Navigating Kayfabe in the Reality Era.

dolph ziggler

This article originally appeared in Calling Spots Issue 21. Republished with permission.

The dwindling amount of old-timers still alive that experienced the territories of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and even ’80s tend to look back on making towns with fondness, when wrestling was still considered by the masses to be “real”, so much so that even many rookies making their debuts at that time weren’t “smartened up” until after they climbed through the ropes.

The Attitude era that dominated the latter part of the 1990s will be remembered as the heyday of “sports entertainment” when anything could happen and often did. When the WWE “got the F out” in 2002 it took with it outrageous shenanigans such as DX invading WCW, Alundra Blayze dumping the WWE Women’s Championship in a trash can and Sable parading around the ring in hand print pasties, making way for the PG era in which John Cena and his candy-coloured merchandise reigned supreme.

Now, with social media and the WWE Network, it seems kayfabe is almost non-existent and Superstars have to strike a balance between making themselves available to fans on Twitter, Instagram and at meet and greets while attempting not to engage in any bad behaviour that might piss off sponsors. (Though there are still untouchables: Seth Rollins’ cheating dick pics were leaked early in 2015 before he became WWE Champion and when the new girlfriend he sent said pics to was revealed to be a Nazi-sympathiser later that year, she was promptly fired from her developmental deal while Rollins remained a dual champion. And although Hulk Hogan and Jimmy Snuka’s histories have been effectively erased from WWE, Legends who’ve behaved badly in the past but not since the company brought in the domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse clause in their Wellness Policy, such as Scott Hall, are still decorated.)

Perhaps the most obvious example that we are living in the reality era of sports entertainment is Total Divas. What was first marketed as a glimpse into the unique careers of female professional wrestlers quickly devolved into your typical E! fare: 40 minutes of personal drama such as Brie Bella and Trinity’s husbands, Daniel Bryan and Jimmy Uso, respectively, taking issue with their sexy clothes, and Brie’s desire to start a family. The latest seasons seem like an attempt to rectify that and, in the midst of the #DivasRevolution, explore what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry.

What’s also interesting about Total Divas is that it builds a fifth wall between kayfabe and the “scripted reality” of shows such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians and The Hills. In a profile on The Hills villains Spencer and Heidi Pratt in Complex magazine last year, “a talent manager who requested to remain anonymous” claimed that the show was “80 percent scripted”.

From that article:

The talent manager isn’t breaking news here—almost everyone who was on the show has admitted how fake it was. [Lauren] Conrad, [Brody] Jenner, Kristin Cavallari, Spencer, Heidi—they were actors on a show marketed as real life so that an audience could buy into a fantasy… On the final episode of The Hills, the fourth wall was broken, the camera panned out, and a street in the Hollywood Hills was revealed to be a movie set… [T]hat audience seem[ed] willing to accept the unreality of The Hills…”

As a culture we’re still getting our heads around the cognitive dissonance of reality TV being rooted in anything but reality while wrestling has long been determined to be, erm, pre­determined. So, when it comes to the intersection of the two, does that mean the storyline on the third season of Total Divas about Nattie and her husband T.J.’s marital woes is more or less real than Nattie’s accompaniment of Kidd to the ring when he wrestled (before his sidelining neck injury, which is a focus of Total Divas this season)? Are they both just tools to further the fantasy or is it a case of real life spilling into the workplace? And what about when we add social media platforms to the mix? We know they can be used to portray the best, not necessarily truthful versions of ourselves to the world, so was Nattie posting photos of TJ and their cats on Instagram at the time of their alleged estrangement part of the ruse or were the couple working on their relationship?

