Date of Award
Master of Science (MS)
Department of Sociology and Anthropology: Archaeology
Within the anthropology of performance, scholars have traditionally considered theater, spectacle, sport, and ritual performances in terms of the discrete boundaries of space and time that separate these events from daily life and in terms of the disparate roles that demarcate performers from audience members. Professional wrestling, a popular performance genre in the American Midwest, exhibits features that challenge these boundaries through the collaborative construction of the event by performers and audience members. Audience interaction is an essential part of wrestling performances, characterized by routine and contextually understood behaviors that performers can process as evaluative feedback. Moreover, during wrestling matches, performers interact directly with audience members in unexpected, unplanned, and sometimes dangerous ways. In doing so, wrestlers engage in what I define as "boundary play," the establishment and subsequent transgression of rules and boundaries that are assumed to characterize the performer-audience relationship. Through boundary play, the apparent social order of a performance event is disrupted and the relationship between what is "real" and what is dramatic fiction is deliberately made ambiguous. The simulated and stylized violence displayed in wrestling, as well as the constant possibility for real injury, serves as a primary mode of interaction between performers that draws powerful affective responses from the audience. The use of boundary play in professional wrestling requires and cultivates a relationship between performers and audience members based on mutual trust and consent. Wrestling becomes "real" when this close interaction allows the performance to become a collaborative practice shared by all participants.
While much of the public and scholarly interpretation of wresting focuses on the xenophobic, sexist, and otherwise problematic narratives embedded in some wrestling performances, I believe that a focus on the role of boundary play in these performances challenges the public and academic perception of wrestling as a "dangerous" performance that thrives on social tension and the audience's fear of the other. "Believing" in wrestling implies a commitment that is stronger than suspension of disbelief in that it represents a constant and ever-changing dialogue between performers and audiences concerning what is "real" and what is "fake." I propose that boundary play allows wrestling to be an effective medium for the moralizing narratives that it conveys, which have historically been hegemonic in nature, but can also act subversively.
Ingram, Ethan, "Over the Ropes: Boundary Play in Professional Wrestling" (2017). Theses and Dissertations. 757.