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!

Pro-Wrestling Slash

Works-In-Process

When I first got into professional wrestling — way back in 2014! — my first favorite wrestler was The Miz. I was watching WWE Main Event, which aired Wednesday nights on our Ion TV channel. This was before the WWE Network was launched, and before I had any access to higher level cable channels like the USA Network, so Main Event become my entry into professional wrestling and the WWE. Then we got the Network and cable, bringing to use NXT, Lucha Underground, and more. And I started going to the live events put on by AAW here in Chicagoland. So since in the years since, I have had other favorites to add to my own fangirl roster, with Sami Zayn earning perhaps the biggest place in my heart — for his wrestling and his political activism.

Sami, unfortunately, keeps getting injured, and I no longer have cable, so I cannot follow him on the WWE main roster (which underutilized him anyway). And while I also no longer subscribe to the Network for political reasons (seriously, Crown Jewel was just an idiotic event to do), I still watch NXT through next-day airings on Hulu. And I need to keep doing that, because I need by Ciampa/Gargano fix.

I remember first seeing Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano in the Dusty Rhodes tournament and wondering who they were. Needing to know who they were, I found a video of them wrestling in AAW. And at that time, they were not signed to NXT, so they were still wrestling in AAW. In fact, the first AAW show I went to had Ciampa there, busting open his nose right in front of me.

2015-11-28 19.20.18

Ciampa at AAW Windy City Classic XI in 2015.

Unlike Sami, here I had the opportunity to meet Ciampa and Gargano — and I did! The fangirl in me was so excited to be able to buy their t-shirts directly from them! I got to meet each of the them, and nervously (remember, I’m like a grown adult woman) gush about how much I like their work. Their last match at AAW after being signed to NXT was something I wrote about for a chapter in a book I co-edited. Unlike with Sami, I had actual interactions with them in a physical setting that could help fuel my interest in them. I wasn’t just watching them through television or following them through Twitter. I had met them. I knew how much taller I was than them. I breathed the same air as them. I touched them!

DSCN1300 (2)

Gargano at AAW United We Stand in 2016.

I am such a huge fangirl for them. I have been since their beginning in NXT. So I have followed their storyline with intense interest. I have had actual tears in my eyes watching their Cruiserweight match, or when they finally won the tag-team belts as DIY. I have felt actual shock and fear when Ciampa turned on Gargano. I was shaken by their TakeOver: New Orleans match for how brutal and emotional it was. I was there at TakeOver: Chicago, cheering for Ciampa, when he tore Gargano’s wedding ring off the hand of the man whose wedding he attended. I know every twist and turn of their story, and am legit concerned about the darkness consuming Gargano while also hoping it means he may soon get back with Ciampa.

Gargano Jump

Gargano’s jump on Ciampa, my vantage point at NXT TakeOver: Chicago in 2018.

I have even been writing a slash story in my head to bring them back together.

If you don’t know what slash is, here is a quick primer: it is a fan activity involving taking two characters who in canon (i.e. the original television show, book, movie, etc.) may be friends or enemies and putting them into a homosexual relationship. The classic examples include Kirk/Spock, Harry/Draco, and Sherlock/Watson. Fans may create such slash for a variety of reasons, and the relationships can be anything from angsty and emotional to brutal and hardcore.

When Ciampa came back after his injury as Blackheart and began torturing Gargano’s mind, body, and soul, my mind started to slash them. For me, it was a way to handle how two friends who seemed so close suddenly became such bitter enemies. I wanted them to reconcile and become friends again. I wanted them to kiss and make up.

Up to that point, I didn’t think anyone else was creating slash for these wrestlers (characters? real people?). Slash tends to be created by fangirls, and professional wrestling still tends to be dominated by fanboys. So I didn’t think to go look to see if there was a community out there engaging in this practices for this canon.

I was wrong. I found Ciampa/Gargano slash. Such as at a large fanfiction online site, Archive of Our Own. And then I found more at my old stomping grounds, FanFiction.net.

I found fans using slash and alternate universe (AU) stories to resolve the tensions between the characters/people of Ciampa and Gargano — tensions constructed through the kayfabe transmedia storytelling of their DIY rise and fallout. One author even called their fanfic “therapy” to help them cope with Ciampa’s heel turn.

