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Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Serious WWE Blunder

The opinions expressed in this blog post are not necessarily shared by the staff of Pro Wrestling Illustrated. Not by a long shot.

In fact, I’ve been hard pressed to find many wrestling fans who believe, as I do, that this Youtube video posted by WWE a couple of weeks ago was downright disgraceful.

In case you haven’t seen the video, which was the talk of the Internet wrestling community for a few days, it begins with Jack Swagger and Zeb Colter spewing the same anti-immigrant rhetoric as they have on television for weeks. That’s not the problem.

My beef comes with the drastic turn the promo takes around the 1:40 mark. The cameras pull back to reveal a production set and a green screen background. Colter and Swagger come out of character, even introducing themselves by their real names. They explain how wrestling promos work, and that they are simply entertainers playing roles. Colter goes as far as to say that in real-life he is friends with Jose Rodriguez, the performer portraying his mortal enemy, Alberto Del Rio. Way to sell a WrestleMania World title match.

This was all done as a retort to criticisms made by conservative political commentator Glenn Beck, who had dismissed the Swagger/Colter storyline as having been devised by “stupid wrestling people.”

The video mobilized fans to the defense of WWE. Throughout social media, even the most jaded of fans proclaimed that they were never prouder to be part of the WWE Universe and praised Swagger, Colter, and the entire promotion for “telling it like it is.”
But amid all their appreciation for the message behind the groundbreaking video, fans failed to see the considerable damage it did to the entire pro wrestling industry.

Like few other things in the sport’s history, the Swagger/Colter video shattered the illusion necessary for fans to fully enjoy pro wrestling, and it did so in a particularly flippant and reckless manner.

To a lot of wrestling fans, mine may come off like an outdated philosophy, especially in an era when just about every fan older than four (and even many younger) can separate reality from sports entertainment. But my gripe isn’t with the fact that WWE came out and said it’s all a show. It’s how they said it.

Imagine that you’re engrossed in a particularly suspenseful episode of Law & Order SVU. Detective Benson kicks down a door, opens fire, and shoots a perp to death.

Then you hear, “Cut!”

Benson looks at the camera, introduces herself as actress Mariska Hargitay, and goes on to lash out at a particular television critic who panned her show. When she’s done, the director audibly calls out, “Action!” and the scene continues.

That would be pretty absurd, wouldn’t it? Well, it’s no different than what WWE pulled with its video, complete with Colter and Swagger resuming their wrestling promo after they finished delivering their message to Beck.

To be sure, a lot has changed since the days when “Dr. D” David Shultz was ordered to assault 20/20 reporter John Stossel for even suggesting that wrestling was fake. But if the Colter/Swagger Youtube video showed anything, it’s that the collective wrestling universe has moved too far in the other direction.

Back then, protecting “kayfabe” was about pulling the wool over the fans eyes. But over the years, wrestling has evolved to the point that the wrestlers, promoters, and fans are all in on it together. To some extent, giving fans a peak behind the curtain is a good thing, as it shows that promoters and wrestlers respect fans enough to know that they don’t need to believe what they’re watching is “real” in order to enjoy it. The open nature of modern pro wrestling has also allowed wrestlers, promoters, and journalists to share—in the right context—compelling stories about what happens away from the ring without fear of reprisal.

But none of that is to say that wrestlers or promoters—especially WWE—should so flippantly tear down the fourth fall that’s necessary for pro wrestling to be successful. If you’ve followed this business for any length of time, you’ve heard about the importance of “suspending disbelief” in enjoying wrestling. Sadly, I think too many fans, wrestlers, and promoters don’t understand what that actually means.

Perhaps no institution values the importance of kayfabe more than Pro Wrestling Illustrated. We realize that for fans to fully enjoying the escapist entertainment that is pro wrestling, they need to lose themselves in its characters and storylines. That might seem obvious to some, but promoters have chipped away so much at that principle over the years that they don’t even realize when they’re breaking that rule. Ironically, much of the damage has been done by promoters intent on presenting wrestling as more “real” and “not insulting the intelligence” of fans. That kind of thing often leads to the bane of my existence as a wrestling fan: the “worked shoot.”

And really, at its core, that’s what the Colter/Swagger video was—a manufactured promotional tactic aimed at inciting emotion in fans by making them think they were watching something that wasn’t part of the show. The true nature of the video as nothing more than a publicity stunt was exposed when WWE sent TV cameras to Beck’s studio to confront him, and then put out a press release accusing him of “hiding” from WWE.

I’m all for WWE defending its fans, of which I count myself as one, from the ignorant remarks of critics who don’t understand the appeal of pro wrestling. There were several different ways for WWE to make the same point. Vince McMahon or some other WWE executive could have recorded a video message responding to Beck. I would have even accepted, somewhat begrudgingly, if the video began with Colter and Swagger out of character delivering the message to Beck.

But there’s an obvious, better option: Having Colter and Swagger respond to Beck in character. Alas, WWE apparently realized that, pulled down the original video, and replaced it with this one.

And then there’s what I’d say is the best option of all: Ignoring Beck all together. Another often-misused wrestling term is “mark.” WWE tried to prove to us that Beck was a mark for thinking WWE and its fans were comprised of “stupid wrestling people,” but ended up going out of their way to respond to a throw-away remark, and in doing so just left Beck with a worse impression of the wrestling business than he already had.

Fans who enjoyed the “shoot” promo by Colter and Swagger may have seen it as a proclamation of the fact that they’re not marks. But, along the way, they were roped into the most transparent attempt to exploit fans’ loyalty this side of the “Stand Up For WWE” political campaign.

In its truest sense, a mark is a sucker; one too gullible to realize he’s been had.

I’ll leave it at that.

Al Castle
PWI Senior Writer

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