In an industry with an increasingly tenuous grasp of kayfabe, Total Divas has quickly become a perfect example of how to approach it. Accepting that kayfabe in the traditional sense will never be what it once was and adapting it to a more modern format is necessary if pro wrestling is ever expected to have another boom period.
Potential viewers will accept a certain level of over-the-top, as is to be expected in wrestling, but the line is easily crossed, and flamboyant (but human) characters become what wrestling is always derided as: ridiculous, unbelievable, and intellectually insulting. This generation of television viewers will not accept the old trope of electricians or dentists who moonlight as wrestlers. Luckily, the business has evolved and we have rosters filled with wrestlers with gimmicks befitting full-time wrestlers. Some are gargantuan, some are high-flying, and some are funky, but they all fit nicely within the tweaked realm of kayfabe.
It’s time for another tweak. Now that characters have become more grounded in reality, it’s time to make them more believable. WWE has started covertly acknowledging the staged nature of their product (outside of shoot segments and the like). This is most evident through characters such as Daniel Bryan and Dolph Ziggler. Their win/loss records have been nothing short of terrible over the last few years, but that doesn’t matter, according to WWE, because they’re putting on the most entertaining matches.
That point wouldn’t make sense in any real sport. For example, it would be much easier for UFC to build a bankable star out of someone that wins a lot, as opposed to someone that does a cool backflip before getting knocked out. So within the reality of the show, WWE is acknowledging that they are putting on a show. While on the surface, this looks like the end of kayfabe, i.e. the thing that gets people to invest in the product, but it doesn’t have to be. Total Divas is proof of that.
Have you seen the vitriol for some of the more devious and selfish women? When Nikki Bella told her sister that her boyfriend’s humble childhood home should be demolished in favor of a more “suitable” family home, people got mad. When Eva Marie constantly built up lie after lie, people cared about when she’d get caught and whether she’d be fired. That kind of reaction doesn’t happen for the current “here’s a photoshopped image of you looking really fat lmao” Divas storylines. On Raw, people focus on the characters: whether AJ & Kaitlyn are doing effective work as heels & faces, for example. On Total Divas, people hate the less likable women. There’s less talk of “I don’t buy Nikki’s heel persona” and more talk of “OH MY GOD I HATE HER WHY ISN’T SHE FIRED?”
So what’s the difference? On Total Divas, we’re not sure what’s real and what’s staged. Whereas we know AJ & Kaitlyn are BFF behind the scenes, we’re not entirely sure when the ladies on Total Divas are acting. Viewers want to suspend disbelief – the show’s more enjoyable that way – and it’s a lot easier when you don’t know for sure if you’re being worked. No one buys hatred that they only see onscreen, but when CM Punk airs out grievances that you’ve heard about via backstage news, you believe it.
In the past, WWE has had major opportunities due to real life issues between talent. Fans clamored for a potential Brock Lesnar vs. Undertaker match after what seemed to be a real-life beef between the two emerged at a UFC show. Back in 2008, before The Rock vs. John Cena was a glint in Vince McMahon’s eye, Cena made headlines by blasting The Rock for not returning to WWE. When that dream match finally happened (for the first time), it produced more pay-per-view buys than any other wrestling event, ever. The next year? Not so much. Buys were down, in part because nobody believed The Rock and John Cena had legitimate problems with each other anymore. And it was hard to believe they did when they were smiling and posing for pictures together at press conferences. Huge feuds can be built outside of a WWE ring, and this is the key to tapping into the new kayfabe.
Pictured to the left is a prime example of what not to do. That tweet, which was posted just a few days before Brock Lesnar’s big, personal match with Triple H, doesn’t look like it was based in any real emotion. It doesn’t even look like Lesnar tweeted it. But Cena talking about his frustration with The Rock seemed genuine, and it drew major buzz. Seeing legitimate issues play out in pro wrestling still sells in 2013. Yet, the only WWE show currently using legitimate issues is Total Divas.
Imagine if John Cena sat down for an interview last year and said “All due respect, Daniel Bryan is a great wrestler, but I can’t see him ever being ‘the guy’ in WWE.” His current feud with Daniel Bryan would be hotter than it already is. Not only is Bryan trying to finally reach the top, but John Cena the person doesn’t think he deserves it. The best part is: Cena could’ve been lying in that interview. For all we know, Cena could’ve been The Rock’s biggest fan and best friend when he blasted him in that interview, but chose to lie in order to set up a future dream match. We’ll never know for sure, and that’s the beauty of kayfabe.
WWE’s approach to kayfabe must evolve, and this time, it must be done outside the ring. As with all “shoot” angles, this must be done with some degree of moderation, but correct use of the tactic could be the difference between hundreds of thousands of pay-per-view buys. In order to produce believable angles that people will buy, Superstars and Divas must act as if they have legitimate issues with certain talent in real life. That means no more playful banter on Twitter between rivals that hate each other onscreen. Total Divas has already proven that this form of blurred kayfabe works. Now it’s just a matter of whether WWE chooses to implement this tactic on its main shows and reap the benefits.