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Mug Shot of "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair
Sam Ford
Sam Ford

Ari, when I heard you were covering the MSG  incident, I was excited to think about the parallels between the two examples. As you point out, yours is a bit different still, because it happened inside the ring itself. At the time the incident happened, moments referring to inside issues at the WWE were relatively rare. We saw WWE start to play with blurring the line much more heavily throughout 1996, so perhaps we could argue that this moment might have helped push Vince in that direction…Only a bit later was the night Diesel threatened McMahon, alluding to the fact everyone knew he was on his way out. And, of course, the nWo angle relied on a fascination with the backstage politics of pro wrestling in many ways.

But, as you point out, the shoot only makes sense if the "insider knowledge" that is the referent is known by enough people to make the angle fun or exciting. That’s why there are two types of "shoot" moments, I believe: small references that will reward the dedicated fan while not getting in the way of casual fans, and big moments that rely on a backstage situation being fairly widely known. The return of Daniel Bryan, for instance, in some ways relied on a good portion of the fans knowing the real reason he was let go. Because, if you just followed the narrative without the backstage goings-on, Bryan’s being fired by Nexus fairly summarily and anti-climactically would have made for a strange story for his returning in the Summerslam main event…Russo’s problem was that he elevated his insider references too high and confused everyone in the process.

 

And, Michael, you have a really interesting point about how incorporating a situation into the text might help contextualize and control it. Turning Flair’s road rage into semi-comedy might change the way fans look at the moment. We’ve seen WWE do the same with other situations—think about how they attempted to bring the Denver arena situation back into the narrative (although the anger Vince displayed in that example didn’t lead to very good comedy, just as the mean-spiritedness of the mockery of J.R.’s surgery wasn’t well received).

Mug Shot of "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair
Ari Berenstein
Sam Ford

I’m pleasantly surprised to see how closely related my column is to yours Sam. As I discuss tomorrow, the Madison Square Garden incident was an acknowledgment of a real life situation, played out to the public who watched the events unfold onstage, where the "play" was usually expected to happen, not reality.

"Shoots", or the intrusion / inclusion / adaptation  of real life into the "fake life" of professional wrestling are no longer taboo. They do not happen on an every week basis, but were far more likely to occur in the past fifteen years of professional wrestling than any other previous decade or era.

Of course, for the "shoot" to be effective, a wrestling fan has to have specific knowledge or understanding about its referent. Fans may have been aware of the incident involving Ric Flair that Edge and the WWE writers openly mocked in this video due to the publicity surrounding the arrest of someone with Flair’s celebrity. However, the a "Vince Russo Shoot" used towards the tail end of WCW’s run (such as Goldberg refusing to "lie down" on a Pay Per View and it being portrayed as something that "wasn’t supposed to happen") often fell flat on its face because it required very specific knowledge about backstage politics that not many in the audience would know.

Mug Shot of "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair
Michael Leveton
Sam Ford

Nice post! It is quite interesting how the WWE often folds real-life events into it’s story lines, and it would be interesting to see when this became a common practice for national promotions, such as the WWE or the now defunct ECW or WCW.

It seems to me that doing this operates on two levels. For starters, wrestling fans tend to be a savvy bunch, and because of the personal information available about the wrestlers, the incorporation of publicly-known events heightens the sense of "realism" within the storylines. It also appears to function on a sort of public relations level via hyperbolic renactment. Through the act of hyperbolic representation Flair’s outburst becomes comedic, thus seemingly making it "part of the performance" by association with the ongoing kayfabe narrative. Not to say that wrestling viewers are unaware of the reality of what happens outside of the performance, but it does serve to sweep such events under the rug, so to speak. This of course, is of particular importance for an industry—such as professional wrestling—that is continually under scrutiny by the media.

It would be interesting to look at the relationship between the type of event that is appropriated into the kayfabe narrative (in Ford’s example, a violent one) and the WWE’s treatment of the event within the narrative.

John Cena's Twitter image
Shane Toepfer

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A really intriguing post Cory, as the use of social media certainly serves as a contemporary component of pro wrestling.  And it ties excellently into yesterday’s post over what aspects of wrestling are “too real” for the narratives being constructed.  Yesterday, the violence was seen as crossing some line that WWE didn’t want crossed.  Similarly, twitter accomplishes similar things – as Ari pointed out many WWE performers have revealed too much information to their twitter followers according to the office.  This has led to the company issuing restrictions as to the content, and even the time, of wrestler tweets.  This level of control is fascinating given the status of wrestlers as “independent contractors” rather than employees, and all of the benefits that come with being an employee of a large, publicly traded company like WWE.  It seems absurd that these independent contractors are having their tweets censored like this, but that is just another layer to wrestling’s complex industrial makeup.

