As part of the Works-In-Process aspect for the Professional Wrestling Studies Association (which you can read more about in Submissions and Contributions), I am submitting a piece I am writing on the co-construction of kayfabe between the wrestlers and their fans (which I have written about elsewhere on this blog, here and here), and how this co-construction aligns with a concept from game studies, the magic circle. The goal is to discuss this co-construction as a way to converge the producer/consumer identities, as well as reality/fiction and wrestling/game studies. I would love any feedback on how to frame this piece, as this was my first attempt to really bring all my ideas together.
The Squared Circle and the Magic Circle: The moment-to-moment co-construction of kayfabe at AAW live events
Two men enter the ring (a.k.a. the “squared circle”), muscles tense, skin already glistening with sweat. The men move about the ring, calling out to the fans in the crowd to let their admiration roar and shake the building. The room still reverberates with the booming baselines of their entrance music, leaving the audiences’ ears ringing for the next few days. The crowd responds in a frenzy, engaging in dueling chants as each side tries to outshout the other while the wrestlers finally step into the middle of the ring to meet. The competitors size each other up, stare one another down, and give the sense that they do not like one another. Even if they show one another respect and shake hands, everything leading up to that handshake and everything after remains thick with tension and the desire and drive to defeat the other man and win. They may be friends outside of the ring—and that friendship may be completely legitimate and not just kayfabe—but it does not matter; each man enters the ring to win.
Thus began every single match at the All American Wrestling (AAW) Windy City Classic XI. Thus began my experience with live professional wrestling matches. Thus began my chance to observe firsthand how kayfabe is created and maintained.
In this essay, I present an autoethnography I conducted of events that led me to theorize that the nature of kayfabe results from the interaction of the promoters, the wrestlers, and their fans. As an autoethnography (Jones, Adams & Ellis, 2013), I focus on my own lived experiences at live wrestling shows to test, interrogate, and expand my understanding of and ideas for the convergent nature of professional wrestling. Overall, I came to understand kayfabe as Sharon Mazer (1998) had previously done: as a convergence of reality and fiction that produces a simulation of reality, or a hyperreality. However, I came to see that this hyperreality relies on the convergence of the three triadic elements listed above—the promoters, the wrestlers, and the fans—which all work together to generate kayfabe. If one part of this triad breaks kayfabe and acknowledges that wrestling is indeed scripted and predetermined, then professional wrestling’s hyperreality does not operate in the same way.
For kayfabe to work, this triad must agree on certain rules of conduct and roles to play, all of which maintain the illusion of “reality.” To accomplish this, the members of this triad must work together to co-construct kayfabe during the moments of a live event—i.e., before, during, and after the wrestlers enter the squared circle. This co-construction aligns with the magic circle concept, in which players enter into an agreement (often times implicitly) to act in a different way when playing a game and thereby maintain the artificial reality of the game. In a similar way, the members of the triad maintain kayfabe through moment-by-moment co-construction as they negotiate and agree upon the hyperreality of the wrestling match and promotion. Using my experiences at AAW live events, I will argue that this co-constructed theory of kayfabe represents a fundamental aspect of the nature and experience of professional wrestling.
First Experience: Windy City Classic XI
I am new to this professional wrestling phenomenon. In terms of time, I only became interested in professional wrestling in early 2014. The Windy City Classic XI on November 28, 2015, was my first live show experience. At this point I need to describe myself as a fan-scholar in relation to professional wrestling. I have an interest in the phenomenon as a fan, including an intense emotional investment in the product, but I am also curious about the construction of professional wrestling as a critical scholar.
Doors opened at 6:00 p.m. at the Logan Square Auditorium in Chicago, though the bell for the first match would not ring until about 7:15. Until then, the crowd filed in, bought their over-priced beer, and circled the ring to meet some of the wrestlers and buy their wares. For many indie wrestlers, one of the main ways they make money is through “hawking wares” like t-shirts, photos, or DVDs. Wrestling does not pay much money per match unless you are a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Superstar, which is why so many indie wrestlers hope to get called up to WWE’s developmental brand, NXT, with an eye toward earning a spot on the main roster.
