2013 may go down as the year I just accepted that I am a kid inside.
Not in any weird infantalizing way, but I let myself get back into reading lots of silly sci fi and fantasy stuff (though I did of course take a break for the new Pynchon), and eventually I even let myself get back into watching wrestling. Well, not so much get back into as get into. As a kid, I didn’t watch much of it. I wanted to, but my parents probably weren’t fans of all the bizarre sociopolitical messages in it (see such “fun” bits as Rowdy Roddy Piper’s stint as a racist, and so on) and the violence never sat well with my mom, even though that we all, including kid me, knew it was a show. But I still read about it and watched some when I could, and lord knows you couldn’t hang out with other elementary schoolers in the 80’s and not hear about it. I occasionally picked up some wrestling videogames, mostly out of my sucker-like weakness for anything that lets me create characters and modify them in-depth. And lord knows, I have whittled away enough free time in my life by falling into the wikihole that is professional wrestling articles.
This year though, two factors drove me into starting to watch more wrestling again. First was an invite and a subsequent trip to visit a friend to watch Wrestlemania together in April. As ashamed as I am to say this (not really), this was the first time I had ever actually watched ‘Mania, and it was a good time. The Raw episode the night after might have even been better. From there, I started catching up on stuff, reading articles, watching YouTubes, and so on. Later in the year, David Shoemaker’s excellent The Squared Circle came out, largely a compliation of a lot of his Dead Wrestler of the Week columns for Deadspin edited and interspersed with the history of the sport as a whole, and well, from there I was hooked.
So of course I had to try to write about it.
Wrestling is weird; there’s just no other way of putting it. Some strange kind of theatre, in which giant men (and sometimes women) sell themselves to an audience as characters that may (or may not) just be exaggerated versions of themselves before engaging in some degree of scripted combat with each other. These characters (again, which may be either completely fabricated, or some kind of hyperreal versions of the actors themselves) act in ways that are designed to elicit specific reactions from a crowd but then also modified after the reactions of the crowd are understood. The combat itself is scripted in both the outcome and often in many of the specifics, and yet no one watching can doubt that a high degree of both athleticism and co-operation are essential to the event itself. It’s almost a team event, but everyone is playing on the same team.
The fans (at least those who aren’t young kids) are all part of the team, and know it is fake. Of course they do. And every one of them has had some conversation with someone who has brought this into question. And every one of them has some response to this, most of which amount to “yeah, so?”, at which point the concerned party either moves onto a new topic, or dives in. Wrestling fandom is postmodern pop culture writ large, splayed out for all to see. What separates wrestling from much of pop culture is how much its fans seem to instinctively know of the machinations of postmodern reality. Wrestling fans have been postmodern in their relations to the ideas of truth/fiction and reality/the unreal long before the term postmodern even existed. In fact, it’s these very strange dualities that keep so many wrestling fans entrenched in their fandom long after any such realization of trickery has occured.
The strange (possibly estranged) relationship between reality and the unreal that is so central to professional wrestling as a show1 is front and center in its various video game incarnations. Most recently, both WWE 13 and WWE All Stars have really highlighted for me how strange this relationship is.
First the easier of the two to understand, WWE 13, a fairly recent entry in Yukes, Inc.’s long running series of flagship games for the WWE2. As the flagship series, the Yukes games have long bore the burden of recreating the WWE exactly as fans see it on television, which they have gone about in a variety of ways over the years. When the television product was mostly focused on individual storylines, Yukes’ games offered somewhat randomly generated storylines that the player could take a real-life wrestler or a self-created character through. As the general focus of the WWE has shifted to focus somewhat on the business as a whole3, so too did the games. WWE 13 is no different in this regard, ditching the storyline focus of past games for a general manager mode, which positions the player as general manager (GM) or booker for the entire company, setting up matches and feuds, playing out week in and week out in a variety of ways.
