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!

The Surreal Reality of Professional Wrestling: A Wrestlemania Reflection

Audience Studies, NXT, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews, WWE

Taker Entrance.jpg

The Undertaker’s WrestleMania entrance. [All media provided by the author unless otherwise noted.]

Any WrestleMania weekend experience is going to be marked by surreal moments. From the shear spectacle of the WWE’s collection of events and activities, to the overwhelming amount of professional wrestling occurring over seven days, and to the breathtaking risks and frequently draw-dropping storytelling of the performers on cards all across the weekend’s host city, it is certain that every fan attending these events will be able to take home a story of when they stood up in exclamation and awe. As an attendee of both of World Wrestling Entertainment’s major wrestling events over that weekend, Saturday night’s NXT Takeover: New Orleans and Sunday’s WrestleMania 34, I became privy to some of these moments experienced by those around me.

I attended the NXT show on my own since my WrestleMania companions were arriving late in that evening. On the way from the parking garage to the Smoothie King Center, my stride was overtaken by another man who appeared to also be on his own. He slowed down as he approached me and I was certain I was about to be asked if I wanted to buy an extra ticket or that he was going to try to engage me by telling me how nice my shoes were (this last part is a common line for grifters in New Orleans).

Instead, the man looked at me with a face full of amazement, arched his elbow and lifted his thumb in the direction he had just come from and told me “I just ran into the Miz back there!”

I, not being exactly the most socially skilled academic or wrestling fan on the planet, could only think to say, “Oh, yeah? That’s cool.” This did not deter my new sidewalk companion’s excitement. “Yeah,” he continued, “just walking around. Freaking awesome. I love WrestleMania weekend!”

From there this very excited Miz-bump-into-er sped up is gait and became part of the maddening crowd shuffling into the arena.

NXT Seat

My seat at the Smoothie King Center for NXT Takeover: New Orleans.

I encountered a number of other varying types of fandom once inside the arena. The WWE’s most important annual event draws people from all around the world, and I was genuinely surprised at the many different types of people who had come out for the NXT show. Once in my seat I found I would be spending the following four hours next to what I can most kindly describe as someone representative of the wrestling fan stereotype: a rather large and odorous young man draped in a Matt Hardy “Mower of Lawn” shirt, who insisted to his companions that he had the inside scoop on all things wrestling. He did not, by the way, have any scoop that could not be found on the average wrestling website.

On my other side was a family of four who had made the trip from eastern Europe to attend the weekend’s festivities. When not fully engaged in the show myself, I took note of the son, the youngest member of his family, and his wide-eyed excitement at the action – it was all fresh for him and he wanted to be a part of the crowd in spite of his father’s insistence on keeping a cool demeanor.

It was an interesting placement, being wedged between these two perspectives. On my right was an example of what is commonly conceived, derivatively, as a wrestling fan – loud, obsessed, judgmental, and borderline obnoxious. On my left was a child whose every impulse was to be pulled into the carnivalesque theater of professional wrestling and to engage with it innocently, as if the whole thing were a real competition that held immeasurable stakes. When it comes to professional wrestling, these personalities are equal parts contrastive and complimentary. They are both fully engaged with the products they consume, they are both lost in the moment of the thing, and they are both, willingly or subconsciously, suspending their sense of reality and biting on the narrative being presented to them.

Viewing these two differing ends of pro-wrestling fandom was one of my personal surreal moments from that weekend. Seated uncomfortably in the 300 level of the Smoothie King Center (perhaps the most uncomfortable seat I have ever been in, and I only fly coach), I was taken aback by two personalities I have been. Looking at the young boy, I remembered when I was about ten years old and my parents took me to a tiny armory in northern Maryland to watch a WWF house show, and I saw my favorite wrestlers at the time fight right in front of me, including a match between Bret and Owen Hart, an occurrence that now I wish like hell I could have appreciated more at the time. Looking at the young man on my right I thought about how I had attended yet another house show as a teenager and saw Brock Lesnar in the opening match, before he had debuted on television, and how, being a fledgling internet smart mark, I leaned over to my friends and said smugly, “I read about this guy.”