My partner and I sat in the third row, near the entrance from which all the wrestlers would emerge during the night. I sat there watching people file in, and thinking about this new type of cultural context in which I found myself. I didn’t know how to act. I had been watching live events for a while, and I know how to talk about the matches, the wrestlers, the business, and so forth. I also know that memes develop based on how crowds respond to matches. For example, when one wrestler slaps another wrestler’s chest, the crowd often yells out “Wooo!” in reference to famous wrestler Ric Flair, who would often yell that during his matches when doing such a “chop.” I also know that there are many times when the crowd interacts with the wrestlers and engage in a call-response, or just chants and claps in an attempt to embolden their wrestler during his/her match.
However, I had never experienced it firsthand. Sitting at home watching WWE or NXT live events, my partner and I do not chant or clap; we merely observe the live crowd engaging in these behaviors, and sometimes comment on the creativity or ill-timed nature of them. I wasn’t sure how to engage in such interactivity in person—does one start it, does one go with the flow, does one counter the flow? When was it appropriate to interact, when was it not, and did it really matter? Upon seeing me pose these questions in real-time, my Facebook friends told me it will just happen naturally, so I sat there, watching other fans as I waited for the first match to begin.
At a live event, such interaction between the wrestlers and the fans is not only expected, it is required to complete the experience and even the narratives of the matches. At the beginning of the match featuring indie favorite Chris Hero and El Rey Network’s Lucha Underground star Pentagon Jr., fans in the audience cheered raucously and passionately for each wrestler. The intensity of these dueling chants made it clear just how invested the crowd was in the match; their chanting and clapping and thus performance of the call-response vocally indicated their allegiance during this match.
This type of interactivity occurred throughout the night, and how fans simply demonstrate their support for one particular wrestler represents perhaps the lowest form of it. Other forms of interactivity involve more of a back-and-forth between the wrestler and the fans. Oftentimes during their matches, the interaction between the fans and the wrestlers was meant to help or hinder a particular wrestler. When the crowd’s favorite competitor grows tired and collapses onto the mat, the fans will clap enthusiastically, slowly at first but steadily speeding up to encourage the wrestler to get back to his feet and take down his opponent. One wrestler, ACH, even referenced the anime DragonBall Z and Captain Falcon from the F-Zero and Super Smash Bros. video game series in calling for the audience to help him “power up” so he could finish off his opponent. Right there did I see convergence between texts occurring, as this interactivity gained an intertexual aspect, linking this wrestler with his fans who recognized the reference.
Perhaps the highest form of this call-and-response interactivity occurs when a fan shouts something at the wrestler, and the wrestler addresses that fan—with a look, a gesture (often flipping people off or mimicking masturbation, in the case of this event), a verbal response, or by performing an activity in the ring that relates to what the person just said. This latter occurs least often, but it can result in some rather spontaneous activity; for instance, wrestler Ethan Page responded to a comment about his cardiovascular conditioning by pulling down his trunks and mooning the crowd before performing a series of jumping jacks and burpees, and then attacking his opponent with his bare bottom.
Such interactivity helps the crowd feel more involved in the matches. One of the biggest known “secrets” about professional wrestling is that matches are predetermined; the outcomes are most often decided before the match begins to further some narrative. Thus, fans often find other things in the text to keep them entertained, such as the narratives or the athleticism of the wrestlers. In part, this multifaceted nature of matches demonstrates the text’s polysemous nature (Fiske, 1986), as one match can contain different elements that offer different interpretations for different people. Additionally, matches can still feel “real” because of the narratives, the athleticism, fan’s interaction(s) with the wrestlers, and the very real physical damage wrestlers take; for instance, Tommaso Ciampa’s nose became lacerated when his face collided with a guardrail, and Christian Faith wore the “crimson mask” after suffering a Piledriver onto a steel chair courtesy of Ryan Boz. When a fan can feel—or see—that their actions have an impact on what happens in the ring, then it can feel real. These observations bring me to my first attempt at developing a theory that explains what I experienced while attending this show: the co-constructive nature of professional wrestling.
