Performing Meta-Catharsis: Hulk Hogan's "Redemption" Arc as Racist Apologia

Curator's Note

Egotism. Catharsis. Meta-Cyclical Self-Parody. "More real than Real." These qualifiers accompany many evocations of pathos that come to mind whenever "professional wrestling" reaches peak performance as athletic art and craft. Yet the wrestling industry cannot not help but remain an insular, incestuous, and highly self-aware product that invites fans into a mediated product(ion) so exhaustive it's leading company now threatens cable with a stand-alone streaming service supplied by seemingly unending archival footage and contemporary programing alike. Nostalgia-schmalgia, this is atemporal bliss. Viewers need only sit back and immerse themselves in the funhouse glaze of sweaty bodies in high-camp collision. 

Alongside pro-wrestling's poly-reflexive history exists a stunted reliance upon an ethnocentric status quo. Wrasslin's always been able to straddle rac(ist) line(s) due to overt genre formulas and using stereotyping-as-storytelling. WWE made national headlines (strategically?) when they "scrubbed" the entire Hulkamania canon from its website (sort of) following Gawker's release of Hogan's racist diatribe (recorded on his Internet sextape, no less). Hogan's personal life turned triple toxic in the late 2000's. Arguably, attempted cover ups of racist vitriole shares resurrgent popularity among other Southern Gothic fixations purveying televisual content.

In addition to WWE's scapegoating of Hogan in the face of their own problematic legacy, pro-wrestling's televisual canon captures a telling history. While a larger project could examine a clearer picture of the role(s) fans play with these hedonic performers, TNA's Immortal storyline meta-narrativizes Hogan's nightmarish personal descent. Around the 9:30-minute mark, Hogan is "caught" on a faux black-and-white surveillance tape--a dialogued confession--betraying those fans that loved and supported him for decades. The embarrassed ring reaction shot affectively "reveals" a Hogan heel turn yet simultaneously plants long-term audience sympathy. Through his employed participation in this storyline, Hogan arguably endorses this "redemption" storyline as a way to cope with the personal demons Bolea hides from his public life. The storyline finds genre completion through Southern Supernatural Sting as Gothic Joker, signifier for duality and psychological madness. In true Southern Gothic fashion, no secret can lay buried forever, and the past always simmers beneath the surface, haunting the present.

Perhaps the ultimate irony here is that Hogan's meta-performance of his persona's redemption from public humiliation can only supply shortform redemption within the context of the kayfabe narrative, not the paratextual discourse that swirls like a steamy fever on a hot summer night. 


Loved reading this. One of the things that occurred to me is how the WWE Network has facilitated this ability for WWE to attempt to negate what they feel are problematic current/former wrestlers. While obviously for different reasons, the purging of most of the references to Chris Benoit and CM Punk reflects this. The network itself serves to retroactively alter and create narratives about WWE's history.

Kristine, thank you for your comments. You are spot on in assessing (and critiquing) not only that WWE holds this retconning capability that privileges what content is visible versus invisible but also that they demonstrate biased subjectivity that functions to perform digital cultural erasure from their archival history (ex: Benoit) or "scrubbing" (ex: Hogan) as PR damage control, while with the same brush minimizing marginalized voices of dissent (e.g. Punk) in the effort of homogenizing product output and public perception. And it doesn't matter because for those previously without access, the network is a floodgate whether it lets in a controlled amount of media content or an uncontrolled amount (still controlled). In effect, they continually rewrite their own history, which is the base conception of reshaping culture through storytelling throughout human history. The difference is, we have physical (and digital) memories that suggest otherwise, or to put it in their terms, the "WWE Universe" talks back.

The control that the WWE exercises over their own digital content has scary parallels for the manner is which reality is defined in the digital age: Video or it didn't happen. The degree to which individuals in the larger sociopolitical sphere can get away with outrageously ahistorical claims in the absence of a video record appears remarkable. Non video text is easily dismissed and discarded. The monolithic control that the WWE exercises over the whole of wrestling history (a control that expands with every purchased promotional archival video catalog) makes their own ability to control that narrative seem almost unparalleled.

Nick, great comments, keenly zeroing in on the media hegemony rule of thumb: control the narrative and you control history. WWE borrows from media titans, whether it be Netflix's go big or nothing at all strategy as well as Disney's corporate synergy absorption model of global capitalism. The linguistic application of "monolith" carries great weight here, as you use it to describe WWE's hegemonic power (perhaps that indie director Kubrick(?) was onto something way back when?). Indeed, the company ideology is drenched (oiled?) in rituals of hyper-masculinity, organized at the top by hyper-masculine rhetors, toward a uniform model of infinite rebranding and maximum economic and cultural currency. Its hard to stop and reflect on a diverse working atmosphere when there's so much energy going into protecting the bottom line and reifying the status quo. The Sirius XM wrestling radio series Busted Open keys in on how this strategy is now negating their developmental future, with so many "part-timers" maintaining Top-Billing as the key PayPerViews.

Yeah, these are terrible. Watching Hogan come out to Real American and not Eye of the Tiger for Wrestlemania I drives me nuts. Yeah, most licensed music has been scrubbed.

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