Kayfabe and the Hyper-Real: Co-operating narrative strata in professional wrestling

Professional wrestling is unique among art forms because of co-operative narrative strata. The narrative layers that make up the strata move from the non-fictional, to the hypo-fictional, the fictional, and the hyper-fictional and require increasing levels of wilful suspension of disbelief. Each layer can operate independently but generally speaking, a spectator will need to have some understanding of each layer to fully enjoy a professional wrestling narrative.

The initial layer to understand is the core layer of the fictional. This layer encompasses the wrestling show, be it untelevised or televised, and consists of anything performed by the wrestlers in the ring, or any other performance space such as entrance ramp, walkway, interview area etc. The performance space displays a combat sport from a fictional universe. The exaggerated, staged combat is the in-universe reality.  In this fictional universe one may see pile drivers and Samoan drops in bar fights. The audience however exist in the real or non-fictional universe; that being the one which we all inhabit daily. The audience is aware that what they are watching is a staged fiction but they respond to it as though they are part of that fictional universe. This is where the first co-operation between narrative layers occurs.

The audience of a professional wrestling show is not one of passive observance as would typically be found in a cinema auditorium or the stalls of a theatre. The professional wrestling audience is an active participant in the creation of the story being told in the performance space. The ebb and flow of crowd support, cheering the virtuous hero character and jeering the villainous heel, both informs and is informed by what is happening in the performance space. The non-fictional and fictional universes work together to create a narrative.

An additional narrative layer was added to professional wrestling during the post-modern era, what is colloquially known by its WWE branded name the Attitude Era. During the post-modern period it became commonplace for performers to enter the performance space and announce that they were going to speak truthfully. The performers would act as if breaking character and begin to discuss events which had taken place in the non-fictional universe. Owen Hart’s promo from the 15th of December, 1997 episode of WWE Raw is one of many examples of this narrative layer.[1]

Hart entered the performing space from the crowd. By crossing the threshold between the non-fictional and fictional universes, Hart was establishing that he was a ‘real’ character and not the fictional Owen Hart the audience had been watching in the past. Hart discusses wrestlers who have left WWE and gone to work for WCW; these were real world events. The promo served to distance Hart from the fictional universe and ostensibly position him in the non-fictional universe. In doing so another narrative layer was established, one between the fictional and non-fictional. The Owen Hart we see in the ring during this segment is not the real life man called Owen Hart, nor is it the fictional character called Owen Hart we had seen in the past. It is an all-new Owen Hart. More fictional than non-fictional, yet less fictional than fictional, this is a hypo-fictional layer.

The hypo-fictional layer has continued to be explored though perhaps not to the famous post-modern excesses of the late 1990s. With the inevitable adoption of social media accounts, professional wrestlers are able to use a platform which enables them to exist in both the non-fictional and fictional universes. As well as being a space in which to share photos of pets, meals, and days out, social media has become part of the performance space, also existing to advance fictional narratives.

The recent feud between Becky Lynch and Ronda Rousey made use of the hypo-fictional universe, presenting their ongoing storylines as having bled into real world heat[2]. At the same time, the characters made reference to the hypo-fiction of the Attitude Era establishing a further hypo-fictional layer more real than that which existed before, but still fictional[3]. There can exist an infinite degree of hypo-fiction, layered anywhere between reality and fiction as long as reference is made to both worlds.

The introduction and mainstream adoption of cinematic wrestling matches represents the most recent innovation as regards the narrative layers of professional wrestling. Cinematic wrestling takes the age-old criticism that wrestling is fake and embraces it fully; presenting wrestling matches which are an exaggerated fiction, featuring impossible events and situations. This innovation represents a layer below the fictional narrative level and is the hyper-fictional layer.

In the same way that post-modernism informed the hypo-fictional layer, the hyper-fictional is informed by metamodernism and can be viewed as the introduction of a new period in professional wrestling. Just as metamodernism requires its audience to adopt an enforced naivety, cinematic wrestling asks its audience to become ‘marks’ again and enjoy the spectacle of wrestling as a pure fiction, and not a fiction which tries to convince its audience of its reality. This attitude is similar to the New Sincerity movement in cinema which sees the audience responding to sentimentality in movies with ‘ironic detachment’ and ‘sincere engagement’[4]. The audience is asked to suspend their disbelief and with it their knowledge of the fictional and hypo-fictional narrative and to fully engage with the hyper-fictional. Even this suspension of engagement with these narrative layers is an implicit acceptance of their importance and so they remain just as critical to the enjoyment of cinematic wrestling as the hyper-fictional narrative being portrayed. By knowing what one is temporarily ignoring, enjoyment of that which is present is heightened.

Each layer of narrative is utilised by the professional wrestling audience to build a rich art form. At times the spectator will draw on what she knows as an element of the story which exists in the non-fictional universe, for instance when reference is made to the Montreal Screwjob. At the other end of the strata, the real world will be ignored entirely and a suspension of disbelief will enable the spectator to enjoy impossibly watching a wrestling match take place in the sub-conscious space of John Cena’s mind as in the Firefly Funhouse match at Wrestlemania 36[5]. And there will be oscillations between the strata taking the audience to various degrees of reality and fiction. It is this plasticity innate to professional wrestling which makes it such a unique and compelling at form.

[1] WWE (1997)  ‘Raw 238’, WWE Network, December 15th.

[2] Rousey, Ronda (2019) F word? Twitter, 28 February.

[3] Lynch, Becky (2019) Ron Ron, you still mad, Bro? Twitter, 1 March.

[4] Kunze, Peter, ed. (2014). The Films of Wes Anderson: Critical Essays on an Indiewood Icon. Palgrave Macmillan.

[5] WWE (2020) ‘Wrestlemania 36’, WWE Network, 5 April.

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