Theory: Kayfabe as Co-Construction
When looked at through the lens of convergence, kayfabe conforms to Jean Baudrillard’s (1994) notion of hyperreality. A postmodernist concept, hyperreality involves the blending of reality and fiction to the point that reality becomes indistinguishable from a simulation of reality. As Mazer (1998) observed, professional wrestling “presents audiences simultaneously with the image of the real and with an idea of the fake…” (p. 20) through the creation and maintenance of kayfabe. This appreciation of professional wrestling as simulation, however, tends to focus on how it is situated within a larger social and cultural context, and how it can provide for “Bakhtinian carnivalesque sensibilities” (Leverette, 2003, p. 69) that upset traditional, oppressive power dynamics within that context. In other words, from this perspective, professional wrestling’s kayfabe allows people to break out of restrictions on their daily lives. This perspective on kayfabe is different from how I am approaching it; instead of a macro-level analysis, I am interested in a micro-level analysis that considers the moment-to-moment engagement with professional wrestling.
From this perspective, kayfabe becomes hyperreal when it seems real to fans, and it can become real to the fans through the co-construction that requires the interaction of text and audience. For any wrestling match to feel real, fans must first suspend their disbelief. Coined by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1817), suspension of disbelief conceptualizes how people can become emotionally and cognitively involved in a piece of fantasy. Suspension of disbelief allows people to feel immersed in fictional experiences like television shows and movies. For example, if a reader senses enough “human interest and a semblance of truth” in a fantastic tale, then they suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative. So, suspension of disbelief suggests that wrestling fans accept kayfabe when its presentation includes some emotional component and makes logical sense with regard to how the person knows and experiences reality.
Yet, kayfabe is more than just a willing suspension of disbelief. It also involves a co-constructive element present in most forms of fictional entertainment. This argument reflects a social constructivist philosophy that understands how aspects of reality are developed through the collaborative actions of agents (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). When someone engages with a narrative – whether through film, television, video games, or professional wrestling – they work with, or against, the narrative to create its reality or diegesis (Reinhard, 2016). It is the person’s willingness to accept this simulation or hyperreality that allows it to become real for them, but the narrative must promote this willingness through containing well-constructed elements, such as characters, plots, and emotions, that the person cares about. As such, kayfabe exists not simply through a person’s willingness to ignore the fictional, but through their active participation and willingness to agree upon the fiction’s reality. When fans watch a professional wrestling match, they can accept the unreality of the text and go along with it, thereby working with the text to create this alternate reality from which they ultimately disengage when the narrative ends.
Transportation theory (Green, Brock & Kaufman, 2004) helps to explain how suspension of disbelief works in relation to narratives, because it focuses on how people lose themselves in a story. According to the theory, people may feel as though they have become transported into the fictional world via their empathy for the characters and the use of their imagination as evoked by the story. In writing about entanglement and detachment with films (Reinhard, 2016), I’ve also thought about this topic in terms of how people can get into (entanglement) or out of (detachment) a story. For example, if the story demands the audience question what happens in the text (say in a mystery story), then this results in entanglement. Meanwhile, if the story does not require such questioning (say when the story relies on faulty or fuzzy logic), then the audience becomes detached. Therefore, if a fan does not question what happens in the wrestling story, then they would not reject what is presented, and kayfabe is maintained.
Thus, kayfabe requires wrestling fans to agree on the reality of what they see and thereby become entangled in character struggles, match stories, narrative arcs, and so forth. Conversely, kayfabe discourages questioning that could detach fans from the reality created by the performers and their actions. When fans perceive reality and fiction seamlessly converging, they maintain kayfabe and allow the fictional to become real. Additionally, the more the text requires fans to use all of their senses, or the more their bodies or emotions get involved in the text, then they will become more immersed in the experience of engaging with the text and thus more involved in this co-construction. The more physically, interpretively, or emotionally interactive the experience of engaging with the text, then more eager fans will be to build this sense of hyperreality and, ultimately, suspend disbelief so they can feel as though this hyperreality is real.
In other words, to build and maintain kayfabe, wrestling fans must agree that what they see is “real.” Kayfabe requires fans to become entangled in a character’s struggle, a match’s story, and the overarching narrative arc of the feuds. Fans may recognize the artifice of “sports entertainment” but they can still buy into the kayfabe, partly because of the “real” moments that blur the line between reality and fiction. Kayfabe discourages fans from constantly questioning what they see and thereby detach from kayfabe. In becoming entangled, fans co-construct the hyperreality along with the professional wrestling text. Any ability to suspend disbelief about kayfabe stems from a fan’s desire to become immersed within the hyperreality based on their emotional and cognitive investment in the events presented.