A more obvious distinction between kayfabe and IRL can be seen on Total Divas this season when Rosa wants to remain involved in WWE in the wake of her pregnancy. She can’t wrestle so she suggests backstage interviewing as a consolation, which is deemed to be too risky because “anything can happen” and she might be placed in “harm’s way” in this role. Had Total Divas been more like NXT’s more sophisticated reality show Breaking Ground and/or aired on the Network, perhaps this storyline would be left on the cutting room floor. But because it caters to E!’s audience—one that WWE doesn’t necessarily want to break kayfabe in front of—the reality of simply writing altercations to take place away from a pregnant employee isn’t portrayed.

The most glaring example of Total Divas and social media colliding is in Dolph Ziggler’s inclusion in the show. As one of the more active WWE Superstars on Twitter and in his extracurricular endeavours, such as stand up comedy, Ziggler appears in season four and five of Total Divas as Nikki’s ex-boyfriend and a potential foil in her current relationship with John Cena. The photos of Dolph and Nikki together prove their past relationship was real, but can we assume Ziggler’s apparent rekindled feelings are also?

Ziggler moonlights as a stand-up comedian and there’s a sense that he’ll have a successful, Dwayne Johnson-esque career after WWE in Hollywood. His WWE Universe (apparently separate from both the worlds of Total Divas/E! and the one you and I inhabit) relationship with Lana dragged on for months while Lana’s former client/love interest/real life fiance Rusev was injured, Ziggler went on hiatus to film a WWE Studios production, and when Lana broke her wrist, with the three Superstars relying heavily on social media to prolong the love triangle (and then a love square with the involvement of Summer Rae). Instead of putting the kibosh on the ill-fated storyline, Lana and Ziggler were tasked with promoting their “relationship” on social media. As lacking in chemistry as their pairing was, Lana and Ziggler seemed to genuinely enjoy playing it up on Instagram and Twitter, proponents of an alternate reality where images alone convey something very different to what’s really going on.

Returning to Total Divas, if WWE wants our suspension of disbelief to remain in tact (which they apparently do, as one can’t imagine that Ziggler would choose to carry on an Instagram relationship if it wasn’t part of his job), why do they cross-promote the conflicting reality show and their own programming so heavily? Given Ziggler’s growing reputation as a love rat (he gifted Summer Rae jewellery while she was allegedly involved with Rusev), was his wooing of Nikki on the show for real or an attempt at rectifying his WWE character?

During an interview on The Sam Roberts Wrestling Podcast, the host further pitted Ziggler and Cena against each other in that Cena plays a musclebound meathead who’s hooking up with Amy Schumer in her runaway box office hit movie, Trainwreck, a role allegedly based on Ziggler, who dated Schumer in real life.

Relatedly, Tyler Breeze burst onto the scene as Summer Rae’s rebound, taking the spot of Ziggler both literally and figuratively. He appears on Breaking Ground and at once parodies and makes use of our obsession with social media, asking if he’s who we follow, toting selfie sticks to the ring and streaming his entrances on Periscope.

Total Divas also uses social media to their advantage with things posted by its stars on Instagram have been used to punctuate storylines, most notably Eva Marie’s falling out with the rest of the cast.

In the first few episodes of season four, Alicia Fox and the Bellas were irked because of Eva’s continued posting of ads for her hair extension line and various self-promotional content at the detriment of anything about wrestling. Then, when the rest of the cast blew up that Eva was getting specialised one-on-one wrestling training while they all had to tough it out in developmental, Eva retorted with an Instagram post about a lion not worrying “herself with the opinion of sheep”. (Just FYI: A female lion is a lioness, Eva.)

Since then, Eva has made amends with the rest of the show’s cast, even joining babyface Team Total Divas at WrestleMania, despite cultivating a successful heel gimmick in NXT and further reinforcing not only the fifth wall between Total Divas/E! and WWE, but one between WWE and NXT, as well.

Ryan Boyd unpacked the relationship between kayfabe and social media further in a piece for The Spectacle of Excess. He writes:

[U]nder the new rules of kayfabe, the audience is encouraged to be just as interested in Kofi Nahaje Sarkodie-Mensah as they are in Kofi Kingston, and what’s more than that, the Nashville crowd got worked like hell when Kofi-the-real-guy said that country music sucks purely because he went one further in his heel antics. Kofi-the-real-guy is as much a part of the show as Kofi-the-heel—they’re both props for generating heat and selling T-shirts.

