There is a feud in the WWE that is larger than any two performers, a rivalry as significant and potentially powerful as the greatest we've ever seen.
That feud, on the surface, is between the WWE's past and the WWE's future.
Hell in a Cell, the WWE's latest pay-per-view, epitomizes this battle.
Let's begin with Randy Orton and Seth Rollins, characters that literally embody the feud.
Orton is the heel of the past and Rollins, the self-described "living, breathing future of sports entertainment", is the heel of the future. In the present, these two characters will clash, symbolic of their contrasting places in history. The caveat for the Orton character is that, inevitably, time always wins and Rollins (or some other heel should Rollins not succeed) will one day ascend to Orton's status as top villain in the company, and the fiction the company presents. The future is guaranteed to win this fight on a literal level (of this everyone can be sure) simply due to the nature of bodily decay.
The battle between past and future was also represented in the Hell in a Cell "double-main-event".
Randy Orton and John Cena is a match that has defined the past decade, and Seth Rollins vs Dean Ambrose seems to be a match that shall define the next decade. These four performers competed to put on the best show of the night, battling for performance supremacy.
Fans were concerned, understandably so, that Orton vs Cena would go on last at Hell in a Cell, last being the most coveted spot on the card and indicative of whom the company regards as the most significant draw. And so the struggle between past and future, this fight to see where the WWE's priorities are, was represented in the actual booking of the pay-per-view.
Fortunately for the fans, and the company, it would seem the future won this particular battle, as Ambrose and Rollins went on last in the actual main event.
The subtlest, but most significant manifestation of this war between past and future is represented in the way the WWE presents its own fiction and tells professional wrestling (or "sports entertainment") stories.
And last night, the clear victor in this particular case, the opponent who won in convincing fashion, was The Past.
The main event between Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins existed less as a modern creation in keeping with the future of these two stars, and more as an extended homage to The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels' infamous Hell in a Cell match. So rooted in the past by the match's very construction, the urgency and authenticity of the present-day feud became mired in historical-distractions.
Allusion and homage are welcome storytelling tropes that can enhance drama, but in this case the allusion encroached on the Ambrose and Rollins' feud. And even if viewers weren't aware of the variety of overt references to Hell in a Cell matches of the past, the mere introduction of a screw driver into the fight, as well the appearance of a "ghost" is at odds with a reality-based form of storytelling in keeping with the times, a time even the WWE has dubbed "The Reality Era".
Sadly, the intent behind these allusions to the past, the way these nods to Kane, Michaels and The Undertaker so thoroughly insisted upon themselves broke the basic fiction of pro-wrestling, and self-consciously snuffed out the creativity of the future. That moment where the ghost appears at the end of the show, perhaps fittingly, acts as the last gasp of a less mature form of storytelling, a form that disrespects the intelligence of the audience and the artistic worth of the medium.
The WWE's continued reliance upon the word "entertainment" (using that word to explain moments like the appearance of a ghost at the end of a match), and their misuse of that word, is a destructive, persistent problem in the company that prevents it from ascending to a more sincere, genuinely entertaining place, and threatens to unravel the great progress the company has made in recent years.
This struggle between past and present storytelling-styles is simultaneously indicative of an even larger cultural problem resultant from our misunderstanding of the words "art" and "entertainment".
Before going further, it's important to first "breakdown" the term "sports entertainment".
"Sports Entertainment" is considered a dirty-word among professional wrestling fans and many who have worked in the business, and with good reason. It has come to represent an approach to wrestling that has tainted the medium, glossing over the fundamental reason people love and watch professional wrestling, permitting the medium to churn out all manner of cheap tricks, stunts, and gimmickery.
Regardless of the negative meaning associated with the term "Sports Entertainment", taken for the specific definition of the two words that compose the phrase, it actually does define professional wrestling in an effective way.
Professional wrestling is the simulation of a live sporting event, a theatrical performance of sport. It takes sport and adds fiction. Therefore, it is, indeed, sports entertainment or, even more effectively, "sports art".
