The phrase “no one hates X like X fans” is pretty common in a lot of fandoms, and professional wrestling is no different — many would say misery is a tenet of engagement with pro wrestling. This is a depressing sentiment, but I fear that it’s the truth when you consider the rancid negativity that our fandom is commonly associated with. Whether it’s our obviously toxic social media niches that are filled with inflammatory comments, the legions of prominent voices from yesteryear handing out Haterade, or the daily mudslinging in places like reddit, the walls of our community are drenched with negativity that alters the perception of any fan that was otherwise enjoying the show.
But there’s little use in telling you all something you already know. I’m here to ask about how we got here. How did misery become so core to our fandom? Where did all this negativity come from? And why do we get so cagey about something we profess to love? It’s simple: to love wrestling is to hate wrestling.
Professional wrestling stands apart from other scripted forms of entertainment in that it is often produced in real-time on a weekly basis and uses social media not only to gauge reception of its product, but also to make adjustments accordingly. It is this latter facet of wrestling production that provides fertile soil for toxicity to flourish. Unlike other forms of scripted television shows that are planned, scripted, shot, and edited months to years ahead of time, the real-time nature of wrestling production allows creators to modify the creative direction of their storylines and characters based on fan response.
This can be a blessing to wrestling producers, as they can quickly optimize and market their product depending on fan response. However, it can be a curse as it places an urgency on the fanbase to be vocal on social media as their opinions can and have led to changes in the product. This urgency then emboldens fans on social media to be passionate about the product and to post their opinions into wrestling’s public forum as often and as loudly as possible. Like all public forums, the wrestling community has the potential to be positive, productive, and inclusive, but sadly, all too often debates in these forums devolve into conflicts complete with insults, expletives, slurs, and even threats. In short, because fans know they can change the outcomes of the show, they are going to shout, scream, yell, and cause a ruckus all over until the storyline they want to see actually plays out.
The symbiosis between wrestling production and social media is the root of the toxicity within the fanbase. I mean, just check Twitter during any given Raw and behold the vitriol thrown at Kevin Owens for his appearance by many obese members of our fandom. Wince at how Cody is berated for leaving AEW by fans with no financial stake in either company. Be embarrassed at how Bianca Belair’s efforts are dismissed by men who belittle women’s wrestling. And find new depths of depravity as Alexa Bliss is debased with sexist, chauvinistic, and perverted commentary all because she, her colleagues, and the storylines they are involved in do not fit their vision of what the product should be. This fits the bill for misery but moreso, like all toxic environments, those who enter that ecosystem are threatened with infection.
Wrestling fans who engage with others on social media are not only exposed to its inherent toxicity, but also may adopt similarly maladaptive forms of criticism. Every art form there ever was has its share of critics and criteria of criticism. Movie critics will comment upon the script, cinematography, and performance of the actors. Literature reviewers will talk about verbiage, story structure, and themes. Video game reviewers will talk about gameplay mechanics, graphics, and story. These models of commentary provide archetypes for productive conversations within their respective communities and most fans find new appreciation and love for their chosen medium, but not wrestling fans. Wrestling fans seem to find new ways to hate wrestling as they transition from casual viewership to active fandom due to the negative norms of the fandom. Fans who mention that WWE style matches between heavyweights are met with legions of tenured fans who criticize them for their, subjectively speaking, simplistic taste. Fans who note that they enjoy NJPW’s puro style or AAA’s lucha libre trimmings are told those matches have no “psychology.” And don’t get me started on those who dare to enjoy DDT Pro-Wrestling.
If you don’t believe my words, believe my story and compare it to yours. I became a wrestling fan in early 2001 after I decided to watch an episode of SmackDown to better get along with my friends in my 6th grade homeroom class. Wrestling was still enjoying the throne atop pop culture that Stone Cold and The Rock built for it. I was told to look out for guys named The Undertaker, Chris Jericho, and Kane, all of whom did their part in helping me find my way to wrestling, but it was none other than Trish Stratus that got me hooked to wrestling in 2001 because Trish Stratus in 2001 was Trish Stratus in 2001, and I never left. I remembered how enormous tag-team main events felt and jumped out of my seat for every hot tag. I remember how anxious I was during title matches. I remember my friend’s mom screaming at me when I tried to call his house at 11 p.m. to find out the results of WrestleMania X-7. And I remember Trish Stratus.
My favorites early on were Kane and The Undertaker, I found my way to Edge and Triple H in 2002 and 2003, and rallied behind John Cena in 2005 but then, my family got cable-based internet and the magic died. I quickly learned about things like “booking,” “pushes,” “swerves,” and “Meltzer” after I found my way to the wrestling forum on GameFAQs that forever changed how I viewed wrestling. The internet, of course, became a gateway drug for wrestling as a I quickly learned about Ring of Honor and Impact Wrestling (then TNA) and found the joys of old-school ECW, but it was also the internet that told me about how Triple H was only in the position he was in due to his marriage, that John Cena was unfit to be WWE Champion due to his “workrate,” and that biker version of The Undertaker that I had been accustomed to and enjoyed was actually a failed experiment and a shadow of his former self. I began viewing tag team matches that intertwined storylines as trite, title matches on free television with ambivalence, and, due to constantly posted rumors and hearsay, my viewership of wrestling became less about watching the matches and more a mental exercise to see if my predictions were right. The internet did bring me deeper into wrestling’s fandom but, it also taught me how to hate wrestling.
I have, thusly, spent the majority of my 21 years as a wrestling fan complaining about wrestling by yelling at the TV in my living room, with my friends at shows, and on message boards and social media but, I have also been doing all of that for 21 years. This is the duality that most hardcore wrestling fans have raging inside of them, as they no longer have the luxury of being passive observers who can just enjoy the grappling arts — the knowledge of wrestling archetypes and storytelling conventions combined with rumors, hearsay, and spoilers that the internet and social media will always inform what they are watching and, paradoxically, cloud and sully their enjoyment. But with that said, is being an informed viewer not a marker of how much you know about wrestling? Is getting frustrated/angry with “bad” storylines, not a mark of how much you want to enjoy wrestling? And if these are true, is being miserable while watching wrestling, not a marker that you love wrestling?
I am tired of being miserable after 21 years. A part of me wishes I can go back to March 2004 to stop myself from making a GameFAQs account. I wish I wasn’t able to predict endings to storylines as soon as they begin. I wish I couldn’t predict the results of matches based off of rumored contract expirations of performers. And I wish people weren’t so terrible to each other on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and some Saturdays and Sundays but, that’s what being a wrestling fan is like. My recommendation? Remind yourself of Trish Stratus in 2001.
Yes, we’re all cursed with knowledge by this point but you’re cursed with wrestling because you love wrestling. Cling to that and you’ll find some gems in the three hours of Raw, Sami Zayn will get you through SmackDown, you’ll swear you’ll watch all of Konosuke Takeshita’s matches after Dynamite this past week, and, hell, 2022 Trish Stratus gives 2001 Trish Stratus a run for her money. Wrestling has been good to you, it’s been bad to you, but it’s always been there for you and it still wants to be there for you. So, chill out a little bit. Turn your brain off. Don’t get into fights with strangers. Stop simpin’ and creepin’. Be polite/kind and not racist/sexist. You’ve never been gainfully employed by a wrestling or television production company so, no, you don’t know for sure. And beyond all that, remember your Trish Stratus. Remember why you love wrestling and you might be so miserable.
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