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Tune Out Professional Wrestling

It's nine o'clock on a school night. Two boys are checking out the action figures in an aisle at Kmart. Spiderman and Batman, perched high on an inaccessible shelf, garner little interest. The new superheroes have names like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and The Undertaker.

They're plastic wrestlers with tight abs and tighter fists, wearing menacing expressions, sold in sets labeled "Bashing Brawlers" and "Bone Crunchin' Buddies." John, age seven, and Joey, age nine, talk about their favorite wrestlers, but can't agree on whether the fighting they see on the small screen is real.

"It's real," Joey assures his friend.

"It's fake," John insists.

Across the strip mall in Toys 'R' Us, four-year-old Martin shows off the moves he learned from Stinger, his favorite TV wrestler. As his mother shakes her head with a wry expression, Martin kicks and jabs and explains how to do what Stinger does: "You just punch him and pull him through your legs and then you flip him."

"I tell him it's all fake, nothing's real," Martin's mother Nancy says. "He watches at his cousin's, but I think it's dangerous, because they pick up the moves right away."

Hard Core for Kids?
Parental reservations aside, hard-core wrestling is now being marketed directly to children in the form of wrestling toys, collector cards, and a variety of merchandise with decidedly youthful appeal. Though TV wrestling is nothing new, fans and foes both agree that the sport has changed dramatically in the past few years.

The WWE matches, in particular, have become more violent and sexually charged. Even so, interviews with children reveal that watching wrestling is a family affair. Kids watch with their parents, particularly their fathers, and with older siblings. And placement during the so-called "family hour" virtually guarantees that kids will make up a large percentage of viewers, a fact apparently not lost on sponsors like Nintendo, Snickers, and Burger King.

On any given night, children tuning in to WWE could witness:

  • Wrestlers deliberately kicking each other in the groin.

  • A female wrestler in a black bra and g-string being defeated by two male wrestlers, one of whom, in the words of the announcer, "humiliates" her by putting an apron and frying pan beside her on the floor of the ring, and telling her to "Get your ass in the kitchen and start making my supper."

  • A black male wrestler introduced as "Sexual Chocolate."

  • A teenaged fan, sitting ringside, making an oral sex gesture directly to camera, from behind a referee.

"Sure they watch it," says Rich, father of six, shopping for toys with a six-year-old grandson. "Should they watch it? Probably not."

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