I’m often amazed by wrestling fans’ ability to rationalize silly nonsense.
Understand–I am using a very specific definition of “silly nonsense.” When I hear a wrestling fan complain about how an evil dentist or an incidental leprechaun on the show is “embarrassing” or what have you, I have to wonder what show this person has been watching for the past few decades. It’s possible to explain an awful lot within wrestling simply because it’s been a theater of the absurd for so long. But even within that context, when a wrestling show isn’t true to itself–when the logic on display defies belief even within this particularly wacky context–it’s enough to throw viewers headlong out of the story and leave them scratching their heads.
This is the silly nonsense I’m talking about: when professional wrestling can’t even follow its own insane logic.
A perfect example happened between the February 28 and March 7 episodes of Impact Wrestling. For the better part of a year, Aces & Eights had terrorized TNA wrestlers, with a particular zeal for one Kurt Angle. When Angle finally infiltrated the group’s clubhouse, he managed to unmask its Vice President, and while the information wasn’t disclosed on the air, the masked man was later revealed to be one of TNA’s own staff members, D’Lo Brown.
A reasonable response to this revelation, of course, would be to reveal the information immediately. Of course, Kurt Angle did no such thing. He endured the beating at the hands of the gang, sat on his hands for a week, and promised to reveal the masked man–who, it bears repeating, was a well-known member of TNA’s staff with an on-camera role as a road agent–later on in this very ring.
From a promotional standpoint, it makes sense: TNA wanted to build toward a big reveal on one of their televised shows. But it defies logic. Why wait a week? Was Kurt Angle abducted by aliens? Did he spend a week in his coffin at Transylvania recovering from the attack? And if so, can he not get any bars on his phone inside said coffin? Surely if TNA’s own staffing has been infiltrated by the villainous biker gang, the logical move is to let management know immediately so that this rogue agent can do no damage.
Which brings me back to my original point: wrestling fans are willing to put up with a lot of silly nonsense. Not long after this happened, a TNA fan on a message board I frequent responded to the story in this way:
I think this is a situation where we just have to suspend our disbelief. Surely it makes the most sense for Angle to just jump on Twitter and give up the reveal, but expecting that is effectively putting an end to many possible weekly cliff-hangers. We could look at any storyline and say that it wouldn’t make sense to wait a week for certain information/responses/reveals that can be all made on Twitter. It just is what it is…expecting it to be on Twitter ruins the fun, for me at least.
Now I am a ruthless pedant about a lot of pointless things (“Impact” is not a verb that’s a synonym for “affect,” everyone on Earth! I will die on that hill!). And I sympathize with this person’s mindset in a lot of ways; wrestling fans often want to shut their brains off and enjoy the fun. But I can’t stand idly by while wrestling fans besmirch the ideas of the great Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Coleridge was a revolutionary figure in his time, but he was also an odd bird. A seminal figure in England’s Romantic Movement in the beginning of the 19th century, Coleridge rejected rationalism in literature in favor of the aesthetic of emotion. If that sounds a bit too heady for a wrestling blog, he was also a bipolar opium addict, and one of his most famous poems described an opium-inspired dream about Kublai Khan’s summer palace. Most importantly for my purposes here, Coleridge was intelligent and well-read, with a keen critical eye for even his own work, and it was he who first coined the term “willing suspension of disbelief” in his Biographia Literaria. He used the term to describe his own work–driven by fantastic elements–could still be read in the context of the Enlightenment’s more rational view of nature:
It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.
It’s a little arcane and poetic, but there are a few important points that we can parse here about what suspension of disbelief is or isn’t. For starters, Coleridge qualifies suspension of disbelief upon his own “endeavours”–that is, if he expects readers to be willing to follow his stories’ internal logic, he should be expected to put forth an effort on his own end. The “semblance of truth” bears this idea out: a narrative should be true to itself in a sensible way. In this way, the author can rely on what Coleridge calls “poetic faith,” a way to describe the relationship between the author and a reader who doesn’t want to have his or her intelligence insulted.
