I have a relatively long commute from Manhattan to Stamford where WWE is headquartered. On the train I’ve been reading the last fourth of Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney bio. This book is massive and I’ve been reading it on and off for about a year. Anyone who knows me knows about my fascination with Disney theme parks and that my ultimate dream job is to be an Imagineer. But I’m also fascinated by some of the negative aspects of Disney. I’m no apologist and I like to know how the sausage is made. Disney’s story is very complicated. He was no angel, but he certainly can’t be reduced to a racist, sexist, overly nostalgic, hyper-conservative dictator. The truth is always more nuanced than the ridiculous rumors and accusations that have been lobbed over the years.
So, what does this have to do with WWE? Well, one of the things my group of fellow interns were told at orientation was that WWE is a “paternalistic” culture. [Note: This was not an official statement, just an off-the-cuff remark by an employee. Nevertheless, it was telling.] Any fan knows that Vince McMahon is hands-on, to put it mildly. Reports of him re-writing the live show just before airtime are a weekly tradition. Furthermore, like Disney, he’s a character in his own universe, but still very much in charge in reality. If you think about it, there’s a ton of overlap between Walt and Vince and the way they’ve developed unique, game-changing, merchandise-heavy entertainment companies.
One thing I’ve noticed since I got into wrestling fandom is that people are always interested in why I’m interested in it. I’ve said many times that wrestling is its own world. You only “get it” after you get into it. Therefore, most people simply see it as a “fake” sport for dupes. This assessment is ridiculous. Being a wrestling fan means processing events at several different levels of “reality” at all times. It means evaluating the wrestler’s performance based on a complex set of metrics that often has nothing to do with a W/L record. People often talk about baseball in terms of math and stats. Wrestling is sort of the opposite. It’s subjective. It’s both real and unreal. Sometimes it’s purposefully unfair. And it’s as much about personality as technical ability.
The WWE is typically referred to as a “universe” these days. It’s a fictional world that operates within the real world. There’s some very blurry overlap with some performers playing characters and some simply playing exaggerated versions of their real personalities. In the internet era, more and more cracks in the universe have started to bleed into reality. While this could negatively impact the “separateness” of the universe, it’s actually created some interesting possibilities, in terms of keeping the fans guessing. If the lines are blurry (and if wrestlers are encouraged to write their own Tweets, for example), the fans are constantly debating what aspects of the show are “in-universe” versus real life. In fact, I got into watching wrestling during one such moment (the infamous CM Punk pipe bomb).
By and large, I think that WWE has dealt with the digital world in a fairly progressive way. They’ve embraced a bunch of different online formats and relentlessly push their app, Tout, and other forms of digital content. Wrestling has always been an extremely participatory form of entertainment and this tradition is thriving online. Moreover, the WWE is happy to receive negative comments from fans. Booing has always been part of the game at wrestling shows. “Heat” = passion. Unlike a lot of companies, WWE doesn’t need to worry about doing damage control when fans get rowdy online. Almost anything can be worked into a storyline as necessary.
Over the past few years, I think Disney’s been getting a bit more…meta. They’ve developed more links between their film division and theme parks and Pixar has brought a more sophisticated sensibility into their animated features. Epic Mickey (despite the camera issues) was a pretty unique funhouse-mirror look into the mythology of the theme parks. The next few years will see at least two Disney films that use the company as subject matter (the upcoming “Saving Mr. Banks” about the development of “Mary Poppins” and Damon Lindelof’s mysterious project that purports to give a backstory to the Tomorrowland section of the theme park).
Both companies provide entertainment in person, on TV/film, and in interactive media. Both companies enjoy a strong brand identity and unique relationships with fans. Both are (now) kid-friendly. And both have started to play with the edges of their “universes” in different ways. I’m really excited by the kind of experimentation that’s possible when reality is blurred.
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