BROOKE GLADSTONE: Earlier this year the tag team champions of the pro wrestling league World Wrestling Entertainment were a duo known only as Chuck and Billy. The partners are known for rubbing each other with massage oils, posing together for calendars, and complimenting each other's rippled physiques. Every wrestler has a gimmick, and Chuck and Billy's gimmick is that they are undeclared but nevertheless obviously gay. WWE officials don't say so, but the fans know it, as do the other wrestlers. [SOUND FROM WWE PLAYS]
WRESTLER: [SHOUTING] Hug each other! Tell you how purty each other is! But whatever you do, get used to being close, cause come Wrestlemania, you too can kiss each other's ass and those belts goodbye! [CHEERS] See you in Toronto, ladies!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Chuck and Billy are part of a long tradition of the gay wrestler in pro wrestling according to a new educational video -- Wrestling with Manhood by Sut Jhally and Jackson Katz. Jhally is a professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and he joins us now. Welcome to the show.
SUT JHALLY: I'm glad to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what kind of stereotypes are we talking about? I mean the mere desire to wrestle another sweaty, muscle-bound man in spandex isn't enough?
SUT JHALLY: [LAUGHS] Well that's part of the problem that wrestling has faced for a long while. Although it's a major place where modern masculinity is defined, and that masculinity is virulently heterosexual, if you just turn the sound down when you're watching wrestling and just look at the positions the wrestlers end up in and where their faces end up, the homoeroticism is just so obvious.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And is that the purpose of the gay wrestler character -- to sort of inoculate the other wrestlers from the charges of being homosexuals?
SUT JHALLY: Yeah, that's its, that's its primary function. It's really not about the gay wrestlers themselves. It's to define everyone else as straight. So when wrestlers are insulting each other -- not necessarily the gay wrestlers -- when insulting each other -- what they normally, you know, resort to is a homophobic comment or comments that define the other wrestlers as female.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They call each other bitches.
SUT JHALLY:Yeah, they can't say what boys call each other all the time, you know, which is fags or homos; but it, it serves the same function when you define a man as a woman, and that's the insult. I mean what you're doing is you're defining him as gay. Once you've done that, then you've defined yourself in opposition to that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I do want to talk about Chuck and Billy, but first I'd like to take a quick look at their antecedents.
SUT JHALLY:Well the most famous I think is Gorgeous George, and then just before Chuck and Billy I think the most famous one was Goldust who was actually around in the late 1980s and the early 1990s and has now actually made a comeback.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do they get booed or do they cheered?
SUT JHALLY:Oh, they - no, they always got booed. Wrestlers are divided between babyfaces who are good guys and heels who are villains. Gay wrestlers have always been heels. You're supposed to boo them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's the difference between Chuck and Billy and their antecedents?
SUT JHALLY:It's never stated that they're gay. Gorgeous George, you know, was in the ring with this cape and it was, you know, quite obviously a sort of - you know - in one sense "flaming it up." And he often claimed that Liberace in fact, you know, stole his act from him. [LAUGHTER] Chuck and Billy are a little bit different because in fact they don't have those costumes whereby you can, you know, label someone as gay. They wrestle in just normal trunks. So it's always about them hugging each other too much or it's you go into the dressing room --they're helping each other stretch and you know touching each other. The other so-called "straight" wrestlers see this and shy away from it as though they're disgusted by it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But as you say they stop short of the stereotype. And, and this seems to work for groups like GLAAD -- the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. One spokesman said, "They don't seem defamatory. I, I don't mind stereotypes. Stereotypes are based on truth and humor." This is a rather ecumenical position from GLAAD.
SUT JHALLY: I heard that interpretation from GLAAD, and I think that's one person from GLAAD, and I, I got a feeling that wouldn't be GLAAD's institutional position. Because I think what you've got to look at when you look at stereotypes is the effects of the stereotypes. We went to wrestling events and interviewed people about, you know, a whole host of things. And when we asked them about Chuck and Billy, you know, there was nothing subtle about it. [SOUND FROM INTERVIEW WITH WRESTLING FANS]
MAN: Chuck and Billy? I think they're both fags.
MAN: [LAUGHS] I don't like 'em either.
MAN: Chuck and Billy? Flaming gay!
MAN: You know they're kind of gay in my opinion. I don't like 'em at all.
SUT JHALLY: And the level of homophobia that came out was not ambiguous at all. And I think if you look at that, then it's very, very difficult to see the representation of gay wrestlers within wrestling in any positive way at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But a recent article in the New York Times suggested that Chuck and Billy aren't in fact heels but they're being cultivated as heroes!
SUT JHALLY: I think that WWE might try it, because they always have to do new things; otherwise they're going to lose their audience. And I think that's part of the reason why they went to Chuck and Billy. They wanted slightly more complex characters. Now if the WWE can get a stadium full of rabid heterosexual boys who are deeply homophobic cheering for Chuck and Billy, then I think we might be on to something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What would that take?
SUT JHALLY:Most probably they would have to stand up for something that people believe in even more. And so possibly, you know -- nationalism?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So all they'd have to do is wrap Chuck and Billy in the flag. Sequined, maybe, but still a flag.
SUT JHALLY:[LAUGHS] One of the other story lines at the moment in fact has Goldust -- he's the other gay wrestler -- teaming with another wrestler to take on the un-Americans who are these Canadians who are coming out with all these anti-American comments. And as, as he's done that, in fact, you know, people are -- I mean they're cheering for this tag team.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
SUT JHALLY: Okay. You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Sut Jhally is a professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and founder of the Media Education Foundation. [THEME MUSIC]
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BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. [MUSIC TAG] [FUNDING CREDITS] ************