Best in the World: Understanding the CM Punk Controversy from a Narratological Perspective

The current received wisdom on the internet is that AEW is falling apart with various rumours of backstage fallings out and a lack of discipline filling news pages and occupying YouTube videos. Fans and journalists alike have been left trying to determine what is real and what is fake, what is shoot and what is work.

From a vantage point informed by narratology, professional wrestling has a uniquely rich form of story telling. Things begin simply enough by recognising the existence of an author and a narrator. To take CM Punk and the recent All Out event as an example we can see that there exists the fictional character CM Punk who functions as the narrator of the text, that is the wrestling match with Jon Moxley and any promos which are performed prior to that match. There also exists Phil Brookes the author, or more specifically the historical author, who is the man who sat down and worked out how that match was going to go, which beats to hit and how best to tell the story to the reader to illicit the greatest emotional response. There exists a gap between the authorial voice and the narrative voice. The narrator might do and say things which that character believes are justified, but which the historical author knows to be immoral.

The situation becomes more nuanced when we factor in the post All Out media scrum. The media event is presented as being a part of the ‘real’ world and not part of the wrestling text. As such a reader of the text would assume that they are not watching CM Punk speak but Phil Brookes. What they are actually seeing is a new voice which operates in between the real historical author and the fictitious narrator, the person speaking at the media scrum was the implied author, the reader’s personal understanding of who the author really is, but actually a further fictional voice. In this way the media scrum becomes peritextual information, existing outside of the text but functioning to increase the reader’s understanding of the narrative.

If this is a part of a meta-storyline it comes from a bizarre position of anxiety on the part of the booker over trying to make wrestling ‘real’ again. This shows a misunderstanding of how fans have always engaged with professional wrestling and it assumes that until Vince McMahon said that wrestling was entertainment and not a ‘bona fide athletic contest’, everyone believed it to be the latter. This just isn’t true. Spectators have long understood professional wrestling to be art and not sport. You only have to watch it to recognise that. Anecdotally I can point to my dad watching wrestling with his teeny-bopper friends at the Norwich Corn Exchange in the 1950s and understanding that they weren’t watching a sporting event. More academically I can quote the fantastic Sisterhood of the Squared Circle by Pat LaPrade and Dan Murphy, ‘by the latter half of the 1800s… [professional wrestling’s] legitimacy was frequently called into question by critics and sportswriters,’ (p. 17). People have long known that professional wrestling is theatre and that knowledge in no way diminishes a reader’s enjoyment of the text.

It seems likely to me that this is part of an ongoing fictional narrative. The creative minds at AEW understand that a huge part of contemporary wrestling fandom is within the online community which is dominated by wrestling news YouTube channels and websites. If they can tap into that arena and work those outlets into telling their story then they can reach so many more people than currently watch their product.

For me personally, I don’t need it. I know that the wrestling I watch is a fictional text, a piece of performance art, and I don’t require the authors of those texts trying to tell me that it is real. I prefer the unreality.

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