared circle. In much the same way as sports icons have exerted a powerful cultural influence on young fans by presenting ideal versions of manhood, sports entertainers such as The Rock, Triple H and Stone Cold Steve Austin also present “models of masculinity” which may potently influence young fans. Given the primary male viewing audience, an investigation of men and masculinity seems particularly relevant.

Literature Review

The Dominant Masculinity

Femininity and masculinity are not biological essences but cultural creations (Donaldson, 1993; Gilmore, 1990; Kaufman, 1995), concepts which are socially constructed rather than biologically determined. The social construct of masculinity embodies appropriate norms, values and behaviors for males, in essence, models or scripts for masculinity.

Although it is recognized and argued that there are multiple masculinities or many different ways of being a man (Brittan, 1989; Connell, 1987), one distinct form of masculinity tends to become the dominant and most valued form of masculinity at any given time in a particular society (Connell, 1987; Donaldson, 1993; Kimmel, 1999). This dominant form of masculinity is the cultural ideal, the standard against which other forms of masculinity are measured and evaluated.

In North American society, the dominant form of masculinity is primarily reflective of white, heterosexual, largely middle-class males, what is typically referred to as “hegemonic masculinity” (Connell, 1987; Donaldson, 1993; Kimmel, 1999). What it means to be a man in North America, then, is largely based on the definition and experiences of a particular group of men, most especially those men who hold power.

The ideals of manhood espoused by the dominant (hegemonic) masculinity suggest a number of characteristics that men are encouraged to internalize into their own personal codes and which form the basis for masculine scripts of behavior. These characteristics include: emotional restraint (Adler, Kless, & Adler, 1995; Brannon, 1976; Hopkins, 1996; Laberge & Albert, 2000); violence and aggression (Brannon, 1976; Donaldson, 1993; Hopkins, 1996; Kimmel, 1999; Nicholson, 1993; Thompson, 1991); toughness (Adler et al., 1995; Donaldson, 1993; Gilmore, 1990; Thompson, 1991); competitiveness (Brittan, 1989; Hopkins, 1996; Kimmel, 1999; Nicholson, 1993); risk-taking (Donaldson, 1993; Nicholson, 1993; Thompson, 1991); courage (Donaldson, 1993; Gilmore, 1990; Thompson, 1991); power and dominance ( Adler et al., 1995; Brittan, 1989; Kaufman, 1995; Kimmel, 1999; Laberge & Albert, 2000; Thompson, 1991); achievement and success (Brannon, 1976; Brittan, 1989; Hopkins, 1996; Kimmel, 1999); and heterosexuality (Brittan, 1989; Donaldson, 1993; Kane & Disch, 1993; Kaufman, 1995; Laberge & Albert, 2000; Thompson, 1991).

Constructing Masculinity

The mass media are a primary force in constructing masculinity and masculine ideals (Katz & Jhally, 1999). Representations of masculinity found in the mass media may exert a powerful socializing influence on those who consume the images and representations. This may be particularly true for television, which is the most pervasive, popular and accessible form of mass media (Livingstone, 1998). TV and other mediated presentations may serve as scripts for masculine behavior or guidebooks for becoming a man. Katz and Jhally (1999) contend that the mass media, especially film and television, are part of a larger cultural environment that helps to shape the masculine identities of young boys by constructing and presenting idealized forms of masculinity and masculine behavior. As televised professional wrestling is inextricably part of this cultural environment, it, too, has the potential to shape the masculine identities of its male viewers by constructing and presenting certain forms of masculinity over others.

The media does its part in constructing ideal forms of masculinity, but how exactly does masculinity get constructed? It has been suggested by Kimmel (1999) and others (see Connell, 1987; Hopkins, 1996; Messner, 1992) that masculinity is constructed in opposition to femininity as well as marginalized and subordinated masculinities. For example, Kimmel (1999: 84) argues that:

We come to know what it means to be a man in our culture by setting our definitions in opposition to a set of ‘others’ – racial minorities, sexual minorities, and above all, women. These groups become the ‘others’, the screens against which traditional conceptions of manhood are developed.

Masculinity in Professional Wrestling

While a comprehensive investigation of masculinity in professional wrestling appears to be lacking, what has been done suggests that masculinity is presented primarily in its culturally ideal form. For example, Katz and Jhally (1999) contend that professional wrestling glamorizes the culturally ideal form of masculinity, emphasizing violence and aggression. Likewise, the Communication Studies 298 research team (2000) found evidence of a hegemonic masculinity in professional wrestling displays, which emphasizes toughness, aggression, violence, and dominance. In performing a textual analysis of Wrestlemania events, Cherry (2002) similarly found the dominant masculinity to be strong in professional wrestling with themes of violence, toughness, and emotional restraint predominant. Moreover, Atkinson (2000) argues that many of the masculine characteristics presented in professional wrestling are the same characteristics exalted in conventional male sports, including violence and aggression, competition, courage and physical toughness.

Interestingly, Stroud (2000) contends that professional wrestling may be even more extreme in constructing masculinity than so-called conventional sports. Including professional wrestling in their analysis of sports and masculinity, Messner, Hunt and Dunbar (2001) found that messages about masculinity were most clear in the dramatic spectacle of professional wrestling. In addition, several researchers have pointed out that masculinity gets constructed in professional wrestling in opposition to femininity (Katz & Jhally, 2002; Mazer, 1998; Stroud, 2000) as well as homosexuality (Cherry, 2002; Mazer, 1998).

Given these results, it is important to investigate whether the culturally dominant form of masculinity is predominant in professional wrestling displays or whether, as Mazer (1998) contends, there is room for alternative masculinities, and to explore the way in which masculinity gets constructed.


Research Objective

The aim of this study was to investigate the themes of masculinity revealed in television professional wrestling programs and to explore the way in which these themes of masculinity were constructed by these programs. More specifically, the construction of masculinity was explored through two primary questions: (1) What form of masculinity was presented in the WWE programs RAW, Smackdown! and monthly pay-per-view events? Does the masculinity presented conform to traditional dominant forms of masculinity as outlined above or does it represent alternative forms of masculinity? To answer these questions, themes of masculinity were explored through qualitative content analysis and compared to notions of masculinity revealed in the research literature; (2) In what way was this masculinity constructed in these shows? Attempts to answer this question came from investigating the role of performers, announcers and audience members in creating notions of masculinity, as well as exploring the particular context of professional wrestling. Furthermore, the implications of such a construction of masculinity in terms of its potential impact on the viewing audience are discussed.