Thus, fans help co-construct this sense of reality—even when they understand it is not real—through their interactivity with the “text” of professional wrestling. Fans help the wrestlers create the hyperreality of sports entertainment through the call-and-responses, the emotional investment, and the bodily involvement with the characters, narratives, and matches. At the Windy City Classic XI, the clapping, cheering, chanting, getting to my feet, getting out of the way when Fenix attacked Pentagon Jr. down the row from me – all of these physical interactions increased my emotional investment, and thereby aided in the co-construction of the event’s “reality.” Hearing the slaps and punches, watching the blood and grimaces, feeling the entrance music vibrate my body, witnessing the body slams that made the mat bounce all contributed to this co-construction. Things felt more real the more my body was engaged in this experience. The emotional level of the live audience really does impact how passionate and involved wrestlers become in storytelling during matches. I’ve watched WWE’s Raw, Smackdown, Main Event, NXT shows, and PPVs—and none have felt as real as the AAW live events (except for maybe Sami Zayn’s and Bayley’s title wins, and that was because of the emotional weight of those wins). Being surrounded by the experience and witnessing first-hand and up-close what happened to the wrestlers’ bodies made everything feel much more real. Televised matches remove that bodily experience, and must therefore rely more on storytelling and emotional interactivity to get fans to suspend disbelief and thus co-construct kayfabe.
This type of embodied experience helps the match feel real, but the embodied experience also helps to create the personal and emotional heft of these real moments, which leads fans to have an investment in the wrestlers. Fans can believe in the hyperreality in the ring if the storytelling is good and creates emotional investment. This perception of realness often results from the fans’ emotional and cognitive investment in these wrestlers and their stories. As with any other type of identification or parasocial relationship, fans may see something in the wrestlers’ and their stories—and thus in professional wrestling itself—that they recognize and love from elsewhere in their lives. With Sami Zayn and Bayley, I saw in them a passion for their work and their struggle to be taken seriously, and in these characterizations I recognized my own drives. My identification with these wrestling characters helped me to care about their struggles, which were told through the classic underdog narrative that heightened the emotional impact of their finally winning the major belts. My interpretive interactivity with these characters and their stories afflicted by emotional connection to them.
Such an intensely emotional connection can also be created through getting to know the real person behind the kayfabe performance. Knowing something about the reason person can help maintain entanglement through the creation of personal and emotional heft. The fans can become concerned and supportive of the supposedly real person, which can promote their willingness to participate in the co-construction of hyperreality. The fans start to root for the real wrestler as they see and experience them. Of course, it is hard to know just how real is the “real wrestler” when promoters control and promote certain narratives for their wrestlers (e.g. WWE’s Breaking Ground and historical documentaries) or when even the wrestlers themselves can use social media to brand themselves. Yet, for fans, getting even a glimpse of the real person putting their lives on the line to entertain while in the ring can help cement the emotional bond and parasocial relationship that allows the fan to buy into the kayfabe. I think that is what ultimately hooked me. So far, my favorite wrestlers became so through this emotional interactivity, such as Sami Zayn, Finn Balor, Bayley, Tomasso Ciampa, and Johnny Gargano. It all began with Mick Foley, and learning about the real person who supports liberal causes and works to fight domestic abuse. Once I saw a glimpse of the real person behind the wrestler, then I was more willing to accept what the wrestler performed as, because I was supporting the person and everything that person was trying to do.
Kayfabe can become real to fans because of the emotional aspect of engaging with professional wrestling as well as how the fans make sense of it. If they have an emotional connection to the wrestlers and their stories, and if they can find something “real” in it—that is, real to them—then the fan(s) can become entangled and transported in the kayfabe and suspend their disbelief that the kayfabe is not real. The more the lines between real and kayfabe blur, the easier it is to co-construct the hyperreality of sports entertainment. There are many ways for fans to create these emotional and cognitive connections to professional wrestling, including and buying into kayfabe storylines, making personal connections with wrestlers, and recognizing something in the wrestling something that they love. When this happens—even if the moments are fleeting and few—the fan perceives reality and fiction converging and thus kayfabe is maintained as the fictional becomes the real.
