Recently Jeff Jarrett offered a look into how modern fan engagement works in wrestling, noting that a wrestler’s public output on social media wasn’t a separate realm from their on-screen gimmick: “You are literally giving the audience the opportunity to vote yes or no on, ‘Am I going to spend my money and my time and get emotionally engaged in this character?’” Jarrett’s comment is insightful and reflects what I see as a fundamental shift in the way that the wrestling audience engages with the product. In this essay, I argue that this represents a new form of kayfabe that has perhaps snuck up on us all.

Is kayfabe really dead?

Ben Litherland describes the line between kayfabe and non-kayfabe as a “border for skirmishes” between self-appointed smart fans and the wrestling industry as the latter continually try to find new ways to work their audiences. The growth of the “smart fan” is in some respects technologically determined, as the rise of the internet, for instance, has given rise to numerous forums and exchanges between fans as well as a cottage industry of wrestling media.

Yet while we are accustomed to imagining a modern history of kayfabe as being something like a straight arrow. Perhaps there is some truth to the idea that throughout the twentieth century, the number of people “smart” to the business grew. Yet as Litherland has argued, kayfabe, rather than a universal quality, is better understood as in terms of a contextual phenomenon that shifts according to the relationship between audiences and the performers. Thus, thinking of kayfabe in terms of location and promotion is equally as valid as examining it through time.

Could it also be the case that reports of kayfabe’s death in the 21st century have been greatly exaggerated? Might kayfabe have slunk back into the industry, albeit in a new form, one that closely resembles what in other industries we call things like public relations and branding?

The Parasocial Turn

1…2…3! The bell rings and the new champion raises his title belt to the crowd who chant “you deserve it!” in unison.

What wrestler comes to mind when you read this? You don’t really hear the you deserve it chant as much these days, but in the mid-2010s it came to symbolize a new type of wrestling story, one in which the action on screen was perceived to be a proxy for behind-the-scenes struggles. “You deserve it” also implied that there were some wrestlers who didn’t deserve it, perhaps because they had been pushed to the top of the card beyond their abilities or they were a bad person.

The main event storyline building to WWE’s WrestleMania 30, highlights a shift from one form of kayfabe to the next. The story was of beloved Daniel Bryan struggling against the evil WWE machine who didn’t want champions in Bryan’s mold. In many respects, Bryan/Corporation was a retelling of the same story that had been the high point of the Attitude Era some 15 years previously. The difference was that while “Stone Cold” Steve Austin vs. Mr. McMahon was a story conducted entirely in regular kayfabe, Bryan vs. The Corporation was one that operated simultaneously in two layers of curated reality. Many “smart” fans were invested in the story because they believed that the corporate suits at WWE really did want to hold Bryan back and that art was mirroring life. Whichever layer fans were engaged with, they were firmly invested in Bryan getting to claim the top prize at WrestleMania 30.

If meta-narratives are the story behind the story, then kayfabe 2.0 is the conscious attempt to manipulate, curate, manage and control the reality of this layer. Whereas kayfabe 1.0 flowed in one direction from the booker downwards, kayfabe 2.0, or meta-kayfabe, exists in a field of possibility, or perhaps a battleground of intrigue, inhabited by bookers, wrestlers, media, and of course, fans themselves.

Wrestling’s hardcore fans often try to adopt a sort of detachment from wrestling’s emotional aspect, evaluating it on a purely objective basis. Indeed the prevalence of rating sites like Cagematch, GRAPPL, speaks to this desire to quantify and compare wrestling on a technical basis, in the same manner we would judge sports such as figure skating or gymnastics. Recognizing and acknowledging wrestler’s skill in the artform is a good thing, as long as ratings become the map of the territory, not the territory itself. There’s also a risk of mistaking quantitative data for objectivity; I argue that none of us are free from subjective narratives when it comes to our ratings and enjoyment. Even the idea of rating on pure technical skill can be questioned when technical skill and the ability to generate ‘stars’ becomes part of the narrative of why we are invested in a wrestler.

Narratives are the stories that help us chain together social phenomena into something coherent. In social arenas, narratives can be fought over. Did your local sports team lose because they were lazy, or were they simply outmatched? Is that politician cruel, or does she make hard decisions? Did that wrestler stand up for himself, or is he a self-mark? Is this wrestler getting rewarded for hard work, or are they over pushed? Are those wrestlers no-selling, or is it fighting spirit?

