Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Between Reality and Fantasy

Sam's piece on Bret Hart's infamous departure from the WWE sheds light on a very interesting issue in the business of professional wrestling: the distinction between reality and fantasy, and all the shades of gray in between. We've come to know that, from its very inception, pro wrestling has been a scripted performance. The winners and losers of bouts are known beforehand, and shoots are idealized matches that are only approximated at best. While the injuries and bloodsheds are often quite real, the wrestlers are only characters who exist within the squared circle, or at least, that's how it used to be.

I believe that a very big difference between the modern era of pro wrestling and the earlier era is that wrestling personalities have gradually begun to exist outside of the ring. The characters and personas that are invented to draw heat from crowds have more recently taken on lives all their own, to the avid viewer, outside of the arena. Consequently, the distinction between the worlds of reality and fantasy are blurred. From the documentary Wrestling with Shadows we witness how superheroes and villains appear to become very real people with real issues and real reasons to go at each other's throats. What has allowed such a melding of worlds is the increased insight offered to the audience as to the workings of the wrestling machine. It was a while, for example, before people realized McMahon was the man behind all of the WWE. The arena has effectively been extended beyond the ring and into the backstage where it is assumed that wrestlers lay down there masks and be themselves.

The reality is that this is all simply a new direction in drawing heat, simply a new gimmick. Pro wrestling is by nature a game of tricks and angles, and in this respect, the "backstage" stunt is no exception. Wrestling thrives on eluding the viewer's idea of what is real. Like the punches which barely skim a wrestler's opponent, wrestling itself just brushes the surface of reality. The seasoned viewer isn't exactly fooled into believing that any aspect of the wrestling performance is real. But it is at the very least entertaining to watch the performance take this direction. It is interesting to note that Wrestling with Shadows is itself a way of reinforcing this blurred boundary between fact and fiction. The viewer is invited to witness the underpinnings of the wrestling world through the of an insider. He or she gets to know the wrestling hero and the man behind the metallic pink shades and are left to judge whether it is the wrestler who makes the man or the other way around. In effect, it becomes difficult to discern how far the ring extends.


Sam Ford said...

Great points, Omar. I think there are two different WAYS of creating that drama of asking what is real and what is fake. You are correct that it has shifted in the past decade or so, as Vince more openly admitted that wrestling was pre-determined and "sports entertainment."

The way wrestling previously questioned that real/fake divide was through the maintenance of "kayfabe," the term that refers to "protecting the business" or not admitting to the staging of the show. I mentioned, for instance, the Bobby Heenan anecdote from his memoir in which "The Brain" said he and fellow wrestlers were all coming out of a hotel room together and a family saw them and they thought ther was only one thing to do, start brawling in the hall of the hotel so the family wouldn't think faces and heels were hanging out together...The punchline, of course, is that the family had no clue who any of them were just got really freaked out.

Controversy about "truth" and "screwjobs" in wrestling has been a big deal for years, dating back to our readings that first week that included the Fall Guys expose of wrestling in the 1930s by Griffin and the stories about how Frank Gotch sabotaged his match with Hackenschmidt. That has become part of wrestling lore, but in a much different way than Bret/Vince has because of the increasing emphasis on the backstage politics IN the text of the show.

Even as we know wrestling is fake, seeing the WWE's real CEO on stage acting as CEO and all of the backstage politics dramatized has a ring of truth to it. It may be a dangerous game to play (as we saw in WCW when dramatizing backstage conflicts sometimes went so far that they caused even more real problems backstage), but it's very compelling.

Carolina said...

I think the internet has a fair amount of influence when it comes to what we consider real or not real. I do believe that Matt Hardy, during the whole Lita/Edge/Hardy fiasco in 2005, was actually using his blog online to further the flames of what was legitimate heat between himself and Edge once he found out that he was going to get his job back. I've heard of wrestlers using the internet now to "work" the fans, and if that's the case, I have to say it's pretty ingenious. I know that Chris Jericho put up this graphic of TNA on his site a few days after leaving the WWE which created this huge stir in the internet wrestling community (IWC). With how much fans are in the "know" these days, you have to get more creative to truly put one over the fans and have them wonder if what they just saw was real. I believe a good bit of it is due to the internet, which makes it interesting since always seems to walk the line between kayfabe and reality. They'll have one story saying how much Triple H hates Vince and Shane McMahon, and then they'll have another congratulating Paul Levesque (HHH) and Stephanie McMahon on the birth of their daughter. And then on the air they tease the real relationship between Triple H and Stephanie backstage, bordering breaking kayfabe altogether but never quite doing it... Sam's right, it's definitely compelling, but you have to be in the "know" to get it in the first place.