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.”

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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.

Last Minute Halloween Costumes That Aren’t The “Sexy”, Store Bought Norm.

It’s almost that time of year again when unoriginality prevails and hemlines rise in an effort not just to fill pillowcases or cheap plastic pumpkin pails with the most candy but to elicit the most controversy: Halloween.

Already we’ve seen the mass production of Halloween costumes of the likes of Caitlyn Jenner and Cecil the Lion’s killer, and you can rest assured there’ll be many an outraged news story about those brave (stupid?) enough to dress as Rachel Dolezal or a member of ISIS.

But Halloween is also the time of year when many a thinkpiece about freedom of speech, taste, and a woman’s right to dress as sexy as she wants (and I’m certainly not innocent of going that route) start doing the rounds, of which I’ve been guilty myself.

So I thought I’d write a different kind of story featuring suggestions for the trifecta of Halloween costumes: some unique, possibly envelope-pushing and fun ideas for this year’s All Hallows Eve. And with October 31st falling on a Saturday this year those invitations should have come thick and fast, so you’ll want to be prepared (hey, there’s another costume idea: Scar from The Lion King, which my friend April went as to my [non-costume] birthday last year!)

(Disclaimer: if costumes aren’t slutty enough—and some of them most definitely tick that box—just add cleavage and substitute regular-length pants for hot ones.)

magic mike xxl

Magic Mike: XXL.

Baggy pants, white singlets, backwards caps and a bandana around the neck are all you’ll need to recreate arguably the sexiest dance scene ever in this year’s sequel to Magic Mike. If you want to put a little more effort in, there’s Tarzan’s painted portrait, Tito’s “Candy Shop” routine, Ken’s sexy “How Does It Feel” rendition or Richie’s groom cum S&M dom. A little less effort? A bottle of water, packet of chips and “I Want It That Way” on loop.

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Rosie the Riveter.

Feminism is so trendy, didn’t you know, so what better way to pay homage to the movement than dressing as someone whose image is often co opted by it: Rosie the Riveter. I went as her one year and all you need is a blue shirt; jeans, overalls or denim shorts, depending on the level of sexiness you want to go for; a red and white polka dot scarf, and you’re set.

When I was in New York for Halloween one year I saw a woman in the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade who even went to the trouble of fashioning a “We Can Do It” speech bubble.

adam and eve

Adam & Eve.

The perfect couples costume, all you need is some vines, an apple, and a toy snake. From there, go as dressed up (or down) as you’re comfortable with.

gloria steinem undercover playboy bunny

Gloria Steinem Undercover as a Playboy Bunny.

Yet another costume I’ve worn over the years and probably my favourite. Grab a cheap, mass-produced corset from Valley Girl or similar, some high-waisted vintage knickers (or boy shorts for more coverage), a Playboy cuffs and ears set from most party supply stores, and a white loofah sponge from the supermarket for a tail.

To differentiate yourself from a typical Playboy bunny, wear a feminist badge of some kind and for extra journo cred, carry a notebook, tape recorder (did they even have those in the ’60s?) or a copy of Outrageous Acts & Everyday Rebellions, the book her report “A Bunny’s Tale” is published in.

suffragette costume

Emily Davison.

Best known as the woman who rushed King George V’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, she died from fatal injuries sustained in the act of protest. A suffragette, a Davison costume is not only timely with the release of the movie Suffragette in which she is featured, but it’s marginally more tasteful than Cecil the Lion: hit up your local costumery for period threads then stop by a toy shop for a hobby horse.

josephine baker

Josephine Baker.

There are many ways you can go with this: traditional 1920s fare, or for the more exhibitionistic, hunt for the components that make up her famous banana costume. A healthy helping of plastic bananas threaded together could work, or banana lollies from your local Woolies add elements of sexiness and Halloween candy metatext. This is one costume that knows no bounds.

girl scout costume

Girl Scout.

