WWE and Kayfabe: Retaining the Real
[4 May 2006]
The ability of wrestling to renegotiate what is real into a new, hyper reality is what makes it so compelling and unique.
by Mark Serrels
It seems like I have been defending wrestling my whole life.
Bret "The Hitman" Hart
Professional wrestling is one of those forms of media which always seems to be under attack -- to the extent that, whenever I'm asked about wrestling in any context, my first instinct is to defend it. It has to be said however, that, as a long-term fan of the WWE, WCW, TNA, ROH, or any other wrestling company you want to name, I've had a hell of a lot of defending to do. Don't get me wrong, I love wrestling, but we are talking here about a television show that not only displays senseless, gratuitous violence against men, women, midgets, and goodness knows what else, but actually reinforces it as a positive, healthy way in which to resolve conflict. If wrestlers Torrie Wilson and Stacey Kiebler have a disagreement, they don't talk it over like mature adults -- they challenge each other to a bra-and-panties match and rip each other's clothes off. In addition, stereotypes, which, to be fair, dominate most commercially televised characterizations, are stretched to the absolute limit in the WWE. If a wrestler is French, for example, make no mistake about it, he is French to his full capacity, with all the accompanying stereotypes exaggerated for effect.
But if you ask the general viewing public what their main problem with professional wrestling is, chances are they won't name any of the above. The public, it seems, doesn't have a problem with domestic abuse, racial stereotypes, or even abhorrent acts of violence; their problem with wrestling is that it's fake. In fact, in all my years of wrestling fandom, this is without doubt the charge I have had to defend most: wrestling is not "real", it's a "fix", it's phoney. Even before 20/20 reporter John Stossel received a couple of slaps from wrestler David "Dr. D" Schultz for daring to ask whether or not wrestling was real, fans and non fans alike were obsessed with this concept. On the other hand, promoters, wrestlers, and all insiders involved in the wrestling product have been just as obsessed with this dichotomy -- a fact not surprising considering that it is essentially these people's job to convince us of wrestling's "reality", just as it is the viewer's job to accept or resist this "reality".
This dynamic, the "fix" that is pro wrestling, is defined perfectly by a word that has been in usage in wrestling circles for almost a century: 'Kayfabe'. This term, a pig Latin derivation of the words "be fake", can be traced back to carnival wrestling and encapsulates all that is unique about professional wrestling. Kayfabe is essentially the presentation of the staged as real, but is in actuality the act of keeping this "fix" secret: the act of disguising the means of production. Although Kayfabe seemed to go out with the bath water in the midst of Vince McMahon's 1980s wrestling revolution, as marquee acts such as Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, and "Macho Man" Randy Savage were utilized to bring in a younger audience, vestiges of this code managed to remain. Brothers Bret and Owen Hart, for example, were not allowed to travel together, even in the early '90s, since, onscreen, they were in the midst of a brutal sibling rivalry.
Today's WWE product, it could be said, has eliminated all traces of Kayfabe. The young audience that propelled the company to the forefront in the '80s are all grown up, and their brief adolescent fascination with the anti-establishment Stone Cold Steve Austin has all but faded. Now they are wise to wrestling's pre-determined bouts, a fact league owner Vince McMahon surely understands; his company is no longer a wrestling "federation" (WWF), it's now wrestling "entertainment". The presentation of reality remains, but the focus seems to rest more upon a transitory suspension of belief, not on complete belief itself. In fact, wrestling nowadays depends almost exclusively on this suspension of belief, that brief moment in time that researchers call the "oh-my-god" moment, a moment so shocking, so "real", that fans -- just for a split second -- forget all that nonsense about wrestling being fake and enjoy it as they once did as children, slack-jawed and starry eyed.
Consequently, the WWE nowadays is in the "shock and awe" business, but we are talking here about the shock of the "real", as opposed to the shock of, say, a Jerry Springer segment (though ex-WWE writers Vince Russo and Ed Ferrara have admitted to watching this show for inspiration). Vince McMahon and his cronies seem to find a perverse pleasure in bringing aspects of the "real" into their television show and integrating this into what's pre-determined. This strategy gives the show that air of legitimacy, what we could almost call a new type of Kayfabe. But where is the line drawn between reality and entertainment? This is the question that professional wrestling has been struggling with since its conception, and this dynamic is even more pertinent today as the line between the two shifts indiscriminately. Today the distance between reality and entertainment is shorter than it has ever been, raising some important ethical questions. The most dominant of which is, when does the staged cease to be a restaging of the real, and become simply real? Where does it end? The answer is quite possibly never -- to the extent that even death itself is integrated into this renegotiated reality.