I also like the potential discussed by Sam in terms of using twitter to advance wrestling narratives – this sort of experimentation on the independent level seems to mirror other cultural realms where the margins serve as testing grounds for new ideas and modes of presentation.  Just last week there was a strange twitter-verse moment where Hulk Hogan apparently announced he was leaving TNA via twitter, only for that account to be proven false.  However, there was certainly debate as to the authorship of subsequent tweets from the same account concerning a possible wrestler revolt in TNA and why the account was advertised as authentically Hogan by his cohorts like Bubba the Love Sponge and Eric Bischoff.

It is interesting to think about the sort of impact social media like twitter and facebook pages have on wrestling texts.  Do they make the wrestlers more relatable to wrestling audiences, or do they remove or demystify the performers to such an extent that we can no longer suspend our disbelief?  Essentially, is twitter too real for the realm of wrestling?

 

John Cena's Twitter image
Sam Ford

As Ari mentioned, there have been a variety of tweets from WWE performers that have given the company pause, caused consternation, etc., which indicates that tweeting is completely handled by the talent. And, as we see, different talent seem to take different approaches to their tweets as far as  where they fall on the continuum between performer and character. Some fall quite heavily into the storytelling side, some (as your Hornswoggle example) fall perhaps a little too far outside it, and yet others fall into the camp of being mundane without seeming to break the continuity of the character in any way.

The storytelling potential of how wrestlers use Twitter in real time greatly interests me, though. Could tension and drama be built throughout the week through a Twitter account. Could a small plot reveal, in one way or another, even be teased through the Twitter account. What happened with the Daniel Bryan leak on WWE.com this past week indicates that WWE still has some quality control/continuity to work on in this regard, but outlets such as the WWE Universe blogs, Twitter accounts for the wrestlers, and the use of WWE.com stories all provide outlets for drama that could, for instance, serve to make house shows more important by making them the site of small incidents reported on through the web that ultimately leads to a match on the next Smackdown or Superstars.

For indie wrestlers, I believe there’s some significant potential here as well. As your comments have indicated, Cory, Twitter provides a great opportunity for indie wrestlers to give their fans regular updates about where they’ll be, etc. But, for indie promoters, storytelling devices such as Twitter can provide great opportunities to keep feuds going between shows that are weeks apart or, perhaps, to get fans to follow them around their small territory. In the work I did with UCW, a local wrestling outfit here in Kentucky, we saw this work in small doses, encouraging small pockets of fans to drive an extra 90 minutes to check out a show outside their own territory because of writing regular stories building up matches, having personalities take part in the discussion forums, etc., in ways that continued to build up feuds. We even invented an unidentified backstage mole who continually revealed rumors, and fans would come to the shows actively speculating about who he might be.

Did our limited experiments greatly boost attendance? No, we didn’t really give it time, and I don’t know that gaining new fans would even really be the point. But we did see it help keep the return show fresher in people’s mind, and it led to some cross-pollination between towns. Of course, you have to design the show in a way that makes it intelligible for those who don’t follow storylines online, etc., but I’d love to see stories of how indie promoters might be embracing this sort of storytelling more fully.

John Cena's Twitter image
Ari Berenstein

Good column Cory. There is a very real blurring of the barrier between a wrestler’s “character” and “real person”, thanks to the advent of Twitter and Facebook. These websites grant fans limited access and insight into the life and likes / dislikes of these wrestlers (as well as other celebrities). Yet for what purpose do the wrestlers let the fans and the public have that access? 

There is a lot of potential to use social media to gain brand awareness as well as extra profit from the fan-as-customer.

Independent wrestlers especially can reach out to their immediate fan base and market directly to them—selling their latest T-shirt or DVD and plugging their latest appearances.Given the nature of their position in the wrestling landscape, it is almost required at this point for the independent wrestler to have positive fan interactions and customer outreach. Interesting their fans almost has a patron / sponsor relationship and their dollars go directly into a wrestlers’ income. In this example, it makes sense for a wrestler to let the fans into their world, make them feel as if there is a relationship and encourage future patronage.  

Also of note, what constitutes a safe Tweet and what is too revealing? I doubt that WWE brass would be too upset by Hornswoggle’s discussion of his fondness for country music. However, WWE has warned wrestlers not to cross the line and write anything embarrassing the company. Recently, WWE instituted the policy of discouraging late-night Tweets, when a wrestler may have partied too hard and would be more inclined to write something embarrassing and reflecting poorly on the company.

