Wrestling is one of the stranger genres of entertainment. Part long-form storytelling, part interactive theater, part athletic competition, the medium leaves itself open to a lot of strange interactions with reality as well as the way it interacts with itself. So what, exactly, does it mean to be meta in wrestling? Can wrestling be meta? How exactly does this manifest itself?
People often talk about worked shoots, breaking the fourth wall, and being “meta” in wrestling. Nearly everyone’s favorite example is CM Punk’s famous pipe bomb. And yet it technically whatsoever (despite him claiming he was). Nowhere in that promo did Punk reveal anything that a supposed “mark” wouldn’t be aware of already, and he only really helped play into the idea of the authority as being a controlling force on the promotion. So why do people usually point to the pipe bomb as a fourth wall break? Because people seem to believe that pointing out the inner workings of the business is some sort of fourth wall break, as part of some meta narrative.
Even something as rare as referring to someone by their real name, not their wrestling name, is not really a wall break of any sort. CM Punk calling Triple H “Paul Levesque” is by no means a breach of kayfabe. Celebrities have always used stage names, from Lady Gaga to Bruno Mars to even Jon Stewart. Thus, when AJ Styles called The Undertaker “Mark Calaway,” it wasn’t necessarily a breach of kayfabe but, could instead have been seen as AJ simply revealing more about this mysterious Deadman than we previously knew.
Look at the Edge/Hardy/Lita drama that played out years ago, which WWE adopted as a plot in their show. Absolutely none of it was fourth wall breaking, unless we are to believe that within kayfabe, wrestlers do not have personal lives or don’t exist when the cameras are not on. And yet people insist on pointing to this plotline as being “meta” or showing how wrestling embraces meta narratives. Yet, that angle did not acknowledge the fact wrestling is scripted or do anything else that someone could reasonably consider meta.
And yet, in other mediums, such actions as calling a character by their actors’ name would be an absolute shattering of the fourth wall. So why does wrestling get away with things like this without it being meta?
If you’ve been a wrestling fan for more than five minutes, you already know the answer. The fact is wrestling combines reality with fiction, even going as far as to try to make people think it was real for some time. There is no meta narrative or fourth wall breaking in real life, so to have an art form so steeped in this idea, it is hard to really distinguish what can be considered meta.
And yet, to simply dismiss all of these examples I have listed as not actually examples of fourth wall breaks seems off. Because in the end, it’s other forces interfering with the story. Edge vs. Jeff Hardy at SummerSlam 2005 was written, and was not the organic outcome of events despite it being inspired by real-life events. Comments from Punk would not have arisen if it weren’t for backstage politics that directly impacted the ongoing writing process for the show. Granted, there are examples of more actual meta moments, such as Chris Jericho deeming Jake Hager’s former “We The People” gimmick a “bad idea from bad creative” on AEW Dynamite a few months ago; however, these are a lot less common.
So while I don’t think these moments truly break the fourth wall, it is hard to really say that they are not at least acknowledging something beyond what would traditionally viewed as the plot. However, the traditional view of plot is anything but traditional in wrestling, so this sort of nod and wink to other things outside of the filmed events are a class of their own, only to be found in the wrestling world.
But what about meta narratives? For clarity’s sake, I am discussing meta narratives not in the “a large overarching story” sense of the term, but more the use of it to critique narrative devices and structure usually through meta references. Here, I believe there is a much stronger case to argue that unlike fourth wall breaks, meta narratives have a much more prevalence in the world of wrestling.
In most cases, the crowd is the main drivers of meta narratives. The crowd plays an interesting role in wrestling, acting as both a part of the product and a critic of the product at the same time. They can never be truly independent of the product, as our reality is also the reality of wrestling. Fan criticism of a TV show that influences the writers to redo something could hardly be called a meta narrative. However, one could argue that fan criticism of wrestling is an expected part of the narrative itself. And that is especially true when the crowd expresses their feelings about something.
A great example is Daniel Bryan leading up to WrestleMania XXX. Rey Mysterio was booed when he came out in the last spot in the Royal Rumble match because people assumed it would be Bryan. Batista, also seen as taking Bryan’s spot by winning the Rumble, was booed heavily that night and the weeks to come. The fans heavily influenced Bryan’s win at WrestleMania XXX. A similar story can be said about Becky Lynch’s attempted heel turn. The rejection of her turn by the fans was a clear-cut example of critics within the reality of wrestling itself affecting the outcome of the story.
The truly interesting example of meta narratives being alive in the crowd is the instances where the crowd actively cheers or boos for those that, within the plot, should be getting the opposite. The biggest example here is John Cena. Cena was booed by a good portion of the crowd throughout most of his career, which doesn’t make too much sense from a story perspective. In kayfabe, he’s an everyman, an all-American hero, and someone who usually wins. The audience rejecting him makes it difficult to see anything but an interesting spin on the narrative with a clear rejection of the moral objectivism that pro wrestling so often portrays.
However, the audience making their voice heard is, as we’ve established, not new, nor is it what makes cases such as Cena interesting. Instead, it is where we have seen the story change in accordance to the crowd — here, the character doesn’t waiver, but digs even deeper into his character. In this world where critics are an active participant of the story, sometimes the story refuses to bend to their will.
Of course, this meta narrative breaks down when we take out the concept of audience vs. story and acknowledge that writers and creative exists. At this point, the narrative becomes audience vs. creative, which, for simplicity’s sake, would devolve down to just real life and describing real events as “part of the narrative.” Maybe someone else would like to discuss this level of pretentious insanity at some point, but I am not the one for that.
In summary, the idea of what is “meta” in wrestling is hard to pin down exactly due the genre’s very nature. Even though things people call meta are not actually meta, it’s hard to say that there is nothing different about the nature of, say, the Hardy/Edge feud. When the line between reality and fiction is blurred, determining when a story references itself can be extremely hard. However, it can also lead to extremely interesting narrative devices that come up organically in the case of the crowd’s reaction. And that is one of the many reasons I absolutely love wrestling.
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