April 6, 2008
PCA/ACA: Bryce McNeil and Shane Toepfer on Wrestling Morality and Fandom

There may be no session I was more disappointed in missing than Bryce McNeil's presentation on Wednesday afternoon with fellow Georgia State University scholar Shane Toepfer, entitled "'He's a Rattlesnake but He's One Tough S.O.B.': Establishing the Fluidity of Professional Wrestling Character Types." My interest in the subject's no secret: one only has to look at the course I taught on the subject last spring. (See more on the course from the class blog, the OpenCourseWare site for the class here at MIT, and Emily Sweeney's Boston Globe article on the class.)

Bryce and I first started corresponding based on his Master's thesis work on pro wrestling, looking at the rhetoric of WWE owner Vince McMahon in situations in which his company was in some form of public controversy. He ended up coming up here and spending some time with my class last spring, and we keep up, especially as we both have a continued research interest in the world of pro wrestling.

Bryce was nice enough to give me a copy of his and Shane's remarks, and we had corresponded a few times as they planned the paper. In short, their central proposition is that it has been a mistake to look at pro wrestling as "good vs. evil," but it is likewise a mistake to throw the "face/heel" dichotomy in pro wrestling out completely as well. Rather than wrestling characters "being" babyfaces or heels, in a static way, it's easier to understand actions as face or heel actions, thus acknowledging a greater degree of moral ambiguity not only in today's pro wrestling but arguably that has always existed.

In particular, as I am with my work, Bryce and Shane are interested in the role of fans in deciding how to interpret the actions of characters, and likewise the juxtaposition of basing feelings on characters from a spectator standpoint--focusing attention on the plot--and from a critic's standpoint--focusing attention on the performance. They look at situations in which fans chose to treat a character as a face despite their using "heelish" actions, or else so liking the heelish performance of a character that fans helped turn that character into a face, through their admiration for their abilities.

This project seeks to better understand tensions between the plot level and the performance level and the various modes of engagement fans fluidly slip among (see an earlier version of that work here. It reminds me of conversations we've been having recently in my soap opera class about fans' ambivalence about the character of Todd Manning on One Life to Live in the 1990s. On the one hand, the character had committed rape or attempted rape on multiple occasions. On the other, many felt actor Roger Howarth was phenomenal. So there was tension between redeeming the character to make him a longterm part of the canvas and the memory of how atrocious his actions were.

In pro wrestling, the tension between story and fan interpretation of performance is always present, especially as fans act as spectators, as critics, and as performers themselves in the live arena context. Bryce and Shane's presentation at least helps us begin to get at these many tensions and--larger than just looking at pro wrestling--helps us better understand how the simultaneous fannish function within the "willing suspension of disbelief" and as a fan critic operates and what this might tell us about "engagement," the word everyone has been interested in of late in the media industries, in media scholarship, etc.