Here are the ones I have found so far:

  • For example, there is the AU story involving the duo being werewolves where, although they hate each other, they are soulmates, and their interactions bristle with sexual tension.
  • And another where they are sexually active werewolves.
  • And another like that. And another. And another. One author in particular likes this angle. Could the werewolf angle be because of how they change identities between being real people and being performers?
  • This compilation of vignettes includes the suggestion of a polyamorous relationship between Ciampa, Gargano, and LeRae.
  • And the AU story of Ciampa experiencing a brush with death and reliving the night he and Gargano broke up, and using that heartbreak to explain Ciampa’s turning on Gargano.
  • Or this AU story that presents the entire arc of Ciampa/Gargano in NXT, up until Ciampa’s heel turn, as Ciampa struggles with his feelings for Gargano.
  • And this AU, where in a collection of stories, Ciampa recalls a romantic New Years with Gargano. Same with this one.
  • Then there is this AU story, presenting Gargano’s experience being haunted by Ciampa after the heel turn.
  • Although not updated, this planned AU definitely gets down to the kissing.
  • And this AU story finds them attempting a Glorious Bomb, only to have their first kiss.
  • In this AU story, Gargano is once again the tender one taking care of the rough Ciampa.
  • In this AU story, the heel turn never takes breaks up the partnership, which is definitely more than just professional.
  • In this AU, Gargano tracks down Ciampa after the heel turn to confess his love.
  • And another AU reference to Chuck Taylor claiming Ciampa/Gargano were a couple. Did he actually make such a comment?
  • Here Ciampa helps Gargano deal with a trauma from his past.
  • This time Gargano helps Ciampa reveal his true feelings.
  • Then in this AU story, their D&D characters have to fall in love for them to realize their true feelings for each other. And here as well.
  • For this story, their tenderness for each other comes through after a loss for the tag-team titles.
  • And in this story, even before the heel turn, their relationship was more personal than professional.
  • Then in this AU, they are X-Men, and teenagers find their first loves.
  • For this one, another angsty one for Ciampa needing to realize his feelings for Gargano.
  • In these connected stories, multiple wrestlers come together, but again, Ciampa is rough with Gargano: part 1 and part 2.
  • While this one starts out rough, Gargano manages to bring out Ciampa’s tender side (which he does in other stories as well).
  • Like in this one, the younger Gargano manages to save Ciampa from a life of crime.

In total so far, 25 stories that in some way put these two into a romantic relationship. Stories that come from early in DIY to after the break-up to the current era of the darkness between them. And all of them fantastic in some way because of how they are either directly relating to an event from the story told by these wrestlers or are referencing the overall arc and angst of the story.

Another aspect of these stories that is fascinating is how many are from Ciampa’s perspective, as if he is tortured with these longings for Gargano and that perhaps those longings, unfulfilled, can explain his heel turn. And there are the stories were Gargano is taking care of Ciampa, putting him in a more feminine position to the gruff Ciampa. So a lot of interesting character interpretation and supposition happening to fill in the gaps created in the story about who these people are and why they have done what they have done to each other.

Finding these stories can help me conduct an analysis of the transformative fandom among pro-wrestling fans not commonly studied: women. And such an analysis could show the overlaps with different fandoms through the common practices of fanfiction, in general, and slash, in particular. Overall, the works show fans seeking for the two men to make up, to become friends again. The emotional work done by the wrestlers to tell their transmedia story is being reflected in how fans use their fics to transform the negative relationship back to a positive one.

I hope to use this example to do more research on my encoding-decoding-recoding model. I think I can argue that the transmedia storytelling serves as encoding kayfabe, that the fans’ decoding consists of emotional reactions to the kayfabe, and their fanfic acts as recoding to deal with those emotional reactions. The fact that so many of the stories directly reference events as depicted in NXT helps to show the relationships between the storytelling (encoding) and how fans reacted to the storytelling (decoding and recoding). Even the timecode stamps on the fanfics can help show what the fans reacted to. Plus there are the comments to the fanfics, which could further help show the decoding through the fan discourses embedded in these fanfics.

So right now, this idea represents a work-in-progress here, but one I am very excited about — and not just because I get to read Ciampa/Gargano fanfic.