Back when I was at University studying Media Production I figured out a way of crowbarring my love of wrestling in to projects on two occasions. One was a documentary film which I directed, presented and edited about British Wrestling. It wasn't great and I don't know if I even have a copy (and if I do it is on VHS). If I do ever find it and convert it to an uploadable file, you will be the first to know. The second time was in my final year disseration. Again, I don't have a copy of the final product (I didn't pick up a copy before leaving - though I think it might still be available in the Lincoln University library) but I did get a friend to check it over and she kindly emailed me her annotated copy of one of the drafts. What I present to you here is her copy, with the annotations removed. I believe this was the draft before the final one. It also didn't have completed footnotes or the bibliography. I have not reread it, so there may be some nonsense within it but I hope you find it an interesting read:
The Performative aspects of Professional Wrestling in its mediated form (television) and its fans.
World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) pays its on-screen performers $22,376,0001 per annum and up until the 3rd March this year (2007) its flagship show WWE RAW has achieved an average Neilson rating of 3.932 in the USA, that is 3.93% of the television households of the USA tuned in. Its annual WrestleMania event has sold 63,000 tickets (over $5,000,000's worth) to people in 22 countries3. It is interesting that, in spite of these facts, there does not seem to be a definitive study of wrestling fans. In fact, academia has neglected professional wrestling as a whole4. There are two reasons why so little has been written about wrestling fans. The first reason is that professional wrestling is seen by many academics, including some who enjoy wrestling, as “disreputable”5 due to its fakery. Although the fakery is integral to wrestling being what it is, fans and wrestlers are frequently called upon to defend their decision to watch or participate in wrestling against those who use the word 'fake' in a derogatory manner. For example, the introduction to “Steel Chair To The Head” by Nicholas Sammond is called “Introduction: A Brief and Unnecessary Defense of Professional Wrestling”6. Second generation professional wrestler Jeff Jarrett, clearly tired of being asked about wrestling and its fakery, says, “For those who believe you don't need an explanation. For those who don't believe no explanation will do.”7 The second reason little is written on wrestling fans is that fan studies themselves have been seen as disreputable, with suggestions that the academics involved in such studies romanticise the fans and “put them on a pedestal as subversive and oppositional readers”8.
It was difficult to find resources on both the topic of professional wrestling and fandom. There are good existing fan studies not focused on wrestling which have been helpful. These non-wrestling fan texts are a good frame of reference for what a fan study should be. They have helped me see where wrestling fans differ from other fans, as well as pointing out ways in which they are similar. However, “Textual Poachers” and “Adoring Audiences” were both first published in 1992, making their observations of fan communities and technology out-dated. “Knowing Audiences” was a helpful resource but it must be noted that this book is about audience. Audience and fan are not the same. Out of the little academic writing on professional wrestling there is, “Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling” and the dissertation “The Operational Aesthetic In The Performance Of Professional Wrestling” were among the most helpful. “Steel Chair to the Head” is a book of fourteen wrestling related articles, most of which were helpful to some degree (with the exception of the articles about the social importance of masked wrestlers in Mexico). Roland Barthes’ “The World Of Wrestling” is a most valuable source for studying wrestling and is quoted in ten of the thirteen other articles in this book. However, as it was written in 1957, some of its observations are hard to apply to contemporary professional wrestling fans. In addition it is important to note that “The World Of Wrestling” was written about wrestling in France which is not a nation that has a large national wrestling product like North America9. Although Barthes defines wrestling as “not a sport”10 his perspective is from before the inner workings of professional wrestling were understood by a significant proportion of fans, thus his text largely ignores fans that I will later describe as 'Smart'. Despite Barthes' 1957 essay, “Steel Chair” does contain more updated perspectives. However, it still is mostly ineffective at discussing the impact of modern technology such as the internet11. Sharon Mazer's article “Real Wrestling”/ “Real” Life has been very helpful. Her attendance at professional wrestling training sessions12 has enabled her to gain a good level of knowledge of how wrestlers try to communicate with the fans, how the fans communicate with the product and the effects of that communication. “The Operational Aesthetic In The Performance Of Professional Wrestling” has a section on the history of professional wrestling which supports almost everything in the documentary “Body Slam”. Lipscomb III also has sections about fan participation at events, analysis of five different websites, Backyard wrestling, and wrestling on television, all of which link, in some way, to my dissertation. However, attention must be drawn to a few things. The article uses unreliable sources such as “The Complete Idiots Guide To Pro Wrestling” by Lou Albano and Burt Sugar, which is derided and includes several inaccuracies, such as incorrect names13. Furthermore, the thesis itself has some large errors in factual information in regards to professional wrestling.14
Like some other writers of academic texts about fandom, I have had to take into account my own fandom15. However, my own fandom has been especially useful in gaining the trust of the wrestling fan community. Wrestling fans, especially those that take part in Backyard wrestling16, as well as fans in general17, are wary of outsiders. Through my knowledge of wrestling facts, terminology, up to date rumours and, most importantly, it would appear, a respect for the wrestlers and the wrestling industry18, I became a trusted member of multiple online wrestling communities (including, but not limited to, UK Backyard Wrestling, WrestleCrap, Wrestling Gamers United) as well as attending a meeting and a wrestling screening by the (currently unofficial) University of Lincoln Wrestling Society. It must also be taken into account that if I were not a fan myself I would not therefore be without bias.
