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You know it’s fake, right?: How WWE constructs reality

Every single wrestling fan, no matter their age, has heard the same question repeated after declaring their love for sports entertainment: “You know it’s fake, right?” It’s a common refrain, and one that, more than anything else, is meant to criticize wrestling fandom. It’s not so much “You know it’s fake, right?” as it is, “How can you watch that garbage?” It’s a statement that seeks to devalue wrestling, to suggest that it’s lowbrow television that’s catered to children and man-children.

Underneath the veiled disdain is an intriguing topic of discussion. Professional wrestling, or sports entertainment, is unlike anything else on television in terms of how it can (or cannot) be categorized. It’s athletically demanding, but it’s not exactly a sport. It’s fictional, but not necessarily episodic or organized into proper seasons. Some of it’s pre-taped and some of it’s performed live on television. It’s at once a sporting event, a soap opera, a superhero movie, and a reality show. Perhaps more than any other art form, wrestling, and particularly WWE, actively engages with its own fakeness and explores the notion of what’s “real” in terms of sport and art.

WWE, and professional wrestling more generally, thrives on constructing, exploiting, and engaging with the meaning of reality. It’s part of the appeal; and clearly there’s appeal, because WWE Monday Night Raw is consistently one of the highest rated programs on television and actively competes with the goliath that is Monday Night Football during the NFL’s regular season. While wrestling is both fake and real at once, how WWE constructs and exploits the notion of what’s real and what’s fake is complicated.

WWE has a variety of programs on network television and streaming on the WWE Network, its own Netflix-style subscription service composed of original and archived content, but three of its most popular shows are indicative of the various ways in which WWE constructs and interrogates the notion of reality. There’s Monday Night Raw, the company’s flagship show and most prominent example of its in-ring entertainment. There’s the USA Network’s Tough Enough, a reality competition complete with judges and trainers, where amateur wrestlers compete for a WWE contract. Then there’s the smash hit Total Divas, airing on E!, which is a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of WWE Divas.

Each of these programs engages with reality in different ways, and maybe not in the ways you’d expect. Both Tough Enough and Total Divas are billed as reality shows. This is 2015, so we know that a “reality” show doesn’t mean everything is real, but both shows purport to be an inside look at the business of professional wrestling. Tough Enough looks at what it takes to become a WWE Superstar or Diva (the names for the male and female talent on the roster) while Total Divas is the natural extension of that journey, a look at what it’s like to actually work for the WWE, to wrestle around the world for upward of 300 days a year. Despite the “reality” label, these two shows are by far WWE’s most fictional creations. Tough Enough has more in common with Big Brother than it does any sort of athletic competition, with many of the chosen amateurs essentially angling to be on TV in some capacity. Total Divas is certainly more realistic in the sense that it goes behind the scenes of WWE, but it’s still a neat and tidy portrayal of the company. While real-life events are peppered throughout the show, including this season’s focus on the health of Daniel Bryan, husband of WWE Diva Brie Bella, the structure and nature of the show is rooted in the faux-realism that’s familiar to anyone who’s seen a single episode of reality television since the mid-’00s.

Monday Night Raw, somewhat paradoxically, is the closest the company comes to actually delivering reality television. Where the structure of Total Divas and Tough Enough can be hermetically sealed and controlled, Raw is filled with variables that make it like nothing else on TV. It’s not just that Raw is shown live every single Monday night of the year, with no off season. There’s also the fact that the wrestlers can be injured, forcing an unexpected change in storyline. There’s the sticky situation of contract renewals and the injection of new talent into the main roster and onto television. More than those behind-the-scenes situations though, Raw is the real “reality” television because, in 2015, when “kayfabe” (the wrestling term for something that’s fictional) is essentially dead, the illusion broken a long time ago, WWE is forced to let real life influence the stories they tell.

Some of the most memorable storylines of the past few years have grown out of real life situations. Two storylines in particular come to mind. The first was in 2011, when CM Punk’s contract with WWE was coming to an end. He was sick of being relegated to the middle of the card; sick of seeing the same guys get put into the main event and succeed besides having only a shred of his wrestling ability. His very real contract dispute, which would potentially see him leave the company, was written into his feud with John Cena for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Most famously, Punk, on an episode of Raw, was given a microphone and told he had free rein to go out on the ramp and say what he had to say. Later labeled the “pipe bomb” promo, Punk ripped into WWE’s culture of complacency and corporate ass kissing. It was a huge moment that reverberated in mainstream popular culture and is evidence of how WWE’s most realistic product is the one where a bunch of guys in tights fake-punch each other.

The most recent example is the story of Daniel Bryan, who in 2014 had all the crowd support a Superstar could ever want. In wrestling terms he was seriously over, the most popular guy in the company, his “Yes!” movement branching out into mainstream popular culture and the sports world. At the start of 2014 though, WWE had little faith in him being a legit champion, his size and look too far removed from the typical musclemen that came before him. When the crowd support couldn’t be ignored anymore though, especially after the crowd hijacked the 2014 Royal Rumble by booing throughout the night after it was clear Bryan wasn’t competing or heading to Wrestlemania, WWE turned Bryan’s struggle into a storyline. Eventually, that led to Bryan wrestling two classic matches at Wrestlemania 30 and winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Confetti fell from the ceiling and tears flowed, all because it was real.

So, to answer the question posed above, the one every wrestling fan has heard before. Yes, I know the fighting and characters are “fake,” but in so many other ways wrestling, and the constructed reality of its most rewarding and compelling storylines, is as real and human as can be.