"All I Care about Is Me: I'm 'The Nature Boy": The Permeable Boundaries of Pro Wrestling's Fictional World
by Sam Ford — Massachusetts Institute for Technology
August 18, 2010 – 00:01
Professional wrestling builds an immersive narrative world, but one with a unique twist when compared to other entertainment properties: it’s fictional world is set, in fact, in the "real world," and its cast enacts its dramas in live events multiple times per week which—in purporting to be legitimate sporting events, invite the fans in as performers in their own right, playing the role of a sports crowd. This precarious balance between "real" and "scripted" means that the pro wrestling narrative is directly linked to the lives of the performers playing a character. Injuries to performers routinely have to be written into the script of the show, and tragedies or controversies in the lives of the wrestlers immediately affect their on-screen characters.
Take, for instance, the 2005 arrest of then-WWE performer Richard Fliehr for road rage. Like many wrestlers, Fliehr plays a character not far removed from his "real" identity—"The Nature Boy" Ric Flair. Thus, as news broke in a variety of online and traditional outlets about Fliehr’s arrest, wrestling fans became well aware of the incident. By the time WWE Monday Night RAW rolled around, WWE decided to address the incident head-on, with Flair’s on-screen foe Edge showing Fliehr’s mug shot, mocking Flair for his arrest, and then showing the above parody of the road-rage incident.
In the process, a real-life event for the performer instantly became a narrative point for the on-screen character in a way that seldom occurs in other fictional storytelling formats. Wrestling has long thrived on this process, requiring its performers to maintain "kayfabe," referring to the upholding of the illusion that wrestling is "real." For instance, face (protagonist) and heel (antagonist) wrestlers were not allowed to travel together, and wrestlers were often rewarded for getting into bar fights or other incidents that reinforced their “on-stage” character. Certainly, the carnival roots of pro wrestling shapes the way wrestling continues to incorporate events from "real life" into the fictional world of "the WWE universe," with the idea that an event in the personal life of a wrestler which becomes public will, in most cases, be expected to be addressed within the narrative as well.