I have long said that American politics (and most democratic politics, really) cannot be properly understood without a working knowledge of professional wrestling. Such understanding, however, also requires knowing the terms used in the wrestling business’s famously unique and colorful jargon. I do realize that most of my readers are of the cultured and intellectual sort, may consider such things a bit blue collar for them, and thus may not have had the chance to learn any of it. Never fear – today, on the day of Wrestlemania 30, I am here to provide a helpful glossary of professional wrestling terms and their political contexts to help those who may be unfamiliar with them.
Kayfabe: This is the general illusion that what one is seeing in professional wrestling isn’t “fake” – that it is not all an act, and that what you see before you in the ring or on the screen is the way that things really are behind the scenes. It is considered very bad indeed for a wrestler to “break kayfabe” – in other words, to publicly acknowledge that it is scripted and that what one sees on television is all carefully staged in order to seem as if it is something it’s not. In some wrestling companies (especially in Japan) breaking kayfabe, even just a little bit, is not only a firing offense, but can render one completely unemployable in wrestling. It can also make one unelectable as President – just ask Ron Paul.
Mark: A “mark” is a fan who continues to believe in kayfabe. In other words, someone who believes that it’s all real, and that everything one sees on the screen (or reads in a newspaper, or finds in a high school civics textbook) about what’s going on and how things work is actually the way it is. This group would include the vast majority of the American people, who honestly believe with all their hearts that Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant really hated each other, that the Republican Party establishment gives a flying fig about social conservatism, and that the Democratic Party believes in peace and civil liberties. It can also be used to describe someone who is a devoted fan of a particular character, e.g. a Hogan mark, a Cena mark, or an Obama mark.
Smart or Smark: A “smart” or “smark” is a fan who understands that what they see is all an act, but continues to enjoy professional wrestling because they find it amusing. Or to not enjoy politics, because what they see happening around them is not at all amusing. This group would include many libertarians, reactionaries, and in their own unique (and ever less crazy-sounding) way, conspiracy theorists.
Marking out: Strongly, emotionally, maybe even hysterically expressing admiration for a certain character of whom one is a fan. This can happen even to smarks sometimes, but is often the province of total marks. See: The internet’s reaction to Barack Obama or Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
Angle: In wrestling lingo, a continuing storyline is called an “angle”. This could be, for example, a feud between two characters, like the legendary angle that pitted Vince McMahon against Stone Cold Steve Austin. Or it can be something like the “Russian expansionist imperialism” angle, the “Islamofascism” angle, or the “continuing struggle for marriage equality in the face of patriarchal cisheteronormist hate” angle.
Promo: When a wrestler gets in the ring and gives a speech to the audience, it’s called “cutting a promo”. Wrestlers usually do this on television to explain why he’s the best wrestler in the whole world, or why the person he’s feuding with is a loser or a jerk. Presidents do it on television to explain how wonderful their clunky, expensive, unpopular health care scheme is.
Work: A “work” is something – a match, a promo, a public appearance – that happens in furtherance of kayfabe. In a “work”, wrestlers stay in character and do things that push the angle that they’re involved in forward. This can happen in the ring, in a taped backstage segment, or perhaps in a media event like an appearance on a Sunday morning political talk show.
Shoot: Occasionally a wrestler will do something that is not a work – they’ll publicly break character, or admit that wrestling is staged, or maybe even do something in a match that wasn’t in the script. Since this is obviously breaking kayfabe, it’s very rare for active wrestlers to do this (although retired wrestlers will often do shoot interviews that break kayfabe). It’s even rarer in politicians. And for good reason – just ask Mitt Romney, whose entirely accurate but politically poisonous remark about 47% of the people being tax consumers instead of tax contributors helped cost him the Presidency.
Worked shoot: This occurs when a wrestler cuts a promo that appears to be a shoot (perhaps by including some wrestling lingo or backstage details known to smarks in order to give the appearance of breaking kayfabe), but is in fact simply a work designed to give some extra credibility to an angle he’s involved in. A good example would be the infamous “Pipe Bomb” promo that was cut by CM Punk in the summer of 2011. When politicians do this (or talk about doing it), it’s frequently called “Going Bulworth”.
