Thursday, February 7, 2013

Who Was That Masked Man? A case against letting curiosity kill kayfabe

Graphics Credit: Wrestling is Fun!
Like any other forms of entertainment, wrestling relies on a certain amount of mystery. Yes, the suspension of disbelief is critical, but so is the suspense and anticipation that comes with great storytelling.

This weekend at National Pro Wrestling Day I was privy to more discussion than I cared for as to who was actually under all of these masks. Now, I fully understand and appreciate that we all love different things in wrestling, and gimmicks aren't always a universally loved idea. However, I do not fall into that category of wrestling fan. I am all about gimmick. I will forgive the worst display of technical wrestling if it plays into a character's facade, a story that’s trying to be told, or if it’s done by someone who has a better character than most people going. Hard work isn't always physical.

Masks have been used for decades for many different reasons. Most currently, the Impact heel stable Aces and Eights are using masks as a way to hide their appearance as they attempt to…well, it’s Impact, so their intentions aren't actually clear. However, what is clear is that masks are not used to propel a gimmick or a character forward, but rather disguise a known personality. The end game is the unmasking.

Unmasking as an end game is a popular trope. Often, in Mexico, an unmasking is a way for a performer to move on, be it to pass the torch, retire, or move on to a new promotion or company. This can be accomplished as masks carry a respect and an impressive amount of cultural import, with luchadors going so far as to go out in public in their masks to further protect their true identities. Attempt to remove a mask during a match can be grounds for disqualification. Without this kind of commitment, instances like these unmaskings, or even luchas de apuestas (matches with wagers such as mask vs. mask, mask vs. hair) don’t carry any kind of gravity.

There is a vast difference, however, between using the mask as a proponent to the narrative and using them to convey someone’s identity as a wrestler. Be it writer, actor, wrestler, the art of character creation is something that can take incredible effort. But rather than respecting that, we seem to have a need to want to tear it down. It is what we all hate about the worst of the wrestling community, or the internet in general: someone else’s need to feel smarter or demonstrate that they know more than you for no other reason than they can. The feeling of "insider knowledge" that draws people to dirtsheets, or makes people use the phrase “my sources tell me” instead of “I read this rumour on the internet somewhere.”

Photo Credit: Jervis Cottonbelly

Now, if you do know the identity of someone under a mask, tell me, does it add anything to their matches? Does anyone get the same feeling knowing that Yokozuna is actually Samoan? That Ted DiBiase isn’t a jerkface millionaire? That the Dudleys aren’t blood related? So why is it that so many people have such a strong desire to tear down the hard work of a wrestler who happens to wrestle in a mask? If you had to go to work, act and speak completely differently, and perform with hindered vision, would you just breeze through it? Probably not.

If a wrestler is truly good at what they do – technical wrestling, in-ring storytelling, being high on the elusive and mysterious workrate scale – shouldn’t we celebrate that? And by the same token, shouldn’t we be celebrating the commitment and effort of someone who chooses to take it one step further and does it well? Why can’t we just appreciate that the Latvian Proud Oak is funny and trying to have fun, instead trying to figure out who the fellow underneath is, and why he would want to pretend to be a Baltic wrestling tree? Why can’t I get excited for to interact with two different characters who happen to be performed by the same person? I would think that they would be happy that not one, but two things they have created could make me so happy, rather than thinking I’m dumb for having two different conversations with the same person.

So just as I choose to respect someone for their athletic ability, I will respect them just as much for having the creative talent to make me love a group of pretend anthropomorphic ants, an olde tyme athlete with a baseball face, or a true gentleman with a belly of cotton. At the end of the day, wrestling is a pretty goddamn weird thing in general, so what’s wrong with wanting to let go, believe in something, and have a bit of fun along the way?