The Fix: Professional Wrestling’s Current Moment by Kate Carsella

Part and parcel of the loyalty I feel towards “the business” is an inherent desire to explain to anyone who'll listen why I think it is of cultural significance and / or, value; there’s always a level of evangelism arising from subculture membership. I have favorite wrestlers, I've fantasy booked the territory. I have a theoretical model for how the business should be transacted.

At the beginning of December 2014, Vince McMahon and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin had a live interview under the banner of The Steve Austin Show Unleashed (Steve Austin’s podcast) broadcast on McMahon’s new SVOD service, WWE Network. For the two weeks leading up to this, Reddit was abuzz with concerns that Austin would not ask McMahon the “hard questions:” “the timing of all this is suspicious... its all a work im telling u [sic]” (TylerBrook); “Nothing special and little to no acknowledgement of recent headlines [sic]. The 'no pussyfooting' promise is just salesmanship to get more listeners.” (GiantGonzalesOnesie)—and more along those lines from those with little faith in Steve Austin's willingness and / or ability to get McMahon to acknowledge certain truths of the business, despite his status as a paragon of authenticity—owing to his career's having been situated in the lauded “Attitude Era;” and his own pro-wrestling fandom being the driving force behind the career choice.

Henry Jenkins IV,—son of academician Henry Jenkins of MIT and later, USC,—says the industry and the fandom stand divided; the in-ring content that was long central to the industry, and still is to the smarks, is no longer the focus of WWE’s flagship serial, Monday Night Raw. Transgressive aggression has become sanitized, corporatized, but how did this happen, and why is the WWE Universe hyperdiegesis managed by the industry to simultaneously maintain the loyalty of smarks, and court the new, casual, more mainstream fans uninterested in pro-wrestling as a subculture, and how does this affect professional wrestling’s business? As the business has gone through such structural, conceptual changes at the helm of WWE, I find it necessary to document what happened to bring about the current moment.

The senior Jenkins’ “'Never Trust a Snake': WWF Wrestling as Masculine Melodrama”, originally published in 1997, appears in Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling, edited by Nicholas Sammond of the University of Toronto, and was written at a time when pro-wrestling still worked primarily as a cultural forum. Jenkins’ focus was on in-ring content.

1997 was also a seminal year for, then WWF, WWE: Monday Night Raw, the live flagship serial was four years into production. WWF had reached behemoth stature in the business by acquiring rights and talent of other now defunct wrestling territories and, consequently, new power: new control over the definitions and branding of pro-wrestling.

However, in 1997, WWF had its greatest competition in WCW and on December 15, 1997, McMahon, gave a speech during a segment on WAR that served the dual purpose of narrative massaging on and offscreen...

THE CURE FOR THE COMMON SHOW tags the bottom of the screen throughout, situating the content as an advertisement.

For two minutes, McMahon direct-addresses viewers to detail the “innovative and contemporary creative campaign”—the shift away from occupational wrestler gimmicks and toward real personalities. In short, character-driven, narratively complex content, smack in the middle of what Jason Mittell, of Middlebury College, terms the “era of television complexity.”

Aesthetically, complexity was played out with more violent stakes in matches, more vulgar language, and melodramatic hypersexualized encounters among talent onscreen. What Mittell describes as maximum degree style, Roland Barthes, in 1972, assigned to pro-wrestling as externalization of emotion. WWE’s lack of television off-season creates an extreme case of Mittell’s centrifugal complexity. The longer a wrestler’s onscreen career the higher the propensity for attachment for the consumer in this experiential engagement; the development of character horizontal, not vertical. This model would be employed again by WWE, but non-narratively.

Over the succeeding five years this method helped WWF surpass WCW in Nielsen ratings, paving the way for WCW’s absorption by WWF in 2001.

To smarkdom the “Monday Night Wars” have become a focal point for nostalgic mourning; the standard against which the contemporary WWE product must be judged.

The framework of pro-wrestling as a cultural practice requires participation from fans in conjunction with the industry in order to carry out kayfabe effectively. In his aforereferenced speech, McMahon teases a spirit of collaboration of industry and fandom through direct address, through the WAR ZONE and RAW IS WAR gimmickry of the flagship program and by acknowledging smarks tired of having their intelligence insulted, positioning the industry and the smarks as being of the same mind;—both, “custodians of wrestling:” Henry Jenkins IV's term,—and suggesting that collaboration through openness will prove profitable in enjoyable narrative drawing fans to live events and exotic merchandise.

At this time, the ring was the text, and the text was sacred.

