WWE: Keeping the Kayfabe by Marc Madison

It’s often stated that there is no such thing as kayfabe anymore. Once upon a time, the locker room was this sacred place where the veterans would protect everything, keeping what went on behind the scenes quiet. It really was incredibly how guarded wrestlers were about their secrets. The idea of kayfabe has often been seen as akin to different other forms of entertainment. For instance, there is a belief that if a magician told all their secrets, where is the element of surprise? I’m pretty certain David Copperfield has always made a conscious effort to keep things on the down low. A poker player keeps his cards close to his or her chest and wear glasses so they don’t give away their cards or their plan. They don’t want to show their hand.

I remember as a kid hearing a story about Hacksaw Jim Duggan and The Iron Sheik being arrested for something while in a car together. Now whether or not that was true, the point here was, Hacksaw Jim Duggan was the All-American and The Iron Sheik was the hated foreign villain. How could such a story come out, revealing things that were happening behind the scenes, and exposing the feud they were in at the time? In fact, when I heard that Jim ‘The Anvil’ Neidhart and Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart were actually brothers-in-law, I didn’t know whether or not to believe it because I hadn’t heard it came from the mouths of Bobby Heenan or Gorilla Monsoon. Another story I remember hearing was that The British Bulldogs were in fact cousins and related to the Hart Foundation.

Another story that I remember becoming privy to was the animosity between the Rougeau Brothers and others on the roster, in particular The Dynamite Kid (of the British Bulldogs) and Bad News Brown. There was a time where these were simply stories and nothing more. They were the wrestling equivalent of modern day folklore, a case where someone said something about someone at some time. We’re talking about the mid to late 1980s here, so these things seemed more like either folklore or an urban legend that someone started, which got past along from one person to the next. But as time passed, those stories seemed to become more frequent, slipping out on a regular basis. The once very sacred and hallowed secrets the wrestlers kept private were being revealed. Stories of hazing other wrestlers seemed to be more the norm. It was a surprising how the reality behind the storylines was being pressed to the forefront.

Fans will often call the Madison Square Garden incident the time when everything changed, but in fact things were being leaked earlier. Why? The simple reason was that fans were harder to convince, and wanted to know. That incident that I am referring to was the infamous Curtain Call, when all members of ‘The Kliq’ came out and embraced in the middle of the ring, much to the shock and surprise of those in attendance. It certainly opened the door into what was, behind the scenes. This was also around the rise of the internet, when information about a performer was traveling at the speed of light. Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, Triple H and Shawn Michaels made history by walking out and sharing a moment as friends. While their friendship had been discussed in a number of different, but isolated, places on the internet, the difference here was that their secret was out and they were the ones that revealed it. They often describe it as just four friends saying goodbye to one another. But critics often question why the moment had to take place in front of the curtain, and not behind it. The counter to that argument was if you have a close friendship, why was it less important than hiding your relationship and keeping up with the illusion? Regardless, it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep kayfabe alive with audiences maturing and having access to so much information.

The Kliq may not have even known the implications of their actions. For fans, the questions became ‘If on screen faces and heels could actually be friends, what else was being hidden? Were their other secrets that fans were not privy to? And, did that matter?’ For some, yes, and for others, it isn’t clear. The argument about kayfabe centres on, do we watch for the entertainment, or do we watch for the wrestling? For a number of wrestling fans, it’s either one or the other. For other wrestling fans, it’s both.

In talking to a number of different wrestlers, I don’t try and pry regarding characters that gossip says they portrayed in disguise. Well, I did once, and thankfully they were adamant in their denial of this alter ego. In fact, they had fun with it going as far as suggest either someone of a different gender or someone of a wildly different body type played the character. I like that about them. If someone wore a mask at one time in his career, and didn’t want his or her identity revealed, why pry? They won’t reveal their identity, and why should they? They’re fans too. Some things fans want to know because we want to be informed. But maybe thinking we know something cloud our appreciation of the product, and impairs why we began to like wrestling in the first place.

The comparison that could be made would be to The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy sees the Wizard to be nothing more than a man behind a curtain talking into a megaphone. The end result is disappointment. However, when we think about how the mystique of the Wizard earlier in the film, there was wonder that came with not knowing; there was hope. A number of wrestlers don’t want to take away that hope and mystique. That’s a good thing.

I remember reading somewhere that Bret Hart didn’t like Dave Meltzer because he was lifting the veil that was put front of the eyes of fans. Delving into whether not that is true is for another time; however, if he was upset I would find it difficult to blame him. The things that took place behind the scenes weren’t meant to be shared because when fans are privy to the very human side of the wrestler, the mystique is lost a bit. If you consider today’s WWE and the PG rated programming, hearing that wrestler x did something to wrestler y on a plane, or struck someone at a club, or demonstrated behavior that went against the company’s image that is a black eye on the company and contrary to how they have presented their brand. If stories such as the Hulk Hogan racist comments hadn’t become public, would the WWE have cast him aside so quickly?

As a long-time fan, I like being aware of what is happening, and knowing why something is happening; it becomes an education. But it also becomes a slippery slope. When a wrestler tells a story in the ring through a match, it is great to know what they were thinking at that particular time. After all, what makes wrestling so enjoyable is the in-ring storytelling. But do we need to know everything about everyone? Are their whole lives fair game? A number of people will argue that simply because someone is in front of a camera that their life is fair game. But in the end they are playing a role, and even though their public lives and private lives are blurred, there is a difference between the two.

Is having access to information reason enough to explore it? Breaking kayfabe has become more than the stories backstage, or insight into the creative process; it runs the risk of being invasive, much like the paparazzi. How often are wrestlers accused of things, and until they come out publicly to deny it the story follows them? Countless times wrestlers are falsely accused of having done something, and by denying it, have to acknowledge it. By even giving it attention they are giving credence to it. In today’s wrestling, a promotion’s image is crucial. It is key to the audience they cater to, the merchandise they promote, the sponsorship they have. It’s understandable when stories break that they would either cut ties or deny a report. They are more concerned with public relations than human relations.

Personally speaking, I don’t want to know about backstage politics because the truth is there are politics of all different forms in our regular lives. There are politics in the workplace, in families, on softball teams. How is wrestling any different? The performers are real people with real problems, trying to live up to expectations that we put on them, even though they are not their character. It seems unrealistic, and yet we criticize when our heroes fall. Reporters don’t speculate as to what is happening in our workplace, yet fans feel they need to know everything about the wrestlers’ workplace.

If you do, that’s great, but I say keep the secrets. Keep the secrets that kept us watching as kids in place, and let the surprises be surprises so we can be stunned and elated again. Continue to build heroes that younger audiences want to see achieve and succeed, even while a much more aware audience will often criticize John Cena because of any number of reasons. Don’t release outcomes or potential finishes of matches. There was always good and bad, and there was always the need to evoke emotion from an audience. Those things won’t change. Kayfabe will always have a place. Whether some want it or not, it will be there in one form or another. Enjoy the illusion and spectacle that today’s talent show.

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Also, check out the weekly podcast I’ll be co-hosting starting Wed Nov 4th with Main Event Madness @ http://www/speaker.com/show/maineventmadness our first guest will be Managing Director of Smash Wrestling, James Kee.