Navigating Kayfabe in the Reality Era.

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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.

The Rise of Self-Indulgent Comedy*.

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*The following contains spoilers for Master of None, Girls and Trainwreck.

The past year has been a banner one for alternative voices in comedy.

Hannibal Buress refocused the spotlight on Bill Cosby’s history of alleged sexual assault during a stand-up gig in Philadelphia at the end of 2014. The Mindy Project was cancelled by Fox but found a new, more risqué home at Hulu, while Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish and Master of None are changing the historically white male face of comedy. Closer to home, Black Comedy and The Family Law are making similar strides, and we can’t forget the success Amy Schumer found in 2015.

But despite comedy’s newfound diversity, not all of it hits the spot.

A common theme many of these shows share is that they’re created, directed and/or produced by their stars which, while it’s an answer to the paucity of women and minorities both on screen and in positions of production power, it can also lead to self-indulgent storytelling that pigeonholes its creators into catering to a niche audience.

Master of None debuted on Netflix late last year to rousing success, becoming the streaming service’s most popular show. Several of its episodes were met with critical praise, particularly “Parents” and “Indians on TV”. Creator and star Aziz Ansari’s musings on children, race and sexual harassment were true to life, but they can be considered sporadic standouts amongst a largely self-indulgent experiment filled with bad acting and rambling jokes.

Take, for example, the 1:16 minute interaction between Ansari’s character Dev and Arnold (played by Eric Wareheim) about the meta dynamics of the Eminem movie 8 Mile and its theme song, “Lose Yourself”. I, too, have often wondered about the specifics of where Marshall Mathers ends and Eminem begins, but the bit’s backstory is something only die-hard comedy fans might be privy to and therefore could be alienating to a casual audience. The character of Denise (Lena Waithe), who has sat, off-camera, opposite the two throughout the duration of this exchange shares many audience members’ feelings when she says, “Can we please talk about literally anything else?”

When I asked stand-up comedian Martin Dunlop, who’s currently performing in his Melbourne International Comedy Festival show, Murder, He Spoke, for his thoughts on this flat transaction he said, “Like so much of the show, [this scene] doesn’t function as comedy. They’re not playing off anything… But it doesn’t really work as a slice-of-life scene either. Wareheim’s character is particularly ill-defined, an odd drifter who’s role in the series as a whole never becomes clear, though a lot of the blame for that falls on Wareheim, who doesn’t seem to be a very strong actor. That describes my problem with the series as a whole. Where something like Louis functions as a drama or a comedy at different times, Master never really worked for me as either.”

Osman Faruqi, Sydney-based writer and broadcaster, agrees, telling me that he “found the 8 Mile scene pretty jarring and lazy. Non-sequiturs can be funny but this came across like something two 15 year olds would have joked about in school. It was pretty self-indulgent and out of place… I think Master‘s comedy worked best when it reflected on aspects of contemporary society the audience was familiar with. When it deviated from that and inserted random jokes that had nothing to do with the story, it fell flat.”

And while I haven’t seen Ansari in much of anything else, I found his acting to be less-than-stellar, always coming across as if he’s been taken by surprise or an extra in one of those poorly acted insurance infomercials. His character acts primarily in commercials in the show, but I’m not sure it was Ansari’s intent to also give off this vibe himself. The use of Ansari’s real life parents in the roles of Dev’s elders may be an indictment of , but I found Fatima Ansari as Dev’s mother to be grating. Ansari’s the showrunner and what he says goes but the use of his parents seemed selfishly at the detriment to the show.

For all the things Master gets right, on the whole it’s a thought experiment about an unlikeable bad actor rife with rambling jokes and poor casting that left me wondering how far removed from Ansari his character is.

 

Whereas Ansari is struggling to come up with content for a nonetheless greenlit second season of Master , Amy Schumer almost had too much material for her runaway box office hit, Trainwreck. Schumer’s character of the same name works at a misogynistic men’s magazine as a plot device to introduce her to her love interest, a sports doctor played by Bill Hader she’s writing a profile on, but she could just as easily have been a freelancer who works from home, sparing us the drawn out office scenes. Professional wrestler John Cena was hilarious as Amy’s muscle-bound meathead boyfriend but his scenes were a good twenty minutes of homophobia that could have been reserved for the director’s cut DVD edition.

As with some of Schumer’s stand up work, a lot of her shtick didn’t land,and for some inexplicable reason, the funniest jokes made it into the trailer but were absent from the theatrical release.

Trainwreck felt more like a rough draft of a film with far too many incidental storylines that came across as pandering to its writer and star (are we seeing a common theme amongst these comedies?). In refusing to make these edits, producer Judd Apatow does a disservice to Schumer as Trainwreck really did have all the attributes to become a different kind of rom-com, both from the Kate Hudson fare of the ’00s and Apatow’s own gross-out anti-women bro comedies such as Knocked Up and This is 40.

