To the death: Wrestling with post-masculinity
Darren Aronofsky’s recent film The Wrestler has been hailed as a classic comeback film for both its star, Mickey Rourke, as well as the character he plays, Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Like Rourke himself, Randy’s career peaked in the 1980s, and the film is set twenty years later as the once-pro wrestler as he negotiates his own process of aging. At once brutal and tender, the film is sincere without being sentimental.
Sincerity is a somewhat unlikely quality for a film about pro-wrestling, more spectacle than sport, in which artifice itself becomes art. Yet while the film quietly unmasks wrestling’s violent hypermasculinity to expose a much softer underbelly, its fascination with the masochistic rituals inside and outside the ring betray its ambivalence toward this curious new creature it portrays: the post-masculine man.
Randy is post-masculine in two important senses. Most obviously, he is an aging specimen of a type of masculinity that is no longer valued in mainstream culture; “an old, broken-down piece of meat,” as he describes himself. Like a prize fighting animal past its prime, the end of Randy’s career means a trip to the slaughterhouse, although in his case he is the one doing the butchering. Forced to get a job behind the deli counter at a grocery store, Randy is given a hairnet and an ID badge bearing his given name, Robin Ramzinski. In an interesting twist, Randy’s “real” name reveals not only gender ambiguity but also suggests a process of Americanization in which Randy’s ethnic identity is traded in for a more mainstream (whiter) version of masculinity. (Note that instead of being abjected completely, his surname becomes fodder for his animalistic wrestling moniker, “The Ram.”) Re-ethnicized and stripped of his masculine signifiers, “Robin” is now at the mercy of his boss Wayne, who snidely mocks his chosen profession (“isn’t that when you sit on other dudes’ faces?”). Whereas Wayne (played by comedian Todd Barry) was being slammed into lockers by guys like Randy back in the eighties, in the twenty-first century service economy, the rules of masculinity are reversed, and now the nerdy managers have the upper hand in the contest of brains versus brawn.
Yet as Wayne’s comment makes crassly clear, Randy’s narrative contains traces of another kind of post-masculinity, one that threatens to destabilize the very system that made Randy’s existence possible in the first place. From the fake tan to the fake highlights to the steroids, Randy’s masculinity itself is revealed to be artificially constructed. Just as drag performances rely on excess to destabilize gender identities, Randy’s embodiment of excessive physicality is anything but manly. Randy’s bleached tresses and bronzed hulk pay tribute to a superficiality that is unmistakably effeminate. Strangely at home in the feminized spaces of the hair salon and the tanning booth, he self-consciously creates an image that could easily be described as “Jersey girl.”
Gender play continues in the wrestling ring, whose hyperbolic brutality is juxtaposed with the gentle homosocial camaraderie of the backstage locker room. Randy offers encouragement to a bashful and softspoken younger wrestler, before agreeing on a set of guidelines for the match. One critic terms their relationship avuncular, which I take in all its Sedgewickian suggestiveness. In this theater for the performance of manhood at its rawest, the actors are in fact a bit queer. Outfitted in a black leather collar and boots, the younger wrestler’s S&M aesthetic almost unnecessarily exaggerates the sadomasochistic relationship between the two wrestlers. In this carefully choreographed performance of dominance and submission, the male body becomes both object and subject of not only violence, but desire.
It is precisely this desire which the film attempts to subvert by channeling Randy’s masculine energies toward more respectable, heteronormative relationships. After his doctor orders him to quit wrestling, Randy struggles with the meaning of “retirement” from his chosen career path. Haunted by the specter of his lost manhood (manifested most obviously by the castration anxiety-inducing scene depicting him signing autographs among a motley crew of retired wrestlers, all of whom are missing limbs), he turns to more traditional forms of masculine behavior. His clumsy attempt to ask out “Cassidy,” a dancer at the local strip joint, is almost pathetic (ironically, Randy doesn’t seem to understand that the strip club is just another theater of flesh and spectacle), yet there’s something winsome about his naivete and Cassidy (née Pam) gives him the second chance he probably doesn’t deserve.
We learn that Cassidy is in fact a single mom trying to get out of the business, which helps explain her motivation to encourage Randy to reestablish contact with his estranged daughter. Rebuffed coldly at first, and then with a torrent of rage (fatherhood was not his strong suit, we gather), Randy persists doggedly, and his unabashed willingness to admit his mistakes produces a sense of vulnerability his daughter is able to identify with.
Responsibility doesn’t suit Randy, however, and he blows it (literally) with his daughter when he shows up hours late to pick her up because he was sleeping off a coke-filled one-night stand. Acknowledging his failure to adhere to the provider model of manhood, Randy abandons the patriarchal project, and turns back to a more familiar – if less familial – arena for reclaiming his masculinity. Randy’s return to the wrestling ring marks his renouncement of reproductive heterosexuality in favor of the homoerotic fraternity of his fellow wrestlers and fans. In a dramatic speech to the crowds assembled at his much-hyped rematch with his longtime nemesis, “The Ayatollah,” Randy makes his affinities clear with heartfelt emotion: “You are my family,” he proclaims to the roaring crowd.
Unlike most family formations, however, which are structured around the creation and nurturing of life, Randy’s “family” is actually the site of destruction, and in fact this homecoming is the scene of his death. Ultimately, Randy gives up the struggle against mortality, choosing instead to indulge the masochistic logic of the death drive. The final moments of the film show Randy ascending to balance on the edge of the ropes in preparation for his signature move, the “Ram Jam.” Amid deafening cheers, Randy raises his arms in triumphant exultation and prepares for what we know will be his final jump. He’s in the air for a split second before the screen blacks out, thus immortalizing him. We are left with the troubling yet exhilarating suggestion that in death is ecstasy.