Experiencing the Co-Construction of Kayfabe: AAW Take No Prisoners

This blog post expands on the ideas of the co-construction of kayfabe, an idea I presented at the Popular Culture Association 2016 conference in Seattle. For this post, I reflect on a live wrestling event I attended in an attempt to define what my partner, Christopher Olson, and I mean by “convergent wrestling.”

The entire presentation can be heard on Soundcloud, but I will sum up the idea here to address a recent experience with a live wrestling event: AAW‘s “Take No Prisoners” on May 6th, 2016.

Basically, my interest in the topic of convergent wrestling lies primarily in the blurring of lines that constitutes “sports entertainment” — or, the idea that wrestling is simultaneously fake (as opposed to “real” sports) and real. Thus, I am interested in this concept of “kayfabe,” which can be summarized as portraying staged events as “real” or “true” to reinforce the idea that the competition, rivalries, and relationships between the participants is genuine rather than scripted, staged or pre-determined, as professional wrestling is known to be. Kayfabe is a code word of sorts for the act of maintaining this “reality” when interacting with general public. And it can be very funny when it breaks accidentally…

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The idea of kayfabe also relates to the postmodern concept of hyperreality, which refers to the blending of reality and fiction to the point that reality becomes indistinguishable from a simulation of reality. The kayfabe of professional wrestling becomes hyperreal when it seems real to fans, and it can become real to the fans in a variety of ways. First, let’s consider how some theories for apply to this discussion.

In a way, kayfabe requires a suspension of disbelief. Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined this term in 1817 to describe how people engage with fiction. If readers infuse enough “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, then the reader suspends judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative. Years later, J. R. R. Tolkien would add to this idea through the concepts of secondary reality and secondary belief. So, suspension of disbelief suggests that wrestling fans accept kayfabe when the its presentation includes some emotional component and makes some logical sense with regards to how the person knows and experiences reality.

Narrative transportation theory helps to explain how suspension of disbelief works. This theory focuses on how people lose themselves in a story. According to the theory, people may feel as though they are present in the fictional world, and that they have been transported to it their empathy for the characters and the use of their imagination as evoked by the story. In writing about entanglement and detachment with a media text, I’ve also been thinking about this topic in terms of how people can get into (entanglement) or out of (detachment) a story. For example, if the story demands the audience question what happens in the text (say in a mystery story), then this results in entanglement, but if the story does not require such questioning (say when the story’s logic is wanting), then the audience becomes detached. So, if a fan does not question what is happening in the wrestling story, then there would be no reason to reject what is being presented.

Thus, kayfabe can become real to fans because of the emotional aspect of engaging with professional wrestling as well as how the fans make sense of it. If they have an emotional connection to the wrestlers and their stories, and if they can find something “real” in it — that is, real to them — then the fan(s) can become entangled and transported in the kayfabe and suspend their disbelief that the kayfabe is not real. And the more blurred the line is between real and kayfabe, the easier it is to co-construct the hyperreality of sports entertainment.

And there are a lot of ways for fans to create these emotional and cognitive connections to professional wrestling. First, there is the idea of just how real the fans consider wrestling — or just how real it is at times, full stop. Even when fake, professional wrestling is very real. Wrestlers train hard to perform as they do, and the matches involve real performances that can result in very real injuries, as in the case of the concussion sustained by Enzo Amore at 2016’s Payback PPV. Indeed, despite all the scripting that occurs, narratives can be very real as real-life grudges between wrestlers impact promos and in-ring action. Wrestlers will also break kayfabe for personal reasons, such as C.M. Punk’s so-called “pipe bomb promo” or the hug among enemies involving Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon and Diesel.

CM Punk

But this is not to say that fans are passive dupes in this process. This idea does not consider the text as being the primary source for the creation of kayfabe. Instead, what I am discussing is how there is an interaction between the text and the fans that results in  kayfabe. So here’s a theory on kayfabe: kayfabe is co-constructed.

For kayfabe to be built and maintained, it requires wrestling fans to agree that what they see is “real.” That is, kayfabe requires that fans become entangled in a character’s struggle, a match’s story, and the overarching narrative arc of the feuds. Fans may recognize the artifice of “sports entertainment” but they can still by in to the kayfabe, partly because of the “real” moments that help to blur the line between reality and fiction. Kayfabe requires that fans do not constantly question what they see and thus detach from kayfabe. In becoming entangled, fans co-construct with the professional wrestling text its hyperreality. Any ability to suspend disbelief about the kayfabe results from a desire to do so because of immersion within the hyperreality given the fan’s emotional and cognitive investment in what is presented.

Fans may find themselves more in tune or involved with the hyperreal world of kayfabe for a variety of reasons. Fans may perceive reality and fiction seamlessly converging due to some perceived “realness” — such as the training, the injuries, and the behind-the-scenes glimpses that break kayfabe. Having a perceived realness helps fans in this co-construction, but this realness does not simply result from a willingness to accept the real aspects of professional wrestling instead of what is presented as kayfabe.