A friend had this in mind for the time we were in New York for Halloween, but it never came to fruition. You can be the one to make it happen, by either forking out for the cheap, mass produced version or shifting through Etsy and vintage eBay sellers for cute vests, badges and maybe even a box of cookies or two. Know a Brownie? Borrow their garb for the evening.

beyonce feminist costume

Beyonce Standing in Front of the Feminist Sign.

Granted, this would have been fitting for last year’s Halloween (and I actually went as this for my work Christmas party), but Beyonce is nothing if not perpetually relevant.

I had a copy of the “Feminist” sign blown up and printed at Officeworks, mounted it to thick cardboard and strapped to me like a backpack with elastic strips, with portable LED lights along the bottom. Add a leotard and presto: you’re Beyonce!

wrestling costumes

Mick Foley. (Honourable mentions: Bray Wyatt, Roman Reigns, Tyler Breeze.)

As wrestling historian and podcaster David Shoemaker has said, wrestling cosplay has never been easier with guys like Bray Wyatt and Roman Reigns: just add a white fedora and a Hawaiian shirt, and a flak jacket, respectively. A Cactus Jack t-shirt, a red flannel, leopard print boots and, of course, Mr. Socko make you Mick Foley’s most terrifying incarnation, while a selfie stick and a trip to Spotlight sees Tyler Breeze come to life at your local Halloween party.

marsha p johnson sylvia rivera

Stonewall.

A lot of controversy has been kicked up surrounding the release of the white- and cis-washed retelling of the historic Stonewall riots. Instead of taking a page out of the movie’s script, why not go as some of the historical figures who were actually involved, such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. (Note: proceed with extreme caution as cosplaying these trans pioneers could come across as insensitive at best and transphobic at worst. The last thing you want is an equivalent of the Caitlyn Jenner costume so if you’re not confident you can pull it off without offense, then maybe choose something else from the list.)

cookie costume jazmine hughes

Empire.

While not as successful in Australia, Empire is all the rage on U.S. TV screens and Taraji P. Henson’s Emmy-nominated portrayal of music matriarch and former inmate Cookie is ripe for the costuming. Sequins, animal print (preferably sequinned animal print) and faux fur complete the look. New York Times writer Jazmine Hughes even wrote a story for Cosmopolitan about dressing up as the character just in time for the holiday.

taylor swift squad goals

Taylor Swift & Her Squad.

For the more dedicated costumers, Swift’s “Bad Blood” video look can be completed with some dominatrix gear, weaponry and perhaps a red wig to complete the look. Otherwise, just grab your besties, chuck on your usual party gear and when people ask what you’re dressed as just tell ‘em “#SquadGoals”.

scream queens chanels

Scream Queens’ Chanels.

Three words: Fur. Pastels. Earmuffs.

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Serena Williams.

2015 has been the year for women in sport. There’s currently a #DivasRevolution in professional wrestling, the World Cup-winning U.S. Women’s soccer team has been lauded at every turn, and Serena Williams dominated tennis, as she has every year but we finally started noticing. Raid your local Vinnie’s for some tennis duds and grab a racquet. Or, if you’re in need of some new workout gear, stop by your local sporting goods store and show Serena’s line some love.

BONUS ROUND!

Speaking of Serena and tennis, head on over to Junkee to check out my “Hotline Bling” Drake contribution as part of their roundup.

Related: Happy Slut-O-Ween: The Hyper-Sexualisation & -Feminisation of Costumes for Women.

Costumes & Gender.

A Very Manhattan Halloween.

Elsewhere: [Junkee] People Are Really Getting a Jump On Their Terrible, No Good Halloween Costumes This Year.

[Grantland] Reality Takes Over Night of Champions, For Better & For Worse.

[Facebook] Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS).

[Cosmopolitan] I Dressed Like Cookie for a Week to Get Over Imposter Syndrome.

Images via The New Yorker, Your Tango, Demotix, Moorewr, Pinterest, Heave Media, TBO, Bleacher Report, Neogaf, The Incidental Review, Cosmopolitan, Hollywood Reporter, Teen Choice, Odyssey, Vine.