In May of 1987 Jim Duggan was pulled over by police for a routine traffic violation that soon escalated into a major news story. It wasn’t the marijuana on his person or his subsequent arrest that created headlines, but rather his travel companion that night, The Iron Sheik, who was also arrested after recreational cocaine was found in his possession. At the time of their arrest Duggan and Sheik were embroiled in a bitter feud in the World Wrestling Federation, prompting bloodthirsty reporters to jump at the chance to expose pro wrestling and rhetorically question why the two rivals were traveling together in the first place.
By the late 1980s most people had already smartened up to the fact that pro wrestling was not legitimate athletic competition; as long as the proverbial sausage tasted good, folks didn’t question how it was made. Still, the preservation of kayfabe was of the utmost of importance for the sake of product credibility; the public was not yet ready for an open concession that pro wrestling was a complete performance. The incident involving Duggan and Sheik was the WWF’s second notable exposure in three years (John Stossel’s infamous 20/20 exposé in 1984 was the first). The timing couldn’t have been worse as the promotion’s momentum reached its’ apex three months earlier at WrestleMania III.
As the 1980s turned into the 1990s the jig was officially up. The mainstream unapologetically categorized pro wrestling as fake, but pro wrestlers themselves continued to honor kayfabe traditions like maintaining their gimmick in the civilian world; babyfaces signed autographs and kissed babies while heels maintained their villainous personas. Kayfabe practices remained prevalent even as the WWF transitioned into a gimmick-heavy roster of cartoon-like characters later in the decade.
Times have changed.
In 2004, WWE made the calculated business decision to gradually lift the kayfabe veil with a series of inclusive documentaries focusing on past stars like Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Billy Graham and The Road Warriors. In addition to tugging on the lucrative strings of nostalgia, the initiative humanized the performers themselves rather than strictly focusing on the characters they portrayed. In doing so WWE pulled back the curtain in a way no promotion had never done before; explaining match psychology, character development and other concepts traditionally left unspoken. Supplemental content like the Legends of Wrestling series pulled back even more layers as respected pro wrestling lifers spoke openly about behind the scenes dirt and other provocative topics like the Montreal Screwjob. By the end of the decade the philosophy transitioned to members of the active roster and with the help of social media WWE personalities can now interact with the audience on multiple planes of existence.
Not everyone is a fan of WWE’s current approach, least of all being a select group of pro wrestling journalists whose continuity rants have become staples of their weekly digital media offerings – usually right after a gripping 30-minute conversation about television ratings. Post-Reality Era detractors argue that a lack of continuity across WWE’s platforms sends a confusing message to the audience and sets a dangerous precedent for the industry as a whole. They argue that the audience cannot fully invest in characters with conflicting truths; when reality and kayfabe inevitably collide the suspension of disbelief becomes exponentially more difficult to achieve. Heels like Kevin Owens or Rusev are no longer viewed as such when they can be seen announcing their engagement on Instagram or tweeting a selfie standing next to an adorable koala at a local zoo. Stephanie McMahon and Triple H are the poster children of this argument.
There is a legitimate case to be made for product continuity within the confines of WWE’s television universe, especially as it relates to McMahon and Triple H. Lines become unnecessarily blurred when heel authority figure, Stephanie McMahon and Chief Brand Officer/face of WWE’s various philanthropic efforts, Stephanie McMahon make appearances on the same episode of Raw. Similarly, cerebral assassin, Triple H and face of NXT, Triple H makes for a confusing relationship with the audience, though the dichotomy is not exactly the same since WWE and NXT inhabit different universes, at least in theory.
— Stephanie McMahon (@StephMcMahon) June 8, 2016
Nevertheless, we now live in a world where product continuity is a philosophical creative choice rather than strict canon, whether pro wrestling journalists choose to acknowledge that or not. Unlike 30 years ago, the overwhelming majority of WWE’s audience tunes in with the conceit that they are watching performance art; the strikes are not real, the kicks are not real and the feuds are not real. Nobody believes that Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns hate one another; it’s a story, no different than one told between two actors in a film or television program. How the story between the two is told determines whether or not the audience suspends disbelief and become emotionally invested in the outcome. WWE has exhibited the ability to evolve its’ presentation of the product in conjunction with the audience’s shift in viewing psychology.
Rollins was forced to relinquish the WWE title after suffering a debilitating knee injury. In his stead, Reigns successfully established himself as the new champion, overcoming the obstacles put in front of him by The Authority. Having rehabilitated his injuries, Rollins returned with a vengeance to reclaim the title he never lost in the ring. Rollins left the company last November as a heel; he returned as a heel at the conclusion of last month’s WWE Extreme Rules event – unless sneak attacks from behind are no longer considered the actions of a heel. Reigns, for his part, has remained consistent in portraying a morally ambiguous champion concerned with maintaining his status as champion and nothing else. In the backdrop lies the history forged between the two as former brothers of The Shield. Outside factors like Rollins’ road to recovery as documented on the WWE Network: 24 special are inconsequential when characterizing Rollins as either a heel or a babyface; only his actions in the television arena can do that. A portion of the audience has chosen to support Rollins in spite of his heel persona because he was never beaten for the title, or because they have simply chosen not to support Reigns (as was the case in the last story with AJ Styles) not because they are confused as to which version of Rollins is real.
The failure to recognize the difference between characters portrayed on official programming and individuals within a documentary (even if the names are the same) is a fundamental failure to recognize (or accept)WWE’s corporate strategy to promote its’ brand as the primary promotional device. Rollins’ arduous journey from the operating table back to the ring is a valuable asset to the WWE brand; it highlights the dedication of the promotion’s performers and the sacrifices they are forced to make in order to entertain the audience.
The WWE brand is about compelling characters and stories told within the construct of an extraordinarily unique medium. The audience is as enthralled by the fictional stories in front of the curtain as they are with the real stories that take place behind it. WWE’s current product attempts to capture both within the same platform, WWE Network. Differentiating between the two types of storytelling is not a complicated endeavor. Separating one from the other is also a relatively easy thing to do. Ironically, WWE has exhibited a trust in the audience that many journalists have failed to concede. A fact that makes you wonder, who is working who at the end of the day.