Thursday, October 20, 2016

Notes on wrestling, Part II: The business

Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of modern professional wrestling (and by that I mean the WWE*) is that it represents itself as a business. This wasn't always the case. Particularly in the late eighties and early nineties, wrestling shows came off more as a kind of spontaneous yet highly organized spectacle: athletes put on a show, a few announcers narrated the proceedings, a mob of fans showed up, and somehow all of this was caught on tape. Today, on the other hand, wrestling goes out of its way to make sure you know that you're consuming high-quality branded entertainment, that it's produced by a cast of highly-skilled professionals, all under the management of a powerful bureaucracy, and all, ultimately, making a handful of owners extraordinarily rich.

In practice, this means that prominent, recurring characters who appear on the show and play a role in storylines have included the WWE's CEO, COO, Assistant to the COO, Chief Brand Officer, Director of Operations, Senior Vice President of Talent Operations, Senior Advisor, Legal Advisor, and various Presidents, Commissioners, General Managers, and Assistants to the General Manager. Routinely, they'll appear on the show and talk about the company's managerial decisions, ratings, profits, sales figures, and marketing; in a running catchphrase, they'll justify various storyline decisions (rulings about who fights who and such) as what's "best for business".


Already, then, professional wrestling features an odd dramatic dynamic with no real analogy in any other form of mass entertainment: many of the entertainers are themselves actual managers of the production, and that role is itself incorporated into the entertainment. For example, Paul Levesque - better known by his stage name Triple H - is one of the company's highest ranking corporate executives, and appears on the show as such. But when he inexplicably comes out of retirement and wins the championship - a development that necessarily bolsters his real-world prominence - one cannot help but ask: did he actually leverage his real-life power as a corporate executive to make this happen? Did Levesque, for purely self-interested reasons, actually pressure the show's scriptwriters to give him one last victory lap, and at the expense of the other workers?

It may seem like a bizarre turn of events for a multi-million dollar company, completely beholden to profit-seeking shareholders and customers who demand conscientiously crafted storylines, to let one man turn its main product into a vanity project; the closest parallel would be if George Lucas fired Harrison Ford halfway through filming so that he could play Indiana Jones himself. But amazingly enough, a significant majority of people who watch the industry agree that this is exactly what happened. In fact, it's generally understood that Paul Levesque constantly uses his power and influence in the company to rewrite storylines in his own interest - either to burnish his legacy or to bury his rivals.

This sort of development is far from exceptional - it is actually one of professional wrestling's primary sources of drama. A common misconception about the performance is that, because it is scripted, it proceeds in predictable and uninteresting ways; for instance, the good guys always win and the bad guys always lose. But incredibly enough, wrestling storylines don't just pander to the audience, or follow dramatically logical, coherent narratives - they also emerge from a cauldron of backstage politicking, idiosyncratic vision, and elaborate industry norms and traditions. And because all of this is boiling just below the surface, it creates a genuinely fascinating metadrama - not about what the script will say, but about how it will be written.


When the business loses control of its product

Consider, for example, what is generally recognized as one of the most fascinating and exhilarating storylines in the modern history of professional wrestling: Daniel Bryan's struggle to compete in the main event at Wrestlemania 30.

Historically, WWE management has always preferred to promote wrestlers who fit the popular image of a wrestler - think Hulk Hogan or John Cena, giants with square jaws and enormous biceps who look good on promotional posters and lunchboxes. And in 2014, it became quite clear early on which meatheads the company had decided to push. One, Randy Orton, already held the championship, and was thus by the logic of wrestling entitled to a spot in the main event. The other, Dave Batista, was a veteran who had just landed a prominent (and for pro wrestlers, rare) role in a major blockbuster film, Guardians of the Galaxy. WWE executives plainly saw in him an opportunity for cross-promotion, so in short order they scripted Batista a preliminary victory that entitled him to his own spot in the main event.

In this way, the industry tradition of promoting heavyweights, the financial incentives of Hollywood synergy, and the narrative logic of main event entitlements all aligned to virtually lock in a main event between the two. Yet in the months leading up to Wrestlemania, it became clear that fans were completely uninterested in that fight, and instead wanted to see someone else compete for the championship: the charismatic, athletically gifted, but unusually small and somewhat odd-looking Daniel Bryan.

