Hulk Hogan and the rise of Hulkamania
(c) 2006, Joseph Screnci
Upon researching an array of icons in Western popular culture, I decided it was important to analyze an icon that may not be the most obvious to discuss, but one that has relevance regarding the subject. Professional wrestling, or sports entertainment as it is now referred to, has been a large part of popular culture for many years now. “Perhaps no one has made as big an impact on the wresting profession as Hulk Hogan. In the 1980s, he became an international celebrity and goodwill ambassador for WWE (formerly WWF)” (Greenberg 47). Over time, Hulk Hogan has been an important figure in our culture, whether being a role model to millions of fans, becoming an overall brand, and more recently shedding a new light on his life through reality television. By using various iconic devices, such as semiotics, Maslowian applications, and McLuhan’s applications, it is evident that Hulk Hogan is a complex iconic figure. Through a close analysis on this icon, one would strongly agree that Hulk Hogan has had a huge impact on popular culture.
Through the use of semiotics, we see that Hulk Hogan can be analyzed on a variety of levels regarding his iconic representation in our culture. On the most basic level, otherwise known as the signifier, Hulk Hogan is a wrestler, with large muscles, yellow wrestling tights, a bandana, wrist tape, a cross around his neck and tanned skin. However there are further levels of Hulk Hogan that can be discussed. Umberto Eco once stated, “Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign” (Solomon 9). Thus, on a higher level, or the signified, Hulk Hogan is a sign of power and strength. To many children around the world, Hulk Hogan is a role model, “as he told his Hulkamaniacs to train, say their prayers and take their vitamins” (Greenberg 8).
On a higher level, he represents loyalty and patriotism to many American fans. “Hulk Hogan perfectly captured the mood of America , embodying its ideals and values. His entrance theme, Real American, eloquently articulated this important aspect of his popularity” (Williams 68). Hulk Hogan as a sign of patriotism was further explored during championship bouts with the Iron Sheik, which paralleled America ’s ongoing issues with the Middle East . “The Iranian-born Sheik openly scorned the United States and promised to take the title back to his native country. Waving the red, white and blue, Hogan called upon his Hulkamaniacs to fire him up and guide him to greatness” (Greenberg 11).
To wrestling purists, and people in the wrestling industry, Hogan is seen as the man who brought international attention to sports entertainment, and opened many new doors for him and others that followed. “It was Hogan who led the charge as wrestlers began appearing on MTV, as the movie industry trolled the World Wresting Federation dressing room for new faces, and as the organization defined an infant medium called pay-per-view” (Greenberg 8). To further cement his status, some experts have stated, “The history of the mat wars can only be divided into two periods: before Hulkamania and after it” (Greenberg 8).
As a brand, Hulk Hogan and the phenomenon of Hulkamania that he generated includes everything from action figures to lunch boxes. Many feel, “Hulkamania became bigger than Hulk Hogan” (Williams 66). So, while representing America in all of its glory, Hogan can now be represented as a sign of consumerism. As he gets older, and eventually passes away, his success in the ring may become a distant memory, while he will live on through an array of commercial merchandise. It remains to be seen, however, if Hulk Hogan will be used to sell other commercial products unrelated to himself, wresting, or the theme of Hulkamania.
Most recently, Hogan has sparked some controversy with his reality show, Hogan Knows Best. Many television critics “discredit the show as an attempt to launch a fresh Hogan career” (Wilson, Paragraph 2). This is referring to Hogan’s daughter Brooke, and her singing career. Others are surprised to see Hogan’s parenting skills, especially toward his daughter. “Hogan is represented on the show as a strict and protective father, in particular with regards of the opposite sex being anywhere near his daughter, Brooke. On more than one occasion, he has schemed ways to spy on her” (Wikipedia, Cast). In turn, fans see an awkward and very different side of Hogan then they have been used to.
So, it is evident through a semiotic analysis, that Hulk Hogan can be analyzed on a variety of levels to a variety of people. Overall, all of these levels express the impact that Hogan has had on our culture.
Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we see that it is evident that Hulk Hogan hits a variety of levels with the perceiver. By first taking a look at the Physiological Need, or first level, we understand that Hulk Hogan is definitely the model for a healthy lifestyle. As stated above, many kids listened and followed as Hogan told them “to train, say their prayers and take their vitamins” (Greenberg 8). Many times, Hogan is seen in the wrestling ring, flexing his muscles and posing for the crowd, displaying a body that took years to attain. Through this, he gives many boys and men the inspiration to develop a muscular physique, through hard work and proper eating.
Through the Social Need, or third level, Hulk Hogan started off as an idealistic kid from the outside looking in, wanting to be a part of something great. “Perhaps the icon wielded the influence he did because, in his heart, the Hulkster loved the sport of kings as passionately as any fan cheering him” (Greenberg 8). This shows that any boy who feels the same sort of passion and drive that Hogan felt, can achieve similar success and be a part of the professional wrestling community.
On the fourth level, known as Ego or Esteem, Hulk Hogan can be viewed by perceivers in two very distinct ways. Using Maslow’s characteristics of Ego, we see that Hogan has a need for “status, fame, glory and dominance” (Boeree Theory). In another sense, there is also a lack of “confidence and competence” (Boeree Theory). As it is very well documented, Hogan is seen as a positive role model, representing the true patriotic American. He has achieved a status of success that few reach in his profession. However to others, mainly some people within the wrestling industry, Hulk Hogan is perceived to be dominant, self-indulgent and unable to refrain from thrusting himself into the spotlight.