Traditionally there are two types of wrestling fan. Customarily, a Mark is a wrestling fan who accepts what is presented to them as fact (or that it is a “shoot” as opposed to a “work”). A Mark believes that the fights are legitimate and the storylines are truth. Since at least 1989, when Vince K. McMahon, owner of WWE, supposed self-made billionaire19 and the most powerful man in wrestling, admitted that wrestling was not a sport Marks have changed20. Those who believe wrestling to be real are often very young children. However, someone who does not know the inner workings, I would suggest, could also be considered a Mark. For example, someone who believes that all blood in wrestling comes from blood capsules would be considered a Mark, as a Smart (the second type of fan) would know that wrestlers 'blade' (the act of cutting oneself with a small razor to create the illusion of an injury caused by a wrestling move21). Marks would also not know the reasoning behind booking decisions or the reasoning behind what happens in the ring (ring psychology). Marks will usually cheer for the wrestlers that are 'faces' (someone intended to be a fan favourite) and boo the 'heels' (villians).
Smarts22, on the other hand, know about the inner workings of the wrestling business. Smart fans like wrestlers based on athletic ability, believability, 'mic skills' along with other criteria such as an innovative move set or willingness to take 'bumps'. Smarts will applaud what they consider to be good booking as well as good in ring performances. They will also criticise certain promoters for pushing wrestlers they deem unworthy, for example Smarts criticising Vince McMahon for pushing wrestlers based on their physique or look above their wrestling ability23, poor or tasteless storylines24 and poor gimmicks25 (wrestling parlance for character, although the word gimmick is used in other ways within wrestling terminology, see glossary).
However, the terms Mark and Smart are both false labels. There are inherent flaws to these labels because there is a large cross over. There is no single moment of enlightenment, rather there is a gradual learning process. The word Smark or Smart-Mark is often used and it accurately describes every fan other than the wrestlers themselves (considered Smart26) and young children who believe wrestling to be true (Marks). There are, of course, non-fans who know nothing about wrestling but I would not describe them as Marks as to be a Mark you must also be a fan. The labels Smart and Mark are also problematic because they are based on a fan’s definition of themselves. There is no one defined set moment when a Mark fan becomes a Smart fan. It is based on self-definition and thus problematic. A Mark can know what a Smart fan is without labelling themselves as one. However, some would argue that to be aware of two types of fan would be to be aware of some partial understanding of the inner workings and would make you a Smart.
Due to the multiple different definitions of these terms from various sources and their inherent flaws I shall come up with my own definitions for the terms as a way to differentiate types of fan. Hereinafter, Smart will mean not only someone who knows that wrestling has predetermined match endings with written story-lines, and has a knowledge of the inner workings of wrestling. To be a Smart a fan must also be someone who has actively pursued further knowledge of the wrestling industry and who has had opinions on the booking of wrestling matches and story-lines based on what would make sense for a promotion as a business. Marks will be considered people who have not actively pursued knowledge of the inner workings of the wrestling industry and who accept the product that is given to them.
Due to the lack of literature in this field a large proportion of my research has been conducted from texts written for and by fans. These include magazines, wrestling web sites, wrestling autobiographies and books written for fans about the inner workings of wrestling. Although I am aware of the possibility of bias within these texts, especially autobiographies, I feel that they are important. Wrestling autobiographies are biased to the opinion of the author but they verify the inner workings of wrestling, as do books like “Turning the Tables: The Story of Extreme Championship Wrestling.” As I have mentioned previously, very little has been written about wrestling websites, because of this it was necessary to look at wrestling websites to be able to write about fans interaction with them.
Due to the lack of sources I felt it necessary to conduct my own interviews. I organised a focus group which was attended by six fans. These fans came from the (currently unofficial) University of Lincoln Wrestling Society, which is a group of Smart fans. I also conducted a one to one phone interview with a wrestling fan and sent out questionnaires online. Due to my interviews being with, and the majority of questionnaire replies coming from, Smarts, my research is going to be skewed to the perspective of Smarts more than Marks. Smarts are more easily identifiable as fans through their usage of wrestling message boards and naming wrestling as an interest in their biographies. Smarts could be seen as the 'true fans' and Marks merely 'observers'.
Chapter One: Motives for (TV) professional wrestling fandom
John Fiske states that fandom is “associated with the cultural tastes of subordinated formations of people, particularly those disempowered by any combination of gender, age, class and race.”27 He argues that wrestling fans are working class28. The characters portrayed as villains are often authority figures, for example Lord Alfred Hayes, whose name, dress and accent “all parody the traditional English aristocrat”29 and is a “carnivalesque metaphor of social power and status...there to be laughed at.”30 This example is quite old but currently World Wrestling Entertainment has a wrestler named Lord William Regal who is very similar; claiming to be knighted (social power), speaking in an exaggerated posh accent (status), and recently seen slipping around in tomato ketchup and mustard (there to be laughed at)31.
Another noticeable thing about wrestling fans is their age. The age range of wrestling fans is very broad, however there is a large portion of fans who 'grow out' of wrestling32. This again suggests fans are disempowered. Those disempowered by age get older and are therefore no longer disempowered. This is seen more in young Smart fans, as Marks do not engage so much in fan communities and do not look to learn about the inner workings. Marks do not wish to use knowledge of wrestling to prove their worth. Or, as John Fiske would put it, they do not use “Popular Culture” to fill in the gaps left by “Legitimate Culture”33.
