GREAT BARRINGTON >> When Bard College at Simon's Rock junior Isabel O'Donnell first encountered professional wrestling, she didn't realize how much it was going to infiltrate her life.
As the founder and head of S.R.A.W.W.A. (Simon's Rock Associated World Wrestling Affiliation), a new campus club devoted to viewing and discussing the history and concepts of wrestling, it's become obvious.
O'Donnell first encountered wrestling during a break from school, dating a wrestling fan who taught her about the history of it. She became more intrigued and began reading about it, not only on a historical level, but a theoretical and philosophical one, as well.
"I thought it was somewhere in between sport, and reality TV, and documentary film," she said. "I was really interested in the concept of kayfabe, which is the in-term in wrestling to talk about the world in which wrestling is true. Wrestling is staged and fixed, and the plots are scripted, but when you're in kayfabe it's all real. I was interested in that idea of this structured magical space in which the point of it isn't to make you believe it's real, but to get you to forget that it's fake."
One of O'Donnell's concentrations at Bard is film and media, specifically documentary, and the ideas she encountered in regard to documentaries began to touch upon her thoughts about wrestling. This was fueled by articles like Roland Barthes' "The World of Wrestling," the first suggested reading she sent out for the first meeting of the S.R.A.W.W.A., accompanied by a screening of the inaugural Wrestlemania Pay Per View from the mid-1980s.
"I gave a brief lecture on the history of the WWF up until that point, how it grew out of territorial wrestling and created the dynamics for how wrestling was viewed, and spread and promoted, and how companies worked," O'Donnell said. "I gave descriptions of how wrestling developed out of this carnival tradition and became very territorial like the Mafia, and then the WWE broke from that and became the big powerhouse, how they contended with the NWA for awhile, which was the National Wrestling Alliance. And then I gave an explanation of who would be in the pay per view."
O'Donnell also explains important terms when applicable during the Saturday club meetings. A few weeks ago, she says, they viewed a "jobber match," so her talk included the explanation of a jobber — "someone who's put up against a really good wrestler just for the point of losing to them."
A club meeting — which has hosted up to 15 people — might consist of screening some clip shows and individual matches, which help fill in the gaps of the members' interest in wrestling history, both in context of the wrestlers themselves, the wrestling organizations and even various wrestling styles through the era.
"History is really intriguing to people because there's just so much of it in wrestling, and if you don't grow up watching it, it's actually kind of daunting how much there is to catch up on," said O'Donnell. "The club tends to jump around by era."
O'Donnell says there has been a lot of discussion about not only how independent wrestling looked different from the WWE in the 1980s, but now, as well. She says there are a few alternatives thriving with the independent market that mirror international styles, and one of the club's favorites is Chikara, out of Philadelphia.
"They really embrace the fact that wrestling is fake, so they have storylines that have magic and time travel and all their characters are superheroes and princesses," said O'Donnell. "They have a lot of masked wrestlers and they also have a greater mix of styles. They really match up people in a more contrasted way than the WWE does, which I think makes for more interesting matches. They also do mixed-gender wrestling, which the WWE does not do."
The club highly anticipates being able to screen the independent club Lucha Underground, which brings Mexican wrestling to dynamic heights with a wider following.
O'Donnell's own interest in the intersection of wrestling and documentary is likely to find a home in her upcoming thesis, she says. This will utilize wrestling as a lens through which to examine the properties of documentary, most specifically in terms of archives. She also likes to touch on other areas wrestling and film intermingle.
"I'm interested in notions of violence in cinema and what that means," she said. "I think that's a particularly important question here, especially when a lot of documentary film takes as its premise that it speaks about bodies in peril, which is the state of the professional wrestler. They are someone who is always in this precarious, perilous position ... the safety of the ring isn't really safe at all for the performers. The doubleness of the violence that isn't real, yet is so much more real in some ways, is really important and necessary."
O'Donnell says that these ideas are perfectly expressed through the 1997 WWE cage match between the Undertaker and Mankind, which she had previously made use of in an experimental film class for a found footage project. Before the match began, the Undertaker threw Mankind off the top of the cage. Reportedly, Mankind suffered a concussion, dislocated jaw, bruised kidney, a busted lip, a knocked out tooth and a fuzzy memory of the event — all in service of a so-called fake sport.
"To me that's a key moment in wrestling," said O'Donnell. "It comes at the same time that the owner of the WWE goes on national television and admits to everybody that it's fake. It's this moment in which this fake violence is very, very real."
O'Donnell's never been to a match live, though she is dying to go to one. As wrestling becomes more the center of her community and her intellectual pursuits, she's also found words from a professional wrestling fanzine, "The Atomic Elbow," that offers a credo for her current life.
"Their motto is 'Only wrestling is real,' which I've taken as my own personal motto while working on this and watching wrestling and reading about it."