In Fighting for Recognition, R. Tyson Smith enters the world of independent professional wrestling, a community-based entertainment staged in community centers, high school gyms, and other modest venues. Like the big-name, televised pro wrestlers who originally inspired them, indie wrestlers engage in choreographed fights in character. Smith details the experiences, meanings, and motivations of the young men who wrestle as "Lethal" or "Southern Bad Boy," despite receiving little to no pay and risking the possibility of serious and sometimes permanent injury. Exploring intertwined issues of gender, class, violence, and the body, he sheds new light on the changing sources of identity in a postindustrial society that increasingly features low wages, insecure employment, and fragmented social support. Smith uncovers the tensions between strength and vulnerability, pain and solidarity, and homophobia and homoeroticism that play out both backstage and in the ring as the wrestlers seek recognition from fellow performers and devoted fans.
pros: best study to date of pro wrestling praxis. detailed fieldwork by well-trained ethnographer who knows all the "big names" of ethnography like the back of his not-at-all-calloused hand. extremely good sections on pain and homophobia; eye-opening, in fact. points i'd never considered in those two areas. very useful appendix and footnotes.
cons: author is admittedly not knowledgeable about pro wrestling save the generic "watched it at dad's growing up" stuff that everybody says to me; book is not a good historical study of the subject. author has a bum knee and is worried about participating, unlike Loic Wacquant in the boxing gym (can't say I blame him, though I did 8 weeks in one of these fly-by-night camps like I was standing on my head...though I don't have a bum knee and I didn't really enjoy myself because it is exactly as he suspects it would be: lots of awful falling-down on your back). author also cops to being shy, thus there's a lack of personality on display here (it's an academic text, after all). he also recognizes he's the sort of well-spoken liberal who doesn't quite fit in at places like the rage school ("all I'd heard about wrestling recently was via NPR interviews and I didn't care to catch up" -- why wouldn't you catch up? it's your work!).
in sum: book succeeds when he makes claims based on direct observation. book's weaknesses can be resolved by reading broderick chow et al. on performance, my own work on historical implications/cultural aspects of the sport (including actual praxis, lengthy relationships with serious performers, etc.), and steel chair to the head for an overview of the literature (mazer is good on performance too, in a different way, and her observations, b/c of her theater background, are quite distinct from smith's). i'd also suggest skimming shoemaker's book and reading his columns at deadspin for a "pop" take on these subjects and visiting the pro wrestling hall of fame in wichita texas, where i serve on the board.
but he tries his best, and the results are excellent. another solid contribution to the growing body (!!!) of wrestling studies.
Really fast read, and very insightful. Great examination of the tensions indie pro wrestlers have to confront as they manage the public display of toughness with the collaborative and intimate work that is needed to stage a wrestling match. Smith does a very nice job extending Arlie Hocschild's classic work on emotional labor, by taking that concept to the wrestling wring. Very nice appendix on the methodological challenges of doing research like this in the field. Makes me wish I taught an undergrad Intro to Sociology class, as I think it would be a great way to introduce students to a lot of core social science concepts around race, class, and gender, and the frontstage/backstage work that goes into impression management.
I read this book from the perspective of a pro wrestling fan and a (former) academic and recommend it for anyone looking for more insight into what motivates indie wrestlers. One of my biggest gripes with academic writing is that it's often too dense. Not so with this book. It was a quick, entertaining read.
As a wrestling fan, many of the themes addressed in this book were not new to me, but it pushed me to think more about how wrestlers (indie or not) interact with each other. I also enjoyed the insider look at how wrestlers view themselves and their performance, something that I wouldn't have otherwise gotten as a female spectator.