I would suggest that not all wrestling fans are low achievers and that this idea about wrestling fans is, to some degree, outdated. Fiske wrote about wrestling in “Understanding Popular Culture” in 1989, before the inner workings of the wrestling industry were as well known as they are now. Before the plethora of “Shoot interviews” (interviews that break 'kayfabe') and wrestling documentaries were released in the late 1990s to the present day, wrestlers rarely broke 'Kayfabe'. This has possibly led to a wider audience appreciating wrestling from a new perspective. Never before have the fans been so visibly rebellious as they are today. It is now not just a case of the crowd cheering for a working class wrestler and booing the evil foreigner, but an appreciation of athleticism and 'ring psychology'. Crowds are wanting more three dimensional characters as opposed to the cartoon characters of the past. An example would be the Raven/ Tommy Dreamer feud in ECW, 1995. Raven hated Dreamer who was his childhood friend. Beulah McGillicutty, who was another “childhood friend” fell in love with Dreamer at a summer camp. However, at the time she was fat and was rejected by Dreamer so she slept with Raven. When this feud was underway McGillicutty (now attractive and slim) was introduced into the 'angle' and was sided with Raven. Sometime into the feud she announced she was pregnant but, shockingly, with Dreamer's child. She sided with Dreamer. Raven, a grungy loner, would be expected to be the good guy in this feud, and Dreamer, a 'jock,' the bad guy. This was not the case. Due to different factors, such as Raven playing the character of a whiner who surrounds himself with “flunkeys” such as Stevie Richards and the Blue Meanie, the fans wanted Dreamer to win, so this was based on more than just good versus evil, working class versus middle class, good looking versus ugly or 'jock' versus loner. The fans cheered for Dreamer because they liked his character’s persona and as a character he pledged allegiance to the ECW (claiming that Raven would go where the money was)34. Also, to suggest that wrestling fans cheer the working class and boo the upper class ignores the fact that wrestlers are constantly 'turning' (that is, changing from 'face' to 'heel' and vice versa). Although William Regal is currently a villainous heel and has been for the majority of his career, he has also spent a large period of time in the role of the 'face'. Indeed, he has formed alliances with a former “foreign menace”35 Yoshihiro Tajiri and the 'loveable' simpleton Eugene Dinsmore in the past, where he has played the role of a kind gentleman.
The original reason for wrestling's fakery was not to make it more exciting than boxing or to guarantee shows would go their advertised length, in fact length was actually a problem before the Great Depression because matches lasted up to several hours. The original reason for wrestling being fake was so that unscrupulous promoters could con the gambling spectators. However, wrestling continued being rigged even after gamblers began being suspicious and gambling at wrestling became uncommon. Fans actually feel that knowing about the fakery is “liberating rather than constraining”37. Through interviews, questionnaires and perusing internet wrestling forums it has become apparent to me that wrestling fans watch wrestling and enjoy specific genres of wrestling and different wrestlers for varying reasons. Before I go into more detail about these findings, I will first look on a much broader scale at why people watch wrestling.
One argument for why people watch wrestling is a desire for the “dramatic re-enactment of rituals”38. It can be stated that wrestling is 'on a loop' in that it is just a perpetuation of the same stories over and over again, with different characters. This is comparable to generic film types (action films, romance films) and television shows39 (soap operas). Whilst I partially agree with this in terms of the story-line element, fans do react very well to story-lines that are of a more innovative nature40. However, no matter what happens within a story-line, it must culminate in a match. The fact that all story-lines must culminate in a match does mean that all story-lines have a samey quality to them. If a story-line is seen as successful it will be repeated41. In this respect it is a re-enactment of rituals. However, within a match fans often prefer things to be changed, criticising wrestlers like Steve Blackman for only having one match42. Having said that, when wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan or Steve Austin return from long hiatuses fans are often said to be disappointed if they don't see Hogan’s famed 'Atomic Legdrop' and gesturing or Austin’s 'Stone Cold Stunner' move43. Wrestlers try to get their trademark moves 'over' (ie make the move seem reputable to the fans so that they react well to the moves). So, it would appear that people like repetition within matches in terms of 'trademark/finishing' moves but people like matches to be sequenced differently and the inclusion of different or new moves to a wrestler’s repertoire occasionally to stop things becoming “stale”44. People enjoy such repetition because it helps them feel part of a society as it gives them something to share. In the words of Michael R. Ball, “[it] helps us identify ourselves as members of a common people, so it's extremely important.”45 Wrestling is as repetitious as it can be, clearly noting that people enjoy knowing what is going to be said during promotional interviews hence the use of catchphrases and the repetition of moves that people like. Catchphrases, as well as physical gestures, are very popular among fans because they make people feel part of large social group. I, as well as William Lipscomb III, have heard people use wrestling catchphrases in everyday conversation46. Wrestlers and promoters also realise they cannot show the exact same thing as the fans would grow bored. So, people enjoy the repetition because it allows them to be part of the aforementioned “common people” but they also like the surprise and excitement of when something new and interesting happens. This is comparable to televised soap operas. To illustrate this idea I shall compare WWE to classic British soap opera Brookside. Both Wrestling and Soap Opera repeat story-lines, for example WWE has had multiple story-lines where a wrestler who has broken his arm has worn his cast well after his arm has healed and used said cast as a weapon. In Brookside there were repetitious story-lines about debt and affairs. Occasionally both Wrestling and Soap Opera have come up with an interesting and new story-line that has garnered more viewing figures and media attention. WWE's boss versus employer feud between Vince McMahon and 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin is seen as unique when it first happened and helped WWE get better ratings than World Championship Wrestling47. Brookside had the UK's first pre watershed lesbian kiss48 which got the show a lot of media attention49. WWE and Brookside have also had their detractors when they have used story-lines audiences felt were in poor taste, such as the story about incest between siblings in Brookside and the comments made by Randy Orton about the late Eddie Guerrero in WWE. Although repetitious, WWE does not give their audience identical matches. The moves used within a WWE match and the order in which they are used tend to be different from match to match. In a similar way, although Brookside had several similar story-lines, the dialogue was never the same twice. Wrestling moves within a match are arguably the equivalent to the words within a dialogue in a Soap Opera.
