Professional Wrestling and Identity: How the Popularity of Stone Cold Steve Austin Revealed Our Hidden Desires

“I need the old Stone Cold; I need the beer-swilling, foul-mouthed, S.O.B.!” -Vince McMahon in a promo begging Steve Austin to join Team WWF

Professional wrestling was once a staple in my life, in my childhood in particular. As a boy, I’d watch these literal and figurative giants conquer their opponents as their conquered the audience. I was captivated by the men who were everything I wanted to be. My favorite wrestler, Shawn Michaels, was handsome, athletic, determined, and resilient; he always knew what to say and how to win, regardless of his opponent’s stature. Pro-wrestling meant everything to a kid trying to find his way in the world, who wanted to emulate men that knew how to get shit done.

In the quote above, Vince McMahon, who at the time was the WWF’s owner in reality and tyrannical boss in fantasy, implored his arch-rival, Stone Cold Steve Austin, to help him save their company from invaders, the ECW and WCW wrestlers attempting a hostile takeover. Several years earlier, they were involved in a bitter feud, wherein the boss was pinned against his most rebellious (and prized) employee. But, at this stage, Vince’s desperation superseded his disdain. And this promo epitomized a hidden fantasy that most of us share: to become so indispensable that your boss begs for your return.

On our latest podcast episode, we spoke with philosopher Douglas Edwards about his new book, Philosophy Smackdown, which associated philosophical concepts with those inextricably linked to professional wrestling. And our conversation about identities, which was based in a chapter of his book, struck me. In it, I pieced together why Stone Cold Steve Austin and Shawn Michales (for me) were so beloved; they embodied the hopes and dreams tied up with our conceptions of our perfect selves. They were whom we wanted to become.

Steve Austin’s rebelliousness in the face of tyranny made him the most popular sports entertainer of the late ’90s; he talked the talk and walked the walk. Stone Cold didn’t just flip the bird to a corrupt system that precluded its dissidents from succeeding; he also found a way to mold himself into a needed part. At the time, Vince McMahon was dealing with the aftermath of the Montreal Screw-job, in which he cost Bret Hart the WWF Championship by forcing the referee to ring the bell before his match with Shawm Michaels officially concluded. Vince became a real-life villain for “choosing” the winner, in this case meaning that Bret didn’t know he was going to lose. And this was the prelude to the entrance of Mr. McMahon, the evil boss persona that single-handedly picked the WWF’s winners and losers.

So, in the Stone Cold character, the fans vicariously lived life through the frigid eyes of a man who refused to permit injustice’s reign. Austin embodied our own inner rebels and complementary experts; simply, he was too good to be expelled. Most of us conform to societal norms by the time we’re teenagers; it’s usually only acceptable for a kid to be out of control or defiant. Yet, too many of us feel sorrow for the individuals we become. Having been employed by several authoritarian bosses, I can tell you that I’ve rewatched the Stone Cold/Vince McMahon skits several times, especially the one where Austin comes out in a suit only pretending to conform. That character gave me hope. He made me believe that I could generate the resolve to stand up for myself and call out corporate injustice; he instilled that hope in all of us. And when I terminated my contract with my last employer, I thought about Stone Cold tearing off his suit while telling Vince to save the photo they just took because that was going to be the last time he would ever see him in one.

The characters were special because they were revelations of our seemingly innate desires. They were over-the-top because most of us wish, at least at times, that we can be. Societal rules are usually positive in their physical manifestations, but, sometimes, they aren’t. They can stifle as much as they can unite; they can foster growth as much as blind-faith. Stone Cold did all of the things the bad guys did but for good reasons. He assaulted his colleagues, he was disrespectful, and defiant. But, his intentions differentiated him from the heels; he was a trailblazer rather than a bully. And he was willing to sacrifice his livelihood for his principles, which is what most of us aspire to.

Sometimes, the seeming heroes are the villains and the apparent villains are the heroes. Rules, while usually good, are, at times, meant to be broken. And Steve Austin taught us how to break them.

Check out the full episode with Douglas Edwards:

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