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“Sit Down and Enjoy the Show!”: Smarks, Marks, and New Sincerity in Wrestling

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Traditional geek-fests are now becoming less male, less white, and less straight. Sure, increased inclusion and accessibility have opened fandoms up to the specter of “hipster” and “fake” fans—and perhaps most nefariously the dreaded “fan girl” with her lusty loins aflame with hysterical celeb thirst—but who honestly cares?

There’s been a lot of talk about how the WWE would be so much better if we could return to the “Attitude Era” and hardcore matches (read: Mick Foley hardcore, not the comedy that was the recent Ziggler v. Sandow Broadway Brawl). The Attitude Era brought us some really great moments, and hardcore has its appeals (well, at least some people think it does). Yet the nostalgic detractors of the so-called “PG Era”—a title I think is presumptuous and unsatisfying for many reasons—fail to recognize that the Attitude Era was a product of a very specific cultural moment. And what’s more, that specific time and place that cannot be replicated in 2014. Calling for the return of the Attitude Era is not only misguided, it’s also dangerous for professional wrestling as a business.

Since the heady testosterone-driven days of the Attitude Era, American popular culture has transitioned away from an period defined by ironic detachment to what some observers have called called the “New Sincerity” age. Let’s try to nail down these ideas before we proceed. I’m trying to draw from a lot of sources here, but Angela Watercutter’s fascinating review of  “Glee” is my favorite and my spiel borrows heavily from her.

David Foster Wallace was one of the first people to identify the notion of an ironic cultural detachment. He believed that 1980s television attempted to overcome the cognitive gap between the lone (perhaps even lonely) spectator and the glamorous television stars by manipulating the audience’s sense of ironic detatchment. By creating programming that “flattered [viewers] about ‘seeing through’ the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of outdated values,” producers made viewers feel like they were smarter than what they were watching. This allowed them to become engrossed in what they were watching, while ironically maintaining a sense of cultural superiority—or an ironic sense of detachment. As a result, the fifteen or so years prior to September 11th was a decade defined by people enjoying “bad” television as a “guilty pleasure.”

This had several effects. For one, irony made it nearly impossible for anyone to know how they felt about anything. Spectators adopted an air of aloofness out of a fear they were about to get busted for liking the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. Irony also resulted in a kind of hater culture, where one could brandish their “coolness” bona fides by ragging on an easy target. Jacques Derrida called this the formation of a “constitutive outside,” while sociologist Harvie Ferguson explained that such forms of negative communication allowed “the authenticity of the inner self to be expressed indirectly by affirming its opposite.” Perhaps more than any other decade, your pop-culture self was defined by what you disliked as much as what you enjoyed.

So enough of that jargon. How does this all relate to the WWE and professional wrestling writ large?

The Age of Irony coincided with the WWE’s Attitude Era, which worked because cultural irony created a huge market for male-centric, redneck, politically-incorrect, shocking, guilty pleasure entertainment (i.e. “The Man Show,” “Jack-Ass,” Jeff Foxworthy, and Jerry Springer to name a few). Even shows like “Seinfeld” and “Frasier”—staring New York City urbanites and West Coast elites—had a huge audience of blue-collar red-state viewers. I think people forget how mainstream these shows were, and wrestling was right up there . . .  hell, I’d even argue that wrestling was the Grand Ayatollah of Guilty Pleasures during the Attitude Era. On any given day as a teenager, you could listen to Howard Stern on the way to school, see NWO shirts in the cafeteria, participate in a “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” chant on the bus home, and listen to your parents complain about the cultural decline of America during the evening news. What’s so ironic about period is the fact that our parents were also watching wrestling, Jerry Springer, and “The Simpsons” while making it very clear that they only did so “because it’s so stupid.” That’s entertainment making you feel smarter than programming, and that’s how the Age of Irony enabled the success of the Attitude Era. You watch it because you hate it.

So why wouldn’t the Attitude Era work in 2014? To put it shortly, irony is dead and New Sincerity reigns these days. Wallace predicted that in the future post-irony rebels would be “born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching” and risked being labeled as too sincere or melodramatic. This has come into being in many ways. We the legitimization of invested attachment all over contemporary fandoms.

Don’t believe me? Then take a look at Tumblr, a very simple blogging platform whose popularity depends exclusively on the enthusiasm of fans of things likes wrestling, Dr. Who, and Furdom. This new sense of accessibility has also left the traditional gatekeepers of fan communities in an precarious position. During the New Sincerity era enthusiasm, not knowledge, has become the most important indicator of belonging to a fandom. You no longer have to speak Klingon to be a real Trekkie, nor do you need to know every random factoid about a given wrestler to be a “real” fan. Angela Wattercutter blames the nerds for this, since they took over popular culture and “brought with them unabashed love for anything anyone might want to geek out over. And all are welcome.” “That Sucks” has now been replaced by “Be More Awesome,” while “Suck It!” has been replaced by a sugar bear yelling “YES! YES! YES!”

