When we think of the production of a match or show, we don’t always see ourselves. I imagine silhouetted “creative members” in a room where only the table is lit with an intense, swinging overhead lamp, discussing storylines over cheap cigarettes. Though with members like Michael Hayes, I’m sure the process is a lot more comical than I can imagine. However, in much of our understanding of producing a show, segment or even a single moment in a match, we often neglect one important factor: us.
“Agency” is a term in various fields of entertainment and academia used to describe a lot of different things. While it’s often used in a theoretical context, such as Descartes’ position that the agency of one’s consciousness is separate and master to the body and bodily entities (a position challenged by David Cronenberg’s The Fly), other fields use “agency” in a more functional sense, specifically in describing an audience member’s agency with regards to the subject to which he is audience.
Before I apply this to wrestling, let me first give two not-too-dissimilar examples to give the parameters for comparison. First of all, let’s talk about video games. Now more than ever, video games react dynamically to the input of the gamer. Rather than, in games such as Fable, allowing you to choose Choice A and Choice B resulting in scripted Result A or Result B, your decision (which needn’t be so black-and-white as “good” or “bad) can have a myriad of results as determined by the “laws of physics” encoded in the game’s design. Far Cry 3 is a perfect example, as organic instances can often occur independent of the gamer’s input (such as a Bengal Tiger meandering into town and slaughtering the mercenaries) and the gamer’s effects on the in-game world can affect the fiction relative to the particular actions. Of course, gamers can’t make wholly independent impacts on the game since they still are subjected to the game’s particular codes, but then again, neither can a person in the real world act wholly independent since we are also subjected by the real Laws of Physics.
On the other hand, there’s literature. While of course a book is constructed by the means of production and the national discourse to which the author subscribes, a particular reader’s agency is relatively insignificant or non-existent in affecting the book’s internal world. The reader possesses the lens of analysis, yes, and his interpretation of the book may be different than someone else’s as affected by things like his education, what he can relate to or even how well he paid attention, but the printed contents of the book stay the same, short of crossing out words. That’s how I kept Dumbledore from dying.
So where does wrestling fit in this spectrum? Like reading a book, there’s no controller. You can’t give a direct input that automatically manifests as an action in the game. However, like video games, a wrestling company is not static. It evolves week-by-week following the models of their shows and directives from various administrative tracks, which all serve kind of like a video game’s laws of physics.
So where do the wrestling fans come in? Though we don’t have a controller, there are still tons of ways in which we can impose our agency on the company. Most obviously, through SHOUTING LOUDLY AT THE PEOPLE IN THE RING, otherwise known as “cheering.” Take, for example, the enraged reactions of audiences in Florida following what I personally refer to as, “That time the WWE really made me want to dropkick everyone at their headquarters, but not Triple H or Vince McMahon because they’re big and scary,” when Daniel Bryan lost the World Heavyweight Championship to Sheamus in 18 seconds at WrestleMania 28. What followed was an excellent rematch at Extreme Rules (the match we should have gotten at WrestleMania) and a three-month rivalry against CM Punk (and Kane for a shorter period) that began with my personal Best Match of 2012 at Over the Limit and culminated with another match of the year contender at Money in the Bank. Were it not for the fans’ reactions, we probably would have never had that stellar rivalry between CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, or at least not at that time. (Fun fact: one of my dream main events is CM Punk defending the WWE Championship against Daniel Bryan in a 60-Minute Ironman Match at WrestleMania. Probably not possible during this part-timer era, but a dude can have his dreams.)
A wrestling audience’s agency can be seen more fundamentally than that though. Many seasoned wrestlers will tell you that you need to listen to the crowd while performing. Throughout a match, you’ll see a lot of behaviors responding to particular cues from the crowd. One popular spot is with a face (especially one prone to walking the line between clean and dirty tactics) locking in an Abdominal Stretch and grabbing the rope multiple times when the ref’s not looking in response to the audience egging him on to do so. When I had the pleasure of seeing a RAW house show at the Colorado Springs World Arena (a house show we got months later instead of an ECW/SmackDown taping thanks to the Denver Nuggets Debacle), Jack Swagger for whatever reason received a face reaction throughout his match, and when he used this spot he reciprocated the audience’s request to grab the ropes a second, a third and finally a fourth time in between the referee checking on him.
Similarly, a wrestler may taunt at a certain moment in response to the audience; and a wrestler may also respond directly to chants throughout a promo. The Rock’s and John Cena’s promos throughout their three-year storyline are great examples of the latter, considering the popular chants that have grown out of their interactions. On several occasions, we’ve seen fans chanting one of these phrases, often drawing a direct response from one of the two men in the ring. While this might only be a small example of wrestling fans’ agency, it’s still a great example to counter the static nature of a book. Wrestlers aren’t just in the ring following a pre-determined match structure or (now-bulleted) script for promos; they’re responding to the cues of the audience, or at least the receptive wrestlers do.
There are a ton of other outlets through which our agency can be inputted into a show’s production. Tweets, Touts, forums, blogs (perhaps these Internet-based outlets would make a good subject for another article) – all of these help create a popular discourse surrounding wrestling that WWE reciprocates, though of course not all the time or even wholly when they do. Zack Ryder is a good example of when our agency fails to foster a long-term change in the company. Despite terrific fan reactions and a strong following for his YouTube show, the WWE quickly lost interest in his development after they fed him to the “Embrace the Hate” storyline. It’s demonstrative of audience agency that they even pushed him to begin with; but it also shows our agency’s limitations, as WWE has proven itself capable of ignoring us in favor of their own ideas.
Recently CM Punk did an interview in which he stated, “I think we start and stop guys too much. They did it with me forever; they did it with Sheamus forever. You’re the flavor of the month. You’re doing this, you’re doing that, and then you just kind of get shuffled to the back. I don’t think anybody can truly organically grow and become these superstars that they say they’re looking for when you start and stop guys all the time” (http://chaddukeswrestlingshow.com/).
Notice how CM Punk uses the same word, “organic,” which is used in discussing a common principle in video gaming. When things happen organically in video games, it’s occurring within the game’s laws of physics and the input of the gamer, not because of scripted sequences. When things happen organically in wrestling, it’s because the show is responding to its own laws and the agency of the audience. Stars become superstars when they are genuinely adored by the masses of wrestling fans, not because the WWE jobs out a bunch of dudes to someone until we think he’s a “big deal,” only to get shuffled to the back when they want a fresh piece of gum.
I think it’s important we understand these outlets of agency, how they manifest in the performance and when our agency fails. It makes us more aware of how we might impact the future of the performers and the shows. If there’s a guy you think has potential, don’t just give him a golfer’s clap – freaking EXPLODE! Let him and the guys in the back know you think he could be a big deal. Remember, when you cheer, chant, Tweet, Tout, blog or post on a forum, you’re not just voicing an opinion, you’re contributing to the discourse that helps construct all of professional wrestling. It’d be unrealistically idealistic to say we’re the bottom line in all events that happen in the WWE, but we play a role. Love it, act on it, and don’t you freakin’ forget it.
Until next week, I’m Nicholas LeVack and this has been, “Nick’s futile attempt to superimpose literary terms on professional wresting!” (Working title). In the meantime, check me out on Twitter and/or shoot me an angry email: