Wrestling with our convictions

 

Grotesque, sadistic blood-lust. Men in black leather bondage gear wielding instruments of torture. Breaking limbs. Stomping heads. Audiences baying for more and more extreme displays of violence. Welcome to the world of children's television.

Ten-year-old Jason, from Dublin, is a dedicated World Wrestling Federation (WWF) fan. Watching such choreographed violence doesn't worry him, he says, because he knows that the pummelling, crushing, bashing and maiming are fake.

Wrestlemania, for Jason, is a mixture of theatre and sport. He admires the athletic ability of WWF heroes like Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. He also enjoys the humour.

"WWF makes fun of its critics. There's even a wrestling group called `The Right to Censor'," says Jason.

He's also an avid collector of WWF merchandise in the form of action figures modelled on the wrestlers.

"Young children should be told that the violence in WWF is false," says Jason, a healthy, well-adjusted middle-class child without a streak of violence in him.

Another fan - albeit reluctantly - is the chairman of the National Parents Council (Primary), Des Kelly. He stays awake late to record 1 a.m. WWF broadcasts for his 11-year-old son.

"It's not such a bad thing in itself," he says. "It's what young boys like - all exaggeration and make-believe. Nobody gets hurt because it's not real. It's a perfect world for them."

Kelly sees his son and other boys wrestling on the open green near his house. "They don't hurt or damage each other. It's just a bit of fun," says Kelly.

There is a darker side.

In Florida, 14-year-old Lionel Tate was sentenced last month to life without parole for first-degree murder. Two year's ago, in July 1999, Tate was imitating a wrestling hold he saw on TV when he bear-hugged six-year-old Tiffany Eunick, lifted her and dropped her on the floor, killing her. The children were in Lionel's mother's apartment, having just finished their evening meal. Lionel's and Tiffany's mothers were close friends.

There is hard evidence that some children are more vulnerable than others to the "fake" violence they see during wrestling programmes. Children need to be protected, according to the Office of the Film Censor. In the past three years, it has banned 13 out of 70 wrestling videos it has viewed - just 20 per cent. It has imposed age restrictions on 55 out of 70.

However, the censor's banning of WWF, WCW (World Championship Wrestling) and ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) has intensified in the past six months.

This is because, the censor's office maintains, wrestling videos are becoming increasingly violent. The censor's office has also viewed edited sequences of a documentary, Beyond the Mat, which shows the results of actual violence on real people participating in hard-core wrestling. Gross violence or cruelty, including mutilation and torture, may be censored under the Video Recordings Act (1989).

So the censor's office is looking hard at the hard-core material - and flexing its muscle.

The distributors are fighting back, most recently appealing the banning of WWF Wrestlemania 16, which is one of two appeals underway.

In global terms, this is a storm in a tea-cup. When the WWF was floated on the New York Stock Exchange in 1999, the business was valued at $1.5 billion. WWF is controlled by one family, who have exclusive rights to the TV coverage both on cable and pay-per-view worldwide.

Rival franchises such as ECW and WCW are competing for their pieces of the action. Fortunes are there to be grabbed from live shows, TV and video rights. Some people are beginning to question whether these fortunes are being made at the cost of desensitising children to violence, so that they, like the audiences in the arenas, bay for more and more extreme aggression.

Defenders of Wrestlemania 16 and its ilk contend that each video is proceeded by a warning that wrestlers are highly-trained athletes and the viewer is advised not to attempt to imitate any of the moves.

The censor's office accepts this premise and, in general, treats wrestling like it would a martial arts or action movie, giving over-18 classifications where violence is extreme. In the past three years, the office has given 22 videos over-15 classifications and 33 videos have received over-18 classifications. It's ironic, seeing that children can watch the material on cable without any classification at all.

In the past six months, however, it has become more likely that a video won't even receive the over-18 classification and will be banned, according to deputy film censor Audrey Conlon.

Why? Disturbing trends - in the view of the censor's office - in the style of fighting.

Cages, the strapping of combatants to each other, the entire arena being used as a battleground and the use of weapons, such as lengths of timber bound with barbed wire, metal chairs, Kendo sticks and sledgehammers, were cited by the censor's office in its submission to the Censorship of Films Appeal Board regarding the prohibition of WWF Wrestlemania 16.

"It is relevant to our decisions that many of these (weapons) can be found or made from ordinary household or garden equipment. Many of the bouts have become more gladiatorial, with the crowd baying for blood or pain. It would appear that as each audience's `bloodlust' is satisfied, a higher degree of combat/pain is required to meet their expectations on the next occasion."

Clear Vision Ltd video distributors contend that "our fans love the wild soap opera element". But the censor's office counters: "this is one of the most dangerous and pernicious aspects of the entire business. The universal distinguishing feature of all soap opera is that the story lines are regularly made more explicit and, in many instances, more violent, simply to keep audience share.

"Predictably wrestling will go down the same road, it must offer the audience `more'. This inevitably means increasing the scenes of violence and exploiting the level of pain and injury caused to the participants."

While fans like Jason do not believe that what they are seeing is real, the censor's office believes that "the boundary between fantasy and reality has been breached with brutality portrayed as entertainment.

"This is no longer fiction or fantasy, as in the mainstream movie, these are real people with real weapons who, for commercial considerations, are regularly maimed or hurt."

It may be that when young boys and their parents view wrestling on the assumption that it is not real, they are in some cases being misled. It may be more real than they think. And so may the effects, if not for Jason and the Kelly family, for some vulnerable boys.