But it's not a phrase that the WWE should ever use to describe its own product, at least not on the actual shows or in Kayfabe-related situations where the fiction of pro-wrestling is at play - such would be like Leonardo DiCaprio looking into the camera during The Wolf of Wall Street and saying, "I am Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor, in a movie you are currently watching" and for that forth-wall-break to not be an intended part of the actual story.
"Sports Entertainment" should be a term pro-wrestling analysts, critics, and scholars use to define the medium. The term "professional wrestling" is, in itself, a work, a piece of the medium's fiction.
As a child, I always found it strange that professional wrestling was dubbed "professional wrestling" as it's the only "professional" form of its sport that is scripted. The term "professional" in sport means "legitimate", indicating that it is the pinnacle of that sport and representative of the absolute best athletes in the world.
Professional wrestling doesn't use the word "professional" in that way at all. You don't even need to have an amateur wrestling background to become a professional wrestler.
And yet it remains a perfect term for the medium to describe itself, because the purpose of the entire medium is to convince you that it is as legitimate as "pro-baseball" or "pro-basketball" or "pro-football". In this way pro-wrestling is wonderfully unique, existing as a twisty-turny Rubik's Cube of meanings within meanings that coalesce into one of the most complex theatrical performances human beings have ever created. In this way it proves its inherent cultural value, offering society a wholly distinct form of art.
Appreciating the term "professional wrestling" is the first step in believing the grand "work" of the medium, the introduction in understanding that it is staged, but that you are meant to suspend your disbelief.
Would you be so willing to believe it, or even enjoy it, if it was called directly "fake-wrestling" or "staged-wrestling" or "staged-sport"?
This is, essentially, what the phrase "sports entertainment" means.
The need to change the WWF moniker to the WWE created a larger problem than simply reeducating the audience to a new acronym. It actually represents a break in the pro-wrestling fiction. World Wrestling Federation is a work-name, a name that represents a fictitious organization of wrestlers competing for fictitious championships. The name is an essential part of the fiction being told, in convincing you to believe what you're seeing is legitimate.
In changing that F into an E for "Entertainment", the basic purpose of pro-wrestling is compromised, and its compromised in a way that's barely perceptible because most fans have been trained to think of it as "just entertainment", not an elaborate fiction unlike anything else on this planet.
The pro-wrestling medium necessarily demands an official name akin to the NFL's or the MLB's because creating that illusion of professionalism is the point of pro-wrestling.
There is a clear lack of thoughtfulness with the use of the phrase "sports entertainment" on shows like Monday Night Raw, a complete willingness to fundamentally break the fiction of the pro-wrestling medium by calling it "fake-wrestling" (in so many words) or a genuine lack of awareness that the term destroys the basic fiction. The WWE uses the term less to purposefully break the pro-wrestling fiction and more to distance itself from negative cultural associations with pro-wrestling, and also as a means of excusing more cartoonish stories (the easy way out of a cultural or storytelling conundrum, rather than reeducating audiences).
"Sports entertainment" like the terms "video games" or "movies" could be a surprisingly successful phrase for describing the specific artistic form of combining athletic competition with narrative - Cirque Du Soleil or Ballet are placed under the respectable umbrella of "dance", but they are similar mediums that could be referred to as "sports entertainment". But, again, it's a phrase that should be used by critics, not the companies when they're telling their stories.
In the WWE's continued misuse of this term, not only does the company consistently break their own fiction, they fail to escape bygone storytelling edicts that alienate a potentially vast, lucrative audience - a lucrative audience eager for "sport" and "competition" not "soap opera" and shenanigans like Bunnies and Ghosts - not nonsense that is all consistently put under the label of "entertainment".
The WWE, and those who support or enjoy the WWE's sillier storytelling antics, often defend such moments with the claim, "It's just entertainment".
"It's just entertainment" genuinely disrespects the audience, the actual WWE organization, and the entire medium of professional wrestling.
