Before my relationship with my father went to shit in my early 20s, the one thing that connected us was wrestling. Not with each other, but just watching WWE Monday Night Raw together. Okay, none of that sounds right, now that I think about it.
For so many of us Indian middle-class kids, watching wrestling was that one thing no one in the family objected to. In fact, at my house, it was the post-dinner TV-viewing session we looked forward to the most. The dishes were washed, the floor was swept, the mattress was spread, and all of us kids sprawled onto the floor as my father held the remote firmly in his palm. Once the lights went out, he switched from the news to Ten Sports (now Sony Ten), the only channel in India that would broadcast WWF matches in all their uncensored glory, every Monday to Friday.
The World Wrestling Federation (later changed to World Wrestling Entertainment, because pandas) is a sports entertainment company established in the 1950s, which only found worldwide fame in the late 1980s to early 2000s. It saw the birth of several wrestling superstars, who went on to become international stars in their own right, including The Rock and John Cena. And then, there were the OGs: Hulk Hogan, The Undertaker and the larger-than-life Yokozuna.
The effects of this gigantic spectacle were widespread. Their faces were everywhere—from playing cards and backpacks to Hollywood films and sex toys. Even the trademark finishing moves by the wrestlers made it to school grounds, infuriatingly allowing bullies to try the Tombstone or the Masterlock, rendering some poor little kid unconscious. Of course none of the kids were aware that in reality, it’s all pretend and the moves are performed in cohesion by extremely oiled stuntmen.
The unfortunate aspect of the commercial success of the show was that while the men got the meatier storylines and main matches, the female wrestlers (who were equally talented) got relegated to side characters or used as eye candies. Fellow comedian and WWE aficionado Abbas Momin recollects, “Even if the women did wrestle in a match, they were under the stipulation of a 'Bra & Panties' match or a 'Mud wrestling match'.” Yeah, those were real categories.
But despite its many toxic issues, WWE was the first time my little queer brain saw semi-naked buff men on the TV and I knew I’d do anything to see them up-close. Wrestling as a sport has always had a certain level of homoeroticsm attached to it. One has to just Google image search Turkish Wrestling to get a good glimpse into how having bodies slicked in oil can lead to the opponent’s hands sliding to some really uncomfortable spots. The way the wrestlers were portrayed on WWE, however, was entirely brand-driven. Each character had a storyline and an associating costume that accentuated a certain part of their body. Tight muscles, thick calves, abs for days, and in case of wrestler Rikishi, his bare butt.
I’d even sneak away after school to pay Rs 15 (20 cents) to a shady shopkeeper who had several PlayStations rigged up. Not to play the games myself, but to watch other boys having a go at it. It was dark, sweaty, noisy, and full of suppressed rage. Come to think of it, my father and I enjoyed wrestling for entirely different reasons.
Counselling therapist Deepak Kashyap notes that while the experiences after watching WWE may vary from person to person, these wrestling matches were perhaps the first time a lot of younger queer kids got the external stimulus they didn’t know their sexual awakening needed. “We get to see these bodies ranging from fit to chubby, well-built, powerful, greased up—these are the kind of things we mentally sexualise but when they finally translate on screen, we realise how it affects us,” he says.
“A lot of it has to do with power,” Kashyap adds. Some of the main roles that the wrestlers play in the ring are either dominating their opponent or willingly submitting when they have them in a body lock. While wrestling was never taught to me in school, we did have sports like Kabaddi (which again has nine men piled on top of one). Within the locker room confines, boys are strangers to physical touch or intimacy. God forbid they find out that you’re a queer. So what could never manifest in real life found its outlet through something like WWE.
In the late 90s, so many gratuitous sexual scenes were enacted on our television sets that my mom developed a coping mechanism of breaking into fits of laughter. And like a Christmas carol, we all joined in chorus. But while certain sexualised visuals made us cringe as a family, some scenes were difficult to watch on a human level. “One particular story angle that has aged terribly is when Trish Stratus, who had won the women's championship belt, was made to strip down to her undergarments in the middle of the ring by the evil boss Vince McMahon or else she would be fired,” says Momin.
Though not much can be said concretely as to how WWE sexualises the young minds since there isn't much research done in this specific area yet, psychologist Rutuja Thukarul says, “Some scientific assumptions or hypotheses can be taken into consideration on the basis of different psychological theories. Especially the Freudian perspective, according to which early life experiences unconsciously affect development and behaviour even in adulthood, so there is a high possibility that the erotic nature of WWE has been sexualising young minds.”
Thukarul also adds that childhood sexual development theories have shown that children may seek sexual arousal through different ways including visual sights, without knowing what it means or what they are doing. “Parents/caretakers need not worry about it,” she says. “Not shying away from discussions about sex and giving children a proper sex talk can foster a healthy sexual development especially with regards to various notions and perceptions of sex, attraction, partners and relationships.”
With the end of the Attitude Era in 2002, the producers and writers began scripting more family-friendly material, and introducing politically correct stars, which in turn led to people tuning out of the show. What seemed like the morally right thing for the industry to move towards ended up being its eventual downfall.
Most of us who were kids or teenagers in the noughties also grew up. Realising the facade that these matches were, we just shrugged it off and moved on, our playing cards now rotting away in some dingy corner, a depressing memory of the WWE that once was.
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