Fourth Wall and Professional Wrestling

In this brief essay, I want to share an idea I have had about how the concept of audience interaction helps to define sports entertainment as existing at the intersection of sports and entertainment. Audience interaction with content (what I have written about here as content interactivity) is the idea that the audience member (either individually or as an aggregate) can in some way engage with the text to the extent that they can influence the progression of the text’s content.

A video game like The Legend of Zelda, for example, responds to the individual’s decisions and actions to determine how the game unfolds for the player. A call-in contest reality show like American Idol responds to the aggregate of the masses voting for who succeeds and who doesn’t. If we look at professional wrestling from this perspective of audience interactivity, then I think we can notice something happening that helps define what it is while also demonstrating a convergence of identities as the lines between audience and producer blur.

First, sports.

I have been a football fan since I was a kid. Growing up by Green Bay, Wisconsin, it is hard to not become member of the Packers fandom. I can recall sitting in our golf course’s clubhouse on Sunday afternoons in the 1980s, with the games on but no one really watching because of how poorly the team did. All that started to change in 1989 with the rise of Don “Majik Man” Majkowski, who would be followed by Brett Favre, and then Aaron Rodgers. In 1989, the Packers became a big deal again.

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Myself, My Dad, and My Grandparents Celebrating Packers’ 2011 Super Bowl Win.

That is when my fandom started. I watched football with my dad, and learned how it all works, becoming an arm chair quarterback in the process. Moreso than my brothers, I was the one who spent my Sunday afternoons learning the positions and the plays and the right ways to yell at the coaches. I remember my dad coming back from the home games in the early 1990s with barely a speaking voice left — and usually with Little Caesars pizza. When I went to college in 1996 is when the Packers went back to the Super Bowl, and I threw a viewing party in my dorm room. My family still does a weekly football pool, which my little nieces tend to win — I envy their skill.

In a football game, a team will sometimes call upon the local crowd for help. A local team can strategically use home field advantage by calling upon their fans to make a lot of noise during the opposing team’s offensive drive. Stadium noise can make it harder for the opposing team to hear the quarterback call the play, which can lead to a false start penalty if someone on the line moves when they are not supposed to, or it can cause running backs, tight ends or wide receivers to run the wrong route.

Sometimes the crowd will generate such interfering noise on their own, and sometimes the players will walk up and down the line, throwing their arms in the air, calling upon the crowd to get into it — as can be seen in the video above. While the intention is to disrupt the opposing team, there is no guarantee the interference will work. The local team may call for the help, but the outcome of the crowd’s interaction with the game is not predetermined. Still, this audience interaction is a means by which the fans can “get into” the game.

Now, entertainment.

I have been an ardent and passionate television and film watcher all my life. My mom likes to talk about how they sat me down to watch Poltergeist at a young age in the hopes that I would stop watching television so much. Didn’t work. I have loved acting on stage and have attended many plays, as my mom was very active in our local community theater. I have studied television and film in my academic career, and I have written for them as a hobby.

A common concept discussed in these different mediums is the fourth wall. This concept concerns how the television or film screen or theater proscenium acts as a fourth wall, one that just happens to be transparent enough to allow the audience to see and hear the action on the stage. Essentially, the audience is positioned as voyeurs, able to take pleasure from the drama and/or comedy unfolding in the fictional lives of the characters they are watching. In a traditional show, film or play, the actors embodying these fictional lives are meant to perform as if they are not being watched and their actions are not fiction. Modern conceptions of the audience positions them to silently engage with this performance and accept what is happening while it is happening.

These expectations dictate the performance and its viewing, essentially constructing a temporary social contract that governs behaviors only within that specific situation. Breaking this contract is known as breaking the fourth wall. This breach occurs when performers engage with their audience, speaking directly at them and even calling upon them for some type of unexpected interaction.

Sometimes this breach is unplanned, but more often it occurs with a specific narrative or experiential purpose. Consider, for example, theatrical versions of Peter Pan, where at one point Tinkerbell swallows the poison meant to kill Pan. As Tinkerbell dies, the actor/actress playing Pan will turn to the audience and plead for their help to revive the fairy. Pan addresses the children particularly, asking them to clap their hands to save Tinkerbell.

Perhaps more prone to believe the staged actions as real, the children all clap vigorously, and the little fairy is saved. In this example, breaking the fourth wall is a deliberate action and the audience interaction is framed as the means by which for help the narrative progress. The result of the interaction is predetermined — unlike the result of the interaction at a football game. The realness of football means the audience interaction cannot guarantee a specific result, but the fiction of theater allows for such control.

Professional wrestling has no fourth wall to break, making it akin to sports. But the audience interaction can be narratively determined, such as when theater, television and film break the fourth wall.

