The character of CM Punk, for all intents and purposes, has been wasted for much of the past year. He became “the voice of the voiceless” and spear-headed a revolution following his verbal tirade last summer. Crowds supported him, offering some of the most passionate ovations in years.
Finally, a savior had come to bring down the WWE system, which had changed professional wrestling into an unrecognizable mess of pop culture intrusion, social media saturation, and political correctness.
The pieces were all in place for this resulting conflict: resentment of the John Cena character was growing, The Rock’s return facilitated a marginalization of lesser-established characters (notably The Miz and R-Truth),conspiracy would become a key motif in WWE’s subsequent narrative, and most importantly, the fans clamored for it.
Somewhere along the way, WWE pulled the plug on this new direction for CM Punk. As a character, Punk became very much what he had initially aimed to expose: a role-playing company man and a well-oiled cog in WWE’s marketing machine. Punk once lambasted WWE’s overly conservative creative direction but ultimately participated in it without dispute.
A perfect example of this change in direction is the buildup for the WWE Championship match at WrestleMania 28 between CM Punk and Chris Jericho. The storyline first centered on the dispute of wrestling superiority, but then veered down a more personal path, as Jericho questioned the legitimacy of Punk’s straightedge lifestyle considering his family’s history of vice. Jericho’s antagonism, coupled with Punk’s conscious defense of it, became the foundation for the narrative leading into the match.
CM Punk, circa July 2011, would not have participated in the storyline and likely would have questioned whether or not Chris Jericho was being himself or relaying the commands of the WWE Board of Directors. Something about Punk’s demeanor towards Jericho came off as too scripted and too removed from reality. Viewers were well aware that the rivalry was entirely fictional.
Some might not see a problem with such a storyline, but for a character such as CM Punk—at least, the version in which fans had become emotionally invested—overt fiction simply does not work. Metafiction, or fiction within fiction, is where his character really shines.
I propose that WWE should instill the use of metafiction again. Its presence last summer produced some intriguing television.
Last summer, a multilayered metafiction was beginning to take shape in the WWE Universe. CM Punk, while an antagonist in what I will call WWE’s overt fiction (the heel to John Cena’s face), became a protagonist symbolizing the fans’ growing disdain for the WWE product (the hidden fiction). In contrast, John Cena was the hero of the overt fiction while also a powerful villain in WWE’s hidden fiction.
For months, fans around the world have wished WWE would turn John Cena heel, meaning he would become an antagonist within the overt fiction. This would accomplish nothing, as Cena is already the central antagonist in the hidden fiction. Regardless of literary perspective, Cena is booed at live events by the majority of older fans while cheered by younger fans. Basically, John Cena is already a monster heel, but viewer perception is constantly being challenged.
It is apparent that even though WWE programming is rated PG, two separate audiences exist, each with a unique perspective and distinct taste.
How can the writers produce an interesting product while satisfying both of these audiences?
Instill two separate narratives and have them interplay simultaneously.
Within this metafiction, there would exist a working synergy of creativity; younger fans would tend to follow the overt fiction and accept it at face value, while older fans would focus on the hidden fiction, the true nature of these characters as they participate within the WWE Universe. This would happen simultaneously.
In analogy, I offer the use of nationalist propaganda during wars. Naturally, a country’s government will use its various media outlets to portray itself as the “good guys” in a conflict with another nation. Without public support, the government would lose its most valuable resource: people. In terms of WWE’s creative direction, the propaganda is simply the overt fiction, and without it, WWE would lose the younger crowd.
Many older fans may question why WWE is so intent on holding onto the younger crowd. Go back to TV14, they say. The truth is that WWE needs these younger fans, simply because they will grow into older fans. Longevity for WWE is crucial for the ongoing existence of professional wrestling.
It is more difficult for older fans to swallow the overt fiction of professional wrestling now than it was in the late 1990’s. For one, WWE’s product was aimed at more mature audiences back then. The fiction was geared towards teens and adults. It featured gratuitous violence, obscenities, and a great deal of sexual content. Older fans genuinely watched WWE for enjoyment. It was not much different than watching a PG13 or R rated movie, pure escapism.
Now, older fans are subject to storylines written at an early grade school level. Until the younger fans become teenagers and WWE’s television rating returns to TV14, it will be difficult for older fans to become emotionally invested in the company’s overt fiction.
The Attitude Era was great because it gave fans some very entertaining overt fiction. The storylines and characters were memorable and satisfying. Many fans were teenagers during this period, myself included. The internet was not nearly as big of a presence in everyday life as it is today, so the hidden fiction was exactly that: hidden. Public opinion of WWE’s product was mostly based on how entertaining overt fiction was in comparison to WCW’s.
These days, older fans help to propagate the hidden fiction, as the overt fiction simply is not geared towards them, but they still want to watch and enjoy wrestling.
CM Punk could serve as this audience’s hero, the one crusader who dares to cross the line between these two fictions and brings to light the fact that WWE dumped its former audience for someone younger.
A duality definitely exists, and WWE would be wise to capitalize on it.