Kayfabe is a noun created by the professional wrestling industry to describe what is sometimes known as “wrestling reality.” It encompasses all aspects of the medium that are intended to be understood as 100% real by the viewer—the matches themselves and the results of said matches, the promos and interviews, and the relationships between wrestlers and everyone else involved in the production, even individuals like referees, announcers, security guards, concessions employees, and the CEOs of the wrestling organizations themselves.
While the majority of kayfabe is fake, there are still elements of reality throughout. Wrestlers may not actually be stomping directly on each other’s skulls (well sometimes they might be,) but they are performing many acts of incredible physical strength, agility, and bravery. There really are tenuous business negotiations within and between organizations going on behind the scenes, some of which are woven into storylines for public consumption. Stone Cold Steve Austin’s real wife was really The Rock’s manager. Jeff Jarrett really did marry Kurt Angle’s ex-wife and really did live with her and Kurt Angle’s four children in the home they once shared, and WWE really did broadcast this on television so the world could revel in the spectacle of Angle’s downfall. At the time, and for the majority of his career, Kurt Angle was a heel (a wrestler who the audience should love to hate, in opposition to a face or babyface, who the audience is meant to simply love,) so, while making Angle look like the ultimate cuck in this way was obviously cruel and exploitative, it was also very in line with the heel/face dichotomy.
I say that kayfabe is intended to be understood as real—for many low IQ wrestling fans, this may actually be the case, and I assume this makes for a better watching experience. However, there are also many consumers of wrestling media who are kayfabe literate, and must suspend their disbelief to some extent in order to engage with kayfabe in a way that is still entertaining. While this type of wrestling consumption may be less exciting, I believe this is the most ideal, most ethical, way to engage in kayfabe—it makes kayfabe a fully consensual exchange between the performer and the viewer (sometimes called the mark, although this term is more commonly used to refer to kayfabe illiterate viewers specifically.)
Although I am wearing a youth large “AUSTIN 3:16” shirt as I write this, I did not grow up watching professional wrestling. In fact, I’ve never seen a wrestling show or pay-per-view in full. However, I’ve found the concepts of kayfabe and heel/face incredibly relevant to my online presence and to life in general. Once I realized that @thisislux was a pixel art heel, there was an added level of removal between myself and the consumers of my content. I felt much more willing to lean into the character, to expose some parts of myself less and some parts more. Suddenly, I wasn’t just offending people with my content and my opinions, I was generating heel energy. The existence of haters only means I’m doing a good job.
Whether one is aware of it or not, kayfabe is integral to the experience of being online—particularly so in certain pseudocommunities like Milady and 4chan.
Milady is the exaltation of kayfabe.
When one understands that all forms of creative expression, including tweets and voice chats, are not necessarily representative of the creator’s actual opinions, and knowingly consents to engaging with the blurred lines of kayfabe, there are no limits to free thought and speech except those imposed by the platform. Dictating what a Milady can and can't say is diametrically opposed to the nature of Milady—even me saying that something is in opposition to the nature of Milady is in opposition to the nature of Milady. Others may disagree with me here—that’s fine, I don’t want to dictate anyone’s beliefs or behavior, even if their belief is that they want to dictate mine.
An important facet of kayfabe is the difficulty or inability to discern which aspects are real and which are fabricated—in many cases, even kayfabe literate individuals are never quite sure, but most active participants have at least a strong intuition in either direction. The subtle opacity of kayfabe allows people to interact with each other in interesting, often humorous ways, exposing the intricacies of a society hyper-connected by the internet but increasingly lacking in real human connection and physical contact. Kayfabe, which exists in all areas of life but flourishes particularly well online, provides us with a communal experience that can be as deep or as shallow as we desire.