"It's just entertainment" disrespects the entire human race.
Yes, it's entertaining, but it is decidedly not "Just entertainment".
It's storytelling. There is a difference. It is fundamentally impossible to escape what professional wrestling is, what movies are, what novels are, what plays are, what poems are, what paintings are, and what songs are and what these mediums always will be - no matter how hard we might try.
Each of these mediums is an art that offers entertainment.
Entertainment is the byproduct of the art, it is not a medium unto itself just as smoke is not fire.
This distinction is paramount in appreciating and understanding one's culture and the world.
This is not an argument for an elitist's perspective on entertaining artistic mediums, that we should all be sipping tea with upturned pinky-fingers and contemplating Proust whilst watching John Cena vs Randy Orton.
That is not the world I want to live in.
This is just about accepting a basic reality we steadfastly deny, and appreciating these forms in an accurate, sincere way.
|Paul Heyman is one of the purest advocates for this argument simply by offering a stellar performance.|
For far too long "art" and "entertainment" have been kept in separate rooms, like two soul-mates that breed beautiful babies when they make love, imprisoned by a dictatorial society that espouses thoughtlessness.
Some people who create art (art like professional wrestling) fear the perception that goes along with being an artist or appreciating the arts.
In particular, people who write about professional wrestling have either never been informed that they're writing about art, or they're similarly afraid of "taking things too seriously" and being thought of as elitists. Conversely, within the "serious" art criticism world of literature, film, and the like, professional wrestling is regarded as low-brow trash.
These two perceptions create a negative environment where no one is actually right about anything. Everyone, in such a world of timidity and weakness, misunderstands professional wrestling and what it has to offer. Everyone, in such a world, is fundamentally disconnected from reality.
Hence why there are so few sincere pro-wrestling analysts and critics, and why the most powerful and the most popular pro-wrestling columns are littered with "funny" gifs, memes, top-ten lists, dirt, and rumors (as if treating the artistic medium with sincerity and respect is not only unthinkable, but foolish and alienating). In this way, one of the most fundamental problems with the WWE's current product is simultaneously a problem in the WWE's actual audience.
Such is truly a shame, resultant from the stiff elitism of arts communities, from the crowd-funded dictates of a headline and SEO-obsessed news media, and from the way the WWE emboldens its detractors by occasionally disrespecting its own material.
Art is one of the great unifying human principles, a truly equalitarian aspect of our spirit that by its very nature is for everyone and everything. Art is one the purely benevolent human creations, destroyed when it is reserved for a select few. And the elite have done such a good job convincing society that art is theirs, that "art" has become a dirty word for the commoners while "entertainment" has become a dirty word for the elite.
Meanwhile there is as much art in a Stone Cold Stunner as there is in a Pollock brush-stroke.
|Art...you stupid sum bitch!|
That is an inescapable reality that frightens professional wrestling fans, professional wrestling creators, and those stiff artists who want to keep their art "dignified" and sacrosanct. Such a democratic perspective on art is frightening because it breaks down cultural, societal, and economic walls, uniting that stereotypical "New York Intellectual" with that stereotypical backwoods "Redneck" - two people that have been trained to hate one another. But even the most seemingly different human beings are inevitably united by their need to escape the dullness of daily life. Following their brief escape into a land of magic and wonder, they will return to reality reinvigorated, enlightened, and joyful. That joyfulness makes them kinder, more approachable people, and, therefore, easier to relate to.
That is one of the primary functions of art - it cures us of our hatred and unites us in a shared experience of joy.
This enduring cultural distinction between "art" and "entertainment", as if "art" is for the smart (rich) people and "entertainment" is for the dumb (poor) people, must stop if our culture (and the WWE) wishes to make any sort of progress. It is a distinction that fully embraces the status quo, permitting complacency, elitism, and excuses from consumers and artists alike.
