9:00-9:25: Some Thoughts on the ‘Business That We Love’: Affect, work, and kayfabe in professional wrestling

Jessica Fontaine is a PhD Candidate in Communication Studies, Graduate Option in Gender and Women’s Studies at McGill University. She has published two articles on professional wrestling: “Illusion, Kayfabe, and Identity Performance in Box Brown and Brandon Easton’s Andre the Giant Graphic Biographies” in The Comics Grid (2017) and “Headlocks in Lockdown: Working the At-Home Crowd” in Popular Communication (2021)

Although once staged largely around live performances, professional (pro) wrestling is a highly mediatized industry in which performances and texts play out across various media platforms, including YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram (Reinhard & Olson, 2019). As such, it exemplifies the entanglements of the real and performed, and bodily and digital labor that reveal key shifts in contemporary conditions of cultural production. This paper will offer a brief outline of my dissertation research, which centers on these entanglements as key sites (or conjunctures) for interrogating the relationships between physical, digital and affective labor in the emerging industry practices of pro wrestling: relationships that, I argue, may reveal how creative media industries more broadly are reworking their commercial models across the relationships between fans, gear makers and merchandisers, promoters and performers.

This paper will demonstrate my dissertation’s overall theoretical approach and give a quick breakdown of the individual chapters and their objects of study, which include online video of matches and other media, wrestling podcasts, gear, and merchandise. Working across pro wrestling studies, media studies, and feminist and queer studies, I take a “low theory” approach (Halberstam, 2011; Warden et al, 2018) that turns to pro wrestling slang (i.e., “kayfabe”, “work”, “business”, “gimmicks”, “bumping”, etc.) and practices as theoretical tools to critique and explore its cultural and industry conditions. As this paper will illustrate, each chapter engages a common pro wrestling vernacular phrase or term as an incisive concept to attune to how wrestling’s generic conventions spill from the ring to mediate and pattern its “structures of feeling” (Williams, 2015) and the formalized ways in which the industry operates (Berlant, 2008; Banet-Weiser, 2012).

In this presentation, I will make the case for how pro wrestling operates as an “affective economy” that is formed and fueled by the contingencies between affect, work, and kayfabe (Ahmed, 2014), and take an intersectional feminist approach to investigate how participants engage these contingencies to shape the uneven material, cultural, and social conditions of pro wrestling.

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