From WWE's perspective, when are their performers actors and when are they characters? It's not so cut-and-dried.
The old way of doing things in wrestling was to more or less be in character whenever you were in public and especially in the media. If you were injured, you sold it wherever you went: The Junkyard Dog had to pretend to be blind for weeks and weeks in 1981.
A lot of the time it applied in private: Some wrestlers went too far and didn't smarten up their families. Even if not everyone took it that far, separate babyface and heel locker rooms used to be common.
Nowadays it's a lot different: It's been almost a quarter-century since Linda McMahon testified that pro wrestling was not a legitimate sport as part of the push to deregulate the business in New Jersey, as detailed by Jim Wilson and Weldon T. Johnson in Choke Hold. WWE regularly releases DVDs that go behind the curtain. And so on.
Still, WWE will often try to move it all back a little bit. With so many children as fans, there's a delicate balancing act between presenting performers as their characters at appearances and whatnot and explaining that pro wrestling is a dangerous form of performance art that nobody should try at home.
On Raw this past Monday night, Daniel Bryan was "hospitalized" by the Wyatt Family. Since he wasn't going to be used at the SmackDown/Main Event tapings the next night, he was pulled from all of his scheduled media appearances to sell the injury, as evidenced by Cody Rhodes' Twitter page.
This comes on the heels of some notably varied wrestler reactions on Twitter to Triple H's promo at the end of last week's Raw and the mixed reviews that Sunday's Hell in a Cell PPV event received. When Triple H said that Daniel Bryan was like Chris Jericho, Edge, and Rob Van Dam, guys who he classified as not being "real stars," Jericho got angry, Van Dam said he didn't see it but that it sounded like a "strong" promo, and Edge was blunt about not caring:
While the consensus has been that Hell in a Cell was better than the two shows that preceded it, many fans were still vocal about disliking the show—especially the ending, where Shawn Michaels turned on Daniel Bryan and cost him the WWE Championship. Michaels made light of fans who were outright calling him a traitor, virtually winking and nudging throughout.
On the other hand, there was Ryback, who was in the No. 2 match on the show, a disappointing bout with CM Punk. After seeing the reaction to the show, he tweeted this:
Hey here is an idea. How about you guys find 3 things u enjoyed about HIAC and be happy. Being miserable sucks I get it ur fat, but just try— Ryback (@Ryback22) October 28, 2013
Is one more or less appropriate than the other? Let's go one-by-one.
WWE pulling wrestlers from appearances to sell injuries is nothing new. I'm not sure what to think about this one, though. There's a perfectly sound logic to it, but I'm not sure it was necessarily the right move at this very moment. Sure, Bryan went to the hospital to get checked out, but it wasn't put over as a serious injury beyond that. Yes, John Cena is back, but should the wrestler who was the top babyface in his absence be discarded so quickly, either?
I'm probably overthinking this one, so I'll just say that I can see why they did it, but I'm not sure they really needed to.
With the Triple H promo, all of the wrestlers mentioned are not currently under contract to WWE, so none of them really have any professional obligation to react to it. Only Jericho really sold it as being something that upset him. Normally I'd guess he was angling for a program whenever he makes his return, but the fact that he deleted one of the tweets made me rethink that stance.
Since Edge is completely retired, and the others don't have any need to return to WWE, their responses can probably be chalked up to genuine reactions. If WWE was banking on them adding to the angle by playing up the stories of Triple H's issues with them backstage, then it didn't really work, as only Jericho took the bait.
As for Shawn Michaels, while he's old-school in that he broke into wrestling in 1984, it looks like he has put a lot of that past him, even though he's still affiliated with WWE and was getting ready to appear again the next night on Raw. He was being driven mad on Twitter, and while he didn't outright say anything along the lines of "it's a performance," his tone in showing off the hate Tweets showed off a "Can you believe these people?" kind of annoyance.
Still, since, like I said, he was coming back to Raw the next night for another angle, he probably should have held up a little. Making fun of people who bought into it in one way or another when you're still in the middle of the angle is a bit too close to throwing "fake" in people's faces, and no matter what, that's the one thing you don't want to do.
And then there was Ryback. There are two ways to look at it: Either he was playing up his bully gimmick and engaged in the 2013 version of Ric Flair yelling "Shut up, fatboy!" at a fan, something everyone loves, or that's not what he did and not how a WWE star should be conducting himself in public in 2013.
I've generally been seeing people treat it like the former because it seemingly suits his character. I'm leaning towards the latter, but not for the reasons you might think. If Ryback was a guy who regularly tweeted in character, that would be one thing, but he tweets very infrequently.
Why would Ryback, the character who CM Punk handily defeated, care if anyone enjoyed the PPV? Wouldn't he prefer if they didn't, since he lost? With that in mind, I see the tweet being from performer Ryan Reeves and not the character of Ryback, and that's not really something he should be saying, to say the least.
There's no real right answer; it really is a case-by-case situation. The Daniel Bryan situation could go either way and was probably handled correctly, but it's as if they're going further to sell the injury now than they did on television, which is weird. The wrestlers mentioned by Triple H had no obligation to respond, and Jericho arguably looks worse for doing so. Shawn Michaels went just past the line of ruining the magic trick, while Ryback likely made a mistake for reasons that don't necessarily have to do with kayfabe.
Even in recent years, though, there are much further extremes that can be used as examples. When WWE fired Serena Deeb in 2010, James Caldwell of PWTorch.com and others reported that it had to do with her drinking in public despite being a member of CM Punk's "Straight Edge Society."
Not only was it an egregious kayfabe breach, since the group was getting the type of real heat no other act in the company came close to getting, but it revealed bigger issues. She had developed a real-life drinking problem that was getting in the way of her work. She overcame it and eventually discussed it publicly.
That's obviously a huge outlier, and I'm not sure there's a lesson to be learned from it that isn't just common sense. Still, if anything, it shows that you need to keep someone's gimmick in mind when evaluating what they say and do in public. There are still legitimate reasons to try to keep the illusion going, even for adults; it just has to be enough to keep it entertaining without insulting anyone's intelligence or otherwise setting off any sort of alarm.