Sample and Data Collection

The sample consisted of the two primary WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) television programs, RAW and Smackdown! as well as monthly pay-per-view events.

RAW is a two-hour WWE program broadcast live on US cable channel TNN (now Spike TV) on Monday nights from 9 – 11 pm. Fifty-two (52) RAW episodes were recorded in total between August 16, 2001 and August 22, 2002. Smackdown! is a two-hour WWE program taped and then broadcast on network television, primarily UPN, on Thursday nights from 8 – 10 pm. A total of 54 Smackdown! episodes were recorded during the data collection period. WWE pay-per-view events are broadcast live once a month and, on average, are three hours in duration. Pay-per-view events are accessible only to subscribers and are not available on regular cable or network television. Since these events are typically extensions of the cable and network wrestling programs, rather than separate programs altogether, they were included in the analysis for continuity. There were 12 pay-per-view wrestling events recorded during the data collection period.

In total, 118 episodes of WWE programming were recorded and analyzed for themes of masculinity.

Data Analysis

Data analysis consisted primarily of qualitative content analysis in which themes of masculinity were identified and the context in which masculinity was constructed was examined.

Theme categories were devised on the basis of an initial viewing of RAW, Smackdown!, and monthly pay-per-view events during the data collection period. Each program episode was then analyzed in more depth around these initial theme categories. As such, development of theme categories involved both an inductive and deductive process, an approach advocated by Strauss (1987) in qualitative data analysis.

In developing theme categories, context-rich examples were used to support and illustrate an existing theme. Obviously, since one example or instance is not enough to support a theme, several consistent examples of data were needed before the researcher was willing to establish a theme. The researcher was also guided by the research literature pertaining to masculinity in developing themes that were considered to be about masculinity.

In addition, care was taken by the researcher to look for deviant (or negative) cases in the data, cases that did not fit a theme category, as defined. Lindlof (1995) asserts that negative case analysis can serve as a check on theme development as well as guard against confirmation bias. Moreover, attention to deviant cases ensures the validity of themes. Lindlof (1995) contends that, by accounting for deviant cases, a researcher can be relatively sure that his or her interpretation is the “right” one. Likewise, Maxwell (1998) maintains that discrepant or challenging data serves as a validity test for qualitative findings.

The researcher undertook further interpretation validation by having two male undergraduate students, who were self-identified regular viewers of WWE programming, read over and critique the researcher’s interpretation, as a way of assessing the validity of the research findings. This viewer validation served as a kind of member check (Bloor, 1983; Lindloff, 1995) that is common in qualitative research.

To ensure reliability of coding and interpretation, the researcher developed guidelines that enabled her to code data consistently into theme categories. Specifically, these guidelines outlined what constituted a particular theme so that data could be coded accordingly. For example, for the theme toughness, the guidelines specified that toughness entailed both physical and mental aspects and involved examples of any of the following: perseverance in the face of odds, resilience, playing through pain or injury, as well as denying and enduring pain. Any data that fit these definitions were used to support the overall theme of toughness. It was felt that having these carefully constructed guidelines was especially important to overcome the limitations of having a single coder.

During the initial viewings, it became apparent to the researcher that the announcers, audience and performers were intimately involved in the construction of masculinity. As such, the researcher made note of the context in which themes of masculinity occurred in terms of announcers, audience and performers. Specifically, for announcers, the most prominent themes espoused were noted. As well, audience approval and disapproval were noted to determine which themes were most readily supported. In conjunction with the audience context, the heel-face dynamic of the performers themselves was noted in order to examine whether certain themes were associated more with good guys (babyfaces) or bad guys (heels). In addition, gender of performers was noted in order to test whether masculine themes related more strongly for male performers than female performers. Finally, an investigation of the construction of masculinity in opposition to femininity and alternative masculinities was undertaken.

Results And Discussion

Dominant Masculinity Strong in WWE

While it has been suggested that alternative masculinities are finding ample expression in contemporary North American society, the research findings make it blatantly clear that the culturally dominant form of masculinity is alive and strong in WWE programming.

Through qualitative content analysis of 106 WWE cable and network programs and 12 pay-per-view events, the following major themes were revealed to be significant markers of masculinity and are consistent with the dominant hegemonic masculinity prevalent in North American society: aggression and violence, emotional restraint, dominance, achievement and success, competition, toughness, risk-taking, courage, and heterosexuality. These themes effectively define what it means to be a man in professional wrestling as well as the larger society.

Constructing Masculinity in Professional Wrestling

The findings further revealed that the dominant masculinity was often constructed in opposition to femininity as well as alternative masculinities by the performers themselves, the announcers, and the live audience. The performers, both male and female, contributed significantly to the construction of masculinity by what they did (actions) and what they said (speech). Moreover, the delineation of specific characteristics for male and female performers served to construct masculinity in clear opposition to femininity.

The announcers also played an important role in constructing masculinity by defining and decoding for the television audience what it means to be a man by interpreting the performances of the various characters. Most of the themes that were discovered in the analysis were revealed through the announcers’ description of events and performers. The announcers and commentators were particularly important in defining the characteristics of the dominant masculinity through their approval and disapproval of certain actions and behaviors, and in aligning themselves with either heel or face characters.

Since the men and women of the WWE perform in front of a live audience, the crowd also became an important element in the construction of masculinity in professional wrestling. The crowd provided the context that contributes to the unfolding of events and their interpretation by the television audience. Like the announcers, the live audience contributed to the construction of masculinity through its collective approval (cheers) and disapproval (boos), and various other reactions that were expressed through a system of distinctive chants.

Masculinity was further constructed within the context of the heel-face dynamic. Performers were generally identified as either a face (babyface) or a heel. A face is a fan favorite, a “good guy”, a hero, while a heel is an antagonist, a “bad guy”, a villain. Both the announcers and the live audience contribute to the identification of characters as heel or face. Announcers ensure the appropriate heel-face delineation of characters by pointing out and emphasizing certain performers as faces or heels. Moreover, the live audience generally supports faces through collective cheers and supportive chants and does not support heels who are typically identified through collective boos and negative chants such as “You Suck!” and “Asshole!”. Characteristics thought to be desirable for men were mostly associated with faces, while characteristics considered to be undesirable for men were associated with heels. Interestingly, some characteristics were revealed to be shared by both heels and faces, indicative perhaps of more general masculine traits applicable to all men, and can be understood as definitive markers of manhood.

Masculinity as Aggressive and Violent

To be sure, pseudo-violence is the bread and butter of the professional wrestling enterprise. It should be no surprise that themes of aggression and violence associated with males and masculinity were abound in the wrestling programs.