This explains why people watch wrestling, but also why people enjoy any repetitious form of entertainment. I shall now look into what makes people watch wrestling instead of, or as well as, soaps and movies. Through my questionnaires I have discovered that many male wrestling fans believe that there is an innate desire to witness violence50. Whether or not this desire for violence is innate or not, and whether it is something seen more commonly in men is a long and interesting subject tackled by Allen Guttmann, but too complex an issue to discuss in depth here. It is fair to say that violence does appeal to a large portion of the population51 and violent legitimate sports are the oldest in the world52. However, multiple modern day wrestling fans’ morals stop them getting the same enjoyment out of competitive combat sports53, or because they find competitive combat sports to be boring54. It could be said that the violence within professional wrestling is actually as or more real than competitive combat sports due to there not being stoppages for injuries55 (with the obvious exception of paralysis56 or death). There is also no guarantee that combat sports will last any length of time whereas wrestling events will last the advertised length, which accounts in part for the negative reaction to ECW December To Dismember which only lasted 2 hours and 15 minutes (approx.)57. So, one reason why people are fans of wrestling rather than legitimate combat sports is because it is violence with restraint, with the emphasis on entertainment rather than winning or losing and is seen as value for money in terms of how long it will last when compared to other competitive sports.
Fans also mentioned emotional connection to the wrestlers. This is also mentioned in wrestling autobiographies58, training videos59 and a wrestling training seminar that I attended60. One major difference between professional wrestlers and actors or sports personalities is that there is a mix of real life and character. Many wrestlers go by their real names or use their character name more than their real names in social situations61. When asked what makes a good wrestling character, wrestlers often reply that the character should be the real person with “the volume turned way up”62. This mix of real and faux is also a reason for some criticism when it comes to “taste”, or lack there of, within wrestling. When Brookside had a story-line about incest it was not particularly well received. However, WWE owner Vince McMahon openly admits in his autobiographical DVD McMahon that he wanted to be involved in an incest angle. He put it to his, then pregnant, daughter Stephanie that when she give birth it be announced that he is the father. Stephanie turned this down. Although Vince McMahon, Stephanie McMahon and the rest of the McMahon family play characters, due to the characters sharing their real life names and relations these risqué story-lines are received negatively by Smart fans who feel these types of situations re-enforce the negative stereotypes of wrestling fans and find admitting to being a fan to be embarrassing63. Many Smart fans dislike 'gimmicky' characters such as “Mantaur”64 and “The Boogeyman”, although there is an ironic knowingness amongst the Smarts who congregate on the WrestleCrap forums to laugh at such unrealistic characters. One fan account claims his biggest emotional reaction to a wrestling story-line was Chris Benoit winning the World Heavyweight Championship, thus accomplishing his dream after 18 years as a wrestler. The fan says the emotional attachment was not forged because of the story-line feud with Triple H and Shawn Michaels, but rather because of Benoit’s “real life”65 struggle for respect in a business dominated by “big men”66. However, promoters realise that fans react more to real life events. Heels often make derogatory comments about the city they are wrestling in and the local sports team’s short-comings67. They also include bigger world events, for example Sgt. Slaughter siding with Iraq during the Gulf War and more recently, Muhammed Hussan, who played a character that the television network deemed to be too close to a terrorist and had pulled68. Wrestling also incorporates real life feuds. Often times wrestling fans are more interested in the “meta-narratives”69, that encompasses the real life reason for the things that transpire within wrestling’s narrative. Toepfer talks about the Triple H/ Mick Foley feud being about Foley's real life injuries and imminent retirement more than the feud itself70. More recently Adam Copeland (who plays the character Edge in WWE) had an affair with Matt Hardy's (another WWE performer) long term girlfriend Amy Dumas (Lita). WWE realised that because people knew that this affair had taken place through wrestling news websites and Matt Hardy's personal website it would draw people in. The character Lita was married to the wrestler Kane so the story-line was slightly confusing but the crowd were informed that the feud with Matt Hardy and Edge was real. This is what is called a Worked-Shoot. During their first match of this feud Edge won by knock-out (which is rare in professional wrestling) via a stamp on the head rather than one of his trademark wrestling moves. This gave the match an added sense of legitimacy as the wrestlers seemed to really hate each other, not scientifically exchanging holds but brawling and not performing many moves that seem to involve much co-operation. They also worked 'stiff' (hit moves/strikes with legitimate force) to add authenticity. Fans connected to this feud on an emotional level because they believed Matt Hardy to be legitimately wronged and Edge to be a real life Heel. However, there is a lot of scepticism on the part of wrestling fans when the real is introduced to wrestling. There are often conversations between wrestling fans about the validity of certain angles, matches and even individual strikes. A prime example of wrestling fans scepticism, and one of the few examples where I can say that it was definitely a 'shoot', is the reaction to the tragic in ring death of Owen Hart. Owen Hart fell 78 feet from a catwalk above the arena as he was about to make an elaborate entry in to the ring71. Due to a history of fakery, including a similar stunt where the wrestler 'Hawk' attempted to commit suicide by throwing himself off a high platform, the fans believed this too to be fake. Fans were heard laughing at first because they thought it was a comedy moment, as Hart was playing a comedic role at this point in his career. After multiple medics and backstage crew ran to the ring and performed CPR on him before removing him some fans believed this to be a poor taste angle, including one heard saying, “This is f---ing fake”72. Fans enjoy when they believe the fake to be real, but to achieve this they have to run the risk of the real appearing fake. “Wrestling has become so good at creating the illusion of disaster that when disaster does hit, it's very difficult to tell the difference”73.
Ien Ang declares that people were fans of the soap opera Dallas because of its “emotional realism74” as opposed to its actual realism. Wrestling fans realise that wrestling is almost otherworldly. Although wrestling acknowledges real world activities the action almost always takes part within the television shows. Occasionally we see something that has happened outside of the confines of the arena and timeslot of the television show, such as Latin American Xchange attacking Brother Ray's uncle in his pizza parlour75. However, this is rare. Wrestling fans, therefore, connect to the angles due to their emotional realism as opposed to their actual realism, otherwise crimes such as assault and rape would not go unreported76 and 140lb men would not be able to defeat 350lb men in a contest of strength77.
