I felt compelled to write about something other than Video Games/Art. My usual content will return later this week.
Last Sunday, I sat down for 2 hours to watch the WWE Royal Rumble. For those who don’t know, the Royal Rumble is an annual event where thirty very large men, wearing a range of ridiculous costumes, enter a ring, pretend to punch, kick and body slam each other, and then toss one another out of the ring until only one is left standing. The order of elimination is, most likely, entirely scripted, with only the speed and timing of the fake punches and kicks left up to the wrestlers’ discretion.
A quick disclaimer— I’ve only watched the WWE a couple of times and I’ve never particularly enjoyed it. My peer group, by and large, holds that it is one of the dumbest things shown on television. Still, I know there is a community of intelligent, devoted fans who watch the show week in and week out, and I wanted to investigate how this seemingly childish bit of pseudo-reality television programming could maintain their attention. I turned a critical eye to the Royal Rumble last weekend, and came away with a fuller understanding of what is a very bizarre and very original mixture of theatre, drama and sports.
My preconception of the WWE was that it considered itself to be a genuine sport. It definitely takes a lot of the conventions of sports: ringside announcers, winners and losers, weight classes and world championships, a live audience dressing like and cheering for their favorite wrestler. But, because the outcome is preplanned, it lacks the authenticity of true competition. In my mind, this rendered the wrestling performance somewhat fraudulent. I couldn’t become invested in the outcome knowing that the winner is selected by a group of writers and producers. What they do in the ring is just an action scene without any real life consequence.
However, I did take some interest in the way the WWE bends and breaks the fourth wall. Before and after matches, wrestlers spend time monologuing about their goals, and missions, and bragging about their skills. All of this is presented very seriously, as if winning means everything to them. But then, during the matches, the scriptedness of the show will be deliberately exaggerated. For example, the rules of the Royal Rumble state that you lose only when both of your feet touch the ground, outside of the ring. At one point a wrestler got thrown out of the ring, landed on a previously eliminated wrestler without touching the ground, and jumped onto the broadcast booth. They ruled him still alive in the competition, and he quickly made his way back into the ring. This scene only served to point out the absurdity of the contest—if you can survive by standing on an object outside the ring, why not stay there until there is only one other wrestler left? You’re guaranteed at least second place.
But strategy does not exist inside the wrestling universe, and understanding this bit of information is fundamental to understanding why these fans follow wrestling so closely. They consciously acknowledge the idea that a wrestler’s in-ring fate is determined before he steps in the ring.
And with that in mind, the discussion of wrestling focuses on the narrative, the backstory leading up to each match and the possible directions that story will move based on who wins or loses. The intelligent fans make their predictions based on what the wrestlers do outside the ring, not based on whose athletic skill makes them more likely to get a pin. Aesthetics play a huge role in this, as the different costumes and entrance music of each wrestler play a large part in defining his or her personality and fan base. All of this contradicts the standard sports fandom of, say, baseball or football.
And yet the fan community behaves differently from that of an average scripted TV show too. Fans, both at the live event and at home, feel truly attached to the characters, as if the fighters are really invested in what happens within the wrestling universe. And to some extent they are, as salaries and fame fluctuate with in ring success. Again, the fourth wall seems weirdly compromised, since the fighters do have something invested in the result of the match, and can control the outcome of the match, just not by what they do during the match. Instead, winners and losers are determined by the producers’ perception of what will bring in the most fans. And the fans need to be outspoken to influence the producers. And the wrestlers need to be compelling to influence the fans. It’s all so malleable because everybody plays a part in writing, directing and producing the show.
World Wrestling Entertainment still isn’t for me. The over-the-top campy fake fighting takes up too much screen time and the characters aren’t interesting enough to hold my attention through it. But it’s a unique brand of entertainment in its own right, inviting audience participation and feedback in a way that scripted television just can’t do. There are enough layers of drama, and potential story-line conspiracies, to keep a busy mind buzzing, and that alone is far more than I expected last week.