The limits of the story: transmedial influences on the WWE’s storytelling

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’:

 

Work Cited

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

 

Professional wrestling studies: a survey of the discipline

The art created for Chris Jericho & Kevin Owens’ legendary yet surreal “festival of friendship”: Monday Night RAW, 13th February 2017

Firstly, a quick disclaimer: while medieval and early modern Hispanic studies remain my primary academic interests, my heart has for many years been and will continue to be taken by the unique art form that is professional wrestling, and its establishment as a field of academic study will constitute a dual focus of this blog.

Professional wrestling has been called the “least appreciated” yet one of the most well-established and long-running examples of both television entertainment and live performance art. The combination of its inherently popular nature yet somewhat niche appeal means academic work on it is incredibly unusual, and existing scholarly resources are sparse and sporadically produced. No clear methodologies have been proposed for the study of pro-wrestling, in part due its inherently interdisciplinary nature: it can be assessed from the viewpoint of media studies, cultural studies, performance studies, sports science and film studies, to name but a few disciplines. Despite the multifaceted richness of wrestling as a product, it remains relegated to a rejected outpost of ‘cultural’ or ‘media’ studies, making it perhaps one of the last elements of mainstream media or TV that hasn’t been subjected to thorough academic criticism, and I propose that this must change. Some valuable contributions do exist, however, and the purpose of this blog post is to give a brief overview of the state of the discipline, as well as to suggest further avenues of scholarship (and believe me, there are many).

The most notable works include Nicholas Sammond’s classic edited collection Steel Chair to the Head, which begins, as my article has done, with a “brief and unnecessary defence of professional wrestling”, signalling that those who work on wrestling ought to stop prefacing their work with futile apologies and disclaimers in a plea for legitimacy.  Perhaps the innate self-consciousness of scholars working on wrestling is thus inherently self-limiting. Sammond goes on to highlight the way in which wrestling constitutes:

“A hotly contested site for working out social, cultural, political, and economic ideals and desires. While wrestlers grapple with each other – the signs that flit so uneasily across their straining bodies – whether projected by promoters, fans, or social critics of the form – represent an unequal and uneasy negotiation of social meanings, a struggle to name what proper and just social relations are in a capitalist mass society”. (2005, 15)

Social critique of professional wrestling is incredibly important, yet I question whether Sammond’s approach limits wrestling to a mere ‘sign of the times’ as opposed to treating the product as a work, or ‘text’, in and of itself, given its relation to societal context is limited to conjecture as to the intention of wrestling’s often anonymous authors. The rest of the collection contains fascinating case studies on the economic implications of wrestling, portrayal of masculinity, Latino identity,  and the logic of wrestling as a sport. It notably excludes any detailed assessment of female wrestlers, yet does explore an online community of female fans in the pre-Reddit era.

Two recent contributions have also done much to fill the dearth of criticism: firstly, the 2017 Routledge collection  on wrestling & performance studies proposes “a significant re-reading of wrestling as a performing art”, and is segmented into topics as broad as audience, circulation, Lucha, gender, queerness, bodies and race. Important contributions include the first real engagement with the development of the characters Golddust and Marlena in light of queer theory. The collection’s approach to race, however, is focused on racial violence and nationalism, as opposed to any real exploration of the racialised identities projected in the ring.

Finally, 2018 saw the publication of a new collection of essays on wrestling & identity edited by Aaron Horton. The focus here is once more on nationality, race and gender, but is less Western-centric than previous scholarship: it includes work on Nativism & Chicano identity, Iranian identity, the inauguration of Brazilian wrestling, a history of wrestling in Cape Town, South Africa, and the politics of cultural appropriation. Its approach to gender is also more specific, including a singular case study on Sasha Banks and female wrestlers in Japan. As far as I am aware it also contains the very first academic studies on wrestling in video games – specifically how the WWE mediates its history through the yearly-renovated WWE 2K franchise that concomitantly plays on nostalgia – and on the seemingly indelible connection of wrestling and rock music.

In terms of early career research, in recent years a number of dissertations have emerged. Brooks Oglesby’s 2017 MA thesis constituted another much-needed case-study, on “Daniel Bryan & The Negotiation of Kayfabe in Professional Wrestling”. Steven Granelli’s 2017 doctoral thesis has a somewhat broader scope in its exploration of the “Performance of the Heel in Professional Wrestling”.