What made this development fascinating was precisely the odd tension, not between the wrestlers, but between the company and its fans. Week after week, the WWE tried to gin up excitement for its main event; but week after week, the fans openly booed both Orton and Batista, while meeting Bryan with cheers the industry hadn't seen in decades - cheers that got so loud that they routinely threatened to derail the entire show. Eventually, as David Shoemaker wrote,
the fans literally cheered Bryan into the WrestleMania main event, and changed the course of scripted history — even if you believe that that was WWE’s plan all along, it remains true that Bryan’s success hinged on fans’ reaction to him. If he hadn’t exploded, he would have been discarded. But respond they did, to nearly unheard-of levels, and Bryan was the biggest star of the biggest WWE show of the year — or, if round numbers mean anything, of the decade.
In passing, Shoemaker touches on another unique aspect of professional wrestling: one can't always easily distinguish what's scripted from what isn't. In this case, I personally suspect that it wasn't scripted at first, and that fans legitimately forced the company to change its initial plan and place Bryan in the main event; among other things, his rise came at the expense of Batista, and clearly devalued what had been for the company one of its premium assets. Regardless, the mere possibility that the outcome wasn't entirely scripted was more than enough to create powerful dramatic tension in the way the story unfolded - particularly in the way that it mobilized the audience and gave them (possibly?) a significant role in the struggle over Bryan's fate.

Bryan's story demonstrates how dramatic tension in wrestling can emerge from the uncertainty over what real-world factors will dictate the storyline. Returning to the previous story of Triple H awarding himself the championship, however, it becomes clear that a lot of that uncertainty can emerge from the idiosyncracies of the managers themselves. And in his case, what we see is that despite their aspirations to bourgeois business-culture legitimacy, the company's corporate presentation is often a pretty thin facade.



An enclave from capitalism

Beneath the suits and ties, the professional posturing and the slick branding, the WWE's major decision makers are best understood as a clique of ageing jocks and carnies. Dan O'Sullivan, in this piece for Jacobin, ably charts their rise to power - but here, suffice to say that even the company's CEO, Vince McMahon, is less than 50 years from announcing matches for a shoestring promotion that took in as little as $1,000 per week. Many of the company's most influential decision makers come from even more modest backgrounds; today, stories of old-timers who worked their way up from working matches in high school gyms and sleeping in cars have become a notorious interview cliche in the WWE. Just as importantly, many of the company's managers (including McMahon himself) were in fact once wrestlers themselves. 

This makes the WWE's management quite different from other companies of comparable size and publicity. The people steering the ship aren't the usual cast of soulless, ruthlessly efficient profit-seeking MBAs and Ivy League elites - a significantly number of them are deeply weird nouveau riche wrestling fetishists who are clearly in over their heads. As CM Punk famously put it:
Vince McMahon's gonna make money despite himself - he's a millionaire who should be a billionaire. You know why he's not a billionaire? It's because he surrounds himself with glad-handing, nonsensical, douche-bag yes-men...
Again, note what's going on here: this is an actually legitimate and extremely damning critique of the company that one of its employees openly made on national television on the company's own show. His tirade (dubbed a "promo" in wrestling lingo) was so unexpected that it made mainstream national news. Here is how GQ put it:
Punk absolutely laid into the company in a blistering, wild-eyed promo speech that indicted everything about the WWE. He invoked the names of fired wrestlers, he lamented the loss of emphasis on wrestling itself...and he even tore into company figurehead Vince McMahon and his entire family...
What other company would deliberately publicize criticism of its own layoffs, or brutal personal attacks against its own CEO? So much of what happens in wrestling is genuinely difficult to explain through the ordinary logic of modern corporate capitalism, and comes as a shock when we encounter it.

The reason for this, I think, is simple: professional wrestling has not yet been entirely consumed by capitalism. The WWE is a virtual monopoly - its closest competitor is about to file for bankruptcy - which leaves it largely shielded from the crucible of competition and market pressures. It's an extremely young organization, which means that capitalistic norms and practices have had very little time to infiltrate and entrench themselves into company culture. And that's why the individual and often bizarre personalities of the company's management are so consequential. When egomaniacs like Triple H marry their way into power and co-opt the entire business to advance his own personal legacy, there are not - yet - any institutional or systematic mechanisms to push back against this. In a very real way, the patients are running the asylum.

Economically, then, what makes professional wrestling most distinctive is that it is, for now, a historical aberration. The WWE is more-or-less a regional travelling carnival show that exploded into an international multimedia juggernaut within a single generation - and we are still living in a unique time when the business of wrestling has yet to completely consume its culture. What this means in practice is that the WWE provides a spectacle unlike anything one can see in the soulless, corporate, brutally focus-grouped worlds of television and film, or the rigorously managed and increasingly depersonalized world of pro-sports. For now, we are seeing what happens when a bunch of working class grandpas who spent much of their careers in headlocks suddenly come into a lot of money and decide to put on a show.


* For many wrestling fans, equating pro-wrestling with pro-wrestling as it appears in the WWE will easily be the most controversial remark I make in this series. Obviously this is not at all fair; there are today a million smaller independent promotions hosting a billion professional wrestlers outside of the WWE, and it's generally understood that their work - technically, artistically, and even politically - is often vastly superior to what appears in the WWE. Suffice to say that it's also infinitely more obscure, and in this series I'm much more interested in discussing wrestling in its most influential and culturally consequential venue than in popularizing worthy but fairly marginal promotions.