“Have you ever wondered why it is that the United States has handed out billions of dollars in foreign aid and gone to the rescue of every country that has a famine, flood, earthquake or crop failure, yet we are poorly regarded from one end of the earth to the other?” someone with the nom de plume “Embarrassed for all of us” mused to the nationally syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers in 1987.
Embarrassed provided a simple answer to their own question: Jell-O wrestling.
“I got a clue while looking at the TV the other night,” Embarrassed explained. “There before my very eyes were a couple of beefy characters in Pottsville, PA, sweating, groaning and moaning as they wrestled in a pool of lime Jell-O…. Any country that wants to portray Americans as a mindless, hedonistic and nutty people need only show those tapes. The evidence is very convincing.”
A glance at the op-ed pages of local newspapers from across the country, from Cedar Falls, Iowa, to Hallsville, Missouri, to Asheville, North Carolina, reveals that Embarrassed was not alone in their concerns: Jell-O wrestling has been a hot-button issue since 1980, which was, according to my Newspapers.com research, when Jell-O wrestling first entered American public life. It even spread to Canada: Kitchener, Ontario, specifically mentioned it in one of its city bylaws concerning adult entertainment.
Proponents argue that Jell-O wrestling is a lucrative and fun activity, especially when it’s done for charity, and those who think otherwise need to get their minds out of the gutter.
Objections are more wide-ranging,e from concerns about food waste (“How many hungry and homeless would that Jell-O have fed?” Mae Woods Bell of Rocky Mountain, North Carolina, demanded of her fellow citizens after a local Bible school hosted a Jell-O wrestling match) to quasi-elitist arguments that Jell-O wrestling is “shady,” undignified, and “not exactly your classiest sport.” But most frequently, debates over the propriety of Jell-O wrestling were actually about sex, gender, and bodily autonomy.
While people of any gender can and do participate in Jell-O wrestling, in the decades since it entered the public consciousness, it has become a distinctly gendered and sexualized activity. Most Jell-O wrestling events these days (pre-COVID, anyway) are specifically “women only,” and many, but not all, take place in nightclubs and bars. In short, opponents of Jell-O wrestling conclude, it’s disgusting, thinly veiled pornography, and we should all, as Embarrassed suggested, be ashamed of ourselves.
Embarrassed is right, at least partially: although poor international regard for the U.S. likely has less to do with Jell-O wrestling than with the destruction wrought by American imperialism, there is something distinctly American about Jell-O wrestling and the controversy it provokes. It starts with the uniquely American nature of Jell-O itself.
“Indeed, if Jell-O is not the what, when, why, and how of America, what is?” folklorist Sarah E. Newton asked in a 1992 essay. Drawing on her analysis of cookbooks, personal interviews, and other pop culture indicators, Newton argues that Jell-O is a quintessential American food, possibly even more American than apple pie. Because of its prevalence in recipes and homes across North America, Newton writes that Jell-O might be the only commercial food that “has not only crossed all regional and ethnic lines but continues to ignore them.” Jell-O is so ubiquitous in American culture that “Jell-O” has become synonymous with gelatin and even gelatinous foods in general.
Originally a product targeted at housewives who valued time and money efficiency, Jell-O was advertised in the early 20th century as a thrifty and wholesome way to feed a family. Although times have changed, Jell-O still trades in wholesomeness and domesticity. “Jell-O’s appeal lay in its emotional connotations,” Young & Rubicam, General Foods’ ad agency, concluded in a consumer study in the 1970s. “There’s a lot of affection for Jell-O,” the agency president said at the time. “It’s the name. It’s Jack Benny (a longtime Jell-O advertiser). It’s your mother serving it.”
So how did such a wholesome symbol of Americana become an integral part of sexy public wrestling?
You might blame Bruce Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum owned RTA Productions, a company that produced “novelty wrassling” shows for county fairs and other community events. Although it’s entirely possible he wasn’t the first, Rosenbaum seems to be the earliest documented Jell-O wrestling producer. Local groups would hire RTA to bring the Jell-O, tickets, promotional materials, referee, “ring,” and sometimes even the wrestlers; in exchange, RTA would keep 60% of the profits. RTA “had the first ever lady mud wrestlers to tour the USA, but mud wrestling began to get a bad name,” Rosenbaum told The Record of Hackensack, New Jersey, in 1988. To mitigate the sexualization of mud wrestling performances, he decided to swap out the mud for Jell-O, a distinctly wholesome American food.
“This is family entertainment. All my girls (seniors recruited from a high school in Columbia County) wear one-piece bathing suits,” Rosenbaum told the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call, “If you think you’re going to get something risque, don’t come out and see us.”
Originally Rosebaum also staged wrestling matches in tapioca pudding and peanut butter, but over time, Jell-O dominated. The flavor of choice was usually lime, Rosenbaum told the Morning Call, because it stains less.
Although Rosenbaum envisioned Jell-O wrestling as “good, clean fun for the whole family,” as he told The Record, it wasn’t long before Jell-O wrestling went the way of mud wrestling, jiggling its way into bars, frat house basements, and other nightlife venues all over the U.S. as a raunchy performance of simulated sex or erotic domination. Perhaps this is because, while Rosenbaum’s theory—that Jell-O, rather than mud, would make for more wholesome wrestling—makes sense, in practice, Jell-O is sexier, because it’s see-through. Today, Jell-O wrestling has become so thoroughly sexualized that the websites of Jell-O wrestling supply companies (yes, those do exist) are replete with images of thin white women in bikinis erotically engaged with the camera or each other.
Instead of making novelty public wrestling more family friendly, the choice to bring Jell-O from the kitchen table to the ring may be the reason why so many find Jell-O wrestling unsettling and unseemly. On their own, Jell-O and wrestling are tame, socially acceptable entities. Together, however, Jell-O wrestling’s fusion of good, clean, family-oriented Jell-O with aggressive and sexy wrestling creates a considerable tension between the wholesome and the sexy—a tension as American as, well, Jell-O.
As for Embarrassed and their concern that Jell-O wrestling is a symptom of American social ills, Ann Landers did not share their alarm. She wrote that while Jell-O wrestling was “disgusting” and “a gross waste of food,” she was far more offended by a different “hideous form of entertainment”: dog fighting. I can’t imagine Embarrassed was pleased with how Landers wiggled past the question, but hopefully they were convinced that America has bigger Jell-O to jiggle.