These modes, be they the scripted storylines or the GM powers offered in WWE 13, are tied entirely with the actual idea of wrestling itself as presented in the games. Wrestling games now may be one of the last odd bastions of kayfabe4, as the combat within them can be won by either side and moves are treated as if they are actually physically damaging the wrestlers5, all of whom have hit points and degrees of stamina governing how much of a beating they can take. In a nod to the crowd-reaction nature of the sport6, wrestlers have “momentum”, which is to say a meter that as they do a better job of wrestling (which would mean the crowd is more involved) they build up, eventually being able to pull of a variety of special moves, most either extremely acrobatic in nature or involving some degree of showmanship or a bit of both.
Were the games themselves to follow the scripted nature of the sport, there wouldn’t be much of a game, but more of an act of Simon Says taking place during the matches themselves. This wouldn’t really be fun, except, well, it is. WWE 13 includes an entire mode dedicated to the so-called Attitude Era of the WWE7, which mostly consists of re-enacting some of the more famous matches of the era, with the heavy editing hand of the WWE’s higher ups always on hand. These matches all feature some sort of “historical goal” for the player to recreate in the heat of a fight, and all operate under the assumption the player will win (or be “disqualified” while winning). So much like real pro wrestling, the winner is predetermined, and some of the action in the ring is predetermined, but the player gets to take on the role of a wrestler playing a specific role.
As if this postmodern version of wrestling history (in which a person recreates a particular moment in history as if it were new by playing the part of an actor who (in the original moment) was playing a role) wasn’t hard enough to wrap the mind around, consider also the aforementioned editorial hand of the WWE, which goes out of its way to remove a few key players entirely from the now-official history of the era. Both Chyna and Chris Benoit played rather decently large roles at various points in this particular time in wrestling history, and both have interesting stories of their own8, and both are nowhere to be found in this version of that time. Chyna is visible in the background of a few shots, but otherwise, both might as well have not existed. It’s hard not to imagine Vince McMahon, the owner of the WWE, saying the words originally spoken by Karl Rove9, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” The empire has acted, and Chyna and Benoit don’t exist in their reality any more.
Such problematic revisionism aside, the Attitude Era mode in WWE 13 does a fairly decent job of portraying the changing nature of wrestling in the late 90s. Most of the more famous moments of the WWE’s history are here, including probably the most famous moment, the Montreal Screwjob10. While one might question the taste of the WWE11 in including this particular moment, it’s a pretty big one in the history of the company, and in the history of wrestling. Kayfabe was pretty much demolished in this moment, and it seemed like only a few of the people involved even knew what was going on. That the WWE includes it in this game, but possibly tries to make it seem like Michaels didn’t want to do it, which runs contrary to every other version of the story I have read. Again, though, the empire makes reality, and it you are going to wrestle in the empire, you gotta accept the reality.
Wrestling in the empire has long been a draw of these games, and WWE 13 does it’s fair share here, letting the player make any number of characters, assign them all unique entrances and finishing moves, even create individual belts for them to earn over their competition. These custom characters can take part in the GM mode, entering into rivalries and storylines with any number of actual wrestlers. Sure, they never look as good as those real-world wrestlers whose every polygon has been poured over by a team of graphic artists, but the fantasy is there. Even if the player can’t completely reshape the empire’s reality, the opportunity to participate in that reality, and maybe disrupt it just a bit, is more than enough for a lot of fans.
If WWE 13 represents such an opportunity, what can be said about WWE All Stars? Whereas 13 represents an attempt (somewhat) to simulate the world of professional wrestling in all of its strangeness, All Stars is the fever dream of that world. All Stars presents wrestling not as it is in the empire’s reality, but as it exists in the imagination of the empire and at least some of its fans. Wrestlers12 are no longer as-realistic-as-possible versions of themselves, but cartoonishly exaggerated caricatures of themselves. Muscles have grown muscles, it seems, and faces have been exaggerated to allow for maximum expression. The relative ages of the wrestlers involved are ignored, each man represented by himself at what the creators of the game decided was his peak, allowing the roster to cross generational lines.
