Nelson Mandela died on December 5, 2013. As the first President of South Africa to be appointed by a fully democratic election, his death was a hugely significant moment. In his life, he was a symbol of social justice, and for many the personification of hope. His life epitomized the possibility of change, when the mise-en-scene of his time seemed so utterly devastating.
His death came as a shock to many, but that shock was compounded for those who believed he was already dead. Thousands of people experienced collective amnesia and had completely deleted any memory of Mandela’s long walk to freedom. As far as they knew, he died in prison.
This particular act of collective misremembering was so poignant that it gave the phenomenon its name—The Mandela Effect—but it is far from the only example. ET never said “ET phone home”, Darth Vader never said “Luke, I am your father” and I never once put out a bad tweet to zero likes and retweets.
Yes. Nobody else comes close. Absolute GOAT. Complete King. https://t.co/bsryxyvtct
— Neil David (@chubby_cthulhu) June 20, 2020
Memory is easily manipulated, and so much of our later memory of events is dependent on a range of factors outside of our control. Our perception of an event is easily influenced by the language used by those around us. Elizabeth Loftus showed the same car crash to multiple people, but their perception of how fast the car was moving changed based on the verbiage of the question. If she used ‘smashed’ in the question, participants estimated the cars were traveling much faster than when she used “bumped.”
It’s a disconcerting realization that our perception of events is so easily manipulated, but it is an act that WWE has been forced into performing. Their refusal to create new stars has led to innovations in how to change our perception of quality, and sometimes even things we actually witnessed.
It might be helpful to think of this concept with a comparison. Comic books and WWE have always had similarities—the larger than life characters, the dramatic stories, the incredibly tight spandex—but as time has marched on, a common problem has revealed itself. What do they do with decades-old characters? How can they keep them interesting?
Comics have the perfect solution. Retroactive continuity. Comic book fans understand the need to adapt stories that are nearly one hundred years old so they can take their position in the current canon. In many ways, it goes beyond understanding and into respect. Alan Moore was able to adapt Swamp Thing’s origin—moving from a man who became a plant to a plant who took on the consciousness of a man—in a way that bred new possibilities for his stories and those that came after. There wasn’t an outcry from people that were confused by the change or demand for the original origin to be reinstated. There was an acceptance that this was a great idea for the story and vital for that character’s evolution.
If, then, comic books and WWE wrestling are so similar, why can we not just accept that the Big Show is good one week and bad the next? It might benefit the story they want to tell, but it is not as digestible as accepting the Swamp Thing has a completely different backstory.
The reason is kayfabe. I’m not expected to believe that Swamp Thing is real, but I am expected to believe that wrestling is a legitimate sporting contest. There is a misconception that kayfabe is something wrestlers do to a passive audience. It leads to wrestlers changing their Twitter names to “Ethan Page Played By Julian” as if to laugh at those wanting to be worked. That misconception fails to recognize that kayfabe is a dialogue between the audience and the wrestlers. The wrestling viewer has to suspend their knowledge of the script, the backstage politics and the clearly pulled punches if the match is to be successful. We can’t just nod and move on as we can with Swamp Thing.
There are, of course, examples of where retroactive continuity has been attempted in wrestling but the examples that seem successful are superficial at best. The Undertaker changed from being a literal dead man to a motorcycle enthusiast and back again, but the only consequential difference was in the clothes that he wore.
His stories as an ex-parrot were successful because they were human: he thought he had killed his own brother, his father-figure (and literal father) betrayed him and he was replaced by someone else. Later, the fact he rode a motorcycle was merely a prop for a banging theme tune. The interest in his character lay in an undefeated streak that was like none that had come before it. Even later, it became about an old man desperately hanging on to the business that he loved. It didn’t matter that the dead man of yore had seemingly found a Lazarus pit because that was not the real story being told.
