The logic of pro wrestling was traditionally that fans were “marks,” dupes who could be tricked into paying their money to see a show that they thought was real. Today, much of the public still looks at this rather odd phenomenon of scantily clad men pretending to hurt one another through this lens, that the majority in attendance might believe the violence to be “on the level.” However, I think there’s a much deeper cultural fascination at play: the pleasure of embracing fantasy as reality, even when we know what we’re doing. It’s what we do when we try to scream out advice to a soap opera character, when children engage in play, or when we pretend that audiences think like marketers want them to (okay, so that last one is the only one in which I suspect the participants aren’t aware that they are in fantasy-play, but I digress.)
When I was teaching a course on the history and current state of professional wrestling a couple of years ago at MIT, we had a troupe of local performers come join the class for the evening. He shared a story which, I believe, gets at the heart of one major draw of pro wrestling. According to this gentleman, he was out for dinner when his server recognized him as the evil manager from the local wrestling organization. Excited, the server told him how he enjoyed the wrestling shows and loved watching him perform. Rather than embrace this fan enthusiasm, though, our speaker said he brushed the server off and–when it came time to pay–he stiffed his fan on a tip.
Not the typical advice one would give a brand or performer when they meet an enthusiast, is it? But our speaker explained his logic: “I wanted that server to go away and tell his friends at the next wrestling show he attends or the next time wrestling comes up in conversation, “I met him at the restaurant the other night, and he’s an even bigger jerk than the character he plays.” Here, he knew the fan attended wrestling shows knowing they were for entertainment, but he wanted to give him an anecdote to help push him back into the fantasy of the wrestling world.
Such is the logic of an industry where the slope has always been particularly slippery between what’s “real” and what’s “fake.” Our society’s focus on what’s “real” and what’s “fake” helps explain the vast popularity of magic shows, of visual effects, of Unsolved Mysteries, of tabloid magazines, and so on. Hoaxes have often been at the center of our popular fantasies. From Mark Twain’s grifters from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the narrators of classic stories like Little Big Man and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Heath Ledger’s haunting version of The Joker, we are fascinated by characters who defy explanation and, in reality, by being duped (a situation we often sometimes willingly put ourselves in).
Take the moon hoax, for instance. In 1835, The New York Sun published a series of articles about the breakthroughs of scientific study which discovered life on the moon: including bison and what the newspaper termed “man-bats.” The newspaper never openly admitted the story was a hoax, although of course people were amusedly debating the nature of the story throughout their readership. Or the story that Neil Harris recounted in Humbug of circus impresario P.T. Barnum. Barnum once said that his ticket-seller said of him: “First he humbugs them, and then they pay to hear him tell how he did it. I believe if he should swindle a man out of twenty dollars, the man would give him a quarter to hear him tell about it.” And we can certainly understand the draw of a figure like Andy Kaufman from this angle.
Of course, Kaufman would be the first to cite professional wrestling among his greatest influences, and part of his fame was from his intersection with this spandex-clad world. But, I think there’s much we can all take away from the way pro wrestling in particular blurs fantasy and reality. A couple of weeks ago, In Media Res (a part of the fantastic MediaCommons initiative) had a themed pro wrestling week that got to the heart of this powerful and longstanding cultural pattern in the U.S. and elsewhere. In Media Res is a project that invites a new scholar to post video content and a short analysis of it each day, simultaneously making a statement about the fair use of media content for academic purposes and opening up scholarly discussion to a larger audience, a concern I wrote about earlier this month.
Film critic David Ray Carter writes about the representation of violence on pro wrestling and the concern about how close of a line to reach when it comes to realism in performance and the extent of violent acts depicted. In particular, he looks at a recent situation in which a pro wrestler was let go for what was perceived as taking the performance too far, choking someone with their own tie and committing other acts that were frowned upon on a TV-PG show. Bowling Green State University’s Cory Barker looks at the increasing use of Twitter by pro wrestling personalities and the crossing over of their characters and personal lives through their Tweets (a line that is not much clearer for a variety of Twitter celebrities).
411mania.com’s Ari Bernstein writes about a particularly famous situation in pro wrestling history when, in 1996, the performers in a main event Madison Square Garden match decided to do a “curtain call” and bow to the crowd after the main event, on the last night of a couple of the wrestlers with the company, a decision that pointed too directly to the artifice of pro wrestling for the time and earned one of the performers in particular a significant demotion. Meanwhile, Bryan Alvarez of The Wrestling Observer and Figure Four Weekly wrote about the very real concerns of concussions behind the performance of fake violence in the ring.
For storytellers of any type, there’s much we can take away from these examples and the lessons pro wrestling has to offer. People like playing with the boundaries of “real” and “fake.” That fascination drives a good portion of spreadable media online. It is what powers many alternate reality games. And it fuels “watercooler converastion,” “buzz,” “word-of-mouth,” or whatever other term-of-the-day we might use to talk about what people get passionate about discussing. So, while we all debate sincerity and bluster in this fall’s round of political races, how much of a publicity stunt the latest celebrity controversies and arrests really are, and wait for new “fakester” accounts like @BPGlobalPR to play with the boundaries of the real, anyone involved in professional communication should realize that, more often than not, engagement with “the fake” is not a sign that people are being duped but rather that they want to participate in such a fantasy, to role-play themselves.
In pro wrestling, as I so often say, the greatest performers are the fans. Professional communicators need to realize that their audience is always performing as well, that they are not impressions to be gathered, bodies to be infected, or marks to be targeted for a scam. Not only is such a mentality outdated and disrespectful, but it’s increasingly dangerous in a world where the audience has more power than ever before. That doesn’t mean that brands might not do what they can to engage in this play with fans, though, even if I wouldn’t recommend most brands engage in the sort of customer service that our tip-stiffing wrestling manager did.
And, if you want to see how these lines can be blurred, come see me sometime at a local pro wrestling show here in Kentucky, where I occasionally play Sam Ford, a Kentuckian who left his hillbilly roots behind for an MIT education and a highfalutin job who now actively looks down on all the “little people” back home. You’ll see this longstanding American phenomenon is alive and well.
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium’s project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work. He also blogs for Peppercom’s PepperDigital. Ford is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.