This definition is the main reason I can’t follow our friend’s reasoning above and why the explanation doesn’t make sense. The audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief is contingent on the author’s ability to create a narrative that ensures that sort of reaction.
Too often, suspension of disbelief is wielded like a weapon to shut down criticism. Viewers are told to just be quiet and watch the show, to shut off their minds. After all, it’s “just wrestling.” I remember a particularly insulting storyline from TNA (I keep picking on TNA here, but they’re certainly not alone here.) regarding Dustin Rhodes in his short-lived “Black Reign” character. Kazarian had stolen Black Reign’s pet rat and was keeping it hostage in an effort to get at the big bad Black Reign. Kazarian would bring the rat to the arena each week, taunting Black Reign with it, until they eventually had a match in which the rat would be put on one of four poles in a closed container, the other three of which contained rat traps.
As a side note, it’s odd to me that when I hear people say that wrestling embarrasses them, they point at Brodus Clay dancing and never at angles like this.
Okay! Let’s have a look at what just transpired, and why it doesn’t make sense. Yes, we understand that Kazarian needed to hold the rat “hostage” so that the thrilling Black Reign/Kazarian feud could be drawn out over several weeks, leading to a climactic match involving a gimmick that drew on the storyline. But in order for this angle to make sense, we have to believe that…
1. Frankie Kazarian was not only willing to kidnap a rat, but to take care of it–feeding it, watering it, probably even cleaning its cage–for weeks at a time, because if he hadn’t, the rat would be dead;
2. Frankie Kazarian was willing to travel with this rat to and from the arena, keeping it secure in its cage all the while; and
3. Frankie Kazarian was willing to risk his own safety in a silly rat trap match, returning the rat to TNA management in order to create the conditions that the gimmick required… just because there was a 3 in 4 chance that Black Reign would also have his fingers mutilated by rat traps.
This isn’t a case of me thinking too much about a show; this is a case of a show outright not making a damn bit of sense. But I distinctly remember being called out onto the floor about this storyline in particular. I get this reaction a lot: “Dude, why don’t you just shut your brain off and watch the show? It’s wrestling!”
But this mindset confuses where the responsibility lies. It’s not my job to shut my brain off and watch the show; it’s the job of the people who create and perform on the show to convince me to shut my brain off and watch the show.
I’m willing to accept a lot of weirdness in wrestling. One of my favorite angles over the past few years involved Kane and the Undertaker just after Undertaker emerged from his “vegetative state.” It was pure silliness, with everything from Paul Bearer hiding in caskets to the urn having the power to cast third-level cleric spells (Blindness/Deafness). It was over-the-top and self-indulgent, with Paul Bearer giving dire warnings to Undertaker over ominous orchestral strains. It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen, and I loved every minute of it, even if the wrestling itself was rather lousy. In the context of the Undertaker feuding with Kane, it made an insane sort of sense; after all, nothing that happened was outside of the twisted logic of Kane and the Undertaker’s overall narrative.
Compare this to a few years later, when Eve Torres inexplicably turned HASHTAG HOESKI live in front of a Monday Night RAW audience, implying that the reason she’d allowed herself to be terrorized by Kane for weeks on end was so that she could use Zack Ryder to further her own career, because “evil Jezebel suddenly” I guess. On the Calaway Family Scale of Wrestling Wackiness, this wouldn’t even chart, but like hell was I prepared to believe a bit of it. That doesn’t mean I don’t like wrestling; it means that it makes me crazy when wrestling can’t even follow its own nutty storytelling tropes (and when it’s hateful and nasty, but that’s a whole other conversation).
Coleridge places the onus of willing suspension of disbelief on the author. It’s a mutual agreement, sure, but it begins and ends with the parties telling the story. Maybe if wrestling fans understood this fact better, we’d be less inclined to shrug our shoulders when bookers and writers insult our intelligence.
Bill Bicknell teaches English composition at several Ohio universities and is utterly shameless about this wrestling stuff in front of his more sophisticated colleagues. He occasionally writes about writing and teaching at his blog, Bill at the End of the World. Follow him on Twitter at @BillAtTheEnd for insightful commentary, playful banter, and horrible [ed. note: delightful!] puns.