Ringside Shadows #189: The Ongoing Evolution of Kayfabe
Kayfabe is dead.
Not really that impressive of a statement any more, is it? It seems like the public's enlightenment to the reality of professional wrestling's inner workings is old news anymore, on the same level as "Who Shot J.R.?" It's been taken for granted, and the show is no longer viewed as a legitimate emotional drama so much as it is an endless, ongoing weekly television series or a movie franchise. Viewers understand that the characters they see on their television screens don't always mean everything they're saying, just like actors in a good movie aren't always as closed-minded and melodramatic as the characters they're paid to portray. Fans tune in on a regular basis to see that unique blend of outlandish backstage story mixed with an occasional in-ring demonstration of "fake fighting." With very few exceptions, they know what they're getting before they purchase that ticket and take their seat in front of that elevated ring.
But just how is the "knowledge" we have today any different from the beliefs that we held before Vince McMahon's WWF publicly revealed the truth behind the lie? Prior to the Federation's admission that outcomes are predetermined, that Hulk Hogan doesn't really hate Roddy Piper, it was easy to find yourself wrapped up within that innocent veil of ignorance. Upon reflection, the tell-tale signs were all there... characters were clean-cut and easy to love or hate. Even the biggest guy in the federation occasionally couldn't gather the strength to sit up off the mat before his opponent flew from the top rope, landing on his prone body with a sick thud. "Evil" wrestlers always seemed to time their attacks so that the hero had just enough time to recover for that big match in Madison Square Garden. Hell, sometimes the guys in the ring would straight-up MISS one another with their punches, yet they'd stumble around as though a glancing blow had landed all the same. In hindsight, the whole scheme is seen in crystal clear 20 / 20 vision. But at the time, these were merely strange coincidences and the very idea that wrestling was quote-unquote fake was met with instant opposition and fierce consequences. This was a tightly guarded secret, and if someone sniffed too strongly in the right direction they were quickly led away.
Today, it's like the scales have shifted completely from one side to the other. It seems every single fan, from the most innocent six-year old boy to the oldest steadfast, grizzled old man, has gone from KNOWING everything they see is the god-honest truth to KNOWING that every aspect of professional wrestling is fake. Even though it's unlikely that they understand the terms themselves, they feel that they can tell the difference between a "work" like WWE and a "shoot" like PRIDE or UFC. Fans think they know the difference between two guys playing a role on television, such as Triple H's hatred for Shawn Michaels, and two guys who legitimately do not get along, such as Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart. From where I sit, that's a tremendously flawed point of view, a knee-jerk overreaction if I've ever seen one. The fans feel hurt by the decades and decades of lies they've been fed, and have overcompensated for that fact by doing an about-face. If things aren't all real, then they must be all faked. I have trouble accepting that.
Pro wrestling is here to push your buttons, of that there can be no question. These guys live and die to gather wild cheers or riotous boos, depending upon their onscreen allegiances. We know that. We accept that. What we don't know is just how far they're willing to go to invoke these emotions, when they stop playing a character and start acting like themselves.
Take, for instance, Triple H. This is a guy who seems to have gone out of his way to make an enemy of the internet audience. He's made remarks about so-called "smart" fans at every possible occasion. He's created an obvious conflict of interests, by seriously dating (and subsequently marrying) the owner's daughter. He's apparently reaped the benefits of that action by holding the World Title for an extremely lengthy period of time, and seems to be next in line to carry the gold once again. He's carried a personal grudge for one of the internet's favorite sons, Chris Jericho. And, as the proverbial cherry on top, he's gone right out on air and said the words "I hate the fans." He's a natural heel, from his mannerisms to his refusal to put over the upcoming talent to his actions behind the curtains to the pompous air he presents in his supposedly "out of character" interviews.
Do you think it could be a little more obvious?
The guy is making an enemy out of the hundreds of thousands of fans who surf the net, while at the very same time gathering hatred with the offline fans through the more traditional on-screen methods. He's playing a full heel, whether he's on television or off, and he's doing a DAMN good job of it. Since he started taking swipes at the net, his heat has grown more and more steadily, to the point where there's no questioning him as the top heel on RAW. The casual fans hate him because he's fighting Bill Goldberg, and the die-hard fans hate him because he's going out of his way to insult them. In short, he played upon our perception of what we "know" about the line between character and actor to further solidify his position on the card.
Likewise, take a look at Shawn Michaels and the reception he still gathers in Canada to this day. Those fans don't hate him because the storylines are telling them to, they hate him because he was directly involved in the Julius Caesar-esque murder of Bret Hart's WWF career. Worse yet, he lied about said involvement for years, before finally admitting the truth on a WWE television program, Confidential. In their eyes, he's worse than a murderer. He's a man who knowingly sabotaged the career of their national hero, indirectly led to his permanent retirement, lied under oath about the whole thing, and then finally admitted the truth almost five years later, with a confident smirk on his face. He's the definition of the word "asshole" to a Canadian, and he plays it up a little more every time he comes to their country.
Think about it; if you were in Shawn Michaels's shoes on RAW in Montreal several months ago, appearing live in Canada across the ring from one of their favorite sons, amidst the most vicious vibe of direct hatred you'd ever felt, how could you possibly hope to evolve further as a heel? If you acknoweldged their boos, shouting "I know I screwed Bret, and I'd do it again if I had to," you'd get immense initial heat, but the flame would quickly die. The fans would realize you were playing a role, and they'd respond by reverting back to their conditioned factory response. The boos would still be there, but they'd be lacking that electric ingredient of legitimate hate. They'd see the rest of your career as a wrestling angle, not a true story, and that element of personal involvement would slowly vanish. Instead, by attempting to suck up to the audience, to turn Jericho heel and to convince the Montreal citizens to "get over it," he accomplished the impossible. He dug that heel into the mud, grit his teeth and made a bad situation even worse. Just take a look at my fellow RRC member and a proud Canadian, Samir, and his grade of the RAW in question to see how well that strategy worked. Whether or not he ever turns heel again in the United States, Michaels will always be wildly over as a heel in Canada. He will ALWAYS draw an angry crowd in that country, a crowd that's both loud and hungry for action. In short, he'll draw the perfect wrestling audience.
Now this is the part of the column where you step back and say "OK, wait. This whole thing is a little too far-fetched for me. You're trying to say everything the wrestlers do, onscreen or off, is all a part of the story? I don't buy it." And to that argument I say you've got an excellent point. The fact of the matter is, I have no proof of this theory nor do I completely buy it myself. If this theory were 100% accurate, it would mean Bill Goldberg's claims that he "does it all for the money" and doesn't love the business are merely seeds being planted for an eventual heel turn. It would overlook guys like Chris Jericho, who have befriended the internet audience and appear to be wholesome, nice guys behind the scenes while playing despicable heels on television. Guys like Chris Benoit, who are cheered for their workrate, regardless of their stance as a heel or a face. The facts tell the truth; there are only a few instances where situations like the ones I've described above would really work.
It's tough to say when, exactly, a wrestler is being completely honest during a candid interview, or when he's putting together some sort of extensive work designed to increase his heat through any means necessary. Fans are once again being left in the dark, content in their "knowledge" that everything is fake and the wrestlers are always completely honest when they speak out of character. The world seems consumed not in blacks and whites, but in a deadening sort of grey. On a few occasions, the difference between fact and fiction is distinct and obvious, but on the whole it's foggy and difficult to say when a man stops being Triple H and starts being Paul Michael Levasque. Yet in all actuality, the truth is very, very clear.
Kayfabe is alive and well. You just don't recognize it any more.
until next time, i remain...