Combat still consists of real blows and throws, but now all of them are presented in as over-the-top manner as possible. A chokeslam that may have once caused a wrestler to bounce slightly on the floor now launches him up into the air, where his opponent can continue to strike him. A move in which both wrestlers left the ground now has them flying thirty feet into the air, leaving shockwaves as they crash to the mat. Slow motion highlights the most ridiculous of moves. The fever dream is the only dream here.
The game tosses out any notion of heel13 or face14, the very basic building blocks of wrestling storytelling, tropes woven so deeply into the way wrestling presents itself that wrestling now toys with them15. Instead, modern wrestlers are presented with rivals from the past, who fight to determine, for example, who is the “greatest high flyer” between Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio Jr. The game does not let such a battle be complicated at all by the real life matches that occurred between these two men, who feuded and allied several times and were widely known to be friends outside of the ring16. The wrestling reality’s history isn’t what matters here; the empire is divorcing it from the reality of All Stars, even as the final game exists as an almost tribute to it.
Storylines are (like their attendant tropes of heel and face, like history itself) non-existent. The only options for the player are a few different tournaments. One tournament leads to a battle against the Undertaker17, who is one of the few wrestlers to straddle the line between the “Legends” (read: older, retired, often dead wrestlers of the WWE’s past) and the “All Stars” (current wrestlers). Another leads to a Wrestlemania battle with Randy Orton, the bland modern wrestler18 who for some reason McMahon et al. think should be bigger than he is. Finally one is a tag team tournament, featuring Shawn Michaels of the past reunited with modern day Triple H.
Divorced from both physics and chronology, one can’t help but wonder at what unreality is being presented in All Stars. If wrestling itself can be said to be a simulation of our shared reality, a false reality constructed of elements of our own, but distorted to create a new, separate reality that is only tangentially connected to ours, then something like All Stars is this, but once over again. All Stars is the distorted reality of wrestling’s distorted reality, a fun-house mirror world in which time and space only mean as much as the creators of this unreality let it. Baudrillard might see All Stars as a physical simulacra of wrestling’s simulation, but maybe not. He might just see it as a silly game, as it is a really silly game.
As a silly game, though, it feels like some kind of perfect wish fulfillment for the kids inside the adults in the audience, the kids that still believe in it all being real19, who don’t understand that kayfabe is widely acknowledged, sometimes even in the ring these days. All Stars’ wrestlers most resemble plastic action figures, and it’s hard to play the game and not think of some young kid with an overactive imagination, bouncing his toys around a sandbox in his overblown re-enactment of the previous night’s battles.
Late in The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 story of fictional wrestling hero Randy “The Ram” Robinson (played amazingly by Mickey Rourke), there is a scene of a young boy (the 10 year old son of Marissa Tomei’s Pam, an aging stripper) playing with an action figure of The Ram. He’s clearly acting out some matching in his head, in which The Ram, who was at his peak before this kid was even born, jumps off the couch, performing his famous signature Ram Jam to pin a robot that lies on the floor of the living room. It’s such a minor scene, given only a slight bit of gravitas by Pam’s somewhat complicated feelings for Randy, which show on her face as she watches this little battle play out. The scene works for the audience, though, as a recreation of what wrestling fandom means to kids. In an almost inverse of how All Stars seems to recreate wrestling as it exists only in those childish heads, this scene shows what those kids look like to the outside world. And, for just a few moments, it’s beautiful.
As much as WWE 13 and WWE All Stars seek to present two different (but clearly still in control of the WWE) versions of wrestling reality, The Wrestler presents a much more personal reality, that of a wrestler himself. Randy “The Ram” Robinson20 doesn’t care one bit for the mythology of the company or the sport as a whole. As a wrestler, he mostly cares about his performances, and his interactions with the other wrestlers, both on and off the mat. Outside of wrestling, he cares about wrestling, and not much else. When wrestling is taken from him, he realizes he has to try to care about other things21.
