When the Rebel Heart Met the Blackheart: Slash in Professional Wrestling

Works-In-Process

I’ve been working on this project for awhile now, and this presentation from MPCA/ACA 2019 contains my preliminary results on slash fanfic that feature NXT wrestlers Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa.

This work began with noticing that other fans were as interested in this pairing as I was: https://prowrestlingstudies.org/2018/11/21/pro-wrestling-slash. When I started looking into the stories being told, I noticed how the fans were reacting to the NXT storyline featuring these wrestlers. This observation led me to begin mapping the emotional trajectory of that storyline: https://prowrestlingstudies.org/2019/02/22/the-emotionality-behind-ciampa-gargano-part-1-pre-tag-team-titles. I still have more on that storyline to map, but I decided to start theorizing what I saw happening in this fandom, which led to the above presentation.

Mainly, my argument is that kayfabe aligns professional wrestling with other forms of fictional storytelling, meaning that how people react to those narratives would have some similarity to have people react to pro-wrestling narratives. And, if there is a script, then there is an encoding occurring in those narratives that reflect specific ideological perspectives. NXT creates stories with actors like any other entertainment producer, and those stories contain certain ideas about the world as embodied through actors’ performances.

Since ideas are being encoded into those storylines, that means pro-wrestling fans — like any other type of fan — will decode what they see in those narratives and react to them in different ways (depending on their interpretive baggage). Some fans will also engage in transformative work to recode elements of those narratives to create their own stories, ones that may be more emotionally or cognitively fulfilling than the original canon. Such fanon, then, can contain depictions that are quite different from what was originally encoded, such as slash stories that turning canonical homosocial or antagonist relationships into homosexual relationships.

Gargano and Ciampa joined NXT starting in 2015. After a slow start where they were positioned as strangers teamed up to compete in the inaugural Dusty Rhodes Classic, their underdog, emotional story really took off during the Cruiserweight Challenge. Since then, the stories have had their emotional highs and lows, as the storyline responded to actual injuries suffered by Ciampa, who went from face to heel in his relationship with Gargano.

Whether they were friends or foes, Gargano and Ciampa’s performances inside the ring involved a level and type of physicality less common in WWE matches. Other than just the technical skill of their movesets or their willingness to risk their bodies, the men embraced one another repeatedly in emotional displays of solidarity, joy, and pain.

Brandon Stroud and other commentators have highlighted their emotional in-ring performances, remaking on their ability to tell stories almost completely through expression and gesture. And the men’s social media accounts, especially when they were #DIY and when Ciampa turned, furthered this storyline, creating a transmedia experience that added to the kayfabe that these two men were more than friends.

It is not surprising, then, that the fans reacted to these men in very emotional ways, such as intense cheers and boos, depending on the point in the storyline. More interestingly, however, are how the slash fanfics reflect the emotional nature of their performances and the storyline.

For this presentation, I focused on Archive of Our Own (AO3), which had the most such stories. Their decoding could be seen in how they commented on each other’s stories, making direct references to the matches, wrestlers, and storyline — all reflecting their decoding.

On AO3, I have identified 43 such stories so far, 13 with a Mature rating for sexually explicit material. These slash stories tended to portray Gargano as sweet, innocent, emotional, feminine, and submissive — and Ciampa as stoic, bitter, pained, aggressive, lonely, and dominant. Furthermore, the stories appear to do two main things:

What appears to be happening is that NXT encoded into their storyline a level and type of homosocial relationship that challenges gender stereotypes in professional wrestling. The fans, then, have emotional decoding reactions to the emotional story cues. What they recode through their slash fanfic are homosexual relationships that serve two purposes: first, to explain the nonstereotypical homosocial relationship; second, to repair the bonds of the broken relationship between Gargano and Ciampa. In this way, their recording operates as a form of relationship maintenance that helps establish why these two men — originally positioned as strangers to each other — acted as they did and also helps the wrestlers — and their fans — work through the tensions to hopefully reunite the wrestlers and thereby give them a happy ending.

Again, all of this is preliminary, and needs work done to relate what was found to what has been written about professional wrestling fans and slash fan fiction. And I look forward to doing the research to finalize this project — especially as it means reading more slash!

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