Specifically, the performers contributed to the construction of an aggressive masculinity. Male performers were depicted visually as engaged in all kinds of aggressive acts both in and outside the squared circle. Not only was there in-ring aggression between male grapplers as part of the wrestling matches, but frequently also there was backstage aggression as well as extraneous-ring aggression between male performers.

Male performers frequently engaged in aggressive acts outside the context of an actual match, either post-match or by interfering in matches between others. For example, after the match between Bubba Ray Dudley and Rob Van Dam, Bubba Ray and D-Von assault RVD (RAW 01-28-02). Similarly, extraneous-ring aggression occurs between Jericho and Austin after Jericho interferes in Austin’s match with the Undertaker (RAW 02-11-02). Announcer JR describes the assault taking place: “Jericho (is) beating the hell out of Austin after assaulting him from behind!” Male performers were also frequently depicted as engaged in aggression backstage. For example, The Rock and Jericho get into a tuffle backstage after an argument (RAW 10-08-01). Jericho throws a punch at Rock and they fight. In other examples of backstage aggression, Austin and Booker T are shown duking it out in a local supermarket (SD 12-13-01), and Kane and Kurt Angle are shown battling in the arena parking lot (SD 03-07-01).

The aggressive nature of male performers was further exemplified through threats of violence and a ready willingness to fight. For example, the Undertaker threatens to “bust Maven up” (SD 02-14-02), Regal threatens to turn Edge into “a bloody vegetable” (RAW 12-03-01), and Edge threatens to make “every inch of (Christian’s) body (black and blue)” (RAW 09-24-01). Threats of violence often extended to the crowd. For example, Austin tells the Toronto crowd: “If I hear one more ‘what?’ somebody’s gonna get their ass whipped!” (SD 09-04-01). Likewise, Kurt Angle threatens the Philadelphia crowd: “You people show Stephanie the respect she deserves or I’ll beat the respect out of each and every one of you!” (SD 03-28-02). Threats of aggression were even apparent in the special 9-11 messages expressed by the WWE Superstars. As Bradshaw declares: “We’re gonna make whatever country is behind this (terrorist attack) into a stinking parking lot!” (SD 09-13-01).

The male willingness to fight was exemplified through challenging and calling out other males to compete, confront, or to fight. Male performers were routinely shown challenging and calling out others across the two WWE television programs. For example, Shane McMahon challenges Kurt Angle: “Kurt, I’m challenging you tonight in that very ring for the World Wrestling [Federation] Championship” (RAW 10-01-01); Booker T challenges Tajiri: “Tonight, I want you in a match, sucka!” (RAW 08-20-01); and Steven Richards challenges the Undertaker: “Tomorrow night on Smackdown I challenge the Undertaker to a one-on-one match” (RAW 09-03-01). As well, Shane McMahon calls out The Rock: “I’m calling you out! I’m calling out the most electrifying man in sports entertainment today!” (SD 08-16-01) and William Regal calls out the Big Show: “Big Show, get your miserable carcass to this ring right now so that I can show you what happens to people who besmirch my power!” (SD 11-08-01).

For the most part, aggression and violence were associated with male performers rather than female performers, emphasizing aggression as masculine and not feminine. Indeed, we are poignantly reminded that aggression and violence are not feminine on an episode of RAW (10-08-01) when Stacy Keibler encourages the Dudley Boyz to put Torrie Wilson through a table and then seems to enjoy the devastating result. JR not only expresses his disapproval, but questions Stacy’s womanhood: “What kind of woman is she?” In essence, JR is suggesting that no woman would display such zeal for aggression and that aggression and violence are simply not feminine.

The aggressiveness of men was further enhanced through the physicality expressed by male performers in comparison to female performers. Female performers were, for the most part, less often than men involved in physical matches and more often involved in “frivolous” matches that centered around the display of their bodies. For example, female performers competed in a Lingerie Match (No Mercy; RAW 06-03-02), a Bra and Panties Match (RAW 11-26-01; SD 07-04-02), and a Bikini Match (RAW 02-11-02; RAW 04-01-02). Female performers also participated in a Gravy Boat Invitational Match (SD 11-22-01) where they wrestled in a pool of gravy wearing evening gowns, an Eggnog Match (RAW 12-24-01) where they wrestled in a pool of eggnog wearing Santa’s helpers costumes, and a Mud Match (RAW 08-19-02) in which they wrestled in mud wearing only their underwear. Instructively, there were no comparable matches between male performers.

Rather than competing in physical matches, female performers were more often relegated to the role of cheerleader, accompanying men to the ring, acting as wives and girlfriends, and supporting male performers. In this way, masculinity was effectively constructed as physically aggressive in opposition to non-physically aggressive femininity.

The announcers also played an important role in highlighting the aggressive nature of matches between men, as well as the aggressiveness of male performers, through their play-by-play commentary. The announcers contributed to the expression of physical aggression between men in matches through various descriptives in their commentary. For example, announcers frequently described the actions of male performers as an “assault”, an “attack”, a “beating”, a “fight”, a “war”, a “battle”, a “mugging”, and a “slobberknocker”, emphasizing the aggression inherent in wrestling matches between men. Men were described as “beating the hell” out of each other, “kicking ass”, “laying the smackdown”, “exchanging blows”, and “going commando”. As well, the announcers used such active descriptives as “assaulting”, “attacking”, “beating down”, “brutalizing”, “mauling”, “ripping apart”, “physically abusing”, “laying waste”, “pulverizing”, “destroying”, “decimating”, and “dismantling” to emphasize the aggressive nature of the actions between males.

Furthermore, male performers were frequently described as “aggressive”, having an “aggressive streak”, or showing aggression in their actions. Some illustrative examples:

“Booker T aggressive here against Rikishi” (Cole) (SD 01-10-02)

“That aggressive streak of Test really coming to front here” (JR) (SD 10-04-01)

“Maven showing his aggression here…” (JR) (RAW 01-28-02)

Moreover, in describing male performers as “vicious”, “mean”, “dangerous”, “sadistic”, “merciless”, and “unforgiving”, the announcers effectively related men as having violent personalities readily conducive to aggressive acts, which served to highlight the natural aggressiveness of men.

Visual displays of blood and announcer descriptions of injury and damage to male performers underscored the consequences of physicality, reinforcing male aggression and violence. Hurt and injury were especially highlighted through the use of the common phrase “busted wide open” by the announcers and in describing bleeding by performers and damage to their bodies. To illustrate, JR and Heyman describe the injury and damage to Kurt Angle at several points in his match against Austin at Summerslam:

“Kurt Angle has been busted open at the hands of Steve Austin.”

