To Chart a Universe: Assessing the Fictive World of Wrestling
If there’s one word a person can use to describe wrestling at all times, it’s sure as hell not “well-crafted,” which I think counts as two, but shhhh. What results is a fictive world that often fails to communicate consistent terms to its audience. Some areas are more digestible than others, sure, but at least one major component – or rather, framework – is consistently elusive: just what the fudge wrestling is supposed to be.
We understand some bits. A lot of perennial fans probably think they have it all figured out, but still we often get unexpectedly worked (like WWE hinting at potential returns that amount to nothing, which is perhaps evidence of their ability to work us through mediums we normally trust for transparent information) or lost at sea amid the WWE’s rampant waves of discontinuities and shoddy writing.
A lot of conventions are pretty easy to understand. When two guys are in the ring, they’re both in it to win it. Some guys are good guys and some guys are bad. A wrestler staggers dazedly while his opponent climbs to the top rope because the latter’s elevation creates a gravitational rift that disorients the former. Or, you know, something like that. Of course, there are often exceptions to the rules (especially for the first two), which are acceptable or even welcome when done well, and glaringly bad when not. To borrow a saying my creative writing teacher often used, “If you’re going to break the rules, know how to do it right.”
These conventions aren’t just important to the production of wrestling, but also the terms of the contract between wrestling promotion and audience. Just as science fiction fans understand a movie might bend the laws of physics without filling us in on the science behind it, so too does a wrestling fan know when to suspend his disbelief so as to enjoy the product, even when it contradicts the real world.
However, whereas film, writing, art and even video games have over time come to understand and even exploit this relationship between audience and product, pro wrestling still often flounders in demonstrating their knowledge of the relationship.
Perhaps more severely, writers sometimes don’t even seem to understand the parameters of wrestling’s fictive world, subverting the relationship between fans and wrestling further. When science fiction is done well, it treads the line between reality and absurdity by keeping circumstances consistent with the established laws of their movie. Some series have more flexibility than others (like freaking Star Wars – how many different ways can you spin an omnipresent (except for the Yuuzhan Vong #nerdcred) and invisible Force?), but it should always be a principal concern to make sure the story doesn’t break the trust the audiences have in the writers to create a fictive world that doesn’t contradict the terms of its own existence.
The most popular criticism about WWE’s bad writing is that they seem to think we have amnesia. Often, they’ll ignore past occurrences that you’d logically expect to affect the dynamic of an event (like two wrestlers facing off after having a big rivalry months before), but WWE is prone to ignoring these circumstances and asking that we forget six months of product to enjoy the match at hand. This isn’t always the case, but it’s consistent enough to draw the ire of observant fans.
Perhaps more insufferably (especially to Andrew Johnson) is when characters are crafted so poorly that the intended impression doesn’t translate well based off his track record. As Johnson reminds us every week, Sheamus can be an enormous douchenozzle. There’s no denying that in some of his rivalries (like Del Rio/Sheamus – steal Del Rio’s car, “Now tell him you’re sorry, Sheamus”; gang attack Sheamus, “You lose your title match, Alberto!”) he’s more of a villain than his opponents. While fans still seem mostly positive toward him, notwithstanding the recent Fandangoing, critical viewers (who totally matter) will recognize the inconsistency and call them out on it.
Part of the difficulty in fleshing out an acceptable fictive world all fans will accept (and let’s face it, even some film viewers will complain about teenage wizards and swords made of lasers because they hate imagination and fun) lies also in this constant battle between kayfabe and legitimacy. Sometimes “breaking the fourth wall” can be to the benefit of a character or story, like anything CM Punk-related. Other times, it might only be a cheap way of seeming controversial, like Bubba The Love Sponge calling TNA audiences “marks.”
But in general, the expectations and desires of fans are so inconsistent because not all demographics understand the industry the same way. Some are better conditioned to accept kayfabe, whereas others find WWE positioning Sheamus as a good guy absurd.
It’s not impossible to bridge the gap, however. Many stories get over with any audience because they satisfy the limits of the audience’s suspension of disbelief across all boards. You don’t have to be a mark to enjoy Shawn Michaels doggedly fighting to continue his career against The Undertaker, denying that he ever entered his twilight years. You don’t need to publically declare, “It’s still real to me, damnit!” to appreciate Edge recuperating from a leg injury to return and face Chris Jericho, who rubbed salt in Edge’s wounds. We understand that these are characters. When characters are well-crafted and they’re supported by a compelling story, we can enjoy their personal struggles the same as we would the protagonist of a novel or movie. Those who don’t need such extensive convincing will buy the story anyway.
I understand that with the industry as it is, the expectations I’m setting forth might be unobtainable. I know that a lot of WWE’s shoddy writing is the product of stressful work conditions and an overbearing administration. I get that in addition to television shows, WWE also puts on house shows that have their own creative demands. Perhaps the comparisons between pro wrestling and other art forms are unfit because a storyline or character is never itself a copyrighted product owned by its direct creator, but rather property of the company, that is itself a larger product to which writers only contribute.
And maybe that’s also the problem. Maybe storylines are rarely more than just okay because they can’t be created on their own terms, but most conform to the landscape of the company as a whole. Or maybe fleshing out a fictive world that allows individual storylines to develop organically and without logical, internal contradictions is the root problem that will solve the subsequent issue of bad storylines. I’m not certain, though I am leaning toward the latter.
At this point, because I can’t provide answers, I’ll leave you with my hopes: I hope that someone with a role of influence within WWE will realize the cracks in the foundations and seek to fill them. I hope that the WWE or any wrestling company can see itself as more than a weekly card of matches and become a close-to-fully realized fictive world. I hope that one day, pro wrestling will be recognized not just as a redneck pastime, but as true art form. As I see it, pro wrestling, just like any craft, is not static in its conventions. Video games have only just begun to realize their unique potential over the past few decades. Let’s hope pro wrestling follows suit.
Beginning next Monday, I’ll be writing a mini-series called Worlds of Wrestling, which will use some of the concepts we’ve discussed here to assess the fictive worlds and also the promotional images used by America’s top three wrestling promotions: ROH, TNA and WWE. In some ways they’ll all be similar, since they use similar wrestling conventions; but each of them promotes a unique discourse that fleshes out their respective identities. That’s what I hope to find, anyway. Should be fun.
Until next week, I’m Nicholas LeVack and I’m going to go tend to my sunburns because apparently sun exposure is worse when you’re standing on top of a snowcapped mountain. In the meantime, check me out on Twitter and/or shoot me an angry email: