By Neal Hebert
For the past few weeks Jon and I have been working on finishing the newest draft of our contribution to Routledge's anthology of professional wrestling. You'd think that at this point I'd be sick of the sport of kings: between my dissertation on Louisiana professional wrestling history, my coauthored piece with Jon, and assorted other wrestling-related scholarship it wouldn't be crazy to be over watching men in tiny pants kick and slap each other very hard in (mostly) safe places.
So for my first post here on PhilPercs I figure I might as well start off with what I hope will be a regular feature: Pro-Wrestling Wednesdays. And for the first Pro-Wrestling Wednesday, I'd like to start off with a bang: the elaborate entrance of Shinsuke Nakamura, and a brief history of foppery on both the English stage and in the wrestling ring.
As I note in my dissertation, its impossible to escape a queer aesthetic in professional wrestling. Part of this is because of what's essentially at stake in almost all professional wrestling matches: a certain articulation of gender, a specific performance of masculinity or femininity that sees non-heteronormative (frequently themed as "inadequate") gender performance violently corrected. Although masculinity and femininity are contested in the squared circle, it's only recently that this contest has allowed for different sorts of masculinities and femininities so win that contest. For this post, however, I want to talk specifically about masculinity; I'll save femininity for another post on another Wednesday. And to talk about masculinity in wrestling is to talk about foppery.
I've argued at various conferences that the practice of "foppery" as a performance practice transitioned seamlessly from Renaissance and Restoration stages in England to the American art form of professional wrestling: although foppish characters transformed throughout the 18th and the 19th centuries (see Oscar Wilde, among others), in wrestling fops arose due to similar historical trends: as Michael Mangan and Thomas A. King argue, foppery was less about same-sex attraction than it was about a suspect Frenchification of what it meant to be a man. The difference between Colley Cibber's Sir Novelty Fashion in his Restoration comedy Love's Last Shift and Gorgeous George was less a matter of sexuality and more about excessive concern with outward display of Francophone fashions and mannerisms.
Although there were detours along the way - and a transformation of foppery into a way to say something about sexual orientation rather than gender performance absolutely happened in both Restoration drama and professional wrestling - it's only now, in wrestling's golden age that is New Japan Professional Wrestling (2012-present), that we get legitimate athletes not afraid to go glam or go home, and audiences who aren't afraid to fall in love with a glam hero.
For wrestling fans, Japan is the promised land. Enter the King of Strong Style, Shinsuke Nakamura. In the first video on this post, he's the guy with the super slick red leather vest and leather pants. His match against Kazushi Sakuraba is almost the perfect exemplar for Nakamura's style both in and out of the ring: he's an ass-kicker, a trained mixed martial artist, a veteran professional wrestler and probably the most charismatic wrestler on earth in large part because he's not afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve. Just listen to former WWE announcer (and disciple of "Cowboy" Bill Watts, the promoter of Louisiana's Mid-South Professional Wrestling) talk about the performers Nakamura idolizes.
According to Ross, who interviewed Nakamura the night before this pay per view, Nakamura "loves Freddy Mercury... He's a Michael Jackson devotee. He's also called the 'King of Strong Style' in New Japan."
(I personally love that he's dressed like the Statue of Liberty in the above for his first global pay per view, but I digress.)
If you'd have asked me 20 years ago (when I was a pimply 14 year old professional wrestling fan) that there could be heroes who deviated from the American standard of heroism in professional wrestling I'd have thought you were crazy. Any character with more than a bit of Camp in their performance was booed by the crowd - indeed, "girly men" were bad guys (or in wrestling's carnie argot, "heels") because their gender performance was non-heteronormative.
What I like about Nakamura's entrance is that he's not afraid of the Camp elements that have always been a part of wrestling (even if those parts were usually subtextual or only hinted at), and his charisma is so off the charts that he expands the idea of how masculinity is performed in professional wrestling: unlike Gorgeous George and other traditional foppish characters (such as "The Exotic" Adrian Street or Goldust), foppery is part of the appeal of Nakamura. You don't like his dance moves, his leather pants? He'll kick you in the face, knee you in back of the head, and crowds will beg for more. Nakamura was a milquetoast hero (or "babyface") until he decided that foppery was the way to stand out from the crowd. And wrestling is better for it.