Another rom-com of sorts, Lena Dunham’s Girls, also produced by Apatow, is perhaps one of the most criticised comedies on air today. Dunham has been accused of everything from racism to exhibitionism to sex worker-exclusionary feminism to child molestation, with her responses to some of these appraisals coming through on Girls, now in its fifth and penultimate season.

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Of the three comedies discussed here, Girls’ Dunham is perhaps the least able to be extracted from her character. Dunham shot to mainstream notoriety with the release of her HBO show in 2012 whereas Ansari starred in Parks & Recreation for seven years prior to Master and Schumer had been going viral with her Inside Amy Schumer sketches long before Trainwreck. Perhaps her rapid success influences the oftentimes “painfully narcissistic [and] shockingly tone deaf”, as Ray puts it in this season’s opener, themes Dunham chooses to deal with in her show. Her repetitive nudity, though refreshing from a body-positivity standpoint, and the inclusion of a token black lover (played by Donald Glover) as a response to an unrealistically white Brooklyn she chose to portray in Girls’ first season come across as childish trigger responses to larger issues, which Dunham is normally open to discussing.

The argument could be made that criticisms are only foisted onto Girls and, indeed Master and Trainwreck, because they’re not made by white dudes. Do we hold Louie and Seinfeld to the same standard?

I asked fellow Girls devotee and freelance writer Camilla Peffer what she thought of the show’s self-centredness and whether objections to it can be boiled down to the fact that it’s for and mostly by women. “I think the self-indulgent shtick gets thrown around because society values high impact stories, not stories that rehash the minutiae of everyday life,” she told me. “To a man, the heartbreak of falling out with a best friend might hold no resonance. Neither does creating meth to save your family from poverty, but stories like that create a sort of prosthetic experience, much like playing a video game.

“Is Girls more self-indulgent than the work of Ansari or Woody Allen? It’s just as self-indulgent. But why is that a dirty word? All art is self-indulgent. Creating relies upon a certain level of introspection, so without that self reflection, it’s impossible to make anything that can truly have an emotional impact on an audience.”

Girls, along with Dunham, can be “painfully narcissistic”, as Ray put it, but it has moments (a lot in this season alone) when it’s one of the more realistic portrayals of young, white, New York millennials in pop culture today.

To some degree, the same can be said about Master of None, Trainwreck and other self-indulgent comedies. Self-indulgence doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of self-awareness: the two go hand in hand and are needed for a true-to-life portrayal of these undoubtedly personal stories. Just because they’re not necessarily speaking to me, an upper-middle class white chick who has the luxury of voicing her opinion on this platform, doesn’t mean there’s no value to them. It’s important to have diverse voices speaking about the myriad of topics Master, Trainwreck and Girls do, such as family, race, sex, dating, “finding yourself”, urban life, and what’s acceptable behaviour for women and minorities. It’s also important that these diverse voices have the opportunity to fail which, in some respects, I think they have.

Elsewhere: [USA Today] The 8 Mile Debate on Master of None Has a Surprisingly Emotional Backstory.

[THR] Will There Be a Second Season of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None?

[OUT] Trainwreck‘s Homophobia Puts John Cena in a Headlock.

[HuuPo] Lena Dunham, Girls Creator, Addresses Race Criticisms on Fresh Air.

Lead image via Your Movies in Mind.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

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Judd Apatow makes the same sexist, conservative and boring movie over and over again. [The Guardian]

Is there ever a justification for killing an animal? [Jezebel]

Why I won’t work with Lena Dunham as long as she supports the criminalisation of sex work. [Molly Crabapple]

How do singletons feel smug now that longtime lonely girl Jennifer Aniston is hitched? [Daily Life]

My friend Camilla Peffer wrote about how her persistent acne wasn’t caused by a lack of self-love. As an acne-sufferer myself, I can totally relate to this. [xoJane]

Anti-choicers shouldn’t dare proselytise to women about abortion: we know about it all too well. [The Cut]

Sesame Street‘s move to HBO begs the question: what about kids and families without access to premium cable TV? [WaPo]

Telling a rape joke made me feel amazing. [Jezebel]

The double bind of wearing—or not wearing—makeup. [Triple J Hack]

Why you shouldn’t search for people you know amongst the Ashley Madison hacks. [Fusion]

The best of Aussie and Kiwi feminist writing from July. [Zero at the Bone]

ICYMI: The full transcript of my interview, originally published on Junkee, with Rachel Hills about her new book, The Sex Myth.

These are the books I’ve read over the past year.

Why Walmart and Rite-Aid in the U.S. shouldn’t ban Cosmopolitan.

Image via LA Times.