Realism in Pro Wrestling: A Change of Heart, or the Babyface-Heel Dilemma
This is the second article of a series dubbed “Realism in Pro Wrestling” in which the appropriate use of storytelling devices in professional wrestling will be put into consideration. The concept “realism” will be handled here as a synonym of congruency and consistency in the narrative.
I recommend you to consult the opening segment (text in italics) of the first article for a wider understanding of what lies behind the series.
Once more, I encourage readers, especially wrestling historians and “scholars”, to share cases outside of professional wrestling’s mainstream contemporary landscape.
Watch this match.
Through actions, technique and color schemes in ring attire, the average pro wrestling fan can define heel and face roles in a particular match from the very start. Those familiar with the Mexican pro wrestling scene surely identify Atlantis and know he’s been marketed as “el ídolo de los niños” (the children’s idol).
In 2005, Atlantis became a villain for the first time after 20 years in the business. To signal his change of heart and loyalty to the then-new heel faction, Los Guerreros de la Atlántida, he wore a black version of his trademark mask (seen on the video linked above) and started acting in a way that totally opposed his former set of values which were transmitted to the adoring children. Atlantis became a real rudo.
People like to judge others. In storytelling, the classification of villainous and heroic roles is an externalization of this human trait. Narrators define characters through actions which will be judged by the audience.
Pro wrestling is, among many other things, a dramatic representation of the eternal battle between the forces of good and evil. Hence, wrestling promotions position pro wrestlers in a specific extreme of the good/evil spectrum, translated into the sport as babyface/heel alignment.
The classic babyface is a competitive athlete with highly benign moral values and, most times, great technical skill. The old school heel is a villainous weasel that’s prone to great violence and/or the use of underhanded tactics.
Although there are other traits stamped on wrestlers to define their alignment (being an underdog, a spectacular move set, the “foreigner card”, etc.), those could be pointed out as the basic traits of any wrestling hero or villain.
Nevertheless, contemporary pro wrestling promotions have been toying around with the once clear line between good and evil (oh, postmodernism….). Personality and actions are still a defining trait, but audiences will decide to boo or cheer the wrestler considering how they feel about the character.
Stone Cold Steve Austin and Eddie Guerrero acted like classical heels, but the fans were entertained and charmed by their antics, so they decided to cheer.
Kurt Angle’s character was a patriotic athlete, a role model, an Olympic hero for the USA, yet he became so annoying that the fans started booing and thus his interpretation of the character became a parody of what an American hero is supposed to represent.
Sometimes a wrestler’s alignment in the spectrum is defined by whom they are feuding with. John Cena’s case might be the most interesting one. He’s heavily booed by half of the audience, but still promoted as WWE’s top face.
His feud with The Rock might have finally pushed the mechanism that grants a heel turn, even if it a short-lived one. Randy Orton also changed sides via association. He turned face because of his beef with then super-heel Triple H. About 6 months later, he returned to the dark side due to a feud with The Undertaker.
Sudden changes of heart are another mainstay in narrative. Great movie moments are plagued with abrupt betrayal or goodwill-inducing epiphanies. The device keeps the story interesting through a sense of unpredictability.
Wrestling promoters use “turns” as a way of keeping story-lines and characters fresh. Even though any turn has the potential to be exciting, it could be argued that heel turns are more spectacular and emphatic than face turns, which are characterized most times by their subtlety and progressive nature. But that’s an issue to be discussed elsewhere.
When a turn in pro wrestling takes place, it means the promotion is willing to market the wrestler under a different light. If the turn is done appropriately, (obedient) fans will react according to the new wrestler’s alignment.
What does a turn mean for the wrestler’s character? Pro wrestling’s classic theory states that villains would act heroically and heroes would behave in the most despicable way possible. Yet praxis is not always in concordance with theory.
It could be argued that when a wrestler turns today, it means he/she will be feuding with competitors that were aligned on his side of the spectrum before the turn. Consequently, character form is altered slightly, if at all.
Kane has remained a sadistic monster despite his constant incursions into face territory. Fans cheer Randy Orton‘s violent tendencies as long as he keeps looking cool and RKO-ing everyone.
Sometimes abrupt changes take place without further explanation. Sheamus was initially marketed like a tough guy who liked beating anyone who’s beatable; “a bully”, in John Morrison’s words.
One hot SmackDown night, Sheamus stood up to Mark Henry and people cheered. From that moment on, the Celtic Warrior became friendlier and friendlier to the point that he did not mind a loss against Hornswoggle in a Battle Royal on the first week of December—considering he kicked the snot out of the midget’s nose in January during the Royal Rumble.
Whatever happened to the bullying tough guy that transformed him into a good-willed “fella’” that befriends midgets?
If there is a change in character, slight or radical, it should be justified. The turn itself should be justified.
R-Truth’s heel turn in the United Kingdom was abrupt but rightfully explained by his desperation for relevance in a star-packed roster and suspicion of a (now forgotten) conspiracy.
Shawn Michaels turned heel leading to a match at Summerslam 2005 against Hulk Hogan. HBK stated that he needed a match against Hogan and willingly regressed to his 1997 persona to obtain it. After the match, he stopped acting and thus turned face again.
All characters hold a form (essence) which defines them and guides their actions. The form can only be altered through strong, epiphanic events. Unexplained essential modifications evidence lazy storytelling guided by convenience and poor creativity. It feels unnatural and unrealistic.
Of course, adequately crafting events in order to trigger an important change in one or several pro wrestling characters is a challenge for any creative writer or booker, but that’s why vision and long term planning—powerful tools for any creator of fiction—exist.
But then what’s the relevance of the heel/face spectrum? What defines it? How does its presence affect character outlining and development? More importantly, do promoters control the definition of heels and babyfaces in pro wrestling? Or is the audience in control?
Wrestlers and their performances are a message sent by promotions to the audience. Promotions, like any narrator, will manipulate the action to produce controlled reactions in the audience. Audiences will react accordingly in specific ways to specific stimuli.
If a member of a babyface tag team turns on his/her partner, the audience is expected to boo the act of betrayal. If the promotion markets a match like an underdog story, the audience will cheer for the underdog.
There’s an implicit code between wrestling promoters and their audience. It might vary depending on the promotion and their fan base, but most codes are basically identical. Yet, what happens if one of the parties involved breaks the code? What if the audience cheers the act of betrayal? Or even worse, what happens if the audience does not care at all?
When it comes to character form in pro wrestling, it has been proven that the audience will not always react accordingly to what classical pro wrestling theory states. Sometimes the audience will be fragmented, turning things more complex.
If the fans cheer the traitor, should he/she be marketed as a hero? Should the character remain violent and treacherous if fans are willing to cheer for him/her? What happens if a new set of fans tune into the show and they notice the promotion’s top babyface is a treacherous, violent piece of garbage?
Then, should the character act more heroically? But will established fans keep cheering if the character changes? If the change divides the audience into opposite parties (i.e. John Cena), who will the promotion officially communicate with?
The debate is more controversial than most people might realize. In spite of what the best answer to the proposed questions might be, it is true that pro wrestling promotions should remain congruent in their handling of characters and punctually clarify any changes suffered by them.
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