He has been accused of using his position as the number one star and denying new talent from achieving similar success. By taking a look at the role he plays in his reality show, Hogan Knows Best, we may find that there seems to be a lack of confidence and competence in the way he parents his kids. This is evident through his inability to relate to them at times. So, in one instance, it is perceived that Hogan has achieved this level on Maslow’s Hierarchy, while in another sense, there seems to be a lack of Esteem.
On the fifth level, or Self Actualization, it is evident that after years of loyalty to his profession and overall hard work, Hogan has achieved just about everything there is to achieve, both professionally and personally. He is arguably the face of sports entertainment, winning championships along the way and selling out arenas all over the world. More importantly, he has come to realize that his popularity can be used to provide kids with a positive role model to look up to. He also feels an obligation to guide up-and-coming wrestlers toward the proper route in order to achieve success. Even after some time away from the spotlight, Hogan re-emerged in 2001 with cheers and applause of millions of fans. Hogan states, “I’m not here because I have to be. I’m here because I want to be” (Solomon 34). After over 20 years, it is evident that Hulk Hogan will stand the test of time. As Maslow himself stated, “What a man can be, he must be. This need we call self-actualization… It refers to a man’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially” (Hoffman 155). Hulk Hogan was given the potential to become something big and more than just a wrestler. As some cannot face this pressure and fade away, Hulk Hogan took the torch and ran with it. So, as individuals, we can all learn from this and take the opportunities that we face and turn them into something great.
As sports entertainment is most definitely a form of media that has been a large part of popular culture for over twenty years, Marshall McLuhan would find that this would be an essential area of study. “McLuhan’s work elevates the importance of media as the prime shaper of human destiny and he insists that the study of media is imperative for our cultures very survival” (Munday, Conclusion). In the case of Hulk Hogan, McLuhan would appreciate the idea that in the 1980s and the early 1990s, he represented the ideal American hero. Hulk Hogan defended America ’s rights and freedoms against anyone who opposed them, and always gave praise and words to live by to the many young fans that adored him.
As Hulk Hogan has developed into a brand, the medium is the message in almost everything that he is involved in, which include basic mediums such as a T-shirt, a hat or a blanket, to more technological mediums, such as a television set, a movie screen, or a computer screen. Some of these mediums are also relatable to McLuhan’s second theory, Extensions of Humankind that states, “An extension occurs when an individual or society makes or uses something in a way that extends the range of the human body and mind in a fashion that is new” (Kappelman Technology as Extensions of the Human Body). As T-shirts, hats and blankets and various other Hogan merchandise can be considered an extension of our skin, so to can some of the props he has used in his wrestling matches as well. McLuhan states, “Today man has developed extensions for practically everything he used to do with his body” (McLuhan 94). So the microphone, which plays an important part of Hulk Hogan’s persona, is an extension of his voice. A chair or table, which is sometimes used as a weapon to defend himself against opponents, can be considered an extension of his fists. As McLuhan further states in his theory, “The evolution of weapons begins with the teeth and the fist and ends with the atom bomb” (McLuhan 94).
As a young child, I knew that Hulk Hogan was a definite hero in my life. I read about Spiderman in comics, and watched Batman in the movies, but Hulk Hogan was the real deal. He always seemed to be larger than life, and capable of beating any man who came in his way. As I got a bit older, and began to enjoy cheering the bad guys more, I found myself less interested in Hulk Hogan and the phenomenon of Hulkamania. However, that all changed when he did the unthinkable, as a wrestling character in 1996, and became the ultimate bad guy. He changed his name to Hollywood Hogan, denounced the fans, and formed the notorious nWo (New World Order), designed to take down anyone that stood in their way.
From a business standpoint, I thought that this was an ingenious way to revitalize his career, and establish a whole new fan base, which he did. He was able to sell a whole new image, through television and merchandise. Even smarter was the fact that, as this idea eventually faded away, he transformed back to the man that wrestling fans came to know and love. Fans were longing for the Hulkster to return, and he did. So, some might feel as though Hogan is just recycling the same ideas, however I believe he found a way to double the length of his career, and maintain a strong fan base throughout his career.
Overall, it is evident that Hulk Hogan has remained an important figure in our culture for three decades in counting. He has gained a following that is rarely duplicated, and has become a household name that even non-wrestling fans are familiar with. His relevance to our popular culture became especially evident when he re-emerged in the spotlight in the new millennium, after almost five years away from wrestling. “Hulk Hogan was not a fleeting celebrity but a landmark cultural icon” (Williams 68). Using various iconic devices, such as semiotics, Maslowian applications, and McLuhan’s applications, we see that Hulk Hogan can be analyzed on a variety of different iconic levels. Not only has he become a symbol of strength and power, Hulk Hogan has also been used as an ideal representation of the patriotic American. He is a symbol of consumerism, creating a brand that has become larger than the man himself. Hogan made an impact on many people, and is regarded by many to be the man who put wrestling on a global platform. Through a long career, he managed to avoid any major form of controversy, and will undoubtedly remain as a major influence on our popular culture. Thus, through a close analysis on this icon, any observer must strongly agree that Hulk Hogan has had a huge impact on popular culture.
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