Applying Theory: AAW at Bourbon Street
After the Windy City Classic XI, I attended an NXT Live show on January 16, 2016, and I presented this idea about the co-construction of kayfabe at the Popular Culture Association’s conference in Seattle. However, it was not until May that I applied my theory to understand the experience of live professional wrestling events and how kayfabe was constructed during those events. As I attended these live events, I saw how I could expand on the ideas outlined above. In this section, I reflect on four AAW shows to explain how those experiences related to this theory.
May 6, 2016: AAW Take No Prisoners. During this show, I had several observations about my and other fans’ emotional connections and interactions with the matches. First, I had an emotional connection to a number of the wrestlers. I had become invested in the career of Tommaso Ciampa, and hearing his entrance music before the show, while waiting for everything to begin, was enough to give me an emotional charge and sustain an enthusiasm for his match that would not occur for another five hours. A similar thrill came from seeing two wrestlers my partner and I have come to know through Lucha Underground. Fenix and Pentagon Jr. have become integral characters for that show. This was my second time seeing them together—the first time being my first live event ever—and their presence was my main reason for attending the show. The term “pumped” does not seem to adequately describe the level of excitement I had awaiting their arrival and throughout their stellar match.
Second, despite that emotional connection, I still noticed the botched moves. The authenticity of the match comes through the wrestlers’ performance: when they do things right, and when they don’t. A botched move can often elicit the audience chant “you fucked up,” but that seems to occur more when the audience is not emotionally invested in what happens in the ring. A couple failed moves—or obvious fake moves—occurred during these matches, but they did not really provoke the audience to criticize the wrestlers, but we were all emotionally invested in the matches. We could see that something went wrong, but we didn’t feel the need to break kayfabe to call them on it. More likely than not, we were more worried about the wrestler being harmed, particularly during those few times when it looked as though a botched move might result in a dangerous injury.
Third, the emotional connection becomes intensified when the real world of the wrestler spills through their persona’s characterization. For example, this was my first time seeing Colt Cabana wrestle after becoming familiar with him via his podcast, The Art of Wrestling, and Marc Maron’s IFC show. I knew him as a celebrity first, and then as a wrestler. Seeing him live helped me see the wrestler character that established his current celebrity identity, but at the same time the reality of his true lived experience came through. When he was first introduced for his match, the announcer declared that Cabana was celebrating his birthday, and the crowd broke out into song for him. Here was a wrestler, who I knew more as a celebrity than a wrestler, and before I could get to know him as a wrestler, the reality of his life became part of how I knew him. Now, how Cabana presents himself via his podcast is an attempt to break kayfabe and reveal exactly who he is behind any wrestling character he has developed and performed. So having his birthday announced as part of his character’s introduction that night did not necessarily break kayfabe. Yet, by knowing it was his birthday, and by participating in the celebration of it, I felt as though I was more emotionally connected to Colt Cabana. Whether or not that connection was to the real person or a character did not matter; all that mattered was that I felt connected. As such, it was easier to be transported into the rather comical story he and his partners told that night in the ring.
June 17, 2016: AAW Killers Among Us. Professional wrestling combines the need to suspend disbelief regarding wrestling’s unreality and a concurrent need to suspend one’s belief in the reality of the performers and their actions. At certain times, the fan is asked to accept the kayfabe that is presented, while at other times the fan has to look past something that really, objectively happened, or to put aside something they know about the wrestler to accept the his or her performance. Both interact within moments of engaging with a wrestling match and thereby ensure that fans become involved in the matches. Throughout that night, seeing wrestlers with whom I had developed emotional connections helped me overlook the fake moves and the botches. I did not linger long to consider when a move did not seem to work out, or when a wrestler took a hit that seemed just a bit too real, or when the wrestler was obviously hamming things up for comical effect. I had no way of knowing if those hits that seemed just a little too stiff were real or if they were just sold as such. I think not being able to tell the difference is the essence of kayfabe’s co-constructed nature.
