Territory wrestling peaked in the seventies, before the WWE achieved its dominion, and with it created local wrestlers celebrities. No one more than Jerry Lawler, who was “The King” of the Memphis area and beyond, his face was plastered on everything from used car dealers to baked beans tins, very similar to the stardom that The Rock is beginning to develop. But there is a stark difference between the two. Whenever Lawler’s face endorsed a product it was capped with his trademark crown, but when The Rock makes appearance on David Letterman he openly and casually speaks about past opponents and feuds never once tossing in a trademark phrase or eyebrow. Jerry Lawler once wrote in his book that in his time wrestlers had to live well out of town so they could merely go to the shops out of character, because if they were caught being John Smith it would spell the demise of their career in that territory. All the while The Rock is encouraging interviewers to refer to him as Dwayne Johnson on national television.
It’s not that Vince and his predecessors have actively tried to dilute kayfabe over the years, it’s more a case of apathy for profit. ECW were known to do their best to keep with kayfabe on occasion (often injuries didn’t have to try to be kayfabe), knowing its effectiveness. One example was when The Sandman was “blinded”, and so in order to sell the significance of the injury Sandman never left his house for over a month, knowing that if the passionate Philadelphia fans spotted him with 20/20 vision the angle would have gone over almost unnoticed. One month housebound is an incredible sacrifice for anybody’s job, yet it was done for a storyline, and would seldom happen in today’s environment.
Kayfabe is a double edged sword, on one hand it gives the product legitimacy and reality which to build storylines upon, while it also inadvertently treats the fans like simpletons, suggesting they are sheep that will believe whatever they’re been told. So no matter which avenue the company chooses to travel, they’ll be neglecting one area of the product.
Believability is essential for a mainstream wrestling company such as the WWE, if the product becomes too flamboyant and “cartoony” it alienates and demeans the audience and they’ll eventually become overwhelmed and tune out. It’s an issue that the WWE has teetered on the edge of, sometimes stepping over. With the renewed embracement of 80s style gimmicks, the WWE are introducing wacky characters which are fairly hit and miss, and often offensive to the audience. If an audience knows that if Paul Bearer was buried in concrete that he was going to be fine because it’s all not real, then the angle is going to have minimal impact. If this becomes a pattern, then the majority of angles are going to go over unnoticed. There has to be a balance between something shocking an innovative and something so unbelievable that it’s impossible to happen in real life.
Some responsibility has to be put on the fans as well. Whenever someone sits down in a cinema, or on a couch to watch television, it’s expected that they suspend their disbelief for the period of the show. This means that they acknowledge the filmmaker’s poetic license to bend reality to a degree, because people watch movies and television to escape from reality and be absorbed into a foreign and amazing environment other than their own. Some fans feel they can waive this unwritten etiquette because wrestling puts itself forward as a sport, which can be seen anywhere on the internet. Internet to a degree has played a part in kayfabes extinction; people are discussing behind closed doors more and more the ins and outs of the wrestling business, whether they have experience or not. This makes it difficult to “pull the wool over the eyes” of the fans when within minutes it will be exposed online. The issue being that the internet isn’t a balanced cross section of the wrestling fan base, most of the fans will follow any heel/face turn and cheer who they should, so doing something on the account of a minority (granted, a vocal one) isn’t well thought out, because only a fraction are outspoken.
The fan base can often be hypocrisy personified. In some cases they dismiss wrestling as a zit-ridden adolescent outlet for pent up virginity, sniggering when people state they watch it. While as soon as JBL does the goosestep in character, he loses his job at a mainstream news station. Actors don’t feel repercussions whenever they portray a crime, yet constantly we hear wrestlers being dismissed as actors in spandex. They can’t win either way.
Should people expect wrestlers to talk trash and have a scrap each time they see each other in public, meaning every single convention that WWE appears at would eventually turn into barroom brawl. Or should we expect wrestlers to speak openly of storyline mechanics on whichever talk show they’re invited on, which would only further concrete peoples’ opinion that wrestling is fake. Wrestlers aren’t only actors, they’re sportsmen. It’s more demanding to ask someone to not only fight but also make the match entertaining while they’re at it, than to simply go out there and try and stay upright. The issue of kayfabe should be blamed not on the company or the fans but contemporary cynical environment in which we now live. It’s not necessarily a negative development but an inevitable one and has caused a rift in silent viewership. To achieve some sort of solidarity, everyone must agree on either regarding the wrestlers as actors, giving him or her immunity from any repercussions that their character instigated, while also expecting to see onscreen enemies sharing a latte, separating character from person. Or fans should accept that in order for authenticity, wrestling is essentially real and whenever running into a wrestler out of the ring they should be in no less than full character, and you should not address them by their true name. Each argument has its pros and cons, but overall wrestling is cruising along nicely with its ambiguous approach to kayfabe, only offending a couple of Internet fans, who are going to be disgruntled regardless.
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