“Kayfabe is a matryoshka doll of carny deception, and if you think you’re not getting worked, that just means you’re getting double-worked. The kayfabe is coming from inside the house.”

*

A few years ago I was involved in the making of a wrestling mockumentary with a smorgasbord of former WWE Superstars which then led to me working in an indie Australian promotion that often brought out big names to compliment its own talent. While most of the wrestlers I grew up watching on TV were lovely in person, I did observe a certain disconnect between their characters and reality. But it must be hard to get a good grip on reality when the bulk of your life is spent perfecting your craft and the development of the character that goes along with it. There is an expectation in the professional wrestling world that you stay in character at all times to protect storylines and maintain “kayfabe”—despite the widely held belief that wrestling is “fake”—at all costs, but what toll does that take on everyday life?

One indie wrestler who knows the importance of social media and utilising it to portray your character to your fans is Melbourne wrestler JXT, who recently received a tryout for WWE when they were in town with NXT.

With a YouTube show entitled JXTv and a photo op gimmick appropriated from Instagram’s polaroid-esque layout, JXT’s social media presence compliments his status as a party-loving, millennial everyman and will show industry heavyweights that he has an in-built following if and when the time comes to make the move to the U.S.

JXT believes that to be a wrestler and have a strong social media presence is “super important.”

“I see wrestlers now without Instagram or Twitter and straight away in my head I say ‘they’re not serious’,” he continues. “WWE talks about Twitter constantly and references [its] Superstars’ Instagrams. The fans want to invest in you so having platforms where they can talk to you and see what you’re up to constantly is key in giving the fans a chance to make that deep emotional connection. It’s 2016: people have 7-second attention spans; they want to see a lot of their favourite wrestlers in short, sharp bursts. So things like Instagram and YouTube help because there isn’t a show on Tuesday morning but they can just check your Instagram to get a dose of what you’ve been up to.”

JXT’s main goal with JXTv and his other online endeavours is to make a name for himself. “You look at any big independent wrestler, [if] they have a heavy social media presence [then] that’s how they get their name,” JXT says. “You hear of all these cool wrestlers who aren’t signed to a big company yet through social media. CM Punk was renowned [in] internet wrestling circles and that’s why he broke the mold and WWE signed the independent guy. He had so much buzz they gave him a chance.

“Everyone knows who Colt Cabana is yet he doesn’t wrestle for any big wrestling company [save for] ROH in its smaller days… Kevin Owens, Samoa Joe, Sami Zayn… Everywhere I go I want people to know who I am before I even get there. That is the goal.”

But JXT insists his character, like so many of the most successful wrestling gimmicks, is just a heightened version of himself. “I love to party and I love wrestling so I take that and over-dramatise it. [But] when I’m just being me, I’m calmer and less over the top. You need to know who you are as a person, and not get lost in the hype and perceived ego of your wrestling character.”

While maintaining some semblance of suspended disbelief is integral to professional wrestling, it’s also a delight when wrestlers break kayfabe for real. Take the Four Horsewomen’s curtain call at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn when Bayley won the NXT Women’s Championship from Sasha Banks in a hellacious match, culminating in Charlotte and Becky Lynch coming out to join them in a tear-jerking show of friendship. In my opinion there’s no greater reward than seeing competitors who gave it their all express respect and, oftentimes, love for one another. Give me that over neatly packaged “reality” any day.

If we can take one thing from the shitshow that was the Rusev/Lana/Dolph Ziggle/Summer Rae storyline it’s the ability to ask the question, what even is the point of kayfabe, anyway? If Vince McMahon claims that WWE is entertainment and not sport, then why not treat its Superstars as actors and let them do what they want, within reason (*cough* Hulk Hogan *cough*), on their own time? With social media and the 24-hour news cycle the kayfabe model is a risky one that’s no longer feasible.