“My God, Kurt Angle is a bloody mess!”

“Kurt Angle’s face (is) the proverbial crimson mask.”

In graphically highlighting injury and damage, the announcers effectively convey and reinforce to the television audience the physical aggression and violence that occurs between these men.

While the announcers stressed the physicality of men, they downplayed the physicality of women. During physical matches between women, for example, the announcers tended to focus on the appearance of the female combatants rather than the physical action going on:

“Ivory looks great in leather pants.” (Heyman) (SD 09-13-01)

“Look at Trish Stratus, her giblets were hanging out of her dress there.” (King) (RAW 11-26-01)

“Speaking of well-oiled, did you see how great Stacy’s legs look?” (King) (RAW 12-03-01)

The focus on female appearance by male announcers serves not only to reaffirm heterosexuality, but also indicates that appearance is an important female, rather than male, characteristic. In this way, masculinity was constructed in opposition to femininity. Women are to be looked at, while men are to be physically active.

The crowd also played a role in constructing masculinity as aggressive by approving and sometimes encouraging aggression between male performers. For example, during a Dudley Boyz match, it was common for the crowd to chant “We Want Tables!”, encouraging Bubba Ray and D-Von to put their opponents through a table. Moreover, when Austin and Triple H come face-to-face in the ring on an episode of RAW (01-14-02), the crowd encourages aggression between them by chanting “Fight! Fight! Fight!” Fans also expressed their approval of aggressive acts, especially by male face characters. For example, when Kurt Angle (face) threatens to take Tazz and Austin out, the crowd cheers (SD 08-16-01). Likewise, the crowd cheers when the Undertaker (face) says he plans on making an example of Diamond Dallas Page in their match at an upcoming pay-per-view (SD 08-16-01). As a further example of the crowd’s approval of physical aggression between male performers, it is instructive to point out the crowd’s reaction when The Rock slams Jericho through the announce table during their match at No Mercy. Showing the replay, JR tells the television audience to “watch the fans in the background” who raise their arms and cheer when Jericho and Rock go through the table together. It is clear that the crowd approves of this extraneous match aggression, which contributes to the construction of masculinity as aggressive and violent.

Anger and Frustration, Emotional Restraint

The data revealed that appropriate masculine emotional expression tends to center mostly around the active emotions of anger and frustration. Male performers were frequently described by the announcers as “angry”, “livid”, “seething”, “furious”, “irate”, “mad”, “enraged”, and “hot” as well as “frustrated”. Also, male performers frequently expressed emotions of anger and frustration during the two-hour shows. For example, Booker T proclaims “I’m so mad right now, so frustrated…” (RAW 08-20-01), while Austin tells the live Chicago audience that he’s “really pissed off” (RAW 02-18-02), and Jericho comments that he’s “absolutely livid” (SD 03-28-02). These emotions were expressed by both heel and face male characters, suggesting that anger and frustration are general masculine emotional responses.

These masculine emotions were constructed in contrast to more “feminine” emotions such as jealousy, emotional upset, and affection. Such emotions were mostly aligned with female performers and male heel characters, suggesting their non-masculine connotation.

Female characters were frequently described as “jealous” as were male heel characters. For example, Tazz comments that “Molly is so jealous of Ivory” (SD 08-30-01) and that “obviously Lita is jealous of Terri” (SD 09-04-01). Likewise, Heyman remarks that “Torrie Wilson is a jealous woman” (RAW 09-24-01) and refers to one female performer as “the jealous Lita” (SD 10-25-01). Male characters described as jealous by the announcers were unmistakably heel characters, most notably Booker T, Christian, and Chris Jericho.

Female characters were more likely than male characters to be depicted and described as emotionally upset. For example, several times Stephanie McMahon is described by the announcers as “upset” and depicted as emotionally hysterical, sometimes screaming and crying or having a temper tantrum. In contrast, such emotional displays were not expected by nor approved of for male characters. In fact, one male character, Christian, was ridiculed by the announcers and other performers for his frequent temper tantrums in the ring:

“Don’t upset Christian, he’ll have a…Oh, there it is. Somebody change his diaper, will you?

Powder his bottom! Christian’s still having a temper tantrum, the crybaby! My God, somebody get him a bottle!” (JR) (RAW 02-18-02)

Clearly, Christian’s emotional response is not deemed appropriate masculine emotional expression. Moreover, Christian’s heel status emphasizes the undesirability of such an emotional response for men.

The classic adage “real men don’t cry” is still apparently true, at least in the WWE. Female characters were more likely to be shown crying, while male characters were ridiculed for such displays of emotion. As an example, Austin expresses disdain for Kurt Angle’s past emotional outbursts: “You’re the biggest damn crybaby in the World Wrestling [Federation]. I ain’t never seen nobody like you. Cry every time you do something good. Cry about this, cry about that.” (SD 08-30-01). The announcers also expressed disapproval for this kind of emotion by male characters. For example, Tazz remarks about Kurt Angle: “Crybaby! I’m begging Angle to take it like a man!” (SD 10-11-01), while King comments about William Regal: “Now that’s embarrassing. A grown man crying.” (RAW 04-15-02). The crowd further contributed to the message that “men don’t cry” through their signs. For instance, one fan sign declares “Jericho: Undisputed Crybaby” (SD 02-07-02), expressing disdain for this kind of male emotion.

Displays of affection and tenderness were not common among the male performers. Female characters were more likely than male characters to exhibit tenderness or to declare affection. For example, Lita expresses her affection for Matt Hardy by telling him that she loves him (RAW 12-10-01), and Stephanie declares her love for her husband Triple H (RAW 01-28-02).

Displays or expressions of affection by male performers were kept to a minimum and reserved mostly for particular circumstances, as a sign of friendship or brotherhood, or as a show of respect or admiration. When The Rock and Hulk Hogan share a brief post-match hug at Wrestlemania X-8, JR is quick to explain this affectionate response between the two men: “That is respect. That is class.”

Notwithstanding these rare acceptable affectionate displays, affection between men was still often ridiculed by the announcers. For example, when Rikishi and Scotty share a hug as a show of friendship, the crowd cheers but King nevertheless remarks sarcastically: “Well, why don’t we just have a group hug.” (RAW 03-04-02). Likewise, the crowd cheers when Bubba Ray and D-Von hug as a show of brotherhood and friendship in their last match together, but King comments “You ever see two grown men kiss?” (RAW 03-25-02). JR also remarks with sarcasm when Vince McMahon hugs Jericho: “Now look at this. He’s hugging Jericho like they’re Siegfried and Roy.” (RAW 12-17-01). The announcers essentially remind us that affection and/or tenderness between men can be considered somewhat suspect and perhaps even unmanly.