It’s a perk for wrestling fans to believe that they “know” more about their favorite wrestlers in much the same way people love to read about celebrities and their lifestyles. Yet the wrestlers (or the wrestling company) are the ones controlling the message. Ultimately, anything a fan learns about the wrestler is completely dependent on what the wrestler is willing to reveal to the public.

 

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Sam Ford

 First of all, David, I want to thank you for a great and timely piece to get our discussion started this week. As I think we’ll see, several of our pieces touch on the position professional wrestling finds itself in, an industry built on creating the illusion of violence and purporting it to be real but which almost all of its fans know is not. Much of the fascination with wrestling, both from a critical perspective and from a fan perspective, comes from what Coleridge labeled the "willing suspension of disbelief" and the blending of violent drama and athletics. Of course, as the wrestling industry has become more comfortable with admitting that wrestling is entertainment, we have seen some degree of ambivalence as to where wrestling should be in terms of realism, and we have different territorial and certainly international standards for what comprises realism in the pro wrestling world.

 

  In response to the really intriguing discussion thread here, we have to look at WWE’s reintroduction of Daniel Bryan last night. One could argue that it was the fan outpouring regarding the suspension that led to his return, but—as others have pointed out—WWE didn’t exactly shy away from the suspension and chose to make it a more public decision on their Web site. John Cena and other wrestlers commented on it, and they weren’t punished in any way that I’ve seen. In short, the WWE both suspended him as a public face-saving measure but didn’t shy away from the potential for drawing "old-fashioned heat" from the incident. One of the stories I’ve seen floating around was that the suspension decision didn’t come from WWE management but rather the USA Network, and that WWE had no choice but to serve some punishment out for an incident that took place on USA’s network in a post-Benoit world. In that case, then, Bryan became a temporary scapegoat for what was obviously a WWE decision (even if the necktie-choking hadn’t been pre-planned). If you look at it from the network’s viewpoint, they are acting in a way to respond to criticisms they might have faced—or feared—post-Benoit and a recurring point of complaint about WWE more generally. This may have not been over the line by WWE’s own standards, but—considering how they wanted to be perceived and the central importance of the USA Network now that all of its first-run programming save WWE Superstars is on USA and Syfy—they acted in a way to both preserve their new image and their relationship with USA. We may think back to the USA Network before WWE ever came on and the incident that led to SCW being canned from USA years ago dealt with two wrestlers hurling pig feces at one another, I believe. So there’s a long history of network/promotion interplay that plays a role in this analysis (and one only has to think back to the tension between ECW and "The Network" as a blatant example of that or WCW’s mockery of Standards and Practices). We’ve seen WWE encounter this complaining from external forces when it crosses too wholly into the real world in other ways as well—think back to the anger from some WWE stockholders that the company sent out a press release on the death of Mr. McMahon, for instance.   But I think there are some issues underlying the WWE’s move to PG that go beyond anger about the loss of violence. There was a perceived grittiness that had to do with realism about the WWE from mid-1997 until rather recently, this idea that the company featured stars "with the volume turned up," that the WWE was pulling up the curtain to the backstage and letting us in on the politics, etc. I think some of the fear of the PG has to do with a concern that the company will abandon its play on the border between real and fake and some of the drama that has added the most dramatic tension to shows at the exclusion of the "it’s just entertainment" comedy which seems to be aimed toward younger fans. After all, aside from a few years of the "attitude era," it’s not like most wrestling promotions labeled as more "authentic," "real," etc., has ever been that unfriendly to family viewing in the past, save perhaps ECW.   Since it came up, it’s most interesting to read the objectification in this regard. I would argue that the objectification of women continues wholeheartedly in the WWE and in fact is much worse now than it was a few years ago. Sure, the WWE shows less gratuitous sexual imagery, has cancelled its deal with Playboy, and so on, but it’s women are called "Divas," its investment in truly marketing and training female wrestlers is much lower than it was a few years back, and the announcers still treat female characters primarily as eye candy, with their wrestling being filler or truly secondary most of the time.

 

 

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Shane Toepfer

Normal 0 0 1 312 1782 14 3 2188 11.1287 Normal 0 0 1 312 1782 14 3 2188 11.1287 0 0 0 0 0 0 Really interesting points regarding wrestling and MMA being similar forms of presentation with fans of wrestling seemingly migrating to UFC.What makes it even more fascinating is the way that this example seemed to strike a note with many disgruntled wrestling fans – an angle that was presented as serious and different rather than the sort of wink-wink-nudge-nudge WWE product.