Of course, modern WWE has decided to tread water. The Undertaker is a bad example anyway because his career has been defined by unprecedented longevity. Unfortunately, it seems that precedent has now been set and we are destined to discover just how long WWE can drag out the same, tired characters. It’s like Dorian Gray uploaded his picture to Porn Hub – there’s no deleting it now.
Kayfabe, the key proponent of what makes wrestling what it is, prevents them from retconning the parts of history that don’t work anymore. WWE’s solution to this problem? The Mandela Effect. They can’t make you interested in what the future holds, but they can change how you perceive the past.
The obvious example is the time DX drove a tank to WCW. “DX drove a tank to WCW” has become Pavlovian; like a hypnotic chant we all repeat when someone utters “Monday Night War.” It has been weaved into the mythos of the Attitude Era and it’s a moment we all collectively remember and love.
Of course, it wasn’t a tank. It was a jeep with a tube stuck to the top. Most importantly, as with most things centered on Triple H, it was lackluster. The comedy revolved around the cunnilingual catchphrase “we’re going down there” and the bookerman Road Dogg Jesse James masturbating with a rifle. The lionization of the moment is undermined by Triple H bellowing “who thinks WCW sucks?!” to a response of “err I think it’s alright, to be honest.” The story of Triple H “having the balls to fire the first shot” is met with a shutter closing so slowly it’s comical.
Seventeen thousand podcast hosts have remembered this moment as the most significant moment in American wrestling. If this was comic books, we might just accept it and move on. The fact that its wrestling means we should reject it. Instead, we’ve embraced the Mandela Effect and collectively remembered it as great.
The Attitude Era has become a shortcut to examples of misremembrance. Of course, personal taste plays a huge part in the perception of these moments, but the rewatch is so often skipped in lieu of the universally accepted truth. So much of that era is so distasteful it seems unbelievable that it was accepted at the time. Maybe I’m too generous to forgive myself for not being appalled as a young teenager, but the advent of the WWE Network has highlighted the horrendous sexism of the era. For every Austin vs. Hart, there was a Sable in a handprint bikini. In an age where we reconsider popular culture with our renewed understanding of its impact, it seems willfully ignorant to give the misogyny that defined that era a pass.
WWE has moved beyond actual, meaningful quality and has instead chosen to fool the audience. They’ve taken the ideas of the Mandela Effect and Loftus’s study and twisted them into a macabre manipulation.
The WWE audience is convinced that WrestleMania matches don’t matter; it’s the moments that make the event special. They’ve become advocates for turning wrestling into a highlight reel, and have chosen to forgo story, consequences and craft. They listen to the weekly jargonistic sermons centered on how long they’ve been on telly and how many followers they have on Twitter as if those things have any impact on why they turn on the TV every week. The momentary spotlight on women’s wrestling is now a box that has been ticked. The racism of Hulk Hogan is a problem that has been navigated. The homophobia of the Ultimate Warrior is a distant memory. We watch the same, tired geriatric dogs plod their way around the top of the card with nary a thought to what happens when they run out of tricks.
In a moment of hope, however, people have simply stopped turning on the TV every week. Viewership is lower than ever, and we are perhaps starting to see the cracks in these unusual tactics. Advertising the beige carpet Randy Orton wrestling the nostalgia of Edge as the greatest match ever was met with a glorious silence.
I expected lectures from the WWE faithful, but even they seemed to recognize the ridiculousness of the assertation. The positioning of Drew McIntyre vs. Otis as a dream match was subjected to the mockery it deserved.
My confusion regarding the rose-tinted spotlight on insignificant moments is compounded by the fact that WWE has bought the future. A rudimentary scan of the roster reveals a level of opportunity that no company has ever seen before. My hope is that the audience continues to reject the artificial coaxing that is starting to pervade our collective consciousness. I hope Nielsen ratings continue to plummet until they rediscover the excitement of the new and the untold.
And if they don’t, at least we can laugh at the times Chyna sold those nut shots.