Where’s My Suspension Of Disbelief?
“The WWF’s name change is the death knell for wrestling’s drama.”
by Raywat Deonandan
May 9, 2002
This column is a regular feature on 411wrestling.com. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
“Keep with it, man, you someday may be the king of the net dorks (that is meant as a compliment).”
Um, thanks. I think.
First off, I want to thank all the people who offered feedback about my last column. I’m impressed by readers like Kisc, Christian and The Fuzzy Elf, who took the time to build upon my thoughts and consider the larger classical components of wrestling drama.
Sorry for the big gap in between columns. I took some time to observe the industry before writing again, hoping to get a sense of thematic constancy. But instead I get tumult… The WWF changes its name to “New Coke.” Scott Hall is fired. Bill Goldberg wants in. Hulk Hogan is champion. The Rock may be gone for good. Lou Thesz is dead.
So many topics, so little time. So I will focus on the name change from WWF to –in the words of Scott Keith– “Wee-Wee”.
For me, televised North American professional wrestling is dead, at least for now. The death knell was in the WWF’s name change. The word “Federation” was key to the product’s suspension of disbelief. We all know that this “sport” is a kind of athletic theatre, wherein title changes and dramatic developments are scripted. Having in its name a word that projected the concept of fantasy sport was essential to sustaining a willingness to accept such designs. Instead, we are given the word “Entertainment”, which is akin to whispering in a theatre-goer’s ear, “By the way, those are actually actors on stage, so don’t get too attached to them or the story.”
Imagine, if you will, that the movie “The Godfather” was actually titled, “Al Pacino Pretends to Be a Mobster,” or that “Star Wars” was titled, “Fake Spaceships Dangling from Black Wire.” The effect is comparable to referring to Hulk Hogan as “World Wrestling Entertainment Champion.” Who can take an “entertainment champion” seriously, especially a scripted one? By that name, one would expect any bigger entertainer, maybe Tom Cruise or Kirsten Dunst, to kick the champ’s ass. In many ironic ways, former WCW champion David Arquette has a better claim to that title than does the current holder.
Suspension of disbelief is key to the sustaining pro wrestling’s intensity and popularity. The era of intrenched kayfabe is over. But kayfabe’s role was more than just protecting industry secrets according to a lame carnie code. Kayfabe was a crucial component to the maintenance of wrestling’s theatrical potency, even well into the era when wrestling is widely acknowledged to be “fake.” (For the uninitiated, kayfabe was wrestling’s code of secrecy, whereby its scripted nature was hidden from the public.)
With the continuing crumbling of kayfabe, the theatre of wrestling is increasingly dissolving into a formless and pointless entertainment muddle. On talk shows, The Rock is addressed as Dwayne Johnson, and Triple-H acknowledges that his in-ring persona is just a character he plays. Once such strong delineations are made between performer and character, the audience has a right to demand superior on-stage (in-ring) storytelling to compensate for the off-stage denuding of suspension of disbelief. But as we all know, the in-ring product is failing, and that failure is now compounded by a name change which further erodes the product’s ability to engage an audience thirsty for escapism.
This is why throwbacks to old-school booking will not work. The old-school format relied upon characters which transcended the ring. Ric Flair was always Ric Flair, in and out of the ring. Hulk Hogan was never Terry Bollea when in front of a camera (with one inexcusable exception in the dying days of WCW). Transcendent kayfabed characters were the foundation upon which simple but timeless stories could be told in the ring. With the absence of such consistency, demands are greater upon the product to be engaging. The audience must now be led by an even stronger story to recognize Triple-H instead of Paul Levesque.
A name change to “World Wrestling Entertainment” not only compromises that effort, it is a signal that the grand days of solid theatrical storytelling may well be numbered. We are being told that a wrestling show is no longer a finely crafted story into which we can expect to be drawn and delighted, but rather a sterile product spit out by a corporate “entertainment” juggernaut who would just as soon sell us CD’s, movies and T-shirts than tell a good story.
Of course, as we all know, that is exactly what they’ve always wanted to do… Only now they have stripped away the fun part –the kayfabed theatrical veneer– and have denied us our suspension of disbelief, laying bare their insouciant corporate greed.