Often, kayfabe is a statement on what one does not believe, or on what others may believe. It can also be used subversively to expose others’ erroneous conceptions of reality and their tendencies to project their own personal false dichotomies onto those they do not like or do not understand—@3yearletterman is a good example of this. Of course, I don’t know him personally, so I can’t say for certain that he doesn’t actually believe that the Declaration of Independence states that an American can order any Canadian to be arrested, but it doesn’t take many brain cells to figure out that his twitter presence is satirical in nature, preying upon those with even fewer brain cells (just the right amount to believe they are very smart in spite of their kayfabe illiteracy.) Those that fall into his trap are often quick to label the supposed “Youth Football Coaching Legend” whatever is in direct opposition to those labels they’ve given themselves—a liberal person will accuse him of being a trump cultist, a trump supporter will tell him to go vote for Biden again, a trans rights activist will call him transphobic even when the subject at hand has absolutely nothing to do with transgenderism, etc. 3YL’s content, and the content it inspires, actually says more about the creators of the latter than it does about himself or his thoughts and opinions.
In many ways the concept of kayfabe shares a lot in common with the “community” of BDSM and of “kink” more broadly. At least according to the ethos espoused by certain supposed figureheads and members of those spheres, BDSM and kink are entirely dependent on consent—the submissive party is, supposedly, actually the one in control, because they’ve determined what behavior is and isn’t desired and acceptable beforehand. However, like kayfabe, consent is never quite black and white. When two parties consent to something, they are doing so under the assumption that they are both operating in good faith and with transparent (usually similar or symbiotic) motivations.
When the sub and the dom consent to engaging in BDSM with one another, they are typically doing so with the belief that the acts are motivated solely by healthy hedonistic desires and that it’s all in good fun. However, it is possible that either party is not being entirely truthful in their intent, even if the actions themselves are fully consensual. When the dom tells the sub she’s a dumb little whore, she might believe that it’s kayfabe and that he actually does respect her, and she might do things she would otherwise not consent to if she knew that that was not the case—that he really did mean what he said. Likewise, the dom might say she’s a dumb little whore because he believes she agrees that this is kayfabe and will not actually be hurt by his words, not knowing that she is using their encounter as a way to relive her past trauma.
Because wrestling is obviously kayfabe, in the absence of an unplanned shoot (an occurrence that is unscripted and real) like an attempted murder, wrestlers are authentic in their intent. When a party is inauthentic in their representation of their intent, it allows them to take advantage of others and to fulfill their desires by exploiting those who are operating based on false pretenses. Oftentimes, a kayfabe literate person may engage, directly or indirectly, with a kayfabe illiterate individual. The kayfabe illiterate person, the mark, will behave as if the other party is operating completely authentically—the results will vary, but as long as the kayfabe illiterate party does not become wise to the kayfabe they’ve unknowingly engaged with, there, in theory, should be no real harm done to the mark. The real emotional pain and embarrassment only manifests when one engages authentically with another, only to find out later on that the authenticity had not been reciprocal. It can also be frustrating and upsetting when one is behaving authentically, but others react as if it’s kayfabe or accuse them of being inauthentic. The ability to interact with others mindfully, even when you know you don’t quite know who or what you’re interacting with, is crucial in engaging in kayfabe without causing unintended harm to yourself or others.
There are many programs that rely on misrepresenting their intent and knowingly engaging with kayfabe illiterate people—Howard Stern, for example. Now moreso than ever, he’s presenting himself as an upstanding liberal citizen who has his country’s best interests at heart. Somehow, as his fans have also softened and become less subversive over the years, he’s managed to convince the world that his oeuvre is not, in fact, exploitative and offensive, or at least not exploitative and offensive enough that we are unwilling to forgive him for it. Stern and his listeners are participating in kayfabe that supposes minimal to no harm was done to the “Wack Pack,” or anyone else who contributed to the program over the past several decades. Many of these participants, due to various cognitive impairments and disabilities, are either kayfabe illiterate or have a reduced capacity to engage in kayfabe with others—this makes them very authentic, which is entertaining to many and endearing to those with enough empathy, but it can also make people uncomfortable. This is part of the appeal of this type of content—it exposes us to exceptional humans with divergent ways of thinking and of expressing their humanity. These individuals, who may have no choice but to behave authentically, are a welcome respite to many in a society that is built on a foundation of kayfabe.
