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    Wednesday, July 18, 2018

    The Critical (7/18/18): How To Be a Fan in 2018

    On July 10th, 2018, it was announced that LeBron James signed a four-year, $153 million dollar deal with the Los Angeles Lakers. Philippine basketball Twitter then erupted. Among the most vocal subsets of fans were those who were not even discussing the news, but were expressing flat-out derision about other fans. “Here come all the dormant Laker fans,” they cried. “Time to fill up the bandwagon!” These self-appointed fandom police officers implied that these “bandwagon” fans were not real fans like they were, because they are fans of teams, not celebrity basketball players.

    This problematic NBA fan response stirred within me an all-too-rare feeling: a gush of pride that wrestling fandom was, in this very specific way, better than basketball fandom. It was especially sweet since wrestling fandom is possibly the most looked-down-upon fandom in all of pop culture. (Quick, raise your hand if anyone has ever asked you if “you know that it’s all fake, right?”) 

    Our sense of community as wrestling fans makes us rally around wrestling itself, and this usually makes us welcome all possible newcomers. There is rarely any condescension on our part whenever a new fan comes along, wanting to see what the fuss is all about with puroresu or the Monday Night Wars or the Bullet Club—we’re usually thrilled to share our knowledge and gain more and more people to geek out with.

    This whole episode raises many questions, but the ones that interest me the most are those that concern the policing of fandom. What or who are we allowed, or not allowed, to be a fan of? And who decides this?

    Thanks to the #MeToo movement, this conversation is becoming more prevalent among larger pop culture circles. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and, most heartbreakingly to me, Pixar head John Lasseter and comedy genius Louis C.K. are just some of the names that have been justifiably disgraced because of widespread reports of sexual abuse. And while more important conversations about power, power relations, equality, and abuse, are taking place worldwide because of these events, the admittedly-privileged conversation about fandom is one that many can’t ignore. This, of course, is a conversation that none of us in wrestling circles are new to, what with the controversy around Fabulous Moolah, Michael Elgin, and Enzo Amore.

    Image from Voices of Wrestling

    While allegations against many of these men and women have not quite yet been proven to be true, the #MeToo movement has also shown that the system that proves or disproves these allegations is inefficient and imbalanced. In the conversation about fandom, the validity of the accusations are not as relevant, since the effect and the message remains consistent: it is now problematic to be fans of these people. This forces us to confront the resulting dissonance—is it at all possible to remain fans of these people’s work, while acknowledging that it is disgraceful to remain fans of those that produced the work?

    I believe that it is absolutely possible to remain a fan of a wrestlers’ work, despite the wrestlers themselves possibly being problematic. It is possible to assess the value of a wrestling match—which, no matter what anyone says, is 100% hinged on its ability to manipulate an audience’s emotions—while also still acknowledging the possibility that the people who performed have done terrible, terrible things. The triple threat main event of WrestleMania XX remains among the best wrestling matches I have ever seen—and, objectively, among the best wrestling matches in history. These statements remain true. Also true: Chris Benoit murdered Nancy and Daniel Benoit, and then he hanged himself—and these events remain utterly horrible and utterly horrifying. The truth of both statements do not conflict.

    The trouble comes when the feelings associated with one statement threatens to nullify the other. This is where cognitive dissonance arises—in this case, it is when one experiences unease and discomfort from liking something that one simply shouldn’t like, sometimes leading to really nutty ways of expressing fandom. It would be silly to try and defend these people, and downright foolish to try and concoct conspiracy theories trying to absolve them—but you would be surprised about how often these things come up.

    Truthfully, the only way out of cognitive dissonance of the wrestling fandom sort is acceptance. Michael Elgin’s ROH and NJPW work is among the best in wrestling history—but he is also a sex offender. Fabulous Moolah remains among the greatest wrestlers in women’s wrestling history—but she also might have been responsible for years and years of sexual abuse of women wrestlers. Enzo Amore’s promos might still light a fire under an audience’s butt—but also he is an asshole.1

    Personally, it took me years to be able to watch a Chris Benoit match again. But when I did, it was as breathtaking as I remembered. The crossface on Triple H—who in 2004, was in peak asshole reign-of-terror form—getting tighter and tighter until he finally tapped out, made me experience the best kind of catharsis and euphoria that only wrestling fans will truly ever know. It was great. And then Nancy and Daniel came out to celebrate with the new champion, and my stomach turned and I had to close the WWE Network app.

    Recently, Jerry Seinfeld (considered by many to be the world’s greatest living stand-up comedian) appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, in part to address this very issue. Colbert and Seinfeld ruminated on whether or not they could still be fans of also-recently-and-justifiably-disgraced Bill Cosby—considered by many to be the greatest stand-up comedian of all time, but also accused by 60 women of rape. (He was found guilty on April 26th, 2018.) Seinfeld initially argued that he still could be, because the work is separate from the person. Colbert argued otherwise (skip to 5:54):

    The difference between Bill Cosby and Chris Benoit (or Michael Elgin, or Moolah, or Enzo, or any wrestler with a troubled history) is that Cosby’s act is 100% hinged on the likeable America’s Dad persona he projected.2 This, thankfully, is not the case with wrestling. For this reason I am incredibly grateful that wrestling promoters themselves have increasingly pulled the curtain back, so to speak, to let everyone know that despite the indisputable fact that the physical aspect of wrestling is painful and damaging to the performers’ bodies, it is still all just an act. The real-life performers’ lives (or morals, ethics, relationships, and actions) have little or no bearing on the actual performances we watch every week. In wrestling, the performer and the work are distinct and inherently separate.3

    I am not saying that we should all of a sudden celebrate the Fabulous Moolah’s career, or that Chris Benoit should enter the WWE Hall of Fame—he shouldn’t (and neither should Hulk Hogan be allowed back, for that matter).4 Make no mistake: you have every right to feel uncomfortable watching these problematic performers’ work, and absolutely no one has a right to make to you feel guilty for refusing to. But, conversely, no one has a right to accuse you of supporting murder or rape or racism because you can appreciate the legitimately excellent performances that they have produced.5

    What I am saying is that good work is good work, and—for as long as you are sensible, sensitive, and kind—you can, and should, enjoy good work however you want. Being a fan of performers and personalities might end up being problematic, but being a fan of performances is the safest, surest way to have a consistently good time. And isn’t that the whole point?



    1. With a few exceptions, of course. John and Nikki, I’m looking at you. Also you, Brock and Paul.
    2. This also applies to the proven plagiarist and alleged rapist Senate President of the Philippines. Here is an article featuring archived links to the articles about Tito Sotto’s alleged rape of Pepsi Paloma.
    3. Enjoying someone’s work is one thing. Profiting from it is another. The WWE is right to not honor Benoit, and is wrong to welcome Hogan back into the fold. Their work remains on the WWE Network—that should be enough.
    4. In my opinion, more damning than the rape charges against Enzo was that interview he granted Corey Graves in an episode of Straight to the Source. What. A. Dick.
    5. Unless, of course, you do, in fact, support rape or murder or racism or sexism. In which case, screw you, GTFO.

    Header from WhatCulture

    Mikey Llorin (@mikeyllorinis a Consulting Editor of Smark Henry, as well as a teacher, performer, and events host. Mikey writes The Critical, which covers aspects of wrestling through the lens of literary/cultural criticism. 
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