Entanglement needs a balance involving constant co-construction between the audience, wrestlers’ actions, and the story being told. A move that becomes too real or involves too much overselling of a hit (which highlights wrestling’s contrived nature) can cause detachment. To me, the lack of complete detachment illustrates the co-constructed nature of kayfabe. I felt entangled throughout the night. Of course, there were fleeting moments when I detached because I perceived the fake moves or the possibility of real injury made me question why I was supporting this. Yet, my emotional connection to the wrestlers kept pulling me back in, and the overall text of the event was designed to create this delicate balance that promotes the co-construction of kayfabe. That is a hard feat to accomplish. The text needs the proper combination of real and fake, of logic and emotion, to create more entanglement than detachment. It is the same type of balancing act that any piece of fiction must build and maintain. Sports entertainment has a more difficult balancing act given the “liveness: of its text and the possibility for anything to become too real or too fake at any moment. It is a credit to those wrestlers who have honed their craft for such a long time that the balancing act has become as natural to them as any move they have to authentically and fictionally pull off.
July 23, 2016: AAW United We Stand. In looking at professional wrestling as a co-construction between wrestlers, promoters, and fans, I realized an important aspect in its construction while attending this event. In a sense, this co-construction recalls Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s (2004) assertion that playing a game results in the development of a “magic circle.” When people play games, they agree to abide by the game’s rules, and in doing so create an artificial reality wherein those rules dictate that reality’s boundaries; to play the game and exist in that artificial reality, players must agree to play by the rules. For kayfabe to work—for any single match to work—wrestlers, promoters and fans have to “play by the rules” and perform certain behaviors to maintain this hyperreality. If any one part of that triadic relationship breaks the rules, kayfabe is broken because the magic circle cannot hold.
What I find interesting is how knowing that we are in a magic circle allows for the creation of unique wrestling moments that actually demonstrate this co-construction. For example, during the Cedric Alexander versus Zack Sabre Jr. match, Alexander hits Sabre with a knife edge chop, earning the “Woo!” from the audience. However, one audience member badmouthed Flair, and thereby broke the magic circle. The audience immediately turned on that one fan, but more importantly, Alexander changed the match in the moment to respond to the fan’s disrespect. He pointedly did the same move, then performed the “Ric Flair strut” and the Degeneration X groin chop—all three actions pointedly directed at that fan—much to the delight of the rest of the crowd. Thus, in this instance, the magic circle was broken, but by drawing on the memes of professional wrestling, Alexander was able to reconstitute the magic circle and pull the audience back into it the hyperreality.
Another example from that night demonstrates what wrestlers can do in the magic circle when they know they have the audience with them. In what would be their last match together before officially joining NXT, Ciampa and Gargano participated in a tag team match against Trevor Lee and Andrew Everett of TNA Impact Wrestling. During that match, Ciampa announced to the crowd that he wished that they could stay in AAW forever. This announcement led to Ciampa and Lee wrestling in slow motion. They perform every move and every reaction this way, and at first the audience just laughs at their dedication to the gimmick. Very quickly, however, the audience begins to follow suit, as do the two announcers and the referee, and their reactions to and chanting for the match engage in the same type of exaggerated performance. By existing within the magic circle, and acknowledging their different roles and the rules by which they had to abide, the wrestlers and the fans co-constructed a heightened kayfabe flow. Within the artificial reality of the squared circle, the magic circle allowed for an even more artificial reality, in which time slowed down thanks to the collaboration between performers and fans.
August 19, 2016: AAW Showdown. At the last event of the summer, I thought more about how this co-construction occurs through a moment-by-moment process. Indeed, I thought about how all these concepts tie together to create the magic circle in which kayfabe exists. There was no match that night in which I was emotionally invested, which led me to think more about how it is not just wrestlers who have a role to play at these live events. At live shows like AAW, the fans have a role to play as well.
Wrestlers have to perform wrestling. Match outcomes are predetermined, so wrestlers do not perform these moves to win but to tell a story and play a character (such as heel, babyface, hoss, high flyer, etc.). Their moment-to-moment experience is to make it through matches and complete the prescribed narrative without a botch or doing serious damage to their opponent(s). That is their role within the magic circle as dictated by the rules of professional wrestling. Fans, on the other hand, experience the moment-to-moment of the match through their embodiment of “being a wrestling fan.” Fans are expected to respond to the matches—to the moments of the narrative—through the call-response. This call-response heightens and confirms the narrative’s emotional nature, and helps create that interaction between the wrestlers and the fans that maintains kayfabe.