Aside from these examples, other published literature is descriptive or biographical, tending to fall unsatisfactorily under the “sports writing” genre. The bulk of real analysis in fact takes place online, where there’s an abundance of popular journalism, as well as independent analysis blogs and the reams of Reddit threads by engaged fans which pop up daily. Any study on professional wrestling ought to take these sources of opinion seriously in an age of new media. Oglesby sets a good precedent in their dissertation by explicitly using social media as an intertext to interrogate the notion of ‘kayfabe’ (defined as the act of presenting that which is staged as genuine or authentic) in the case of the much-loved ‘underdog’ (yet current WWE champion) Daniel Bryan. Kayfabe is a fascinating phenomenon that fundamentally cannot be equated to acting or fiction, simply because of the physical realities and personal parallels involved in wrestling.

Detailed studies are, however, still required on the interplay of reality with kayfabe, character formation and story development, analysing the impact of wrestling’s multiple ‘authors’: the promotion, the wrestlers themselves, and the audience – both live and online. Moreover, what constitutes a wrestler’s identity is rapidly evolving in the twenty-first century: along with the more traditional elements of name, entrance music, costume, ‘promo’ work, move-set, and commentary, social media is having an increasing impact on both how wrestlers are perceived and how popular they are with the general public. In recent years, particularly notable examples of identity formation and authorship-complication include the Hardy Boyz’s famed Impact Wrestling run in which the promotion relinquished much creative control to the wrestlers themselves. The leading image of the blog also attests to one of the most memorable yet quite simply surreal episodes of WWE’s Monday Night Raw in the past two years: Jericho and Owens’ “festival of friendship”, a idea pitched by Jericho himself.

Another avenue for discussion is what I’ll deem storylines extraneous to the ‘squared circle’; that is, the practice of developing and filming storylines outside of the arena setting without an audience, to then show a live audience the film. The aforementioned Hardy Boyz 2016 Impact Wrestling storyline (in which Matt and Jeff are transformed into Woken Matt and Brother Nero respectively) famously included the Total Nonstop Deletion and culminated in the Final Deletion, both filmed at the brothers’ own homes. The latter has been deemed “a Shakespearean level masterpiece” by sports-entertainment journalists, and its popularity led to the WWE attempting a somewhat watered-down replica in 2018 after it rehired the Hardy Boyz.

A further recent example in the WWE of an extraneous event is the 2017 feud between Randy Orton and supernatural character Bray Wyatt in the lead up to Wrestlemania 33 which then continued on to the subsequent pay-per-view ‘Payback’. One of the most creative set of films in WWE’s recent history, prior to WrestleMania Orton burns down Wyatt’s compound, killing his supernatural alter-ego Sister Abigail. Orton then almost comically strikes his in-ring pose outside the burning building. The wrestlers then faced each other in the charred remnants of the abandoned building at Payback, Orton famously crushing Wyatt with a fridge.

The most notable evolution in the WWE in the last decade, however, surely has to be its belated move away from misogynistic depictions of women, which for so long deterred a large portion of its potential audience. I propose that in recent years the development of long-standing homosocial bonds (ex. The Shield) has come to take the place of ‘kayfabe’ heterosexual relationships on-screen, a fact that is also connected to the WWE’s desire to pursue both a PG and female audience.

While the WWE has addressed systemic sexism, it still fundamentally lacks BAME wrestlers with substantial roles, and regularly falls foul to incredibly racist depictions of wrestlers of colour: more often than not their roles are dichotomised into either comedic or physically indomitable. It also often actively works to incite overt xenophobia and jingoism by having non-American wrestlers rail against the USA (ex. Jinder Mahal’s 2017 WWE championship run), all the while paradoxically attempting to broaden their international audience.

All in all, pro-wrestling constitutes an incredibly unique art form if only because of the sheer volume of material that it is produced week in, week out, across the globe. Established and regularly-aired TV shows continue to be produced most prominently in the USA, Mexico and Japan, and the WWE holds the record for the longest-running weekly episodic programme in history. Given the lack of academic work on wrestling thus far, it therefore may seem an impossible task to adequately assess that which has been produced and to keep up with what is coming, but I readily accept the challenge.

 

Suggestions for further reading

Bibliography

Chow, Broderick, Laine, Eero, Warden, Claire. (eds.) 2016. Performance and Professional Wrestling. Abingdon: Routledge

Granelli, Steven M. 2017. Being Good at Playing Bad: Performance of the Heel in Professional Wrestling. Ohio U: PhD Dissertation

Horton, Aaron D. (ed.). 2018. Identity in Professional Wrestling: Essays on Nationality, Race and Gender. Jefferson: McFarland

Oglesby, Brooks. 2017. Daniel Bryan & The Negotiation of Kayfabe in Professional Wrestling. U of South Florida: MA Dissertation

Sammond, Nicholas. (ed.). 2005. Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling. Durham: Duke University Press

Wrestling-specific news sites & blogs

Cageside Seats

Wrestling Observer & F4W Online

Wrestling Inc.

Daily DDT

Ringside News

Rasslin Rehash

Sub-Reddits

r/SquaredCircle

r/WWE