By contrast, I spent WrestleMania 34 wedged between some old friends whom I made during the ten years I spent as professional wrestler myself. I spent most of the event exchanging thoughts with my friend Greg, an accomplished and still very active performer in the northeast who works under the ring name Greg Excellent. Greg and the promotion he founded, Ground Breaking Wrestling, were the main reasons I was able to live out my own boyhood dream of being a wrestler, and I felt it particularly poignant that I was able to attend the biggest event in the industry with him. It is a rare moment for me to see Greg or any of my close friends from the business, having stepped away from wrestling to pursue my graduate degrees in Milwaukee and now Baton Rouge, and it was another surreal moment to walk into a sea of more than 70,000 people alongside a good friend with whom I share an extreme passion for the business.

Mania seat

My view for WrestleMania.

Greg and I talked about everything wrestling and WrestleMania related. We discussed the sheer size and design of the event (the beautifully designed Carnivale-inspired stage was even more impressive and massive in person). We talked about the booking of the event and effective booking in general, something we have always clashed over.

We argued over the finish to Asuka versus Charlotte straight into the next morning – Greg is and will always be wrong in supporting the end of Asuka’s streak here, just to be clear. We shared our excitement for the mixed tag match with Ronda Rousey and the entirety of the John Cena/Elias/Undertaker segment, both segments which we agreed personified professional wrestling at its best with emotional storytelling and in-ring action that was exciting and intelligent. We each struggled to take in the main event of the show amongst a crowd in revolt. We even kept our conversation and debates going after the event, over burgers at an extremely busy Fuddruckers inside of a New Orleans casino (a surreal event in itself).

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MjWgOx1vuU&w=560&h=315]

Some shameless self-promotion: A match between myself and Greg Excellent.

Through all of this conversation, Greg and I were actively exemplifying the spectrum of wrestling fandom. In the middle of moments like the aforementioned mixed tag match and Undertaker segments, we were on our feet and giddy alongside the other 70,000 plus people around us, stepping back into the enthralled bodies of our younger selves, oblivious and ignorant of the unreal nature of wrestling (“It’s still real to me, damnit!”).

In other moments, such as our disagreement about the Smackdown Women’s title match (in which, let us not forget, Greg is wrong), we were alternating between being internet smarks, assuming we knew what was best, and being experienced professionals within the pro-wrestling world, albeit at a much smaller scale.

We oscillated between the perspectives of the wide-eyed European boy and the smarky twenty-something that I was crammed between the night before while wrestling with our own personas as performers and students of wrestling and storytelling, and all the while we were likely an irritant to the poor folks in front of us who just wanted to watch a wrestling show.

charlotte-asuka-wrestlemania-34-2-e1523298789910

Seriously the wrong moment here, no matter what Greg says. [Photo courtesy of WWE.com]

I suppose my point in sharing all of this is simply to express my own amazement in the ways that the most surreal of all entertainments attracts and literally brings together myriad perspectives. Often times, like with the young boy and the smart mark at NXT, these perspectives can seem contradictory – one innocent and the other cynical – but the fact is that they all come from an identical love for the spectacle of sports entertainment.

Walking out of the NXT show, I overheard a group of young men talking excitedly about their weekend. They had been shouting so much during the show that they had all strained their voices. The spoke in gasps about how incredible the show was, they wondered how they would be able to handle WrestleMania if NXT had taken their voices, and, most endearingly, one of the young men talked about how he had already been made speechless that weekend when he met Asuka at WrestleMania Axxess.

I had enjoyed the show myself, but my excitement was nothing compared to that of these young men, and in those moments where I eavesdropped on their conversation and heard their enthusiasm for professional wrestling, I could not have been prouder to be a part, as both fan and participant, of this strange and surreal thing we call professional wrestling.