Writer Abraham Josephine Riesman has a remarkable knack for honing in on the essential humanity and sociopolitical impact of real-life pop culture icons, from her interviews with Art Spiegelman to her already-iconic Stan Lee biography, True Believers: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee. Riesman just released another new book last week called Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America, which serves not only as a biography for the notorious WWE chairman but also as an examination of the influence of McMahon's kayfabe marketing tactics on modern American politics.
The book has gotten rave reviews from pretty much everywhere, even landing Riesman a swanky profile in The Atlantic, and you should definitely check it out. But of all the promotional work that Riesman's been doing for the book, my favorite is her recent Polygon piece with the perfectly provocative title of "Wrestling turned me cis, then it turned me trans." It's a tremendously powerful examination of the ways in which people learn to perform gender, whether they realize it or not, and how we're taught not to question the femininity of so much hyper-masculinity.
Wrestling is built around masculinity, but in its own way it is also transgressive — even queer. Men in wrestling wear bright colors. They intimately touch other men in public. When they're allied, they speak of each other in the warm terms of life partners; when they're at odds, they issue ambiguously sexual threats such as "I want your ass.
The essential, irreducible element of a wrestling match is the ability to show suffering — the very thing drummed out of every boy by high school, if not earlier. It's the heart of the art form. No matter how skilled a wrestler is technically, it doesn't count at all unless they can make the audience believe they're being hurt. Every wrestler has to spend a significant amount of every match showing nothing but raw, visceral agony. They have to show their secret face, the most vulnerable one of all.
Wrestling is an art form, one that turned out to have also planted seeds in my mind about how fun it is to dress up, show tenderness, be vulnerable, and do the things you're not supposed to.