One particular aspect of McMahon’s “Cure for the Common Show” speech, that has become particularly poignant in tracing the path of his 1997 campaign to the direction of WWE programming today, is the emphasis on that word: “entertainment.” Today, the words “professional wrestling” are, for the most part, left unspoken. The company is painted as a purveyor of wacky, wonderful entertainments. This was a pivoting of the focus of the company to expand their business opportunities beyond the ring, and to create a metonymy of WWE and pro-wrestling.

In 1999, World Wrestling Federation, Inc. launched an IPO with the issuance of stock then valued at $172.5 million. While these shares were richly symbolic, the actual value of the certificates were low: McMahon would, by a vast margin, remain majority stockholder. However, examined in the matrix of the artifice of pro-wrestling, the public display of fan-focus and the implication of partnership in direction of the company set the tone of the era, positioning WWF, Inc. as a company seeking transmedia opportunities and prominence, using as leverage their success with in-ring content fueled by a fiercely loyal fandom.

Nearly twenty years later, WWE has mainstream name recognition, no viable competition, rights not only to their content, but other, formerly rival content they have since acquired,—which means that WWE is professional wrestling. The truly artificial sphere that is pro-wrestling supports WWE’s positioning as the only legitimate progenitor, and has created a metonymy of its own: WWE is professional wrestling, whether or not the text of the wrestling is primary. Ultimately, the squared circle has been decentered to make room for a network.

As smark anxiety rose from these changes, so has World Wrestling Entertainment’s prominence in the mainstream. With the demise of WCW, the industry didn't have to rely so heavily on their hardcore fans who had so intensely engaged as a result of narrative complexity. WWE gained a freedom to engage in testing the waters of multiplatform, multimedia endeavors; and, to court a new set of fans. To do this, WWE has heightened its association with celebrity and Hollywood. Starting around 2009, Monday Night Raw has often a “celebrity host” for the night,—formerly the “Special General Manager:” a title with executive powers within the narrative, and so, while this is a narrative device, it is important symbolically as the power structure within WWE is given a mainstream, celebrity face, unrelated to wrestling or wrestlers.

Allegedly, the special celebrity hosts are chosen based on their status as fans, but this doesn't compare to the value of mainstream appeal: with the celebrity comes his or her fandom; more eyes to the WWE product in the short-term. In the long, perhaps, such connections could suffuse the zeitgeist with acceptance of a formerly taboo cultural practice, attracting quantities of consumers seeking to engage with WWE through some paratext or another.

WWE has built itself into a sprawling network of products and access. In 2002, WWE created a film production company, WWE Studios, whose properties do not always feature WWE talent, nor pro-wrestling.

By far the biggest endeavor, with the greatest consequences, was the launch of WWE Network on February 24, 2014: a streaming network featuring past and present WWE content, accessible through computers, smartphones, gaming consoles, &c. The network also includes content from WCW, NWA, AWA, WCCW, Mid-South—whose rights WWE acquired from the 1980s through today.

A cursory scroll through YouTube search results for the query “$9.99 chants” discovers a catalog of in-ring promos from Hulk Hogan, Triple H and so forth, and this has already been parodied. Another result are audience chants of “$9.99” as call and response, to poke fun at WWE’s “cheap plug,” as Mick Foley would say. Instead place of chanting superstar catchphrases, or cheering, as in the days of the narratively complex, WWE is training the consumers to repeatedly shout advertisements as a signifier of communality or unity of the fandom and the industry. This is a collaboration of a different kind.

What I described earlier in horizontalizing of narrative complexity has shifted to horizontalizing of content across media: fans can now consume WWE content laterally, and as content not original to WWE is no longer rival, but under its umbrella, then that too. McMahon has discovered a way to commodify competition, and the subcultural practice itself: the choose-your-own-adventure ethic of his new innovation. Because WWE is much larger in scale, scope, and power in media than a television show, its power to mobilize a subculture, and to sanitize it in the process, is greater, with greater consequences.

In that WWE has adopted its galvanic topicality model with such success—knowingly or not,—the commodification of subculture’s fierce loyalty to power transmedia efforts, concomitant with endless customization to maintain their attention and labor, may be bigger than previously thought.

As WWE begins to court the mainstream consumer, it is, as a corporation, reshaping what media entertainment can do, and what the consumers may want, and the ring is decentered even further and the paratextual storylines of talent's “real lives” are given more prominence.

In moving the narrative to the paratextual sphere, WWE has cultivated quite a bit of temporospatial real estate: it has its own Twitter account, which is an public access point to interact with consumers; one of many situated on the matrix of WWE’s entities. These can be labeled official paratexts, in that they are tied to the corporation; engagement with which implies fan control, catering to the potential wide range of consumer taste.

