Every Monday evening, for the last couple of months now, I walk over to my 10 year-old nephew’s place to watch professional wrestling with him and bond. Not having paid much attention to the pro wrestling scene since the late 90s, and aware of its tendency towards downright 12th Night levels of plot complexity, I’ve been spending a lot of time on Wikipedia getting up to speed on who’s feuding with who. That research led me to “kayfabe.”
“Kayfabe,” originally a turn of the century carny term, is the rule or code that requires wrestlers to treat their business as real. The idea that the good guy and the bad guy really hate each other, or that they’re really trying to do grievous injury to one another, are examples of kayfabe. In the old days of the business, promotion owners would go so far as to disallow “good” wrestlers from eating out or traveling with “bad” ones, in order to maintain it.
But kayfabe isn’t just useful for thinking about wrestling. It turns out that it’s everywhere, in all sorts of different areas of our culture. In fact, once I started looking around with kayfabe in mind, it began to feel like one of the defining forces of the mainstream media universe.
Take political coverage: I’d wager that most of the right-wing talking heads opining about Sonia Sotomayor don’t really think she’s a “racist.” And they’d be hard pressed to explain at length their contention that somehow growing up Hispanic and poor in the Bronx provides advantages that upper-class white males just can’t compete with, yet on our mainstream news David Gregory or whomever will nod knowingly at their line of agrument and wrap up the segment by telling viewers something like “serious questions have been raised about her qualifications.” That’s kayfabe in action.
Or Hollywood: The idea that, yes, Hugh Jackman is thrilled to be on your mid-market morning show talking about his abs and absolutely the most important thing for him about his new Wolverine movie was the script. Kayfabe.
Sports: When the announcers of a late season NBA game between two teams with no shot at the playoffs say something about how much these players “want it.” You guessed it.
In a media landscape dominated by these little fictions, I like having a name for them.