The wrestlers and fans interacting with one another within the magic circle works to produce and maintain kayfabe. Indeed, indie wrestling matches like these AAW live events live or die based on fan participation—more so than impersonal big stadium WWE matches, where wrestlers play more to TV cameras than the house audience. The lack of physical distance between AAW wrestlers and fans requires a lack of emotional or narrative distance as well; if the fans are not involved an AAW match, the experience feels like a waste of time. An example of this occurred during a match between Michael Elgin and Juice Robinson at the Take No Prisoners show. Despite the wrestlers’ best efforts, many people in the audience ignored the match outright, eliciting an angry response from Elgin afterwards.
I experienced several of these types of matches at the AAW shows I attended, as I would look around at the fans and wonder why they were not paying attention to every match with equal enthusiasm. Why they, as fans, seemingly abandoned their positions and discontinued the magic circle that made the kayfabe work. I have no answer to that, as I did not talk to those fans around me. However, I do think part of the answer lies in who was wrestling, and how the fans just did not care for that wrestler, which indicates a lack of emotional connection and/or parasocial relationship that happens even in the more polished WWE. Without an emotional connection, the moment-to-moment co-construction of any match’s kayfabe cannot occur because while the wrestlers’ are doing their jobs, the fans are not doing theirs. When the fans refuse to co-construct a match moment-to-moment, the magic circle and artificial reality of the squared circle dissipates, leaving just two sweaty wrestlers going through the motions.
Chicago’s AAW is a small federation, even in comparison to other indie promotions around the world. Yet, the federation has some loyal fans who attend every live event, and the promotion’s ability to bring in bigger name wrestlers from other federations means AAW can draw more fans to these live events. In other words, many people attend AAW shows because of some emotional connection, either to the federation or the wrestlers it brings in. The communal nature of AAW shows helps to co-construct kayfabe not because the fans disbelieve it but because they fully embrace it through having in situ ownership. At the live events, in the moments of a match, the wrestlers and the fans share an ownership of the stories the promoters and wrestlers seek to tell because of this emotional connection. By sharing an ownership for the stories, each part of this triadic relationship has agreed to play by the rules of professional wrestling—to create the stories, to perform the stories, and to respond to the stories. Playing by these rules allows a magic circle to develop around the match, which only furthers the moment-to-moment co-construction of this artificial space and hyperreality of the “squared circle.”
Of course, as an autoethnography, what I recount here reflects my own personal experience. To better test his theory of the co-construction of kayfabe requires an understanding of how other fans see their role within this proposed magic circle, and how promoters and wrestlers see their own roles as well as those of the fans. I think minutia reception studies, which I have used previously to understand how people engage with films (see Reinhard, 2016), could provide insight into the flow and co-construction of kayfabe while watching live wrestling matches. To test just how much the emotionality of the moment-to-moment reception of live wrestling allows fans to suspend disbelief requires more empirical work. Additionally, a focus on the minutia of a match could also provide insight into how important wrestlers and promoters thank fans are in the construction and maintenance of kayfabe.
While more work needs to be done on this theory, it provides a potential understanding of how to view professional wrestling through the lens of convergence that does not reduce the concept of convergence simply to technological use. The use of social media can add in this co-construction by allowing fans to glimpse the real person who exists behind the wrestling persona. In this analysis, my focus was more on live events, where the interaction between wrestlers and fans was completely face-to-face and not mediated. In this instance, convergence defines the blurring between reality and artifice that occurs with the co-construction of kayfabe. As the rise of Web 2.0 and social media have led to the blurring of the producer and consumer identities, so does professional wrestling require the blurring between reality and artifice. In a sense, I argue that the very nature of professional wrestling relies on this convergence, which in turn leads to the creation and maintenance of the magic circle, kayfabe, and hyperrreality. Because of this convergence, professional wrestling—aka “sports entertainment”—represents a unique experience that seems perfectly suited for this era of convergence.
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