A reason why Marks watch wrestling and attend events is to witness ‘freaks’ in a very similar vain to Freak Shows at circuses at the turn of the century. The WWE employ two wrestlers over 7 feet tall, one of whom is announced as weighing 500lbs. Some wrestlers are incredibly muscular (Scott Steiner, Chyna), some are Little People (Hornsquaggle), some have mutilated their body (Mick Foley), some suffer from diseases that cause their appearance to be unusual (The French Angel1, André the Giant2, Zach Gowen3). Smarts, although they often understand the appeal of seeing a “giant”, often dislike them as wrestlers as they believe them to be less good at wrestling. Wrestling is often compared to the circus due to the similarities of certain wrestlers to traditional Circus characters such as the Clown, the Acrobat, the Ring Master and the Strongman.
So, the potential reasons for professional wrestling fandom are multiple. Fans enjoy the sense of community they gain from knowing what catchphrases are coming up and what move might signal the end of a bout. They may be entertained by televised wrestling because of the feats of athleticism and strength. They could relish watching wrestlers in the same way people viewed freaks in old fashioned circuses. They almost certainly take pleasure in the emotional connection with the characters.
Chapter Two: Fan talk and its effect on (TV) wrestling
Many Smart fans of televised wrestling, like fans of other mediums, participate in fan talk4. Although some fans do not enjoy discussing wrestling on the internet5 a very large portion of Smart fans do. A generic search for “professional wrestling forums” (within quotation marks) on the search engine Google found 43,200 sites. The forum www.wrestlingforum.com has 160,523 members6. The internet is a very important source for wrestling news and conversation. At the time of writing, “WWE” is the seventh most searched for term on the Yahoo search engine7. Through forums and websites Smart fans openly critique wrestling promotions and wrestlers. This, along with how the audience react at live events, has the power to change story-lines within televised professional wrestling. Through fan discussion, fans can talk about what is good and bad about various wrestlers and promotions and then attend events and let their opinions be known via chants and crowd signs at wrestling shows. Fan reaction is seen by many to determine which wrestlers get 'pushed' and whether a wrestler is a Face or Heel. Before Kayfabe was broken by Vince McMahon “decisions as far as [whether you're] a good guy or a bad guy I think often came from... [the] promoter. Now the people decide who is good and who is bad.8” Vince McMahon himself became a wrestler because he knew he was a disliked character and people wanted to see him beaten up9. The most famous case in WWE's history of the fans having an effect on the product was their hostile reaction to Rocky Miavia. The fans, seemingly tired of two dimensional happy Face characters being forced on them by the WWE, started to chant “Rocky Sucks”10 and hold aloft signs that read “Die Rocky Die”11. Maivia disappeared briefly and returned as a cocky Heel and became one of the most hated Heels and, subsequently, popular Faces of the 'Attitude Era'. However, Vince McMahon does not like to admit that the fans have any control over his product, claiming that he knows what the fans want more than they do12. He has been known to take power away from the fans (making them a “powerless elite13”) by having the fans signs removed14 and dubbing over the fans chants when the events are not live15 (Smackdown!, reruns of RAW and ECW, recap shows such as Afterburn and DVD releases). This is comparable to Tim Burton's views on the fans of the Batman comic books who were worried about Burton's big budget Batman movie. Burton, like McMahon, wants his product to appeal to the masses, not to the fans because there is too much money involved. There is a history of wrestlers deemed unworthy by fans being pushed, for example Mark Henry who has been with WWE for eleven years and has been involved with main event feuds. However, fans do not understand why. Smarts see him as slow and unimproved since his first year, and from a business standpoint Steve Austin’s merchandise outsells Mark Henry's “two million to one.16” Despite this lack of success, Mark Henry continues to be pushed when he is not injured. The most unique example of the bookers of WWE going against fans would be the case of John Cena, a wrestling rap artist. Cena is strongly disliked by a large portion of the very vocal Smart fan community for several reasons. These reasons include being poor at wrestling17, his promos seeming very similar to the Rock's18, and a limited move set including a weak looking finishing move19. A large number of the male Marks also dislike him, believing him to be a “pretty boy”20 and not much of an aggressive attitude21 (though this opinion has started to wane somewhat). He is liked by young members of the audience and female Marks. Although he was not turned Heel in spite of loud booing being heard at live events when Cena was wrestling, WWE turned this into an angle. John Cena would acknowledge the crowd disliking him but never turned into a Heel. Involving the fans in this way is unique and puts them in a position where they want to come to shows to “have a tiny speaking part.22” Fiske states that “Fan magazines often play up to and encourage this sense of possession, the idea that stars are constructed by their fans and owe their stardom entirely to them.23” Face wrestlers often play up to this during their promos24, whereas when they turn Heel they talk about how they were hindered by their pampering to the crowd25.
Fans, especially Smarts, strongly dislike inconsistencies. Wrestling is performed in front of a large, live audience who are acknowledged by the wrestlers, there are commentators and cameras that are also acknowledged. Due to the presentation of professional wrestling as a sport, Smart fans dislike wrestling being presented as though it were not as real as any other live sporting event. During Hulk Hogan’s feud with the Warrior in WCW (World Championship Wrestling) Hogan started seeing the Warrior in his thoughts. However, these thoughts were shown on screen, in that when Hogan looked in the mirror and saw a vision of the Warrior behind him, the audience too could see him1. This was not only disliked by fans, it was also heavily mocked2. As well as this, characters have been known to tell other people secrets in front of a camera and then the scene shown to the live audience at home and in the arena on the TitanTron screen3.