The crowd also played a role in constructing appropriate affectionate displays and expressions between men. While fans sometimes cheered affectionate shows of friendship or mutual respect between some men, they were also quick to boo affectionate responses considered inappropriate. For example, when Austin and Angel express affection for each other and seal it with a hug, the crowd boos (SD 11-01-01). A sign in the audience later pokes fun at this affection between the two men: “Kurt (heart) Austin” (SD 11-08-01). Thus, the performers, the announcers, and the crowd were all involved in constructing appropriate masculine affection.

Current cultural norms dictate that “emotionality” is feminine while “emotional restraint” is masculine. Emotional restraint was emphasized for males in the WWE. Indeed, it was suggested that too much emotion of any kind, even anger and frustration, is not desirable in men and males were encouraged to exercise emotional restraint. There were several examples in which the announcers pointed out the disadvantages of too much male emotion. In reacting to the stalking of his wife by DDP, for example, the Undertaker is clearly emotional (Summerslam). Heyman comments that Taker is “too emotional to compete for victory” and that “an emotional man can make a mistake”. Similarly, Tazz emphasizes the interference of emotion with a man’s ability to successfully compete when he comments: “Scotty knows better than that. He’s letting the emotions get the better of him. He should have hooked the leg. He’s letting the emotions get to him.” (SD 04-11-02).

Clearly, emotional restraint is the ideal with respect to masculinity as too much emotion of any kind in men can be disadvantageous. Male performers were often encouraged to exercise emotional restraint. For example, King advises Flair to keep his emotions in check (SD 03-07-02), Heyman tells Brock Lesnar to keep his temper “under control” (RAW 04-08-02), and Regal proclaims rather prophetically that “cooler heads will prevail” (SD 10-18-01).


The wrestling programs were replete with the theme of masculine dominance. Male performers showed dominance by having control over others physically and mentally. Certainly, the announcers frequently spoke of male performers as “having control” or “being in control” of a match or an opponent, which emphasized their dominance.

Male performers were also described as “dominant” or “dominating”. For example, Cole calls Kane and the Undertaker “the most dominating team in the World Wrestling [Federation]” (SD 08-23-01), Heyman refers to Austin as a “dominant champion” (RAW 09-17-01), and JR points out that the Big Show is “as dominant as anybody” in the ring (RAW 04-08-02).

Male dominance was often accomplished through physical means. The announcers especially played a role in constructing physical dominance by men for the television audience by describing displays of dominance by the male performers:

“The physical dominance being displayed by Booker T…” (Heyman) (Summerslam)

“The Undertaker showing his dominance…” (JR) (RAW 12-10-01)

“Scott Hall is dominating The Rock right now” (King) (SD 03-07-02)

As well, the announcers used a variety of other action descriptives to emphasize physical dominance by male performers including: “manhandling”, “overpowering”, “taking apart”, “wearing down”, “cleaning house”, “having his way with”, “imposing his will”, “all over”, “ganging up”, “lording it over”, “owning”, “asserting himself”, and “putting all of his weight down on”.

Submission moves are clearly meant to physically dominate opponents, with the successful execution of a submission move concluding with one’s opponent “tapping out”. It is rather instructive that Heyman should proclaim at Survivor Series: “(Kurt Angle is) a man! Kurt Angle made Kane tap!”, effectively emphasizing masculinity through display of physical dominance.

Achievement and Success

The world of professional wrestling is very achievement-oriented, despite the fact that most achievements are contrived. The importance of winning a major championship was routinely emphasized by the announcers and the performers, in particular by referring to the title championships as “coveted” and “prestigious” trophies and prizes.

Within the WWE, achievement as well as success was emphasized especially for the male performers. Male performers were depicted as consumed with achieving wins and obtaining championships, as well as being success-driven. For example, Cole remarks that Austin is “obsessed with the World Wrestling [Federation] Championship” and that “the title means everything to Austin” (SD 09-27-01). JR comments that Rob Van Dam is “hungry” and “wants to get to the top of the mountain” (RAW 10-15-01), highlighting the male drive for success. Christian further emphasizes success as important when he tells Lillian Garcia that winning the Intercontinental Championship is “worth ending his relationship” with his brother Edge (Unforgiven), suggesting that success and achievement are more important than brotherhood.

As further evidence of the achievement-orientedness of male-dominated professional wrestling, the announcers routinely listed the accomplishments of male performers and emphasized male success. For example, Heyman remarks that the Dudley Boyz are “multi-time ECW Tag Team Champions” and “multi-time WWF Tag Team Champions” (Unforgiven); JR stresses that The Rock is a “former six-time WWF Champion (and) the youngest man to ever win the World Wrestling Federation Championship” (No Way Out); Heyman comments that Tazz is a “multi-time Hardcore Champion” and a “two-time ECW Champion” (SD 10-04-01); and Cole points out that Ric Flair is a “sixteen-time World Champion” (SD 12-27-01). To be sure, Booker T continuously reminds us that he is a former “five-time WCW Champion” as part of his character gimmick.

Such accomplishment listing was not as common for women in the WWE, announcers simply making mention that female performers were “former” Women’s Champions rather than listing the number of times the title was held. This was either indicative of the fact that championship opportunities occurred less frequently for the female performers or that achievement and success were emphasized less strongly for women than for men.

The announcers even highlighted the success and accomplishments of male performers outside of the ring. The television audience is made aware, for example, that Kurt Angle was “the first American in history to win a gold medal” in free-style wrestling at the 1996 Olympics (RAW 09-03-01), that Brock Lesnar was an “NCAA Heavyweight Wrestling Champion” (Backlash), and that Mark Henry was crowned the title of “World’s Strongest Man” (RAW 03-04-02). In addition to these athletic achievements, Mick Foley’s success as a best-selling author is highlighted on several occasions and The Rock’s success in Hollywood is emphasized (RAW 04-22-01).

Clearly, achievement and success are goals emphasized for men in the WWE and appear to be important regardless of whether the performer is a face or a heel, suggesting that these are defining characteristics of manhood.