The rigid adherence to the modern meaning of "entertainment" as opposed to regarding art as art leaves more room for failure. Because if "entertainment" doesn't make good on its promise, it fails. "Entertainment" guarantees polarization. Some people will love it. Some people will hate it. There's no nuance. There's no thought.
Art makes no promises. Art simply offers itself to you, and encourages thought, permitting our natural human inclination to formulate a unique point of view on a particular topic. Art only fails when it does not achieve, in any capacity, a connection with another human being.
We very clearly live in a culture obsessed with "Entertainment", as evidenced by our simple, overly emotional responses to "content". In accepting this lie, a world that is antithetical to our most basic human desires, we do ourselves and art a massive disservice. We're believing in smoke, something without substance, afraid to throw ourselves into the fire.
The distinction also creates unnecessary conflict between two groups that don't actually exist - the "art-lovers" and the "entertainment-lovers", neither group understanding that they are synonymous. There is only "good art" and "bad art" and subjective interpretations of said "good art" and "bad art". There is no "just art" and there is no "just entertainment". In the current environment, one group is emboldened to keep believing in their superiority, in their intelligence, while the other group is emboldened to be pride themselves on not thinking.
"It's just entertainment" is almost always used in defense of nonsensical storytelling, and it is the worst defense of all. "It's just entertainment" is tantamount to, "It's okay if this is kind of stupid because it's supposed to be kind of stupid. Just stop thinking, shut up, and enjoy yourself." What's troubling about this perspective is that it undermines the great skill and effort it takes to entertain someone.
You did not cheer for Dolph Ziggler, Cesaro, John Cena, Randy Orton, AJ Lee, Seth Rollins, and Dean Ambrose by accident.
These performers manipulated you with their craft.
These performers, these artists, made choices in their performances so as to elicit a reaction out of you. You feel a deeper sense of responsibility for that reaction because it's a live event and you're contributing to the volume in the arena - you've been trained to think your cheers affect the outcome of a match. The illusion that you're somehow more responsible for the reaction is just another testament to the performers who made you react that way. But the artists sparked that reaction with their genius. To call that "just entertainment" robs these performers of their talent, reducing them to bump-machines that exist purely for your pleasure.
These men and women are warrior-artists, literally breaking their bodies for their craft so as to make you believe.
"It's just entertainment" simultaneously robs yourself of a deeper appreciation for what you witnessed. You saw Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose crash through two tables simultaneously off a Hell in a Cell, and you're going to reduce that to "just entertainment" for your mind? Your appreciation of what these men and women do is deeper than "just entertainment". Your own recognition of their craft and their excellence, your mind and its ability to think, your unique perspective is also an integral part of the process as worthy of respect as the art that inspired it.
As Jake The Snake so eloquently put it in his Hall of Fame speech, professional wrestling, like any artistic medium, "masturbates people's emotions".
That seemingly crude way of putting it is emblematic of this writing's fundamental argument. That wonderful description of art is something everyone can understand, a perfect way to unite king and peasant alike, to make each laugh and to make each think regardless of their societal station.
"It's just entertainment" encourages the opposite.
It's a mantra that currently shackles the WWE to an immature past, a form of spectacle-based storytelling that occasionally lacks psychological depth and soul.
That ghost is more than just an ineffective gimmick, an unnecessary homage that buries fresh talent in a bygone generation.
That ghost reveals the WWE's inability to shrug off a twisted understanding of its own medium. That ghost reveals a fundamental disconnect with the audience, and the potential audience that desperately craves sport, competition, psychological depth, and believability.
All people want to be entertained, all people want to believe they can fly. Art is what gets them there, the skilled work of talented creators.
If the WWE truly wants to reach that wider audience, if it genuinely wants to forge ahead into the future, then it must embrace its proposed "Reality Era" and let its gimmicky past remain in the past where it belongs.
Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and Bray Wyatt are more than just props in an elaborate allusion to the past. They are performers. They are artists.
And they deserve their own canvas upon which to work.
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All photos via WWE.