Related: World Wrestling Entertainment Will Never #GiveDivasAChance As Long As It Prioritises Bad Men.

In Defence of Eva Marie.

My Weekend with Wrestlers.

Elsewhere: [Harlot] Whorephobia & Misogyny in Wrestling: Still Real to Me, Dammit.

[Intergender World Champs] Smack Talker! Daniel Bryan’s Tiresome Vocal Misogyny.

[Complex] Over The Hills: The Afterlife of Heidi & Spencer Pratt.

[The Spectacle of Excess] Kayfabe is Dead. Long Live Kayfabe.

Image via Courtney Rose/Calling Spots.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

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I wrote about why World Wrestling Entertainment needs a women’s Money in the Bank match. [SBS Zela]

Who’s afraid of all-woman alliances on reality TV? [The Establishment]

Meghan Trainor’s blaccent and white artists talking black. [MTVNews]

How Keeping Up with the Kardashian’s is falling behind their Snapchats, Instagrams and personal apps. [MTVNews]

Also: On Edith Wharton and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. [Guernica]

On the public nature of black deaths and the need for lynching memorials. [Lenny Letter]

Blackface is the true face of racism in America. [Fusion]

What role did social media play in the murder of Christina Grimmie? [Rolling Stone]

Image via Raw Breakdown Project.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

losing-ones-diamond-earring

It’s a film and TV theory kind of week!

I wrote about how Keeping Up with the KardashiansI Am Cait and Total Divas are changing the face of reality TV. [Junkee]

Unrequited female desire shouldn’t be portrayed as a mental illness, as it is on My Crazy Ex Girlfriend. [Bitch Flicks]

Reading The Little Mermaid—the newest adaptation of which has just cast Chloe Grace Moretz in the title role—from a trans perspective. [Feministing]

Black representation on Daria. [Vulture]

Queering Freaky Friday. [Feminartsy]

With SupergirlJessica Jones and Daredevil, has TV finally solved its superhero problem? [Studio 360]

Emotional labour as women’s work. [The Guardian]

When all your friends are having children but you’re not sure if you want them. [The Interrobang]

“You will look at me when I’m sexting you, do you understand me?” [The Cut]

Lest We Forget: the service animals of war. [The Big Issue]

“Grey Hair on the Kids.” [Mediander]

Instagram as the newest blogging platform. [NYMag]

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I have a story on how the tag team New Day are challenging gender and racial stereotypes in professional wrestling in Calling Spots magazine.

I moved all my articles from TheVine over to this here blog so check them out:

Channel 7’s bad boys.

“The rise of the hunk” in Magic Mike.

“Wonder Why They Call U Bitch.” And while you’re at it, I wrote about similar themes in Straight Outta Compton and Tupac Shakur’s lyrics here.

How to reconcile feminism and progressive values with wrestling fandom.

Masters of Sex may be titled after a man, but it’s all about the women on the show.

What happens when your heroes let you down?

“Why Do We Insist On Calling Women Girls?”

How to create a cruelty-free beauty cabinet.

Image via Junkee, Elow Mojo.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

The return of the teen girl movie. [Daily Life]

What Go Set a Watchman can teach us about contemporary racism. [WaPo]

But Atticus Finch’s racism isn’t a new thing. [New Republic]

The rise of porn gifs (NSFW). [Fusion]

Taylor Swift may have “Bad Blood” with some (most recently Nicki Minaj), but her “feminist selfies” with Karlie Kloss, Lena Dunham et al. shows what it’s like to be close to her. [LA Review of Books]

Speaking of Swift inserting herself into Minaj’s beef with the MTV VMAs for her groundbreaking videos being overlooked in this years’ nominations, it isn’t the first time Swift has both played the white, innocent victim and been at the centre of VMA controversy. [The Guardian, Kevin Allred]

The cultural appropriation of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and how we perpetuate it by watching it. [The Cut]

Is Lady Gaga normal now? [Vulture]

Let’s clear up that Planned Parenthood selling aborted foetuses nonsense. [xoJane]

The hacking of cheating website Ashley Madison isn’t morally any better than The Fappening. [Daily Life]

In the wake of Good Weekend cancelling an article on Caitlin Stasey because she wouldn’t pose nude for them, she’s taken to Jezebel to tell her side of the story in more than 140 characters.

