One of the signs of any great piece of art is the message it conveys. Whether it is a comic, film, sculpture, news article, piece of music, or painting, they all have some sort of message. Some deal with heavy social issues, boldly stating them with crystal clarity. Others whisper universal problems with such subtlety that a second viewing is required. Wrestling is an enigma to such rules. It is a form of storytelling that avoids touching any of these subjects and has little subtlety. Characters rarely have any motivation beyond being ‘babyface’ and ‘heel’ or what we viewers project onto them. A large part of this is the way wrestling works as a medium. A small part is the fact that the people composing the stories have no interest in telling these types of stories. To them, that is not what wrestling is about.
So is there space for more subtle forms of storytelling In wrestling? Can there be more to wrestling than a simple good vs. evil narrative or two people competing for a belt? In short, yes. But as I look to prove, it will require a dramatic reinterpretation of how we view wrestling.
Before wading neck-deep into the minutiae of wrestling storytelling, I want to take the time to highlight why there should be more subtle storytelling in wrestling. Subtext is a fundamental part of storytelling. How you say something and its meaning is just as important as what is being said. Whether it’s a character’s words, motivation, or actions, all of these small nuances come together to form a coherent story with depth.
When done right, subtext can make a story evergreen. Look at the handful of times WWE managed to add detail to their characters. Steve Austin was a working-class everyman constantly getting screwed over by his rich boss. The same was true for Daniel Bryan and then Kofi Kingston. Though these three examples are the same basic story with a few tweaks, the success of the end result is undeniable.
One of the main reasons people consume media is we relate to it. We all have our favorite podcasts, shows, and films, and most of the time, the reasoning behind loving them boils down to them being a reflection of our own beliefs. We like to know that other people out there in the world think how we think and like what we like. This is another issue that wrestling usually runs into, relatability. While many fans love and support their favorite stars, I find it hard to believe that we can all relate to them. Our love for wrestlers is built on them being billed as pseudo-superheroes. While this portrayal has undoubtedly worked and forged many stars, I think it could be better if more characters were more relatable. As much as I want this form of storytelling to make its way into wrestling, it is a monumental challenge, one that contradicts the pillars of wrestling.
Wrestling’s primary concern is entertaining a crowd. As big as the TV audience is, the people in attendance are the primary focus. Everything needs to be big, characters, mannerisms, gestures. It’s the reason for every exasperated face after a near fall and every ref windmilling their arms to eject a manager. Wrestling has the dial at 11, so everyone from row A to Z knows what’s going on.
While there may be little room for subtext and nuance in wrestling, it does exist, usually in the slow-burning feuds of AEW’s. The bubbling tension between Wardlow and MJF is one that immediately springs to mind. Although I would hardly call MJF berating his lackey week in week out as subtle. The tension between Kenny and Hangman Adam Page during their partnership and their l feud was where I have seen it done best.
While there is precedent for it happening, plenty of intangibles also make adding more subtext into wrestling hard. Wrestlers aren’t actors. They’re performers. There is no second take, no second chance to deliver a line. So asking wrestlers to adopt two different approaches of performing simultaneously to please two different audiences is asking a little too much.
So how can subtle storytelling be utilized in a good way? Recording promo’s and plot points backstage is a great way to eliminate most of these issues. Here, the focus isn’t the crowd and allows wrestlers to be more subtle and use things like body language and cadence. It would differ from the grandiose style of in-ring promos and add variety.
It is not just the delivery of a story that needs work but also the story’s content. As stated earlier, there needs to be more to wrestling than just fighting for a championship. As the wrestling audience becomes more and more diverse, I want to see this reflected in the stories being told. Like any TV show or performance, I feel there is space for wrestling to discuss race and gender identity in a way that normalizes them while still being entertaining. As strong as my desire is, there is also trepidation. Wrestling has dealt with many of these issues before, the overwhelming majority of which have been horrendously offensive.
There is undoubtedly a place for more subtle, topical storytelling in wrestling. When used correctly, it produces a compelling story that people are fully invested in. But my issue was never whether it could be done, rather how it would be executed. Wrestling has a terrible track record of dealing with sensitive topics. Interestingly, I think the way we can begin to fix these issues is to re-evaluate how we view wrestling. Instead of thinking of promos as a garnish, they should be considered of equal importance to the in-ring work. They should be used to get people invested and cement character ideology and development.