Monday, September 15, 2014

Entertainment is Disbelief

“Most detached observers of the phenomenon would not…accept the assertion that professional wrestling is indeed a legitimate sporting event. The doubters argue that it is rather a disreputable con-game, the outcome of each match fixed in advance with a keen eye toward the promotion of future bouts…What is the appeal of a wrestling event to the spectator?” –The Dramatic Conventions of Professional Wrestling by Gerald Craven and Richard Moseley

It’s no mystery that professional wrestling today is a fixed exhibition. The flaw in the above logic is simply a matter of perspective. If we were to look at pro wrestling and try to view it as a traditional sport, we would be met with all of these problems. We could not talk to our friends and say, “Gee, I hope my guy outperforms your guy tonight and wins,” or, “Man, my guy has been a little off lately. I hope luck is on his side tonight.” We could say these things, but they would mean nothing. This is the same for betting. It would be very unwise to bet or gamble as if it were a traditional sport because it is not one. The outcome is pre-written, the story-lines are created. The match (usually) has to exist the way it is planned for the story to move forward. If we try to view it as a sport from this perspective, it is indeed a con-game. It is necessary to view it as a sport, but only within the context of a theatrical performance.

When you go to watch a play, you are a spectator simply viewing the play. When you go watch wrestling, you are not just viewing, you are participating. The audience is also a player, just like the wrestlers. Their chants are just as valid as scripted lines. If you’re watching a play and you yell something at the stage, what you say is invalid—it has no merit and does not change or affect the play. At a wrestling match, if you yell something at the ring, it counts. It matters. It is acknowledged and becomes a part of the story. The audience is empowered in that sense. One does not need to “suspend disbelief” because that’s what wrestling is. Pure disbelief. Completely unbelievable. It is over-the-top and ridiculous and exaggerated. But when you are a part of that environment, there is a general, unspoken acceptance. When you leave a play, the play is over. You no longer need to suspend your disbelief. However, when you leave a wrestling match, it is not over. It is never over. It is a continuous, ongoing play that does not end unless you choose to remove yourself from it. You never need to suspend your disbelief because you are just accepting it wrestling for what it is. Pure madness.

“The ‘camp’ follower does not suspend his disbelief because his entertainment is his disbelief.”





5 comments:

Sam Ford said...

This is interesting...You raise two points here that particularly stood out to me. Wrestling may be more like drama than like sport, but it also is much different than a stage play because the spectator is--in most plays--not expected to play a role in the show themselves. Conversely, as the folklore pieces we read emphasized--wrestling is not sport because it REQUIRES an audience actively participating to work. In almost all instances, the very idea of wrestling doesn't work if there isn't an audience there to play their role. And, if the audience goes "against the script" of what the promoter expects of them, it changes the whole performance. Thus, wrestling is particularly participatory as a media text--certainly for those who are in-person for a televised event, because they are both live spectator to the action BUT ALSO an important part of the media production that is the television show.

You arise another crucial point here, too, though--that wrestling is also serialized, which makes it differ substantially from a play--where the play is over when people go home. And, if you go back the next night, you would see a repeat of the exact same play. Marrying a performance of wrestling to serialized storytelling has been a fundamental shift from going to see "a wrestling card" to following the ongoing storylines of a league--in a way that I think really came into development during the territory period...when promoters ran the same circuit and, as Ole and others pointed out, needed to get fans coming back week after week, month after month, often to see a lot of the same stars...

Melissa Smith said...

What would happen if all the audience members of a play started putting in their two-cents every time something important happened? I can just imagine the antagonist getting booed and jeered at. What would his reaction be? What if plays really were shaped by audience input? A live performance version of the R.L. Stine "Give Yourself Goosebumps" choose-your-own-adventure style books...

As far-fetched as that sounds, there is a similar audience-shaped drama going on in the wrestling world that never ends. I love that you talk about how valid the audience's response is, Katie. Even though it would be unwise to bet on the outcome of a "fixed match," everything in wrestling is not fixed. The audience has the power to make or break a performance. Their lines are written into the story, and when they stray from the script, it can cause problems for everyone. But that is how they exert their power; their way of letting everyone know that they are unsatisfied with the way things are going. Imagine a silent audience as wrestlers descend to the ring with their intro music blaring into nothing, being able to hear every punch, being able to hear the announcers as an audience member because they're the only ones making any sound. Granted, neither this scene nor the play-along play scenario are likely to ever happen. Wrestling is still more sport-like than theater-like, but I think my example illustrates just how important the audience's role plays.

I might even venture so far as to say that other sports also place value in the role of the audience, though in a different way. The home team's cheering section boosts morale, jeering the opponents can throw off their game, crowd noise levels heighten adrenaline... They aren't making the matches turn out the way the audience wants them to, necessarily, but they still value the audience. "It is necessary to view [wrestling] as a sport, but only within the context of a theatrical performance."

Sam Ford said...

Absolutely true that wrestling isn't nearly as "fixed" as some people make it seem...because audience reaction very much puts pressure on promoters to change thing...whether that be TV ratings patterns (although we can debate the degree to which people feel Nielsen ratings=reality, to be sure) or in-arena reactions. I know Vince has often been reported as saying that focus groups were silly because he could go out and be amongst one on a weekly basis...

But I love the idea of what would happen if the play audience got involved. I have been to a couple of plays where the performers engaged with the audience some, which was a lot of fun. Wrestling doesn't have that "fourth wall"...in that the spectator has a role written into the show, which changes things completely, because there is a logical reason for us to be there and, thus, to be acknowledged by the performer.

Timothy S. Rich said...

This is a great conversation in regards to the influence of the audience. I see an inherent tension here in wrestling, where promoters and the wrestlers want a certain type of emotional response, but at the same time wrestlers are actively discouraged in many circumstances from responding to fans that are breaking script. For example, wrestlers shouldn't respond to chants of "boring" or cheering heels/booing faces unless the response restores the intended roles.

Sam Ford said...

It's a great point. WWE wants fans to engage in their "freedom of expression" and actively encourage them to speak up, in the arena and online...but we constantly see them dealing with both the positive and negative repercussions from that. Sometimes, they build narratives to explain it away...for instance, that Toronto is a "Bizarro world."...Other times, they ignore it...like the "What?" chant that randomly crops up to this day. Yet other times they try to counteract it--like having Paul Heyman cut a promo on/about CM Punk the first time they went to Chicago after Punk quit, because they predicted what the fans would do. And then there are the times that they change direction because of the fans' performance.

But what's clear is that:
-the live event fans are a key set of performers for the televised product
-they are the only people not under contract, yet the writers and the wrestlers plan the performance scripting a certain role for the fans--that the writers and the performers have to try to predict
-when fans, knowingly or unknowingly, don't do what the writers intended, hilarity can ensue--like a Wrestlemania match where a third of the audience turns their backs on the ring, or an entire PPV (Royal Rumble 2014) where the fans sat in protest...or the RAW after Wrestlemania fans intent on wrecking--well--everything: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhvM5gG1pFM