We need to stop devaluing women’s sports. [New Republic]

Serena Williams is the seminal athlete. [The Nation]

When painful sex continues long after the first time. [Medium]

What it’s like to be an extra on Magic Mike XXL. [Cosmopolitan]

“Pony”, “Closer” and the significance of the strip club soundtrack. [Pitchfork]

How The Bachelorette is changing the way reality TV deals with sex. [Vulture]

Clementine Ford is writing a book! [Facebook]

On the (Rest of the) Net.

Ursula

The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula is the feminist fairy octomother you never knew you wanted. [Bitch Flicks]

I dissect why we insist on calling women “girls”. [TheVine]

Newlyweds, and later The Hills and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, was a pioneer of the “celebrity best friend” trope. [Grantland]

In the wake of my “Wrestling with Obsession” piece for Writers Bloc, they interviewed me for their newsletter. Sign up here.

How the capitalism of Fifty Shades of Grey reinforces the ties that bind women to abusive relationships. [Buzzfeed]

Clementine Ford thinks the word “slut” is too far gone to be worth reclaiming. [Daily Life]

“The Radical Queerness of Kate McKinnon’s Justin Bieber.” [The Atlantic]

So a character on Girls had an abortion and was super relaxed about it. [Jezebel]

Cripface Oscar bait reigned supreme at this years’ Academy Awards. [Disability Intersections]

And here‘s everything else that was wrong with the Oscars. [Bitch Flicks]

Lesbian representation in women’s magazines. [The Conversation]

Meet the Feminist Fucker: a guy who sees feminists as the ultimate conquest. [Spook Magazine]

ICYMI: When you realise all your passions are no longer cutting it.

Image via Disney.com.

The Kardashian Backlash—Overreaction?

 

I bet when Kim filed for divorce after 72 days of marriage to Kris Humphries, she didn’t expect a backlash this extreme. I mean, who expected a backlash at all? Celebs get married and divorced in a heartbeat all the time. And there hasn’t been a mass turning on reality TV’s favourite most famous family despite all the other desperate and fame-whorish things they’ve done/attached their name to (portapotties and a personalised credit card with exorbitant rates, anyone?), so why now?

Perhaps it’s because, firstly, rumours of Kim “recruiting” potential future husbands, the cliché proposal with rose petals and the $10 million made-for-TV wedding event did nothing to quell suspicion that not only was Kim and Kris’ whole relationship a sham, but that the Kardashian family in general aren’t real in the slightest.

And secondly, if conservatives are campaigning to never allow the gays access to marriage licenses at the risk of tarnishing the “sanctity of marriage”, what the hell does a 72-day charade union say about the sanctity of marriage? (Yes, I’m well aware this joke has been done to death in the media and on the comedian circuit.)

Yes, those reasons are certainly valid ones to perhaps stop watching the show and buying the gossip mags. But Kim Kardashian and her family have never been the best role models (hello, Khloe and your DUI arrest and lock-up!). This is hardly the worst crime against humanity celebrity they’ve committed, and it’s sure not to be the last.

But, by the same token, perhaps a family who’ve built their brand around being famous and making money by any means necessary deserves what they’ve got coming to them?

Personally, I was shocked at the divorce announcement and clicked on the links for the first couple of days, but now I’m—as I’m sure everyone else is—sick of it. To me, it’s just another chapter in the Keeping Up with the Kardashians soap opera. I’ve become desensitised to it all.