What is most interesting about the movie in illuminating the weird understanding of reality in wrestling is seeing how the personal construction of wrestling reality works for The Ram. He clearly has no problem navigating the semi-real world of the backstage setup conversations and the unreal/hyperreal world of the in-ring battle. He talks with the other wrestlers of stage in a clear mentoring/friendship role. He battles hard and clearly cooperatively with several different wrestlers of differing styles and abilities in the ring.
The problem comes when he is away from this world, and he isn’t the same person he is when he is in that world. A clear dissonance forms, wherein when he is in the meta-fictional world of wrestling, he is a star. In the locker room, everyone wants to see him and talk to him, and most of all wrestle with him. In the ring, he can push guys over22, play to a crowd (even if, as the movie shows, the crowds have gotten a lot smaller), and generally still live in the glory of being a wrestler. Outside of the ring, he’s a nobody. His life reads like one long list of failures, a list that ends with him living in a trailer alone that he finally gets the keys back to after enduring a brutal match that ends up causing him to have a heart attack. There’s bottoming out, and then there is really hitting rock bottom.
This dissonance, between The Ram and Robin Ramzinski (his real name, though he constantly tries to get people to refer to him as “Randy”, in a clear attempt to exert the control over reality that he has in the ring), dominates the movie. The Ram tries to become Robin, and Robin tries to live up to the Ram, and both attempts result in personal failures that the audience is only let in on because this is a movie. But the audience is let in, and that is what is maybe the most important part of the movie. Here, more than anywhere else in wrestling games or shows, the audience is let in to see what could possibly happen in the mind of a guy willing to do what The Ram does.
And maybe this is what draws me into wrestling as a whole. Beyond the bizarre versions of real and unreal that happen in live ring events time after time, there are people, men and women who are entertaining crowds by using their bodies to do ridiculous and amazing and silly and often incredibly dangerous feats. Why do they do it? Because they can, or because they can’t do anything else, or because they don’t want to do anything else. What’s real? What’s fake? What does it matter?
Of course, that a fictional wrestler with a completely made-up story both in-ring and out is the vessel that communicates this is only far too perfect for wrestling.
1: I debate about what to call “wrestling” as a whole. On one hand, I am tempted to call it a sport, as it undoubtedly involves an amazing amount of athletic ability, but I know people would object due to the lack of actual competition in most wrestling events. Similarly, I could call it a “sport” (quotations included) to indicate that I (and every wrestling fan above the age of 6) know that is all scripted and the outcomes are almost always predetermined, but this feels a bit too snarky, and would only serve to undermine the whole thing. In the end, I settle for show, which ties the spectacle of the athletics to the very scripted nature, and also adds the element of performance, essential to any understanding of wrestling at all.
2: Up until the most recent entry, these games were put out by THQ, though the titles were very rarely as simple as WWE + Year (often including Smackdown and Raw, the two major TV shows of the WWE, in the title). When THQ folded, the rights to the WWE, long a major franchise for THQ, were sold off to 2K Games. Yukes continued working on the series, now under the supervision of 2K, leading to the most recent entry being titled WWE 2K14. Nothing in wrestling, especially when it gets to the business end of things, can ever be simple.
3: An outgrowth most likely of the WWE being the only major player in town after the acquisition of both the WCW and the ECW in the early 2000’s. However, games themselves maintained a focus mostly on the individual characters for a long time after this, a pretty good indicator of how the WWE had no idea what to do with its virtual monopoly on national wrestling.
4: For those who are unfamiliar with the term, “kayfabe” is a long used term within wrestling for the idea of maintaining the illusion, never letting on that the whole event is “fake” and scripted. Various wrestlers/promoters have maintained varying degrees of commitment to this idea, some going so far as to insist on never being in public outside of their characters. Such commitment carried on, even though most of the fans watching knew that the wrestlers themselves were often playing characters, as many of the fans had seen the same wrestlers as other characters. No one seems overly certain of the origin, though some have suggested it is a mutated Pig Latin for “be fake”.
5: Which, of course, is not to imply that often in reality, wrestlers are not actually hurt. Of course they are. There isn’t really a completely safe and injury-free way to fall through a table, for example.
