‘Act-thletes’: Fantasy and Reality in WWE

Why do people invest so much time and money into things that aren't real? How do companies sustain themselves on products with little to no practical use? Here, journalist and lifelong WWE fan Rohan Banerjee explores the blurred lines between fantasy and reality when it comes to professional wrestling...

Do you like wrestling? That this question tends to evoke thoughts of soap opera-like storylines alongside spandex-clad men points to WWE’s pervasive presence in society. That people would sooner understand wrestling to mean chair shots and cheesy catch-phrases rather than Olympic grappling is a sign of exactly how entrenched the company is in popular culture.

It’s one of those questions that doesn’t really draw an awful lot of non-committal answers. Like Twilight or Marmite, it’s a love-hate stand-off and very rarely do you get someone who thinks: “It’s ok, I guess.”

The critics believe that WWE’s styling as “sports entertainment” is self-defeating because it concedes that match results are pre-determined and therefore can’t be admired for any athletic merit. Furthermore, they are unenthused by the storylines because those are again scripted.

WWE’s detractors are so dumbfounded by the company’s ability to sustain a global audience and multi-million dollar franchise that they feel the need to remind people “It’s fake” at any opportunity. I wonder if the same cynics are so vocal at the cinema?

See, it’s ok not to like something if it’s not to your personal taste and there are many rods with which to strike WWE’s back – try sexism or political incorrectness – but don’t let yourself down by resorting to dogmatism.

Understanding why WWE does have millions of fans shouldn’t be difficult. As with any long-running television series, there are plenty of people of who do buy into the storylines and find them compelling. Granted, some, like Undertaker’s resurrection, are stupid; but can the same not be said about a year-long wait to reveal that pre-pubescent Bobby Beale murdered his big sister in Eastenders?

The argument about a lack of athleticism doesn’t hold much water either, because pre-determined or not, wrestlers still have to be in peak physical condition to put on the spectacle of a match; and even if the context isn’t, the risks of their performances are real. It is this fascination with and commitment to the show that drives a huge portion of WWE’s appeal.

Different people have different indulgences that they use to escape or enhance reality. Wrestling fans are so inclined for those exact reasons. The face-heel dynamic is as engaging as any good versus evil dichotomy in a film and the idea of admiring a particularly talented performer needn’t be considered alien.

From a marketing perspective, the urge to imitate art, and theoretically that’s what wrestling is, is one that WWE has capitalised on. Fans will have their own reasons for choosing their favourite wrestler – be it his or her move-set, skills on the microphone or dress-sense. In the same way that Jenifer Aniston’s haircut became a staple feature of the 1990s, so did a host of stock lines from WWE’s ‘Attitude Era.’ Just wondering what The Rock is cooking raises a smile.

Ultimately, WWE presents a platform for fantasy, just like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Pokémon Go or Lord of the Rings. It retains imperfections, of course, as well as a plethora of plot-holes but against the pressures of modern life, who is anyone to dismiss what someone else finds fun in their free time?