In kayfabe 2.0,  the traditional dichotomy of babyface and heel wrestlers has been replaced by a parallel alignment of “wrestlers who are really good people” and “wrestlers who are really bad people.” This new dynamic is apparent in the way that 90% of “heel wrestlers” these days are mere pantomime villains. Fans love to boo them, but they also believe that in “reality” these guys are nice. I argue here that this level of “reality” we often believe we are operating in is itself a layer of artifice. As highlighted by Rich Kraetsch and Joe Lanza on the Flagship, “the new work is the old work”; the most astute wrestlers on social media use it not as an unfiltered look into their real lives but to leverage the telling of stories that is beneficial to their bottom line. Fan perception of a wrestler’s true personas thus may not always align with reality.

I mentioned earlier that meta kayfabe. exists in a sort of battleground between all players in the industry, including the fans. There’a a huge caveat to add to that, which is that not everyone has the same power. Following a Bourdieusian sociology, we can understand that the continual negotiation of wrestler narratives takes place on a field of play where the different players have asymmetrical resources of capital to draw on. Those with more capital (i.e. the largest wrestling companies) have more opportunities to shape the story they want. The classic example of this is when a wrestler leaves a big company in less than amiable terms. Almost inevitably, stories that frame the wrestler as having a ‘bad attitude’ or ‘burning bridges’ surface. To understand meta-kayfabe is to not to deny all stories or believe everything is a work, but to question the game at play.

Media and fans can also draw on potentially vast amounts of cultural and social capital to be leaders in shaping narratives too. Thus meta-kayfabe is not just a skirmish between bookers and fans, but a war to define reality played by all against all with the only objective to improve one’s own personal capital or the capital of the wrestlers you are invested in.

In some senses, wrestling’s meta-kayfabe is catching up to the curated universes of Reality TV. Yet, it also exists in a field much larger than any one show or company. Talk of “speaking out” and “cancellations” has become standard industry parlance in the past few years. Yet you may have also noticed that the higher a wrestler is in the industry, the less chance any attempt at cancellation sticks, whereas an accused indie wrestler may as well hang their boots up. Is this just a coincidence, or is there a dynamic in play that puts up counter-narratives or walls that protect those in proximity to power?

AEW doesn’t tell stories. Except it does.

AEW is a case study in meta kayfabe. As a traditional wrestling product, you could argue that its onscreen stories are fairly standard. Yet it’s also one of the most popular wrestling companies in the world. Why? Well, obviously, it has a roster of very good wrestlers, but I think there’s more to it. Within the hardcore wrestling sphere, it has an amazing control of the meta-narrative and thus is strategically well placed to control meta-kayfabe.

AEW was launched by wealthy scion Tony Khan, with Chris Jericho, Jim Ross, Kenny Omega, Cody Rhodes, Brandi Rhodes, Matt Jackson, and Nick Jackson as key industry figures brought on board as advisors. A year prior, The Elite (Omega, Rhodes, and The Young Bucks) had produced their own show for ROH, the immensely successful All In. In terms of branding, it thus made sense to front and center the Elite in Khan’s new wrestling venture. Thus “All Elite Wrestling” was born, and early promotional spots made sure to feature the fact that the Elite were “Executive Vice Presidents” of the new promotion, with the term “EVP” becoming a meme in the process.

The wrestling media were remarkably supine in the face of this and rarely asked what in retrospect, seems obvious…what exactly is an EVP? What official roles do they have in the company, do they own stock? What meetings are they present at? Are they copied in on emails to the network or sponsors? Do they truly have executive power regarding bookings, hirings, etc? Are they employees? From the drips of information we’ve had in the past four years, it seems that the EVPs certainly had better access to Khan in terms of hiring suggestions and were given responsibility for booking parts of the show, but the EVP title implied a level of involvement in the company that didn’t really correlate to reality. Yet it was a narrative that worked to great effect, one that helped bridge the Elite and All In brands to AEW, and bring in a generation of fans fiercely loyal to the Elite. In short, EVP appeared to have been a kayfabe title, just on a different level of kayfabe than we are accustomed to. It’s a far cry from the ‘professional’ gimmicks of undertakers, clowns, and plumbers in mid 90s WWF. To be clear here, to call something meta-kayfabe is not necessarily to call it false, but instead refers to the management of reality, the emphasis of certain things over others.