Competition is a regular feature of professional wrestling. Performers “compete” in matches commonly called “contests”, and are continuously referred to by the announcers as “competitors” and described as “competitive”. For example:

“Hurricane Helms is an outstanding young competitor.” (JR) (RAW 08-27-01)

“Angle with that great competitive spirit.” (JR) (SD 09-13-01)

“Both Y2J and The Rock are proud, competitive men.” (Cole) (SD 10-11-01)

Male performers showed their competitive spirit by issuing challenges to other males to participate in wrestling bouts, and by engaging in outside-ring competition. Competition between male performers frequently extended beyond the boundaries of the squared circle. For example, during the data collection period, Vince McMahon and Shane McMahon competed for sports-entertainment dominance; Booker T and The Rock competed over who was the most entertaining; Austin and RVD competed for popularity and leadership in the Alliance; Edge and Christian competed over who was the better brother; and Vince McMahon and Ric Flair competed for leadership within WWE. These outside-ring competitions were typically described as rivalries that developed as part of the auxiliary storylines. Nevertheless, outside-ring competition oftentimes culminated into in-ring competition. As an example, the rivalry between Vince McMahon and Ric Flair for dominance in WWE culminated in a street fight match between the two at Royal Rumble.

In the WWE, both males and females competed but competition tended to take different forms. While men frequently competed physically in wrestling matches, women more often competed in non-physical contests that centered mostly around their appearance. For example, Torrie Wilson and Stacy Keibler competed in a Bikini Contest (SD 10-04-01), Terri and Molly competed in a Swimsuit Competition (RAW 05-06-02), and several of the female performers competed for the Golden Thong Award by posing in lingerie (SD 07-04-02).

The competitive nature of masculinity was thus effectively highlighted by the wrestling programs by emphasizing in-ring physical competition between men as well as outside-ring male rivalries. Male competition was further contrasted with female competition, with emphasis placed on the physical nature of masculinity and the non-physical nature of femininity.


Toughness was a strong masculine theme revealed by the wrestling programs. Toughness appeared to be a praiseworthy characteristic in male performers, ascribed to both faces and heels, emphasizing it as a general masculine trait.

Specifically, the announcers played a role in constructing toughness as masculine by describing male performers as “tough” or as displaying “toughness”. Some examples:

“You’ve got to be impressed with the reslience and toughness of Rob Van Dam.” (Cole) (SD 12-13-01)

“Pound for pound, there’s no one tougher in this company than Spike Dudley.” (JR) (RAW 04-15-02)

“How tough is this guy? How tough is Tommy Dreamer?” (JR) (RAW 07-15-02)

Toughness was also conveyed by the announcers by describing male performers as showing resiliency and tenacity, as well as having fortitude. For example:

“What resilience being shown by Billy Kidman in this matchup!” (Cole) (SD 04-04-02)

“Tazz, showing his tenacity, able to kick out.” (JR) (RAW 10-15-01)

“The Rock loaded with intestinal fortitude.” (Tazz) (SD 08-15-02)

Interestingly, the phrase “intestinal fortitude” is sometimes replaced by the phrase “testicular fortitude”, suggesting that fortitude or toughness is masculine in nature. Since we rarely hear the analogous term “ovarian fortitude”, we can only assume that toughness is a mark of masculinity not femininity. While female performers were sometimes described as tough, these references were far less common for women than for men.

Moreover, toughness was emphasized by the ability and willingness of men to play through pain or injury. For example, Cole proclaims that the “doctors are just shaking their heads at this ability of Jeff Hardy to get into the ring and compete with the injury that he suffered” (SD 09-04-01), emphasizing Jeff Hardy’s toughness. JR asserts that a “little blood loss” isn’t going to stop Kurt Angle from competing in a match since “a broken neck didn’t stop Angle from competing in the Olympics.” (RAW 10-15-01). JR also points out Jericho’s toughness, remarking that “Jericho, he’s not a quitter. He’s gonna endure the pain and the pain’s got to be excruciating.” (Summerslam) . In addition, Tazz notes Austin’s toughness by “fighting through that pain” (SD 08-23-01). To be sure, Heyman emphasizes masculine toughness by playing through pain and injury when he remarks: “Do you think Stone Cold is going to admit how injured he is? He’s a real man, he fights through his injury.” (RAW 08-27-01).

Toughness, then, was a strong theme related to masculinity and manhood. The announcers played a particularly important role in constructing toughness as masculine by describing male performers as tough, emphasizing their mental and physical perseverance, and highlighting the tendency of men to play through pain and injury. In ascribing toughness to both heels and faces and contrasting male performers with female performers, the announcers effectively constructed toughness as a clear masculine trait.


Males in North American society have been described as risk-takers. They take chances as well as put themselves in danger. The announcers were primarily involved in constructing men as risk-takers, though visual displays by the performers also contributed to the risk-taking masculine ideal.

The announcers frequently described some male performers as “taking chances” or “throwing caution to the wind”, emphasizing the risk-taking inherent in masculine identity. The announcers also emphasized the risk-taking of male performers by describing them as “putting their bodies on the line” and as executing “high-risk” moves. In highlighting the risk-taking nature of some male performers, the announcers frequently referred to them as “daredevils” and “risk-takers”.

Since both heel and face characters were shown to be and described as taking risks, this suggests risk-taking as a general masculine trait. Furthermore, since there were few references to female performers as risk-takers, risk-taking was constructed as “masculine” in clear opposition to “feminine”.

While risk-taking was mostly physical, men were sometimes constructed as risk-takers in other respects as well. For example, on several occasions Vince McMahon attributed his success in the sports-entertainment business to taking chances and “calculated risks” (RAW 10-22-01; Survivor Series; SD 01-10-02). In fact, McMahon’s risk-taking is demonstrated most strongly when he proposes to his children, Shane and Stephanie, a “winner takes all” match at Survivor Series, a match that would essentially determine which entity, Alliance or WWE, would survive and dominate sports-entertainment (RAW10-22-01). JR comments on the “high stakes” of such a match, emphasizing McMahon’s risk-taking. Interestingly, it is Shane who accepts the proposal, suggesting that this male McMahon is a risk-taker like his father. Moreover, Vince McMahon proposes a match between himself and Ric Flair for 100% ownership of the company, proclaiming that he is “a gambling man” (RAW 06-10-02), which further emphasizes his willingness to take risks in business.

Whether physical or otherwise, it is clear from the wrestling program data that risk-taking is a masculine characteristic, consistent with the dominant, culturally ideal North American masculinity.