Punk was in part supposed to be about freeing oneself from the hegemony of cool. Grunge was supposed to be a return to this, but it wrecked itself on the shores of a generation embodied by the content-free irony that characterized the television show Seinfeld (laugh track and all) at its best. Irony becomes not the appropriate response to certain aspects of life, but rather a detached way of engaging with everything.

What the Attitude Era snarks are doing is wholly predictable. Fan communities are opening up to more diverse audiences in large part because of the internet. It used to be that you had to go to a convention or live event to be a “real fan,” but that really isn’t the case anymore. Historically closed events like conventions and live performances are now accessible via live-streams on the internet (I watch wrestling and everything else I love on Hulu and Netflix).

Traditional geek-fests are now becoming less male, less white, and less straight. Sure, increased inclusion and accessibility have opened fandoms up to the specter of “hipster” and “fake” fans—and perhaps most nefariously the dreaded “fan girl” with her lusty loins aflame with hysterical celeb thirst—but who honestly cares? As Wattercutter points out, while New Sincerity “certainly has room for people to be earnest about what they dislike, the greater good is service by creating a space for people to enjoy what they genuinely enjoy.”

Smarks—people who are generally cynical about fans who are overtly enthusiastic about anything—are dangerous not only for wrestling, but for popular culture in general. And here’s why (via John Cogburn):

The biggest failing in my generation is the inconstancy of our affections, driven by an inconsistent mix of ironic detachment and fear of being uncool.

Think of poor hair bands like RATT, on tour in 1991. In the exact same weeks as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” starts its relentless climb up the charts RATT suddenly finds themselves playing to stadiums that are not even half full. Gen Xers’ affections are so inconstant that poor RATT went from the Beatles to Spinal Tap in two weeks.

And then when grunge did get over almost everybody was too scared to really be fans. What if these Nirvana guys end up like RATT? Far better to mark an arbitrary point where the band “sold out” and claim to only like stuff before that (for Nirvana fans Bleach and the material later released on Incesticide, for Soundgarden fans everything before Superunknown, for Nine Inch Nails fans everything before Downward Spiral, for REM fans everything before Warner Brothers debut Green,etc. etc. etc.).

Punk was in part supposed to be about freeing oneself from the hegemony of cool. Grunge was supposed to be a return to this, but it wrecked itself on the shores of a generation embodied by the content-free irony that characterized the television show Seinfeld (laugh track and all) at its best. Irony becomes not the appropriate response to certain aspects of life, but rather a detached way of engaging with everything.

Simply stated, smarky wrestling fans pining for the return the Attitude Era are engaging in that forever-lame “I liked _____ before it was cool” game. Plus, there’s a healthy dose of fear and old-school ironic self-consciousness motivating their arguments. Because they liked wrestling before it became accessible to a more diverse audience, they believe they are entitled to more consideration from performers and creators. Fortunately, Vince and the Authority have decided that this is not the case.

Look into the audience the next time you watch a WWE event. Compare it to those of the Attitude Era. Go out and talk about pro wrestling with different people. From what I’ve found, people are starting to talk about wrestling again. As the audience grows, as parents begin to share things they love with their children, and as people begin to give a second look a spectacle that gave them so many great memories growing up, exclusivity declines and “griefing” from smarks increases. By appealing to a PG audience and by tapping into nostalgia for a pre-Attitude Era . . . um, era . . . the WWE is simply ensuring the continued availability of their product. God bless ’em.

Imagine it. Daniel Bryan—the kid-friendly baby-face—turns and locks eyes with Bray Wyatt the dark heel, who lays stunned on the mat. Removing his jump suit, a suit that symbolized his loyalty to Wyatt’s evil cult, Daniel reveals he had been wearing his own gear all along. The crowd erupts the hero lays out Wyatt with a series of comically over-performed kicks and flying knees. The camera zooms out as Daniel climbs atop the steel cage amidst a synchronized sea of “Yes!” chants. There is no blood. There are no invitations to suck a dick. Only drama, entertainment, immersion, enthusiasm, and an invitation to watch next Friday’s Smackdown.

And that’s what’s best for business.

Allan Branstiter is a writer and Ph.D. student studying U.S. History at the University of Southern Mississippi. Currently residing in Los Angeles, California, he is writing a dissertation examining the experiences of Civil War veterans in the American West. He is a veteran of the Iraq War and a former candidate for the North Dakota State Senate.

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