“Why do we like beating the crap out of each other?” director Victor Rook asks us towards the beginning of his intelligent and informative documentary Stronghold: In the Grip of Wrestling.
If you want the answer, you should see this remarkable movie, available for download or DVD order here. I’ve never seen a better movie about wrestling … never ever.
With its elegiac opening, harking back to the careless physicality of boyhood and an earlier time in American society, with few or no hang-ups about rough horseplay and physical contact between males, Stronghold explores the mysteries and gradual social rejection of male-male bonding and intimacy. It’s a story nobody, gay or straight, has previously had the nerve to tell—and this movie is all the more remarkable because it gets every bit of it absolutely right.
An artful mix of archival footage—everything from old wrestling instruction films to Hercules and Tarzan movies—and interviews with wrestlers, both gay and straight-identified, the movie presents wrestling as both masculine role-playing and a primal urge we males are naturally drawn to from birth.
The movie covers the sport of wrestling as both a historical phenomenon, adapting to changes in individual societies and cultures, and a psychological phenomenon, in which aggression, drive for alpha-dominance, and sex drive merge.
Wrestling has existed in every society and in every period of society—from Gilgamesh to Georges St Pierre. Rook jokingly theorizes that in ancient times wrestling evolved from running, as pushing and pulling between competitors brought both of them to the ground.
George Washington and Abraham Lincoln wrestled well into middle age, but later when Teddy Roosevelt attempted to purchase wrestling mats for the governor’s mansion, his request was firmly denied on the basis that the sport was an inappropriate pastime for an elected head of a U.S. state. Billiards, yes, but not grappling.
Wrestling then became all but invisible. Few sporting goods stores carry wrestling gear, even though demand is fairly high, and eBay relegates non-nude male-male wrestling to the porn section (while blithely accepting female-female and female-male wrestling as wholesome mainstream fun).
Well, according to this film, a number of things: civilized behavior came to marginalize and denounce anything primal (and a fight between male equals is definitely primal); the rise of feminism and the decline of all-male institutions likewise changed popular notions of appropriate masculine behavior; and the public’s growing awareness of homosexuality—in psychology and in the growing visibility of gay issues in politics—began to make any show of physical intimacy between men suspect.
For me, the more interesting parts of the film focus on wrestlers’ explaining what wrestling means to them. Their boyish enthusiasm for the sport is infectious and sexy. These men are immensely likable, all the more so in their honesty about their feelings about the sport and their willingness to address candidly the reasons our society looks down on the sport and the adult men who like to wrestle for fun and exercise.
Part of the reason is the circus atmosphere of pro wrestling on TV. The WWE has made the once revered ancient sport ridiculous, with soap-opera plots, insultingly juvenile characters, and the gradual disappearance of actual wrestling holds in the ring, replaced by high-flying acrobatics (minimizing body contact) and endless jawing and cavorting outside the squared circle. As a result, even wrestling fans have become less respectful of and less knowledgeable about wrestling. One serious pro wrestler states that he’d rather wrestle for an audience of just ten people who are into it than for a crowd of a thousand who aren’t.
On a deeper level, homophobia is to blame. And the film rightly observes that heterosexuals are more contained and limited by the society’s homophobia than homosexuals. The roughhouse and horseplay of boys and men, the essence of male intimacy and bonding, are denied to straight and gay alike. The public’s suspicion of wrestling as “gay” has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, relegating the sport to gay and bi men who have reached a point of self-assurance that permits them to explore their masculine sides through intimate, quasi-erotic contact with other men.
The film also explores the deeper psychological appeals of wrestling. Friction feels good, plain and simple. It’s sensual and sensuous. But beyond that, the brain centers that trigger aggression rest side by side with the parts of the brain that trigger sexual desire—hence the erotic component of wrestling that gay and straight wrestlers alike acknowledge. The hormones released when the human body fights are the same hormones that pop up when one is having sex.
The film’s exploration of these and related issues touch on not only the recreational pastimes of those who enjoy wrestling for its sexual or competitive (or both) aspects, but also the self-crippling condition of a culture whose fear of and shame over eroticism (of any type) has seriously thwarted the normal, healthy development of its male population—isolating it and proscribing male-male intimacy.
After answering the question about why we like beating the crap out of each other, Rook asks another intriguing question—one that hints at utopian possibilities in the equal brotherhood of men and acceptance of their physical bodies:
“What would the world be like if men greeted each other with wrestling holds?”