Other forms of inconsistency bother fans, such as story-lines that do not have endings. For example Booker T started receiving mysterious letters. After a matter of weeks these stopped and were never mentioned again. As well as such 'dropped angles' are angles that do not make any sense. After Vince McMahon ran Steve Austin out of the WWE he began to worry about the Undertaker. McMahon turned from a Heel to a Face and gave Austin his job back. Stephanie, Vince's daughter, was kidnapped by the Undertaker. Undertaker explained that he had done this because a “higher power” told him to. Austin sided with McMahon until it came to the day when the “higher power” would be exposed. The “higher power” turned out to be Vince McMahon. Vince still hated Austin and had given him his job back for seemingly no reason. Fans disliked this4. The reasons fans dislike these inconsistencies is not just because they make suspension of disbelief harder but because it reaffirms the negative assumptions about wrestling. This is mirrored in Smart fans’ opinion of homosexuality within wrestling. Although sexuality does not hinder wrestlers’ careers5, they rarely play openly homosexual characters. Homosexual male characters within WWE have never been subtle or played by actual homosexuals. These characters often wear make-up/elaborate face paint and move in overtly effeminate ways. Although some homosexual characters have got over as Faces, homophobic chants are aimed towards certain wrestlers, including at Total Non-stop Action's most recent pay-per-view where the debuting HeartBreakers who were representing the post-feminist character Christy Hemme received a “You suck dick!” chant. Smart fans are quite often ashamed to attend wrestling events due to the homophobia and anti-feminist standpoint of the current 'Big Two' promotions in America. Fiske talks about fans taking part in “semiotic productivity”6 he describes how “Madonna fans... made their own meanings of their sexuality rather than patriarchal ones”7, whereas in wrestling, especially the WWE, stereotypes are largely perpetuated and rarely challenged. For example, William Regal, the English gentleman, whether face or heel, speaks in a posh voice, uses long words and dresses smartly.
A small, but I would suggest important, backlash from the wrestling fans, and indeed wrestling journalists, who, it could be argued, are simply fans who have converted their “popular cultural capital” into “official cultural capital”, has occurred in relation to the wrestler Jeff Jarrett. Jarrett, TNA’s top heel, recently went on a sabbatical. Jarrett helps run the company as well as being a wrestler, which the Smarks have always known. However, this had, until his pre-sabbatical speech, never been mentioned on a TNA television show. However, during his speech he mentioned that he was tired because he had been “carrying the company on his back for four years”8. This was not news to the Marks but they did not accept it. To them it was “character rape”9. This admission to being a member of the TNA board went completely against his current character. The character of Jeff Jarrett had been responsible for stopping the crowd favourites from winning the world title, and he attempted to get out of matches he is now suggesting that he booked in the first place. Wrestling fans expect wrestlers to turn, but not when it means a complete change of character for little to no reason.
Unlike Marks, some of whom do not even know that there are promotions other than WWE, Smarts often have a vast knowledge of other promotions. That is why when WWE or TNA signs a wrestler from the independent or international leagues Wrestling fans get excited, but also concerned. In the same way that the fans of the 2000AD comic book series lowered their expectations when they heard there was a big blockbuster film being made about Judge Dredd10, wrestling fans expect wrestlers going to the WWE to not get their “desserts”. This is one of the things that wrestling fans discuss at length. They become concerned with the idea of repackaging of the former “indie” wrestler, as well as if he will be forced to 'job' (lose) to wrestlers they consider inferior. They also debate whether the wrestler fits the WWE style of wrestling, noting that WWE has less bumps per match but wrestle more shows.
The dialogue between Smarts and wrestlers is interesting. There appear to be two schools of thought when it comes to wrestlers’ opinions of the Smart community. There is one that I will describe as Old School and one that I will describe as New School. The wrestlers with an Old School attitude (Konnan, Triple H, John 'Bradshaw' Layfield et al) feel that Smarts miss the point of professional wrestling. For them wrestling is “mindless entertainment”11. JBL has been very negative about what he describes as Internet fans12. These wrestlers with an Old School attitude do not believe that the fans can understand the inner workings of wrestling because they are not themselves wrestlers and have never run a successful wrestling promotion. They also believe these fans place too much importance upon wrestling. Wrestlers with New School attitudes themselves (Matt Hardy, Rob Van Dam) understand the wrestling fans’ interest in the sport. It should be taken into account that the pro-internet fans wrestlers are often the ones who the fans feel are held back or deserve better since being signed13 from smaller promotions. The anti-internet wrestlers are often main eventers or wrestlers of the past generation of wrestling who were around before the internet was popular and documentaries had not been made exposing the industries secrets.
Within the internet fan community, wrestling fans talk about Marking Out. Sharon Mazer points out correctly that these moments are those which Smart fans enjoy the most14. However, I would argue that these moments are not necessarily when the viewer is 'conned' into believing the wrestling is real. This can be part of it, but it also includes matches that achieve something the fan has wanted (Benoit winning the title). It is less about being made to believe the fight is real but more about forgetting the fight is 'fake'. By this I mean the fans realise what a legitimate fight looks like (mixed martial arts such as UFC which consist of strikes and ground based submission holds) and these legitimate fights do not necessarily resemble a match or a moment that a fan will mark out for. However, a wrestling match filled with errors (such as Rico calling for Jeff Hardy to “hurry up”15) bring their attention to the fact the fight is not real. Fans also Mark Out for wrestlers and moves that they enjoy and have not seen in a great while. I have also heard the use of the phrase Mark Out applied to other areas of life when talking about childhood memories (“I saw Wizbit yesterday and I Marked Out!”16). The third way a fan Marks Out is for a particularly impressive move, especially one that endangers the performer. Mazer describes how fans chant “Holy shit!” at these moments. She claims “Holy shit” translates into “you made me believe” but I would argue it translates more to “you have just performed a move that endangered you for my entertainment and I am grateful.”