Face or Babyface: A “good guy” wrestler. Someone you’re supposed to cheer for.
Heel: A “bad guy” wrestler, who you’re supposed to boo. There’s a saying among wrestling heels: “It doesn’t matter if they’re cheers or boos, it only matters how loud they are”. Obviously, no politician would ever say that.
Face turn or Heel turn: Very few wrestlers remain a “face” or a “heel” for their entire careers. Most will occasionally switch from one to the other in order to keep their character fresh. When that happens, it is called a “face turn” (if going from bad to good) or a “heel turn” (if going from good to bad). In a political context, politicians and leaders themselves almost never voluntarily do this, but it is often done for them by the Establishment, and especially by its media arm. For example, Col. Quaddafi was a heel in the media throughout the 80s and 90s, but was given a face turn by them in the early ‘00s when he agreed to play ball in the “War on Terror”. Then a few years later, when his usefulness to the Establishment had been exhausted, he was given a final heel turn, ousted, and brutally executed. The Establishment does this kind of thing rather often.
Booker: The writers behind the scenes who actually set up the matches and write the promos that wrestlers cut are referred to in wrestling lingo as “bookers”. Examples of legendary bookers include Paul Heyman, whose work has been seen in ECW and WWE, and Peggy Noonan, whose work has been seen in the mouth of Ronald Reagan.
Job/Jobber: To “job” is to lose a wrestling match, and a “jobber” is someone whose primary purpose with the company is to lose matches to more popular wrestlers to make them look stronger and maintain the kayfabe illusion that their rise to the top was based on an impressive string of victories. In other words, it’s someone who’s simply there to lose. (See: Mitt Romney)
Jabroni: A term popularized by The Iron Sheik and The Rock, and almost certainly etymologically related to the word “jobber”. Calling someone a “jabroni” is a kind of insult in wrestling. It amounts to strongly calling someone a loser – someone whose destiny is to fail, and who could not do otherwise. (See: Mitt Romney)
Get over: To become popular with the fans. Example: “Chris Jericho really started to get over with the WWE fans during his feud with Chris Benoit”. Sometimes a talent will get over organically, without a big push from the higher-ups (See: Daniel Bryan, Ron Paul). Often, however, a push will just be a cynical attempt to try to get a bland “company man” who kisses the butt of the Establishment over with the fans. (See: John Cena, Mitt Romney)
Bury: A wrestler gets “buried” when, for some reason, the company he works for has decided that they don’t like him or want him to get popular, so they intentionally book him to lose matches and look like a jabroni in order to deny him popularity. The WWE did this to the unfortunate, talented John Morrison in 2011, and the Republican Party did it to Ron Paul the following year.
Rub: When a wrestling company likes a young star and wants him to get popular, they often book an angle in which he teams up with a popular established wrestler in hopes that the established wrestler’s popularity will rub off on the young star. This is referred to as the young star “getting a rub” from the more stablished wrestler. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t – WWE attempted this by teaming up the young star Zack Ryder and the established John Cena a couple of years ago, and it didn’t really go anywhere (although whether this is more of a reflection on Ryder’s popularity or on Cena’s is debatable). Presidents often make campaign appearances with candidates from their party to try to make this happen. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes the effect is the opposite of what was intended.
Card: The “card” refers to the relative positions of wrestlers in terms of how popular they are, and consequently how much exposure they get and which championship belts they’re booked to win. The “upper card” refers to the top guys in the company, followed by the “midcard” and finally the “undercard”. Political parties have much the same arrangement. It’s pretty easy to tell who’s in the upper card – they’re the guys doing work interviews on Meet the Press.
Battle Royal: A type of match involving a large number of wrestlers that features an “every man for himself” sort of competition in which the last man left in the ring wins. Think of a political primary as a kayfabe midcard battle royal in which one of the entrants is booked to win by the Establishment.
Sports Entertainment: When Vince McMahon finally quietly admitted that what he produces is fake and scripted, he stopped calling it “professional wrestling” and started calling it “Sports Entertainment”. I encourage you all to start calling the current system “Politics Entertainment”.
Except it’s really not very entertaining, is it?
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