Academic work on professional wrestling to date has explored the way in which storylines are intrinsically and unavoidably developed by both the creative team behind a promotion as well as its fans, as Katz Rizzo points out:
Live professional wrestling is a performance in which creative power lies in between the performers and the fans. […] Fans and their heroes shape one another’s identity in a mutually reflexive venture. (Katz Rizzo 2016: 134)
The WWE’s development of storylines beyond the squared circle – online, in house shows and across the its programming – has been analysed by Sam Ford, who was also one of the first to note the importance of considering the WWE in the framework of transmedia:
Wrestling has long thrived on existing across multiple locus points […] Applying the language/construct of transmedia storytelling to how WWE’s narrative operates provides a better framework not only for examining unique elements of wrestling’s storytelling style but also for translating what pro wrestling does to other media genres. (Ford 2016: 170)
I would however extend a challenge to Ford’s idea that the WWE’s mixing of ‘reality’ and its story-world causes problems and “significant narrative confusion” (Ibid: 179) for the audience, as this frames real-life intrusions into the world of ‘kayfabe’ as aberrations or surprises, rather than considering them to be elements of the story that both the WWE’s audience and primary authors expect and enjoy.
Fewer studies still have however explored how the commercially-ubiquitous WWE uses its scale to proliferate storylines across the full range of medias in which it operates, ranging from sanctioned and commercialised commodities such as comic books, video games, magazines, toys, other merchandise and house shows, to ‘unofficial’ fan-made commentaries and hypotheses found on wrestling news sites, YouTube, forums, social media, and fan fiction. The resulting implications of both the development of storylines and audience interpretation are immense, varied and uncontrollable, for each viewer’s reading of a storyline (mine included) is conditioned by the extent to which they choose to engage with these multiple medias, whether it be through actively commenting on Reddit or even by simply preparing and eating a WWE championship belt waffle for breakfast.
I’ll now outline firstly the way in which personal engagement with mediums beyond the core product – which is defined here as RAW, Smackdown, 205 Live, NXT, their PPVs and WWE network content – affects the audience’s reading of wrestling storylines as ‘text’, and secondly, the way in which the WWE’s engagement with non-sanctioned (i.e. fan-made) media has consciously shaped storylines as of late.
Fan engagement with the WWE’s multiple authors
The impact of the WWE’s transmedial ubiquity on its core products in fact struck me this past Christmas, during which my family enjoyed playing the WWE branded version of Monopoly. While I own wearable WWE merchandise, and have played WWE video games, these mediums all allow for an extent of personal choice and favouritism (such as whose T Shirt to buy, and which character to play as). By contrast, the Monopoly board is a clear example of the WWE’s selective branding, as the limitations of the game dictate that it is limited to a set number of wrestlers and four tag teams that players must engage with.
WWE comic books engage in a similar exercise as a secondary media, as they function as selective developments of storylines deemed crucial enough for expansion on the page. The BOOM studios series written by Dennis Hopeless – whose other credits include X-Men and Jean Grey – is a case in point, and notably expanded on the Shield’s storyline from 2017-2018. Each sub-series featured a different member of the Shield, and developed their characters in far more detail than the core product allows for. For example, the image above gives an unseen insight into Seth Rollins’ recovery from injury and subsequent negotiations with WWE exec Triple H in order to return to work.
As well as allowing for greater character development, the stories featured in WWE comic books are importantly twice removed from what the wrestlers (i.e. actors) know about the characters they are playing in the ring. The character is fundamentally out of the control of its actor, who likely has no idea what has gone on in the comic book storyline. This then creates a stark disjunction between what the audience and actor know of the character that is being portrayed. A similar effect occurs in the theatre or film when actors portray established, ‘canonical’ personas (for example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet or even Marvel characters like Spiderman) who have been recast and rewritten in multiple forms over so many years that an individual actor playing one interpretation cannot possibly be aware of these multiple recastings, and whether or how their audience has engaged with them in the past.
Vice-versa: the WWE & ‘unofficial’ media
The inverse to this process is then the way in which the WWE engages with fan-made media to develop the stories that the audience then consumes and dissects. The most obvious and frequent example of the WWE opening itself up to collaborative, fan-led authorship is its active engagement with social media, including Reddit and independent review blogs and news sites. Such was the case with the overhaul of RAW at the end of 2018. Ratings plummeted, and the creators reacted immediately by confronting that fact and manipulating the storylines to better reflect what they perceived to be audience feedback. They addressed popular grievances cited on wrestling blogs, Youtube channels and subreddits in the mouth of Seth Rollins. This includes the Revival’s senseless ‘jobbing’ (losing) to the new tag team Lucha House Party, whose identities as Mexican luchadores are problematically exploited for comic relief, and the painfully obviously over-long reign of absentee Universal Champion Brock Lesnar. The wholesale creative failure is then masterfully pinned on Baron Corbin, the then wrestler-turned-general-manager of RAW. The GM position is that of a fictional figurehead who directs the shows on behalf of the backstage writers.
While we ought not to determine and theorise on the real intentions of the authors of the WWE’s core product (the writing team) – which would amount to tenuous, and ultimately ephemeral, conjectures on ‘authorial intention’ – wrestling as a ‘text’ is unique versus other art forms because of its active and conscious engagement with fan feedback that it often actively weaves into storylines, as in the above example. Prior to the promotion’s self-conscious overhaul, negative responses abounded on Reddit, and below are some examples of such fan commentary and suggestions for improvement – the second of which even acknowledges the possibility that WWE employees scour Reddit as a source of inspiration when things go sour.
One final author I have glaringly neglected to mention in this post is indeed the actor-wrestlers themselves who exercise a large amount of control over their characters as portrayed in the core product. In the course of this blog I also aim to address how their presence on social media impacts character development, given wrestlers notoriously flit in and out of ‘kayfabe’ on social media according to their prominence in the company at any one time, their perceived affinity between ‘self’ and character’, and indeed their personal priorities.
Ultimately, the WWE provides the most important and complex case study for the effects of transmedial storytelling and multiple authorship due to its sheer scale. Further studies may wish to compare how WWE builds characters in its 2K video game series versus the core product, how the design of and types of wearable merchandise attributed to each character contribute to their perception, and the way in which the WWE and its performers engage with mainstream media (television, news sites, etc).
Edit: Upon further research I’ve now found two exciting edited collections due out in 2019 that both promise to tackle the WWE and transmedia. Watch this space as I aim to review them on this blog:
Jeffries, Dru. ed. 2019 (forthcoming). #WWE: Professional Wrestling in the Digital Age. Bloomington: India University Press
Reinhard, CarrieLynn D. & Christopher J. Olson. eds. 2019 (forthcoming). Convergent Wrestling: Participatory Culture, Transmedia Storytelling, and Intertextuality in the Squared Circle. Abingdon: Routledge
Example Reddit Threads featuring ‘fan feedback’:
Ford, Sam. 2016. “”WWE’s Storyworld and the Immersive Potentials of Transmedia Storytelling”, The Rise of Transtexts: Challenges and Opportunities, eds. Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz, Mélanie Bourdaa. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis
Katz Rizzo, Laura. 2016. “‘Gold-dust’: Ricki Starr’s ironic performances of the queer commodity in popular entertainment”. Performance and Professional Wrestling. eds. B. Chow, E. Laine, C. Warden. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis