“Kayfabe” is a word that doesn’t hold as much meaning as it used to. The term means “treating the events in professional wrestling as true and real,” that what is seen in a show was 100% authentic as opposed to a staged production imitating an actual sports competition. For decades kayfabe was protected, wrestlers were expected to be in character when out in public and everyone involved from top to bottom was to maintain that wrestling wasn’t predetermined. It was an open secret, but one the business defended with fervor.
Several factors began to whittle away at kayfabe including the greater legal and financial burdens of running pro wrestling as a competitive sporting event instead admitting it was a performance art along with an increasingly savvy audience. By the early 90’s, kayfabe outside of a wrestling show was considered dead. This is even truer today with the advent of the internet and the rise of social media allowing fans access to all sorts of behind the scenes information every day.
Wrestling promotions today focus on establishing and maintaining a social contract with their audience, that while a show is happening both sides will act is if they don’t know professional wrestling is a performance. It’s like when you watch a movie like say The Avengers and see Robert Downey Jr. playing Tony Stark. The viewer knows Downey isn’t actually the fictional character, Tony Stark, but in the the moment they suspend their disbelief so as to enjoy the film. Several WWE Superstars in the past few decades have faced serious hits to their careers for breaking kayfabe during a show. But all this seems to be changing.
On Aug. 28, 2017 John Cena and Roman Reigns cut one of the greatest promos ever seen in WWE history. Not since the now infamous Pipe Bomb promo and title run from CM Punk in 2011 had fans seen this level of insider terms and admittance of real (or at least believed to be real) behind the scenes politics been openly referenced in a WWE ring. This work-shoot (scripted event that is designed to appear unscripted and off the cuff, leaving the audience with the illusion that the wrestler is speaking their true mind in spite of or in defiance of the promotion) has rocked the wrestling world and their feud has continued with this tone making it one of the biggest stories in wrestling and garnering mainstream media attention. For the sake of clarity, it should be pointed out that the Pipe Bomb was an actual shoot (unscripted and without approval) promo while what WWE is doing still falls well under the work (scripted) category.
Since this promo, WWE has infused more of their content and storylines with a backstage/real life edge to them. In retrospect, we all should have seen this coming, it is no secret that WWE has been in a bit of a creative and financial slump as of late. Looking at what was getting over with fans WWE found that one of the biggest things that was working was the occasional kayfabe skirting meta promos of the New Day, The Miz, and The Fashion Police’s Fashion Files. Also the internet comedy series Southpaw Regional Wrestling was beloved by hardcore fans and wrestling journalists/critics alike. To get to the point, material that had a hint of truth to it or a glimpse of the person behind the persona was getting a decidedly positive response over their more traditional material. From this perspective we can see exactly what built to the Cena/Reigns confrontation.
The fascinating thing here is by pulling things back to expose even more of the machine behind the scenes of their in ring content had the opposite effect that common wisdom would dictate, it made things more believable. It made wrestling fans feel that the WWE understood that they were smart to how the show worked and the blurred line between the known backstage realities and what we were seeing and hearing in the ring gave the material a sense of authenticity it was sorely lacking. This also allowed the Superstars to inject flashes of their own personalities into things, giving the proceedings a more natural flow. Not everything has hit with the mainstream audience, for example, Dolph Ziggler’s tirades about wrestling gimmicks overshadowing in-ring prowess has yet to hit the mark, but enough of what they’re doing is hitting to call this a step in the right direction. In the end, all this may be validation for what Punk was trying to do way back in 2011.
The trick now is avoiding overexposure and killing the momentum that this change has net the WWE. Blurring the lines has been great, but they are already close to the saturation point. They need to work with what they’ve already done, pay it off with a reasonable conclusion (I’m looking at you, Fashion Files) and then move on and let other wrestlers and storylines play with the fourth wall. It’s like seasoning a meal with salt, a pinch here and there can make things taste really good, overdo it and all anyone is going to taste is the salt, leaving the audience feeling, well… salty.
Honestly, I think there is a fair chance WWE is going to screw this up. Doing this right is going to require tact, subtlety, and a pitch perfect understanding of the audience going forward, a hard thing to ask for a company that has been criticized for ignoring fans and being tone deaf at times over that last couple of years. That said, the WWE hasn’t lasted this long because of some fluke, when they set their minds to doing something right they can and have delivered some amazing stuff. They have a spark here, now they just need to make sure not to smother it or let it fizzle out. This move won’t fix every problem with the promotion, but it could provide new and interesting paths for creative to try that could resolve these other lingering issues. With all the other avenues to consume great wrestling content, fans across the globe still have love for the WWE and want it to do good. Time to see if this old dog can show us a few new tricks.