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Really interesting points regarding wrestling and MMA being similar forms of presentation with fans of wrestling seemingly migrating to UFC.  What makes it even more fascinating is the way that this example seemed to strike a note with many disgruntled wrestling fans – an angle that was presented as serious and different rather than the sort of wink-wink-nudge-nudge WWE product. 

I agree completely that UFC has been able to produce narratives where fans can identify with certain characters and hope for others to get their comeuppance – for example, any one who has ever seen Tito Ortiz I am convinced would love to see him beaten to a pulp, fighting fan or not.  And Brock Lesnar used his experience in wrestling to play up his MMA character, relishing in the fact that the fans abhorrence of his early UFC career, due mainly to his involvement in wrestling, was key to his pay-per-view success.  He made people care, and the results of his battles mattered a great deal.

However, wrestling would seemingly have an advantage over competitive sports in that the outcomes are predetermined – the dreaded “fake” word.  In this instance, wrestling’s artifice is to its advantage.  I am not sure I agree that wrestling will always be seen as just an angle, as lacking realism, because as fans like us know, the magic is when we can momentarily suspend our disbelief that it is a scripted angle and get lost in the moment – when we “mark out.” 

It seems to me what wrestling needs more of are angles that seem “real” like the invasion angle depicted here.  This seems to be the only way where it doesn’t reflect Bryce’s Psych aesthetic he mentioned.  However, the issue then becomes if the NXT invasion would have resonated if all angles looked like this one, rather than be the exceptional case attempted very rarely.  And as David pointed out, the WWE seems to have contextual factors like Linda McMahon’s political career to dissuade these things from ever being “too real.”  Still, it is intriguing that Danielson was fired for, essentially, crossing some line that made the angle appealing to the very audience that the genre of wrestling appeals to.

 

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Bryce McNeil

…on what element of "gets what’s coming to him" heat "the Ultimate Fighter" (the Spike! reality-based show) adds to UFC.  

One could argue that former WWE performer Brock Lesnar has worked that type of heat better than anyone.  He came in as a cocky heel; perceived by UFC "smarts" as "overpushed" (which, in the strictest terms of competitive sports, he was…who gets a title shot after two fights?).  He delivered "promos" (i.e. post-fight interviews) that riled up the audience and made many of my UFC friends actively wish for his comeuppance.  Then he experienced his illness, which defacto comprised something of a face turn, and hence he delivered more of a "badass babyface" promo after his last fight.    

Real life does often quell the payoffs (i.e. short fights) but it can also introduce storylines in a more effective way than wrestling.  When Brock is suffering an illness, it’s legitimate and not seen as hokey.  When the WWE runs an angle, no matter how serious, so long as it doesn’t "cross the line," it remains an angle in the fans’ eyes and they see it as hokey (though they may still find it entertaining).

I’ve been watching "Psych" in the past couple of years; it airs on the same network as RAW and there’s been some crossover with the actors/characters.  What’s fascinating about it is that "Psych" almost never goes for pathos.  Even though it’s a show about murder mysteries, it plays as a farcial comedy that derives its entertainment from winking at you half of the time it’s telling you a story that should be darker than it really is.  Wrestling seems to proceed in that direction now and when it doesn’t, it stands out more.

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David Ray Carter

@Bryce: Great observations about the changes in heat and the heel/face dynamic (Heel = bad guy, Face = good guy, for those unfamiliar with the terms). 

I don’t think the WWE is actively avoid generating too much heat, to be honest.  It is more a function of something you touched on in the last paragraph, about the fan’s knowledge of wrestling being predetermined.  I think that "heat" has changed significantly because of that and the majority of wrestling fans are going to appreciate a good "performance," whether its as a face or a heel. To use Danielson as an example, just look at the reactions he got in ROH and other indies when he was working heel.  Granted, that is a different fan base than the WWE, but you see something similiar in the way that Randy Orton became a face: he was such an effective heel that fans appreciated him and would root for him.

Regarding the UFC and MMA: I think that wrestling fans are still going to turn to pro wrestling for "heat," because wrestling has the edge over UFC because it can sustain heat and deliver a satisfying payoff.  With the UFC, there’s always a chance that a fued could end decisively 30 seconds into a bout and there’s really no significant emotional component.  This could just be ignorance on my part, but I’ve yet to hear of a UFC fan wanting to see a match so that they could see an athelete "get what’s coming to him."  I’d argue that a significant part of the SummerSlam audience tuned in to see the Nexus get what was coming to them and were satisfied when the did.

I think that you can make an argument that the WWE has changed the role of heat in pro wrestling, but I really don’t think anyone could say that it has hurt them financially, which seems to be Cornette’s point anyway, heat as a way to make money.