Toughness and risk-taking are related to courage. The message revealed by the wrestling programs was that real men have courage, real men are fearless; to lack courage or to display cowardly behavior is unmanly. This message was exemplified by the announcers in highlighting courage and fearlessness for male performers:

“You got to admire Spike Dudley’s courage.” (JR) (Summerslam)

“What a display of courage (by Triple H)!” (JR) (Wrestlemania X-8)

“The Rock, the Brahma Bull, shows no fear, shows no hesitation.” (JR) (RAW 09-03-01)

“There is no fear, no intimidation in the soul of Hollywood Hulk Hogan.” (JR) (RAW 05-06-02)

It would appear that courage is to be admired in males whether face or heel, suggesting that it is a desirable characteristic among men in general. To be sure, Heyman’s tongue-in-cheek comments about heel performers serve to emphasize courage as a laudable characteristic in men. For example, Heyman says of heel Booker T: “What a courageous athlete! Even against Shane McMahon’s advice, the WCW Champion will fight The Rock in a Lights Out Match, live, right now. What courage Booker T!” (SD 08-16-01).

Lack of courage, fear and cowardliness, however, were constructed primarily as characteristics of male heels and were therefore considered undesirable and unmanly. For example, with regards to Austin during his heel period, Cole remarks: “And look at Austin. Come on, he’s backing up. Stone Cold’s yellow. What a coward! (SD 08-16-01). Similarly, Cole points out heel Jericho’s cowardliness: “That coward Jericho, he waited until Jacqueline turned her back and then he attacked her from behind. What an insecure little coward!” (SD 01-31-01). After heels Hogan, Hall, and Nash violently attack The Rock, JR remarks: “The sonofabitches are running like scalded dogs, King! The yellow sonofabitches have destroyed The Rock!” (RAW 02-11-02). Furthermore, Cole expresses displeasure with the Undertaker’s seeming lack of courage during his heel period: “He’s getting back on his motorcycle, King. What the hell is this all about? Where are the Undertaker’s guts?”(SD 02-21-02). The crowd further reinforced courage as manly by booing displays of cowardliness by male performers.

Moreover, by associating fearlessness with male performers and fear with female performers, the announcers effectively constructed masculinity in opposition to femininity. While the expectation was for men to be fearless, it was acceptable for women to show fear or to be fearful. For example, the announcers were quick to point out the fear shown by women:

“Look at Torrie Wilson. Torrie looks scared to death.” (Cole) (SD 09-20-01)

“Look at the fear on Nidia’s face.” (Cole) (SD 10-18-01)

“Torrie is running for her life, she’s scared to death out there.” (Cole) (SD 12-27-01)

Interestingly, courage is often associated with male genitalia. When Vince McMahon asks “Who’s got the balls to step into the ring with me?” (SD 12-27-01), McMahon is talking about courage. When The Rock wonders: “Who would have ever thought that the man with the 24-inch pythons would have half-inch testicles” (SD 03-07-02), he is suggesting that Hogan lacks courage. To have courage means to have “balls” or “testicles” (not “ovaries” or “breasts”), which means that men, not women, are expected to have courage and that courage and fearlessness are defining markers of manhood.

Heterosexual Masculinity

As expected, the WWE programs promoted heterosexuality as the dominant form of male sexuality. Heterosexuality was primarily emphasized by depicting character relationships between men and women (ie. Molly and Spike; Matt and Lita; Torrie and Tajiri; Nidia and Jamie Noble), and by emphasizing female interest in males as well as male interest in females.

Heterosexuality in the WWE was further stressed through the devaluation of gay relationships and the construction of male homosexuality as negative. To be sure, there was only one homosexual relationship depicted between men during the data collection period. Billy and Chuck were presented as tag team partners who, in the early going, were suspected of being gay based on their stereotypical display of homosexual behaviors and attitudes. Interestingly, in taking on this gay identity, Billy and Chuck were relegated to the status of heels, suggesting that “gayness” is an undesirable trait in men. Undeniably, the reaction to Billy and Chuck was predominantly negative, indicated by frequent boos by the crowd and ridiculing by the announcers and other male performers, further emphasizing the undesirability of homosexual relationships. What is interesting is that when Billy and Chuck finally reveal that they are not gay (SD 09-12-02), the crowd cheers and Billy and Chuck suddenly become fan favorites. In the weeks to follow, there is an obvious turn from heel to face, with Billy and Chuck being received more positively by fans, announcers, and wrestling colleagues. The message is clear. Heterosexuality is valued while homosexuality is devalued among men.

In addition, the desirability of heterosexuality was maintained by negatively constructing male homosexuality. By implying homosexuality in other men and depicting male homosexuality as comedic, the message that real men are not gay was effectively conveyed by the WWE performers. It was noted, for example, that implied homosexuality was often used by male performers as a way of insulting or making fun of an adversary. For example, Hurricane pokes fun at Billy and Chuck by pointing out their suspected homosexuality: “The only superhero you (two) have anything in common with is the Human Torch – flame on!” (RAW 01-14-02). Fans laugh, suggesting that it is acceptable to make fun of homosexuality. Likewise, when Al Snow and Maven make fun of Billy and Chuck by strutting around the ring in stereotypical gay fashion (SD 04-25-02), fans again laugh, suggesting that homosexuality is something to be mocked and ridiculed, not valued and accepted.

Male heterosexuality was further reinforced by constructing general negative attitudes toward male homosexuality in opposition to more positive attitudes toward female homosexuality. While to be a homosexual man is antithetical and unacceptable, homosexuality between women appeared to be not only acceptable but enjoyed, anticipated, and fantasized about, as revealed through the announcers’ comments which underscored the lesbian fantasy and through the crowd’s call for and enjoyment of Bischoff’s promises of “Hot Lesbian Action” (RAW 09-16-02). Thus, it can be argued that males distance themselves and masculinity from homosexuality by attaching homosexuality to females and femininity. Femininity and homosexuality serve to function as direct opposites to masculinity and heterosexuality.

Explaining the Deviant Cases

It was sometimes the case that female performers were ascribed traditionally masculine characteristics such as power, dominance, toughness, risk-taking, and aggression. Nevertheless, these “deviant cases” can be explained within the context of the wrestling program data.

For example, throughout the data collection period, Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley was frequently described and depicted as having power, showing dominance, displaying aggression, and expressing courage, all characteristics of the dominant masculinity. However, fans were constantly reminded that Stephanie is not just a female but a McMahon. To be sure, Stephanie’s affiliation with the McMahon family often overrode her female status and attributed to her were the qualities associated with the McMahon males (Vince and Shane) such as power, dominance, and bravado.