A number of Smart wrestling fans and also wrestling personalities hark back to a more innocent time. They, like the Batman television show fans of the 1960s, remember their era of television being more child friendly17. A large portion of the fans I interviewed suggested that there are a number of televised wrestling angles that are “tasteless”.
Chapter Three: Rewriting the texts – creation and editing
Although wrestling Smart fans are often seen as hyper-negative internet geeks18, they do not just passively consume what is given to them. They not only make comments about how the products can be improved through dialogue with each other19 and the wrestlers20 via official websites, social networking groups, fan signs and chants, but also edit and create alternatives. With the invention of video and now DVD people have been given the option to fast forward or skip sections. This is the most basic form of editing that a fan can take part in. Others, before peer-to-peer file sharing started playing a major role, traded and sold wrestling tapes for a profit. Along with wrestling events and television shows compilations were also sold. A tape trader would take what s/he considered to be the best matches by a certain performer or promotion and place them on a video tape. They would also make tapes based around a single feud. Now, however, the power of editing has shifted to the Smart fans. As with tape trading, peer-to-peer file sharing of copyrighted materials is illegal. However, from the fans stand point it is a lot safer than buying from a trader because no money changes hands. The fans, via forums, conduct polls with each other to create lists of the top 100 matches, feuds, events, etc21 and upload them for sharing. Other people upload professional quality compilation DVDs of their favourite wrestlers best matches22. Some others make compilations of the worst in professional wrestling (know as WrestleCrap) for the sake of humour. The humour that is taken from WrestleCrap tapes is very self congratulatory in that the viewers often believe they could have created better gimmicks or had better matches23.
Another form of editing is seen commonly on video streaming sites such as YouTube. The editing of music videos is common, and is used heavily within wrestling. There are even subgenres of music video. Some of these are known as 'Desire' videos, which are based on the videos created by WWF/E which were based around showing impassioned faces of wrestlers after winning belts or whilst in 'pain'24, 'Botch' videos which show wrestlers making mistakes such as falling over, poorly executed moves, getting legitimately injured or being heard saying something they should not25, as well as the aforementioned WrestleCrap, and Best Of's in music video form. However, WWE material is often removed from YouTube and similar sites due to copyright infringement26. This seems to be especially the case with whole matches, which have the potential to be released (or are already released) on DVD at some point.
Within the file-sharing professional wrestling fan groups there appears to be a fairly clear hierarchy. This is possibly true of all the professional wrestling fan communities but especially of the file-sharers and those on message boards. There are several stages of file-sharing wrestling fans. There are those who have a 'low ratio' (meaning they download far more than they upload), who often appear to be Marks. Due to their lack of uploading, knowledge of wrestling and computer literacy they are semi-regularly belittled and often banned. Although I cannot be certain it would appear that these people are usually very young. At the other end of the scale is the knowledgeable, computer literate uploader. They are often the ones who arrange the polls, create DVDs, answer people’s questions and, probably most importantly, have the largest wrestling video library.
What would be very difficult to do through editing is come up with compelling story-lines and reasons why certain wrestlers are feuding. However, wrestling fans (both Marks and Smarts) do attempt to come up with their own story-lines and characters. They engage in a form of 'role-playing' which takes place in imaginary wrestling companies called 'eFeds'. People create their own characters and write their own story-lines and even matches. There are no set rules for how to run an eFed. Efeds (e-wrestling or fantasy wrestling) are very popular, although not as popular during the 'boom period' of professional wrestling in the late 1990's. A search on the search engine Google for ‘eFeds’ displays 154,000 sites. Some eFeds use video-games for their matches which is a reason why a large portion of people enjoy the 'CAW' (Create-A-Wrestler, sometimes called Create-A-Superstar) features in certain games. Efeds that use video-games often simulate matches (computer controlled character versus computer controlled character), which partially misses the point of professional matches: it is rigged for the purpose of entertainment.
It is fair to say that to engage in the previous examples of wrestling related productivity would make you a wrestling fan. However, participating in the act of Backyard Wrestling, especially during its most prominent era, does not necessarily make you a fan. Backyard Wrestling is a form of wrestling almost always performed by untrained grapplers. The fighting usually takes place in a backyard or a public park, although other areas such as beaches, forests and indoors, occasionally occur.
Within the professional wrestling fan community opinions on Backyard Wrestling greatly vary. During the mid-to-late 1990s, during the height of Backyard Wrestling’s popularity, the 'Hardcore' style was very prevalent in wrestling27. 'Hardcore', and its even more violent 'Deathmatch' and 'Ultraviolent' variants, are forms of wrestling that allow the use of weapons. In fact, this style of wrestling has no rules at all. This form of wrestling includes a lot of wrestlers being involved in legitimately dangerous matches. These matches include, but are not limited to, matches where the ropes are replaced with barbed wire28, matches where the winner must throw his opponent through a table that is on fire29, matches where small explosives are attached to wooden boards30, matches where the ring is surrounded by strip-light bulbs (light tubes)31 and matches where the fans bring weapons with them to hand to their favourite wrestler32. This genre of wrestling is unpopular with a large portion of the wrestling fan community, noting a lack of 'selling'33 or 'ring psychology'34 to the matches. However, this type of wrestling was very popular in the 1990s due, in part, to its authenticity. Marks were legitimately confused as to whether or not wrestlers such as New Jack and the Headhunters were fighting for real.
Jackass and, what the detractors call “Garbage wrestling”, have similarities in that they both involve elaborate stunts and feats of enduring physical pain. Due to the similarities there was a large cross over in terms of fans. Traditional professional wrestling fans attempted to distance themselves from Backyard Wrestling fans. Some may do this to add legitimacy to themselves in the eyes of the professional wrestlers35, as wrestlers are often angered by the idea of Backyard Wrestling as it is dangerous. There is a fear, though less so than in the 90s, that some tragic event will happen in backyard wrestling and it will reflect back on professional wrestling36.