As noted above, kayfabe can be different according to promotions. In AEW, kayfabe 1.0 doesn’t really exist anymore. Fans enjoy the “on-screen” stories when they are good and don’t enjoy them when they are bad. But this isn’t truly kayfabe as it may once have existed in the twentieth century, it’s just enjoyment of a theatrical storyline, in the same way people enjoy films or tv shows. Yet for the hardcore fans of AEW, the field of meta-narrative is a fertile field for kayfabe 2.0.

For instance, when Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa fought an acclaimed hardcore match on Dynamite in 2021, the company immediately put out a “behind the scenes” backstage video of Baker, elated at how well the performance had gone, and expressing excitement that influential wrestling critic Dave Meltzer may give her “five stars” for the match. In regular kayfabe, Baker had actually lost the match, but AEW felt no qualms putting out what essentially would be a test run for the current AEW All Access show, also featuring the “real” Britt Baker, as it knows that whatever character she plays between 8 pm and 10 pm, the fan investment is in what is believed to be the authentic personality.

A recent interview with Jon Moxley perfectly captures how AEW manages the meta-narrative. It should be noted that currently, Moxley is in an on-screen blood feud with Omega and the Young Bucks:

“A lot of people out there hate on the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega. We’re obviously attacking them and have our issues with them, but we are not old-ass f—ing bitter dudes with podcasts talking about how the business used to be…It’s us against the universe. That attitude is AEW at its core.”

It’s an interview that very clearly breaks all the rules of what kayfabe used to be. Yet it makes perfect sense in meta-kayfabe. Whether Moxley is a heel or face on screen is essentially irrelevant, what he is doing here is working within the meta-narrative to align himself with Omega and the Young Bucks and the larger story of AEW being the promotion fighting against the old guard of wrestling.

This is not an attempt to say that Baker, Moxley,  or anyone’s meta-kayfabe is an entirely false reality. But it’s clearly a reality that is carefully managed. As fans, that does not mean we have to be constantly on edge, seeing everything as artifice and letting a fear of getting worked overcome our ability to simply enjoy things. But conversely, we should be aware that, for the most part, we don’t really know these people.

The examples above are a fairly straightforward example of meta kayfabe. But it’s important to understand that, for the most part, the final “product” is one that is the aggregation of a negotiation/struggle between a myriad of agents, including media and fans alike. No better example in the past year comes from Brawl Out and its aftermath. In this case, AEW as an official institution, has kept quiet, but a war for the narrative every bit as fierce as the alleged locker room incident has been conducted in the months following. Fans have been treated to a steady drip feed of information, deleted tweets, and callbacks, each time dominating news cycles and almost forcing people into taking sides.

It’s almost the perfect story, one much more entertaining than whatever the official AEW writers could imagine, and indeed, as the onscreen story inevitably moves towards a Punk+FTR/Elite showdown, we will get one of those rare and special moments when both layers of kayfabe melt into each other, where fans will be invested in matches not merely as technical spectacles, but because the result of the match will imply something about a “real” struggle behind the scenes. And even if those matches don’t ever manifest, then at the least fans will be able to use the ratings of Dynamite and Collision as proxies for the fates of The Elite and Punk and Co, respectively.

For AEW, there is a danger that playing too long in the realm of meta-narratives may eventually backfire, that the roles of “real heels” may linger long after they are needed. It’s also a space where those with the most capital can only guide but never truly hold full control over narratives. At the moment, however, the story has successfully built a buzz like no other has for a long time.

Meta-kayfabe is nothing new, and we can even look back to examples of wrestlers attempting to “work the sheets” at the dawn of the internet age as ways in which wrestlers cottoned on to the increasing power of the narrative outside the ostensible “product”. I’m not sure that meta-kayfabe is essential to a good wrestling show; cult classic Lucha Underground went the opposite way, producing a wrestling TV show firmly rooted in kayfabe 1.0 and the conventions of television. Impact Wrestling seems to straddle both layers, which offers variety, but can also be a detriment to the coherence of its brand. WWE’s control of the meta has always been about positioning itself as the premier destination for wrestlers and, increasingly importantly, other non-wrestling brands. On the other hand AEW’s brand management, deftly able to switch between “gunning for WWE” and “happy to be an alternative” has been nothing short of incredible. It will be interesting to see how they manage as more brands realize the lucrative potential of meta-kayfabe.

Ewan Cameron is a wrestling fan and sociologist based in the UK and Myanmar. His (non-wrestling related) blog can be read here

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