Moreover, fans were reminded that, notwithstanding her McMahon status, Stephanie is a female with feminine characteristics. The announcers contributed to this construction of femininity through their comments and remarks. Heyman refers to Stephanie as “Daddy’s little girl” (SD 09-27-01), while JR calls Stephanie a “refined young lady” (RAW 09-17-01). JR also points out Stephanie’s tendency to whine and her proneness to temper tantrums (RAW 10-08-01), traditionally thought to be feminine rather than masculine traits. In addition, male performers tended to highlight Stephanie’s distinctly feminine qualities. Two male performers in particular, Chris Jericho and The Rock, consistently made sure Stephanie was put into her place by pointing out her female attributes (breasts) and frequently insinuated that Stephanie was sexually promiscuous. As well, the crowd was involved in maintaining Stephanie’s femininity by bellowing out the “Slut!” chant whenever she appeared. Stephanie was also shown exhibiting traditional feminine emotions like jealousy, hysteria, and temper tantrums, emphasizing her feminine side.

In addition, Lita was often described as a “risk-taker”, a traditional masculine characteristic. However, in aligning Lita with the Hardy Boyz, the announcers skilfully explained away this masculine trait. As JR remarks: “We’ve said Lita, like the Hardy Boyz, (is a) risk-taker” (RAW10-22-01). Lita’s risk-taking is thus explained as a natural extension of her association with males. Moreover, Lita’s “tomboy” image allows for some masculine characteristics to be ascribed without completely detracting away from her female status.

Furthermore, female performer Jazz was frequently described by the announcers as displaying traditional masculine traits such as toughness and aggression. Nevertheless, they also frequently likened Jazz to a male, referring to her as a “female Mike Tyson” (Backlash; Insurrextion). Comparing Jazz to a male rather than a female, it is not surprising that Jazz should be ascribed corresponding masculine characteristics.

Other female performers were also sometimes described as possessing characteristics of the dominant masculinity. Even so, the announcers were adept at ensuring that these females were not constructed as too masculine by focusing on their feminine qualities. The following exchange between JR and King is a good example. When JR tries to attribute characteristics to females that are traditionally masculine (such as athleticism, toughness, achievement, physicality), King makes sure to “feminize” the female performers (Vengeance):

JR: (Trish Stratus) is a great young athlete, King, as you know.

King: Right now I’d like to handle a little bit of Trish.

JR: Is Trish tough enough to handle the challenger?

King: They’ve got well-developed lungs…

JR: Jackie (is) a former WWE Women’s Champion.

King: Look at Trish’s puppies. They’re pointers tonight. They’re the best kind of puppies.

JR: The hounds are being assaulted. Jackie hammering down on Trish.

King: Does she have on a black bra? Let the puppies out to play!

JR: Certainly not a beauty contest. They’re hammering each other.

King: It’s still sort of a beauty contest. They’re both beautiful.


While in some respects women may be transcending the boundaries of gender in the wrestling ring, men are distinctly traditionally masculine, with the culturally dominant form of masculinity, hegemonic masculinity, being primarily presented in televised professional wrestling. Specifically, themes of aggression and violence, emotional restraint, dominance, achievement and success, competition, toughness, risk-taking, and courage were revealed most strongly for men in the WWE programs analyzed, characteristics that are consistent with the dominant hegemonic masculinity in North American society.

This cultural masculine ideal was constructed by the WWE performers, in concert with the announcers and the live audience within the context of the professional wrestling event. In particular, the heel-face dynamic provided the primary context in which desirable and undesirable masculine characteristics were emphasized and delineated.

The dominant masculinity was also constructed in opposition to femininity by emphasizing characteristics such as aggression and physicality, achievement, toughness, and risk-taking for male performers while downplaying these characteristics for female performers. While female performers were sometimes ascribed traditionally masculine characteristics, these attributions were effectively explained away and the women’s essential femininity highlighted. There were also obvious contrasts made between male and female performers such as: men are physically active while women are to be looked at; men exercise emotional restraint while women are emotional; men are fearless while women are fearful. Such contrasts effectively construct masculinity in clear opposition to femininity, where what is distinctly “masculine” is delineated from what is distinctly “feminine”.

The WWE programs also emphasized heterosexual masculinity as the cultural ideal by constructing male sexuality in opposition to homosexuality. This was effectively accomplished through the devaluation of gay relationships and the portrayal of male homosexuality as something to be ridiculed rather than a legitimate masculine alternative. As well, the clear contrast between the unacceptability of male homosexuality and the desirability of female homosexuality further emphasized the male heterosexual ideal.

The lessons learned about manhood from WWE programming may be far-reaching and costly. Presentations of masculinity may subtly yet forcefully inject themselves into the socialization process of young male fans as they attempt to emulate their WWE role models. By pointing out the socializing effects of televised professional wrestling, the researcher is not suggesting a simple imitating effect whereby a young male fan may “talk trash like The Rock” or “open a can of whoop-ass like Stone Cold Steve Austin”. Rather, it is the masculinity script provided by these performers in which male fans unwittingly learn the rules of manhood, and through which cultural masculine ideals are reinforced, that is considered most important.

Adherence to the dominant masculinity may come at a heavy cost for both men and women. Such masculine scripts may provide the context for female subordination, which may translate into male violence against women. Hills (1995), for example, suggests that the idealized attributes of the dominant masculinity provide justification for treating some women as legitimate targets of violence and contempt, while Russell (1975) contends that sexual aggression is the natural outcome of many of the characteristics associated with masculinity in the dominant culture.

The dominant masculinity also has consequences for men. Characteristics such as emotional restraint place restrictive limits upon men (Clatterbaugh, 1995), and may contribute to stress-related health problems (Nicholson, 1993). In addition, many of the dominant masculine qualities – risk-taking, violence, toughness – put men at risk for physical injury and even early death (Thompson, 1991). Moreover, the lessons learned through the presentation of the dominant hegemonic masculinity in WWE programming inevitably stifles alternative masculinities by teaching young males that there is only one kind of masculinity, a masculinity that marginalizes non-white and non-heterosexual expressions of manhood.

It must be kept in mind, however, that World Wrestling Entertainment is a business designed to make a profit. As such, we should not interpret it as simply propagating a particular masculinity. The type of masculinity that is ultimately presented by WWE programs is the type of masculinity that sells. It is what the public- males and females – expect and presumably want. In this way, we might see professional wrestling as merely reflective of society’s attitudes toward masculinity and femininity. Professional wrestling is thus a form of popular culture that reflects as well as critiques contemporary society and its corresponding messages about gender.


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