But what happens when a fandom subculture desires concentration of fresh, in-ring wrestling? Matches sparingly use traditional logic, play-by-play commentary is supplanted by upselling and cross-selling of the many virtual options; and smarks are greatly mirroring the disgruntlement of old-school workers. Just check the Squared Circle subreddit. By virtue of supporting WWE’s content, one could argue that the fan supports pro-wrestling and the ten-dollars spent is justified, but not all smarks are satisfied with that concept.

One alternative is to abandon WWE patronage in favor of smaller indy promotions, or make nostalgic runs through YouTube in search of favorite content. Another: for the smark is to seek out what could be labeled unofficial paratexts: consolatory conversation on smark message boards like the aforementioned [reddit.com/r/SquaredCircle]; news and rumor sites, such as lordsofpain.net which document the “real” backstage happenings in WWE; “dirt sheets” like the Pro Wrestling Observer and PW Torch; and, within the past two years, subscriptions to the proliferation of veteran wrestler's / booker's / front office-member's podcasts, on PodcastOne.com. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin—the ultimate hero figure of the Attitude Era, and participant in the seminal McMahon–Austin feud that defined that era’s narrative tone—created a weekly podcast in April 2013, and was soon followed by Chris Jericho, Roddy Piper, Jim Ross, Bill Goldberg, Vince Russo, &al, all under the PodcastOne banner.

Owing to his role in the storyline narratives of the Attitude Era as blue collar, boss-beating, aggressive, cussing anti-hero,—and being part of the Attitude Era itself—has imbued the man with utter authenticity in the eyes of the smark. “Stone Cold” was a tweener, not good nor bad, just himself; which has translated seamlessly into his public persona: the podcasts are commonly ranked in the top five for sports podcasts on iTunes, and, as of this writing, are listed as #2 and #5, for both “Family Friendly” and “Unleashed” iterations respectively, in sports and recreation podcasts on podbay.fm.

As for the content of his show, he very often fantasy books the territory, offering his insights and opinions on where WWE goes wrong and how he would fix it. Because of his perceived authenticity, heightened by his vocal dissent touching the effect of WWE’s objectives on the show narratives, smarks may align with his multi-layered persona to air their disgruntlement; feel registered and validated. However authentic, Austin has ties to WWE; more importantly, to Vince McMahon: in each podcast, Austin references the WWE Network in some manner or another, and has even begun giving insider commentary on his old matches, viewable on the WWE Network.

Yet, this does not tarnish his authenticity: he is able to successfully walk the line of dissent, portraying how fantagonism can be galvanized into productive critique and possibly change. Austin constantly professes his love for “the sport” of pro-wrestling, and supporting WWE through dissent can be a means to profess optimism for pro-wrestling's eventually getting back to the narrative complexity and traditional logic after which he, and so many, pine. Smarks utilize the unofficial paratexts for consolation, but also to try to cheer and foster any potential for a return to narrative-driven, in-ring content; the existence of smarks arises from a cultural practice with a wholly subcultural history and structure.

I did not realize when I set out to write this essay that the smarkdom and WWE’s relationship and moves could in any way be prophetic. But as I discovered, with the help of Henry Jenkins’ blog, that WWE’s business practices were possibly setting a tone for other media conglomerates, I realized the smarks may be doing the same progressive work for other fandoms.

The smark is assumed to be informed and witty. More importantly, he or she is expected to envision a better way for the business to attempt to answer in a realistic manner the question “What could WWE do to get back on the right track?”—the ethos of the smark.

If one engages and converse only to talk smack, other smarks are quick to discipline for the crime of perpetuating a cynical, no-win situation in the fandom. Hope and potential are being guarded, which is markedly different than in other fandoms. Furthermore, smarks are proud of their smarkdom but desire the chance to mark out and embrace those moments when criticism and voyeurism are muted and beside the point, for one shining moment of narrative engagement.

From the quotidian to the spectacular, digitization and customization have paved the way for entertainment to be repackaged as a slick create-your-own-adventure; we find ourselves in a transitional period that seems, at once, cynical and passionate.

For WWE, ratings are down, the Network rollout has its complaints—namely from Britain and Canada fans who cannot yet access it,—and the ring seems to be an afterthought.

After the December live interview between “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Vince McMahon, Reddit ran wild with reactions. Chief among them was the shock at McMahon’s complete denial of kayfabe. The emotion evoked was love, hate, surprise. As Redditor frasierdean states: “It feels important, like the pinnacle of something... I don't know.”


Kate is a professional wrestling scholar, Asst. Editrix of Storm Cellar Literary Journal, and a UWM Master's student.