Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America
Abraham Reisman (Atria Books, $39.99, 452 pages)

Freelance writer Abraham Reisman has written a fascinating book with a misleading title, Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America. It is common for pundits to make comparisons between the showbiz of professional wrestling and the celebrity style of modern politics, with some offering theories that the televised product of World Wrestling Entertainment explains the popularity of Donald Trump (who has had storylines in McMahon’s WWE). The reader hoping for an in-depth look at the relative similarities of the two worlds or a sociological take on how modern culture mimics the brutality and salaciousness of professional wrestling will be sorely disappointed. Reisman explains what has happened in pro wrestling generally and the WWF/WWE specifically since McMahon made it a billion dollar enterprise, examining both the scripted narratives of wrestling shows (known in the industry as kayfabe) and the behind-the-scenes stories of company and familial politics. Reisman shows that pro wrestling, especially in its so-called Attitude Era, has crossed almost every line of decency and civility imaginable, with kayfabe satanic weddings and prostitution, to say nothing of the glorification of violence. The rise of women’s wrestling traded on the outright objectification of women as sex objects, with “bra and panty” matches and simulated sex in the ring. Black and (kayfabe) gay wrestlers trucked in offensively stereotypical behaviour. Unfortunately, Reisman does not connect these storylines to the decline in decency in the culture at large, other than to note that predominantly white men – cue the boos and hisses – are the primary audience of pro wrestling’s decadent circus. There is no comparison to politics, no exploration of wrestling’s effect on viewers or the culture at large, and no larger lessons to be learned. The concluding chapter criticizes conservative politicians (Vince’s wife Linda McMahon headed Donald Trump’s Small Business Administration), which is about the only nod to the promise of the book’s subtitle, but then only if one agrees with Reisman that Republican electoral success unmakes America. As a history of the WWE and especially its storylines, Ringmaster soars, but as a work of cultural commentary, it comes up short.