When Eddie Guerrero passed away on November 13th of last year, he was quite possibly the most popular wrestler in the WWE. Since he was one of the fittest, most able workers on either the Raw or Smackdown roster, and famously (as part of his character) drug free, some at first refused to believe he was dead. Some fans actually believed his death to be part of some elaborate storyline. Reality slowly sunk into their collective consciousness, however, as the WWE dedicated Raw and Smackdown that week to Eddie with two very moving tribute shows. At this point the WWE had acknowledged the reality of Eddie's death with respect, treating it as it should have been, as a tragic, very real event.
But of course, the WWE couldn't leave it like that. The thirst for renegotiating the reality of Eddie's death into a cathartic match situation was too strong to ignore, resulting in what was quite possibly the WWE's most tasteless storyline in its long history. (Considering the group, in the past, has broadcast such nuggets as simulated necrophilia and an 80-year-old woman giving birth to a hand, that is saying something.) But they plunged even lower. After a scene where wrestling "heel" Randy Orton stole, drove, and trashed Guerrero's lowrider, wrestler Rey Mysterio (a good friend of the recently deceased Eddie) decided to come to the rescue and restore the honour of the late, great Eddie Guerrero. Cue footage of Mysterio in the dressing room, praying to Eddie for his assistance before matches, routinely pointing his finger to the sky to beg for help at crucial points of the match.
Unbelievably, it gets worse. During a later in-ring altercation between Rey Mysterio and Randy Orton, Rey did his usual pointing at the heavens gimmick before Orton coolly asked him, "Why are you pointing up at heaven? Eddie's down there…in hell." At that point it seemed there was no low the WWE wouldn't stoop to. Whilst Eddie Guerrero's widow and his two children mourned, the WWE was milking the reality of Eddie's death for the ultimate shocking storyline. Eddie's passing became a crutch for the staged reality of the pro wrestling match, nothing more than a tool for cheap hype and controversy.
Now, the WWE has never been a bastion of good taste on television (to an extent, this is part of its appeal), but there are serious questions to be asked of a company who would use the very real death of one of their most valued employees in such a manner. Why would they do this? Simply put, it is a ham-fisted attempt by the WWE to force their audience to accept Randy Orton as a legitimate, "real" bad guy, whilst simultaneously making Mysterio's responses seem more legitimate, fuelled by genuine outrage.
On a deeper level, though, the WWE's flagrant use of Eddie's death reeks of desperation. Dealing with an audience they can no longer control is an extremely difficult task. During the '80s, the WWE's young audience would cheer a plank of wood if Vince McMahon told them to; now it's a little more complicated. The audience not only knows that wrestling is staged, they are also sophisticated enough to understand the techniques previously used to manipulate their sympathies. These days it seems like Vince will jump upon anything "real" enough to evoke a genuine, non-ironic, response from the fans.
It's a shame, because this real/fake dichotomy, the ability of wrestling to renegotiate what is real into a new, hyper reality is what makes wrestling compelling and unique. Through the WWE, the sporting event develops narrative and becomes drama, it transforms into the idealized sporting occasion: it becomes a spectacle. When the line is crossed, however, in favor of this cheap brand of television, it leaves a sour taste in your mouth. What Vince McMahon and the WWE need to realize is that fans understand the rules of the game, they are aware of his crude means of production, and they quite often don't like them.
Looking back, the final irony in all this is that a show, which once so expertly transformed the real into something spectacular, has essentially drowned in its own "reality". The death of Eddie Guerrero affected fans in a very direct way, producing feelings that were not to be toyed with or manipulated as part of a live show. In this case it was simply a case of too much, too soon. With the emotions of fans and wrestlers still raw, the use of Eddie's death in WWE programming was just too real to bear.