Aspects presented in kayfabe can also be perceived as real, such as the personal and emotional heft of scripted moments. This perception of realness often results from the fans’ emotional and cognitive investment in these wrestlers and their stories. Getting to know the real person behind a kayfabe performance helps to maintain this entanglement because it only furthers such investment. As with any other type of identification or parasocial relationship, fans may see something in the wrestlers’ and their stories — and thus in professional wrestling itself — that the fans recognize and love from elsewhere in their lives. At this point, Sami Zayn and Bayley are real to me — whatever their real personalities are, the identities they have constructed with their wrestling persona’s are very real to me, and their struggles to win feel authentic and always tug at my heart.

Sami Bayley

To summarize: fans are transported and immersed in professional wrestling in various ways, thereby helping to build and maintain the co-constructed hyperreality known as kayfabe. This transportation occurs due to some perception of realness, which can include making connections with wrestlers and becoming invested in the stories being told. When this happens — even if the moments are fleeting and few — then the fan perceives reality and fiction converging and kayfabe is maintained as the fictional becomes the real.

All of which is to say that I found it interesting how kayfabe was co-constructed during the AAW show “Take No Prisoners.” I experienced all of these aspects of the co-construction during the show.

First, there was the emotional connection I had to a number of the wrestlers. I have become invested in the career of Tommaso Ciampa, and hearing his entrance music before the show, while waiting for everything to begin, was enough to give me an emotional charge and sustain an enthusiasm for his match that would not occur for another five hours. A similar thrill came from seeing two wrestlers we have come to know through the El Rey Network’s show, Lucha Underground. Fenix and Pentagon Jr. have become integral characters for that show. This was our second time seeing them together — the first time being my first live event ever — and their presence was our main reason for attending the show. The term “pumped” does not seem to do justice to describe the level of excitement we had awaiting their arrival and throughout their stellar match.

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Second, while there was that emotional connection, it did not stop me from seeing the botched moves. The realness of the match comes through the wrestlers’ performance — when they do things right, and when they do things wrong. A botched move can often elicit the audience chant “you fucked up”– but that seems to be more when the audience is not emotionally invested in what is going on. There were a couple failed moves — or obvious fake moves — occurring during these matches, but they didn’t really provoke the audience to criticize the wrestlers. I think it was because of how emotionally invested we were. We could see that something went wrong, but we didn’t feel the need to break kayfabe to call them on it. More likely than not, we were more worried about the wrestler being injured. And there were a couple times where it really looked like something went from botched to dangerous injury.

Third, the emotional connection is intensified when the real world of the wrestler spills through their persona’s characterization. For example, this was our first time seeing Colt Cabana wrestle after becoming familiar with him via his podcast, The Art of Wrestling, and seeing him on Marc Maron’s IFC show. We knew him as a celebrity first, and then as a wrestler. Seeing him live helped us to see the wrestler character that started his current celebrity identity, but at the same time the reality of his true lived experience came through. When he was first introduced for his match, the announcer declared that Cabana was celebrating his birthday — and the crowd broke out into song for him. The video below shows the announcement.

Here was a wrestler, known for his podcasting (itself an indication of how social media results in convergent media), who we knew more as a celebrity than a wrestler — and before we could get to know him as a wrestler, the reality of his life became part of how we knew him as a wrestler. Now, to be fair, how Cabana presents himself via his podcast is an attempt to break kayfabe and reveal exactly who he is beneath any wrestling character he has developed and performs. So having his birthday announced as part of his character’s introduction that night does not necessarily break kayfabe. But by knowing it was his birthday, and by participating in the celebration of it, I felt like I was more emotionally connected to Colt Cabana. Whether or not that connection was to the real person or a character did not matter; all that mattered was that I felt connected. And in being so, it was easier to be transported into the rather comical story he told that night, with his partners, in the ring.

All of this is to say that I was into it all night. Seeing wrestlers I had emotional connections with helped me to overlook the fake moves and the botches. To worry when a move did not seem to work out right, or when a wrestler took a hit that seemed just a bit too real. And that, to me, illustrates the co-constructed nature of kayfabe. I had no way of knowing if those hits that seemed just a little too stiff were real or if they were just sold as such. I think not being able to tell the difference is the essence of the co-constructed nature of kayfabe. As I tweeted that night, after the show:

I felt entangled throughout the night. Sure, there were those fleeting moments when I detached because I saw the fake moves or the possibility of the real injury made me question why I was supporting this (the same thing happened with Amore’s injury at Payback). Yet, my emotional connection to the wrestlers kept pulling me back in, and the overall text of the event was designed to try to create this delicate balance that promotes the co-construction of kayfabe. And that is a hard feat to accomplish. The text needs the proper combination of real and fake, of logic and emotion, in order to create more entanglement than detachment. It is the same type of balancing act that any piece of fiction has to build and maintain — sports entertainment just has a more difficult balancing act given the “liveness” of its text and the possibility for anything to become too real or too fake at any moment.

It is a credit to those wrestlers who have been honing their craft for such a long time that the balancing act has become as natural to them as any move they have to authentically and fictionally pull off.

2 thoughts on “Experiencing the Co-Construction of Kayfabe: AAW Take No Prisoners

  1. Interesting…Went along with the Podcast you and Chris did with Joe. I actually listened to that one again this morning so the timing was good!! You, Chris, and Joe always have a way of making me look at things a different way. That’s a good thing. Keeps me learning!! Thanks for that!!

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    1. Thanks, Toni! We love to hear that you are learning new things and looking at things in different ways because of what we do. As educators, that is all we really want to accomplish in the world, so to know we are succeeding puts a big smile on our faces!

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