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Off-Script: The state of kayfabe in 2019

When a show’s creators and actors don’t take it seriously, how can they expect the fans to?

Kayfabe — essentially, canon for professional wrestling and the idea that everyone should uphold the notion that what happens inside a wrestling ring is ‘real,’ — has been a flimsy concept ever since around the Attitude Era. The rise of the internet gave way to more fans who knew more about the inner workings of the business, and the show began to reflect that, with worked shoots, winks to backstage incidents, and exploitation of real-life issues to make for a more compelling on-air product.

Here in 2019, social media adds an entirely new dimension to the tension between reality and kayfabe. We as fans are encouraged to follow WWE Superstars on Twitter and Instagram, where we see them living their everyday civilian lives. Wrestlers talk openly about storyline directions and backstage politics like actors discussing a movie. Gone are the days where Ted DiBiase would act like an arrogant millionaire everywhere he went, or heels and faces refused to travel with one another.

Despite this new reality, however, WWE has recently begun blurring the lines even more, testing the limits of the line between using real life to enhance kayfabe and completely destroying the concept. Ronda Rousey’s heel turn seems to be predicated on the fact that she’s “real,” unlike the “fake” world of pro wrestling — even going to far to call WWE a bunch of “carny conmen,” possibly the first time the “C” word has been said on WWE television — but it comes off less like, say, a disgruntled CM Punk dropping a pipebomb to relieve his frustrations within the business and more like Ronda acting like she’s above it completely.

Pictured above: Ronda Rousey using a picture of herself pretending to be hurt in the Disarm-Her as proof that it “doesn’t even work.”

Real life animosity and motivations beyond one character wanting to prove he or she is better than another character have been used for decades — one of the best examples is Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart. By the time the Attitude Era rolled around, it was known by many fans that the men behind the characters just didn’t like each other, and this was used to enhance their feud on television. Sure, Michaels may have gone a bit too far into the weeds at times (the “Sunny days” comment comes to mind), but at the end of the day it was about selling a wrestling feud. For all the sh*t-talking HBK did on Bret Hart as a man, he never said the Sharpshooter was a fake move that didn’t hurt. Why would he have? That would have hurt the verisimilitude of the upcoming match.

Unfortunately, Ronda talking about going against the “script” doesn’t excite and make fans think that sh*t’s really going down this time, it just hurts everything that came before it.

Some rumor and innuendo suggests that Ronda legitimately went too far on social media on her own and now WWE is trying to retrofit the story around it. Just read this bizarre WWE.com article that tries to explain the situation while never coming out and actually saying wrestling is scripted, instead opting for unnatural euphemisms like how Ronda “just wants to destroy your Universe.” Not being willing to explain the storyline to your viewers because you want to conceal the true nature of your business just makes for confusing television that feels like it has one foot in each universe.

Breaking kayfabe can work when used sparingly and intelligently — CM Punk is a modern wrestling hero because of how he danced around the fourth wall, and even as recently as this month, Triple H’s impassioned speech about spending time with Richard Fliehr the man and not Ric Flair the character, and chiding Batista for going “bad guy 101” on him, largely worked.

But with the Ronda Rousey storyline, WWE finds themselves dangerously close to the line WCW egregiously stepped over in its dying days; the last time “the script” was mentioned this heavily, it was because Goldberg “refused to follow” it at Fall Brawl 2000, a terrible story often cited as one of the goofiest, self-parodying mistakes WCW ever made (which, considering some of the stuff they put on television, is saying something).

It’s okay to play with the concept a little bit. Everyone knows wrestling is a show. But when the show’s creators and actors don’t take it seriously, how can they expect the fans to?

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