When I attend AAW live events, all four sides of the ring are surrounded by people. There is no backdrop as there is on a stage; there is no proscenium, screen or “transparent wall” through which we are permitted to view the action. All the “walls” as transparent. The structure is similar to a football stadium, as fans can surround all sides of the field. Unlike football, the wrestling ring is permeable, as wrestlers will end up in the audience’s seating areas — with football, that may happen only with “end zone leaps” such as when Packers’ players will leap into the audience stands to celebrate a touchdown.

Many times have I watched (often with horror) as one wrestler leaped after another into the audience section. It is so common in professional wrestling that people will often quip how some lucky fan is going home with a wrestler when that wrestler lands in the fan’s lap. Some matches will go further, as part of the fight will spill out and travel throughout the crowd. In AAW, if the main event of the night was to feature Sami Callihan, that match is almost always guaranteed to spill out into the audience where the potential for more viciousness is possible. Matches that spill out into the crowd are best done at the end of the night, so that the audience doesn’t have to worry about finding their seats again for more matches.

Of course, this being professional wrestling, such movement from the ring into the audience is scripted — it was narratively constructed to happen, and the audience has high expectations for it, but the audience cannot know ahead of time when and where the breach will occur. With a football crowd, they know they are expected to add to crowd noise, but they also cannot know when and where their participation will make a difference. With a stage or screen audience, there is no real expectation for participation, but their being called on to do so happens within the same narrative confines as professional wrestling.

In professional wrestling, such actions are common, and they are just as scripted. It is quite common that a wrestler will gesture, like football players do, for the audience to engage in certain chants or clappings so as to “energize” a wrestler to get up and continue fighting. Such an interaction is part of the contract between the wrestlers and the audience, and serves to frame the expectations of attending a live show. Audience members cannot be silent and passive observers, as is the expectation with theater, television or film; as with sporting events, they are meant to engage, providing a type of “crowd noise” that is more narratively driven than those that occur at real sporting events.

But audience interaction at professional wrestling can also be spontaneous and result in an improvised response, especially when the interaction is initiated by the audience and not the wrestler. Earlier on this blog I wrote my first experience at a live AAW show, in which Ethan Page responded to a comment from a fan by pulling down his trunks and proceeding to use his naked butt as a “weapon” in the match. This wrestling-audience interaction was not predetermined as part of the match’s script, and more accurately reflects the improv nature of professional wrestling as those in the ring have to work off a script but also have to be ready to change that script should something happen (such as an injury or the audience’s reaction to the match).

Thus, not only will audience interactions occur because they are narratively driven and invoked by the wrestlers, but at any moment the audience may invoke an action from the wrestlers because of something the audience does — in this sense, as with a video game, the audience can have more control over the progression of the text’s content, with the text here being the story told through the match. That control may be momentary, as in the case of Page’s mooning the audience and his opponent, or it could last longer, such as an audience who just does not react to the match and thereby deflates the story the wrestlers are trying to tell.

This empowerment of the professional wrestling audience — at least at indie live shows like AAW — is unlike sports audience experiences or screen-based or theater audience experiences. In those contexts, the interaction is highly circumscribed because it is expected to occur in very specific ways and under the control of the athletes or performers. Fans who try to initiate interaction in these situations — such as streakers at football games or hecklers at stage productions — are summarily removed from the situation because they ruin the experience for the rest of the audience. At the AAW shows I have been to, this type of interaction is encouraged, as it demonstrates how attentive and passionate the fans are for what is happening in the ring.

In this sense, when I argue that the kayfabe of professional wrestling is co-constructed, I am saying that the wrestlers and the audience can interact with one another to further the narratives being told in the ring and about the wrestlers. Kayfabe is just storytelling embodied in the performances of the wrestlers, inside and outside of the ring. The text of the match, and even the wrestler, is co-determined by how the wrestlers and fans work together through such interactions; successful construction of kayfabe depends on these interactions, as a good match comes about not just because of the wrestlers but how the audience responds to them. The expectation in these live matches is for this interaction to occur whether generated by the wrestlers or by the fans.

Thus, when we talk about professional wrestling being by its very nature a convergent text, this is one area in which I see convergence happening. When both wrestlers and fans are positioned to allow them to influence the progression of the match’s content, then the line between producer and consumer is blurred in ways similar to the convergences caused by new media technologies that have led to the rise of the “prosumer” concept. When no one group of people can claim fully the identity of the text’s producers, then the line that separates these producer and consumer identities has blurred, and thus the identities, and the powers associated with them, have converged. Such blurring and converging appears to be at the heart of professional wrestling because of the importance in wrestler-audience interaction for the production and maintenance of kayfabe.

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