Kayfabe thrives on social media as well as other forms of media and entertainment (Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Larry the Cable Guy, Kid Rock, all reality shows, the news, the serving size on a package of processed food, etc.) because of the disconnect between the wrestler and the mark, the creator and the consumer. It is much more difficult to try to discern someone else's true intentions and motivations when you can't look into their eyes and resonate with the frequency at which they're vibrating at that moment. Online, the depth of kayfabe is able to be multiplied exponentially, as each individual engaging with the original act of kayfabe deepens the lore in their own way, with their own understanding or lack thereof.
When kayfabe illiterate individuals unknowingly engage with kayfabe, their actions can actually change reality. Free bleeding (menstruating without the assistance of any products like tampons, pads, or cups) is something that did and does occur in third world countries regularly (this has been rebranded as “period poverty,”) but was introduced to many in the Western world via kayfabe courtesy of 4chan in 2014. There may have been some women free bleeding in America before, but there's at least a few more now. The ingestion of jenkem (a purported hallucinogenic inhalant made from fermented human feces) is, according to some, a very real occurrence in certain parts of Africa as well as other third world countries. Others, like Snopes, claim this is just a hoax. The more kayfabe illiterate individuals engage with kayfabe, the more difficult it is for kayfabe literate individuals to parse the reality or unreality of it. This is why kayfabe literacy is so important and should be taught in schools (although modern institutions of learning are trash and part of a larger system of civilian disempowerment and government overreach, but that’s a different article.) Side note: I find it interesting how unwilling Westerners are to accept the reality of many things that do occur in other countries. Perhaps this is kayfabe which they deem necessary in order to preserve the narrative of reality they've created in pursuit of their political ideals.
Oftentimes it's not safe to be authentic and we choose kayfabe in a way that feels less consensual—we tell the cashier at Food Lion we're doing great when we're actually suicidal. We refrain from sharing our real thoughts and feelings with our thousands of followers on the internet. Modern society is built on a foundation of this type of kayfabe. By consenting to living in a society with Amazon Prime and Uber Eats aplenty, rather than tearing off our polyester blend clothing and returning to monke, we are consenting to a life of kayfabe, whether we like it or not. The way I see it, kayfabe is necessary, fun, and healthy, even—it allows us to express ourselves in a way that is less vulnerable than sincereposting and less spiritually intrusive than telling others exactly what we think and feel all of the time—and in that way it is authentic, it’s a manifestation of truth and reality.
When you’re a kid, people tell you that they want you to tell the truth, and what I’ve learned more and more in my life…people do not want you to tell the truth. People want you to do the thing that’s the easiest for everyone to move forward, that doesn’t make people feel uncomfortable.
Each moment we all as individuals create a narrative about our lives and about who we are as people, even when we’re totally alone—something I think of as performative living (a concept I first heard of on the podcast Poog, although I can’t remember if they’ve used this particular term for it. I’m sorry, I have holes in my brain.) We say to ourselves, “Oh look at me, here I am writing my article at my standing desk. I am a person who writes articles and has a standing desk.” Perhaps notwithstanding the event of total ego death, any action that's not carried out automatically by the body—anything that's not our heart beating or our internal organs moving shit and piss towards their respective holes—is being executed with at least some element of choice, with some awareness of being perceived. The way we carry ourselves through the action, the environment we’re in while we're doing it—there are a million tiny decisions every second that tell us something about who we want to be or who we think we are. Thanks to this instinctual form of kayfabe, it's inevitable that:
The most we can do is to choose to behave authentically, to try to vibrate at the frequency that feels most resonant to ourselves, no matter the level of kayfabe we’re choosing to engage in.
An inalienable aspect of human nature is that we will never really be capable of determining another person’s true motivations or intent. All we can really do is to avoid misrepresenting our own—if not out of a desire to behave ethically, then out of a selfish desire for others to reciprocate, so we can consent with less fear of being taken advantage of. There will always be some grey area regarding consent, but consensual kayfabe is vital to the functioning of society. When someone breaks the social contract of consent, everything breaks down—autonomy is taken from us, and, assuming the existence of free will, in a world where we truly own nothing, autonomy is all we really have.