However, within Backyard Wrestling fandom there are, again, two factions. One is the aforementioned hardcore Backyard Wrestlers, the other is Backyarders who seek legitimacy themselves. Often these Backyarders feel that BYW is portrayed badly37. They believe that the Hardcore Backyard Wrestlers get all the publicity because it makes for a better story38. Some of these Backyarders cite the fact that they cannot attend legitimate wrestling schools because they do not live close to one or cannot afford it39. Others, such Gino 'Justin Sane' Hynes, are in the middle of their professional wrestling training and claim that they perform Backyard Wrestling because of the passion of it.
The whole phenomenon of Backyard Wrestling has spawned two video-games, which include computer generated versions of trained professionals such as New Jack and Vampiro in a Hardcore Backyard Wrestling match environment. It has also given us the Backyard Wrestling videos/DVDs. These are professionally released compilations of violent and dangerous stunts and matches. Backyard Wrestling federations themselves have released not only their own videos but also their own merchandise. Although these likely do not sell well now, there is some degree of fame and money to be had from wrestling fandom. The day before he made a special guest appearance at Courageous Championship Wrestling's “Frontline”40 show in the summer of 2006, Backyard Wrestler “The Nature Boy” Steve Farrell received money off a wrestling toy from Kerrisons Toy Shop in Great Yarmouth. At this event he wrestled JN Pheonix and after the match signed autographs and took pictures with many of the Backyard Wrestlers and the audience. Farrell also sells an Ebook of his life story, centred around his 'career' as a Backyard Wrestler. Steve Farrell, along with some others from NAW, are wrestling in Vancouver, Canada currently which made it into the local news in Newcastle41.
Wrestling video-games are another area where Wrestling fans have made money from their expertise. Although some give away their product for free, for example Home Brew Wrestling, some also charge. These people are not seen as “hucksters”42 as might be expected. Matt Dickie is often seen in a negative light although this is not because he charges for his games but rather because people see him as being arrogant. Adam Ryland was signed to a video-game making deal after the continued success of his wrestling booking simulator. The yet to be released Pro Wrestling X has over a hundred pre orders43 in spite of it being the manufacturers first game. Through over 400 letters from professional wrestling fans who want this game to be created, the makers were able to ensure a grant from the Canadian government44. However, they may not be viewed as hucksters because creating video-games means they use legitimate cultural capital rather than a replacement for this capital, i.e. the knowledge used to create a video-game is usable in another arena (creating non-wrestling games).
Throughout this article I have suggested that there are two ways in reading televised wrestling. The first method of reading it is the way in which a Mark, or a Smart playing the role of a Mark, would read it. This way of reading accepts what is presented to them by the script writers. This is the intended reading of the text. The second is based on the real world as opposed to the world constructed by the promoter(s). This method is almost impossible to take part in if you have no access to the internet. Through various professional wrestling news sites fans can find out about recent backstage stories. The stories they get from these sites allow the fans to forge opinions away from both the wrestler’s ability and his current story-line. Wrestling fans, for example, knew that WWE and ECW champion Rob Van Dam would lose his title belts not because of lack of talent or because it was integral to his current story-line, but because he and his ECW co-worker were caught in the possession of illegal drugs. This allowed fans to make signs referencing the incident. A commonly used example is the match between Goldberg and Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania XX (March 14th, 2004). Both wrestlers were known to be leaving by the Smart community straight after the match. The audience booed and jeered throughout the entire match, only reacting positively to special guest referee Steve Austin hitting his finisher on both participants. This startling show of knowledge shows that the current batch of wrestling fans are at the Smart end of Smarkdom, to coin a phrase. The WWE dislikes the news sites but has had to accept them, and is currently attempting to make their own website (WWE.Com) more of a news site itself. The Smart fans, however, do not trust the news at WWE as it is WWE's prime directive to 'work' the audience.
I have also attempted to point out the hierarchical pattern of wrestling fandom. At the high end is the Smart who believes that wrestling is of some social importance and thus should have more interesting characters and less negative stereotypes. This Smart has a collection of wrestling footage that dates back many years and spans not only promotions but also continents. At the other end of the scale is the maligned Mark who takes everything at face value and chants along with the rest no matter what the words. Marks believe WWE to be the best wrestling promotion simply because they lack knowledge of other promotions.
However, my research is not without its faults. It is obvious that Smarts, who are sometimes referred to as the Internet Wrestling Community, are more likely to use the web, therefore it is more difficult to get a true idea as to the thoughts and opinions of Marks. Smart fans write articles, attend live independent wrestling events and congregate to the news sites and forums to discuss the meta-narratives of wrestling. We can tell a lot of what Marks don't do but finding out what they do is a much more complex task because there are almost no true Marks, only low end Smarks, and they tend to not define themselves as such. Also, when conducting a focus group, the group will never be able to act completely as they would and might even adjust their answers so as not to offend. There are also flaws with questionnaires. I attempted to minimise falsehoods by performing multiple research methods.
In the future more research could be done to prove or disprove my claim that wrestling fans’ effect on the product is absolutely unique to the medium of wrestling and if that is the case I believe that the subject deserves a lot more attention from academics than it currently receives.
6The adoring audience – the cultural economy of fandom, j. fiske p37
8October 26, 2006 TNA iMPACT
13Rob Van Dam from ECW after WWE bought it out and Matt Hardy after his brief hiatus after talking about the Copland/ Dumas affair on the internet, for example.
17Look it up!
22J&M Productions - PWTorrents
23The adoring audience – the cultural economy of fandom, j. fiske pp 40