So what do you think? Is Kim’s divorce the final straw? Will you stop supporting her brand? Do you even care?

Related: The Kim Kardashian Backlash.

Is Kris Jenner a Bad Mother?

Reality TV & Porn Stars Go Together Like “Peas & Carrots”.

Elsewhere: [Jezebel] Kim Kardashian’s Divorce, By the (Incredibly Ridiculous) Numbers.

[The Pursuit of Harpyness] I Can’t Believe I’m Writing This, But…

Image via News.com.au.

TV: Is Kris Jenner a Bad Mother?

 

She’s constantly on Khloe for her weight, Kim to prioritise her money-making appearances with family and love, and Kourtney to get married before she has another child. Not to mention that she neglects, according to them, Kendall and Kylie in favour of her older daughters.

But is Kris Jenner a bad mother because of this?

One could argue that she spent her former days of motherhood raising her six kids (not to mention Bruce’s four other children from previous marriages), and is rewarded by earning 10% from their business endeavours.

But some of the things Kris says and does arguably aren’t in the best interests of the wellbeing of her children. Or is that just how they choose to portray her on the show?

In the first season of Khloe & Lamar, Kris berates Khloe for her size (in the same episode that Lamar calls her “not small” in Playboy magazine), saying it’s not cohesive with her other sisters’ frames, nor with QuickTrim, the diet supplement the Kardashian sisters promote. In other episodes of the Keeping Up with the Kardashians franchise, Kris is on Khloe’s back to have a baby. After all, she has been married for two years (who would have thought that would last?!) and is relatively young, so it shouldn’t be that hard, right?

Kris also doesn’t approve of Kourtney’s boyfriend and baby daddy Scott Disick, and in earlier seasons of the show, who could blame her? But even after Scott made a 180° turnaround in his behaviour after son Mason was born, Kris still can’t accept him.

Kim, the head moneymaker of the Kardashian cklan, can usually never put a foot wrong in her mother’s eyes, but every now and then Kris will get upset with her for being so uptight. So do her sisters, for that matter.

But, in the latest season of Keeping up with the Kardashians, Bruce surprises Kris and the family with a trip to Bora Bora to celebrate the couple’s twentieth anniversary. The tables are turned from Khloe’s weight woes to Kris’, as she worries about her body and even contemplates surgery before they go away.

Kris asks how she’s supposed to strut around poolside in a bikini, when all of her young, hot daughters are, too? When I heard this, I wanted to throw up in my mouth a little bit. If anyone had any doubts about Kris being a “stage mum” of sorts, I think the proof is in the pudding (pardon the pun) here, as she’s jealous of her children.

I’m not a mother, so I don’t know if this is a common occurrence, but mothers should be proud of their daughters, not envious. And it’s not healthy for mothers to talk down about their own weight and appearance at the risk of passing that attitude on to their children. At the end of the day, she helped make them the way they are, and she should be proud they’re so successful.

It’s a peek into the insecurities she perhaps projects onto Khloe. I know my mum and I have clashed because of our similar traits.

If you’ve ever watched an episode of the show, you’ll see each 20-minute installment is wrapped up nicely by the time it comes to an end. Like Beverly Hills, 90210, each episode has a message, and everyone learns their lesson and it’s all hunky-dory at its culmination. Khloe realises she has nothing wrong with her body, and she’ll become pregnant sooner or later. Kim realises she needs to loosen up and, incidentally, her new husband, Kris Humphries, helps her do that.

But does the neat little package the Kardashians’ antics are tied up into mean that Kris’s overbearing and insensitive nature is just for show, or edited from an even more tyrannical version of herself?

Elsewhere: [Jezebel] Is Kris Kardashian Just a Glorified Pimp?

[Jezebel] Kris Jenner, Momager Extraordinaire, Has Body Issues Too.

Image via Celebuzz.