6: Yeah fuck it, I don’t care. It’s a sport.
7: The Attitude Era was largely the later half of the 90s, in which the WWE (then known as the WWF) feuded with the WCW and eventually the ECW. As part of these feuds, each company pushed for greater and greater ratings through a variety of gimmicks, most of which centered on the wrestlers themselves becoming more and more over-the-top, blurring the lines between the real and the unreal even further, and performing in bigger and bigger (and more dangerous) stunt matches. The Attitude Era could easily (but maybe glibly) be seen as “the end of kayfabe”. It would all come to an end due to the WWE gaining enough money to buy out their competitors, and the general displeasure of much of the public with wrestling following the high profile deaths of Owen Hart, Eddie Guerrero and a host of others.
8: Chyna, a decent female wrestler, was denied a chance to win the Heavyweight title due to her gender, and eventually fell into making porn when the WWE blackballed her when she feuded with them over this. Chris Benoit was an old-school style wrestler who (due to a variety of circumstances, including steroid use and probable mental illness) murdered his wife and child, and hanged himself on the eve of winning an ECW title.
9: Republicans (a group to which the McMahons definitely belong), though often busy decrying the very notion of postmodern morality, often have an amazingly inherent understanding of the bizarre postmodern relationship between truth and reality.
10: Quick explanation: Basically, Bret Hart was leaving the WWE for the WCW, and had a title belt. Being a Canadian, Hart didn’t want to give it up at his last show in Montreal, but Vince arranged to come out during the match and got the ref to call that Hart had submitted to Shawn Michaels (his rival) while Michaels was doing Hart’s move on Hart, and thus give up the belt. Hart was originally supposed to lose the belt, but not in such an embarrassing fashion. Hart would write out the letters WCW before leaving the stage.
11: Not that this is difficult. Vince and company have shown themselves time and again to not be above bad taste for the sake of ratings and money.
12: Or as the WWE insists on calling them, “Superstars”.
13: Bad guy, in wrestling jargon.
14: Good guy, again, jargon.
15: Most recently and especially in the case of John Cena, who is packaged as some kind of hero face to kids everywhere (his actual charity work with Make-A-Wish is even part of this packaging), and yet for many an adult fan sees in him the forced faces of the past, the Hulk Hogans who dominated the spotlight for far too long, much to the “shafting” of more talented wrestlers who were often forced to play heel or at least second place to Hogan and Cena. This dual role for Cena is unique in the modern WWE, and one can watch any episode of WWE programming to see the mixed reception taking place, and Cena for his part, plays it pretty perfectly. He’s one of the few genuinely hated people in the WWE, while simultaneously being the organization’s poster boy. No small feat, and it should surprise no one that his rival in All Stars is the Hulkster himself.
16: A recent WWE sorta-documentary (they make a lot of these) talks about the great rivalry between these two wrestlers, including the ridiculous storyline that involved a custody dispute over Mysterio’s son. However, Vicki Guerrero, the wife of the late Eddie, discusses the rivalry more like the collaboration of two friends who really liked to put on a good show, and knew that the best way to do that was to fight each other.
17: With some marvelous promos starring the Undertaker and his longtime manager, Paul Bearer.
18: Whose promos in the game work as an accurate reflection of his wrestling real world blandness. Whether or not this blandness is intentional or not, it’s still there. Authorial intent in wrestling is a whole other thing.
20: A completely fictional character with some very clear roots in the 80s and 90s wrestlers. He tells kids to do push-ups like Hulk Hogan, dresses in neon armbands like the Ultimate Warrior, and has the long flowing blonde locks of any number of other wrestlers. The team behind him very clearly thought a lot about how wrestlers (and faces specifically) were constructed back in those days.
21: Obvious spoiler: he kinda fails at that
22: Wrestling jargon for helping another wrestler gain popularity by allowing him to show off his abilities and possibly even beat you, though not necessarily. Part of pushing a heel character over can be showing how great his ability is to win a crowd’s admiration, but then still showing him losing to the face as a form of mild oppression.