The Application and Theory of Fan Opposition
At WWE One Night Stand 2006, WWE Superstars who were normally adored by their audiences were met with hissing, catcalling and even threats of violence, whereas fans stood on their feet for every ECW Extremist who walked down the tightly packed entrance of the Hammerstein Ballroom. That night, wrestlers were not just wrestlers, nor were commentators simply commentators, nor were fans just fans. They had all picked their sides and drawn a clear line between “Extremists” and “Superstars.” Where each man stood was up to him, but where he stood meant not only the group of wrestlers for whom he’d cheer, but also what sort of fan he saw himself as.
Opposition is not something new to a professional wrestling fan, as he’s experienced it constantly throughout life. While social binaries (genders, races, classes, etc.) are the obvious examples and though they do represent common imbalances between sets of people, to use an extreme example, Jean-Paul Satre in his short essay, “Anti-Semite and Jew” uses an example of opposition that can be better related back to my purposes. He illustrates the sort of conscious and spiteful “othering” of perceived opponents that I believe was present in 2006 at the Hammerstein Ballroom. He states, “The phrase, ‘I hate the Jews,’ is one that is uttered in chorus; in pronouncing it, one attaches himself to a tradition and to a community.”
Of course, I don’t think any fan is trying to inspire the sort of fear an anti-Semite would want in a Jewish person. The reason I draw this indelicate correlation as opposed to using standard examples of social opposition is that they are too practical in their applications. I know gender theory is more complex than this, but for my purposes I’ll simplify it to, a man considers himself a man because it gives him a clear role in mating. However, in most contemporary contexts the anti-Semite does not need to construct himself as such to fit into a particular social role. Rather, he creates the identity in order to fill a missing piece of himself and perhaps exercise some frustrations for which he can’t objectively identify the proper target.
In our example of One Night Stand 2006, the fans had not aligned themselves with either WWE or the revived ECW for practical social purposes. They had subscribed to the macronarrative surrounding and preceding the event that, upon their respective reflections, revealed one side to be more right than the other, subsequently identifying that other as their perceived source of repression.
We don’t need to look as far back as 2006 in order to see examples of opposition, or even to the program itself. On all the forums, Facebook groups and comment sections, fans often distinguish themselves from marks by declaring themselves “smart marks.” Usually not by openly labeling themselves as smarks, but rather decrying the marks or using wrestling jargon they hope will make clear their association with smart fans. The marks, on the other hand, mostly aren’t aware of the distinction at all and instead occupy themselves with actually enjoying the product rather than telling other people they’re watching it wrong. On second thought, that’s probably too generous. I’m sure marks can be mean on Facebook and YouTube too.
At this point in the reading, we know that, for one, opposition is not contingent on practical social roles; two, it’s created through a conscious othering, whether the other is aware of the division or not; and three, the association with one group over the other may be used to exercise frustrations and (mistakenly) identify their sources. By now, I think it’s safe to move from just the theory of opposition and discuss its applications in wrestling.
To begin with another example, throughout the three-WrestleMania storyarch between John Cena and The Rock, eventually a division was drawn and the opposing camps named “Team Bring It” and the “Cenation.” However, my own description of this event is misleading as the phrase, “a division was drawn,” omits a causal agent, when it’s that causal agent that is crucial in understanding the application of pro wrestling.
Let’s ask ourselves, how was a fan’s association with either Team Bring It or the Cenation signified? The clearest example is the t-shirts, which include the Team Bring It shirt with The Rock’s coined phrase, “Boots to Asses”; and also John Cena’s popular line of shirts, which Dwayne said made him look like a, “Big fat bowl of Fruity Pebbles,” thus creating the opposition. Unlike the battle between smarks and marks, which takes place on the fringes of the WWE’s fictive world, the Cena/Rock rivalry was a centerpiece of three consecutive WrestleManias. It wasn’t created on Facebook groups, forums or comment sections, but rather orchestrated by the WWE itself. They literally capitalized on it, promoting the opposition with hashtags and t-shirts that translated into income for the company, both from the aforementioned t-shirt sales, but more importantly through television ratings and pay-per-view buys. Bear in mind, this isn’t an anti-capitalist criticism of pro wrestling. I’m demonstrating how opposition is applied not only as a fan deciding what sort of fan he becomes (and all the social associations that entails), but as a means of promoting a product.
But this begs the question, why does this promotion benefit the company? What does it matter to the fan? Well to allude back to my article from last week, “Chant, Tout, Tweet”, it gives fans an additional application of their agency. When fans rooted for John Cena or The Rock, they may not have thought they were simply shouting at a pair of unreceptive giants, but that somehow their support might make the difference in the outcome of their rivalry. It’s like cheering for your hometown team, an act legitimate sports leagues have cemented in their relative discourse with the concept of a “home field advantage,” which real or not (I’m leaning more toward commercial promotion tactic), gives fans an incentive to pour into their local sports stadiums and arenas.
In light of all this, the one thing I don’t want you to feel is manipulated. Promotion is just part of the industry, part of capitalism as a whole. It’s not too dissimilar from Pepsi commercials or McDonald’s billboard ads. However, the key difference between buying a product and watching wrestling is that you have different concerns as to your engagement with the product. When you choose which cell phone to buy, you may want to disregard the advertising, which can be misleading, and look at the hard facts from unaffiliated sources.
With wrestling, on the other hand, part of the fun is getting swept up in the promotion. There’s a reason “promotion” is both the word we associate with the advertisement of a wrestling company and also the word for a wrestling company itself. Pro wrestling isn’t simply a product, but one that internally promotes every subsequent product. We’re not making a one-time purchase, but getting taken in by the stories and direction of the promotion. Factoring in opposition, we’re applying our agency toward whichever side best suits our tastes. Throughout The Rock and John Cena rivalry, fans may have simply liked one more than the other; at the Hammerstein Ballroom, perhaps fans thought the Extremists represented a marginalized minority they wanted to support. No matter the case, the theory and application of opposition can be tied up into a neat package of opposition, agency and promotion.
If you take away anything from this reading, I hope it’s not resentment toward the WWE for capitalizing on your hatred of John Cena. Rather, I want you to be able to engage in any sort of opposition with a renewed understanding that the other is not your personal opponent, but rather a fellow fan of the same fiction, only exercising his agency in favor of the side that suits his tastes. Debate away, rattle off 500-word comments whenever someone criticizes your favorite wrestler, but do so with a self-aware pleasure, rather than a genuine and unhealthy hatred.
There you have it, a concise 1,300 words. I hope slimming down the articles a bit is attractive to you readers. As always, I welcome any and all comments, especially if you’d like to contribute or challenge the contents of the article, which is itself a kind of contribution. Until next week, I’m going to go declare that philosophy minor I mentioned in my second article, because cardboard boxes just sound super cozy. In the meantime, check me out on Twitter, shoot me an angry email and let me know if you’ll be subletting your cardboard box anytime soon.