So I used to be a huge pro-wrestling nerd. I only ever attended one house show in my childhood and I was never gutsy enough to buy any action figures, but I owned around 10-15 wrestling games between N64 and Gamecube and there was a point in time when I could name every single champion for the WWF/WWE, ECW, and WCW, along with all of their immediate rivals, any managers they might have had, their assorted weapons of choice, and then some. This might not sound like much but it was back during the days when I had alleged 56k internet that had to be shared with four people, when I had it at all.
I was what’s called a Smark – a Smart Mark, who knew the whole thing was rigged but could still suspend disbelief enough to temporarily buy into it, especially when their favorite was winning. Even now that the definition has changed to mean people who hunt for behind-the-scenes gossip and turn the whole thing into Serious Business, I’m still a bit of a Smark.
Mostly because you can take pro-wrestling terms and apply them to things like politics or writing and it’ll fit like a freaking glove.
Consider the cheap pop. In pro-wrestling, this is when someone like Mick Foley namedrops whatever town he’s in so that people cheer. There’s also cheap heat, which is when someone like [Insert Generic Foreign Person Here] trash talks the USA so that people boo. That exists in politics. Listen to any campaign stump speech and you’ll hear cheap pops by the dozen. You’ll get cheap heat anytime you mention Those Other Assholes or That Thing We Don’t Like.
There are plenty of other things that cross over between pro-wrestling, politics, and creative writing. I think if you put me in a Figure 4 Leglock, I’d eventually be forced to pin my favorite down as kayfabe. Kayfabe is old school carny slang, dating back to the days when wrestling existed as a sideshow to carnivals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Kayfabe is the art of maintaining a fiction even outside of the narrative setting that enables it. There is no fourth wall with kayfabe; it’s always on, the show runs even when the lights are off and the curtains have been closed.
Before it became widespread knowledge that pro-wrestling is fake, wrestlers would stay in character 24/7. One guy, ring-name Nikita Koloff, faked being Russian so hard that his kayfabe uncle had to set up his freaking bills for him because he wouldn’t let himself be seen speaking or understanding English. One case involved one Kevin Sullivan making his wife, Nancy, take flights with another wrestler with whom she had a kayfabe relationship; she wound up falling in love for real, ditched Sullivan, and married the other guy. For years, there was a running joke that Sullivan booked his own divorce.
Politics is kayfabe.
You have faces (heroes) and heels (villains), people’s champions (a good example would be Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders on the left, just about any die-hard Tea Partier on the right) and corporate champions (practically everybody else to some extent), shoots (people breaking character and/or trashing on each other for real), worked shoots (people ‘breaking’ character and/or trashing on each other ‘for real’, as in many Congressional speeches where the room is basically empty while some guy rants about Congressional dysfunction), feuds (Republicans vs. Democrats), power stables (not just political parties, but oftentimes sub-groups within and between them, like the Tea Party or the assorted Gangs of Eight, Sixteen, or however many), swerves (Obama trouncing Hillary in Iowa), garbage match-ups (pretty much every election nowadays), gimmicks (threats of government shutdown), and depending on your leanings and cynicism you could probably make convincing cases for impassioned voters as marks (casual fans who don’t know it’s an act), political operatives and commentators as smarks (committed fans who know it’s an act, don’t care, and consider it Serious Business), and courts as referees (whether they’re calling it ‘fairly’ or counting to three before your guy’s shoulders hit the mat), among other things.
You also have this guy.
Whenever I write politics, as in the third book of my yet-to-be-named/farmed-out-to-publishers/agents/whoever series, I find the notion of kayfabe intensely useful. The notion of politics being a work of performance art makes it so much easier to write without having to worry about getting bogged down in the nuance of certain viewpoints. That doesn’t mean those viewpoints aren’t there, of course, but it gives you a certain compulsion to avoid focusing on them so hard that they derail everything else in the story. You can focus more on the person than the philosophy; more on the way that they sell their ideas and how they struggle to maintain a façade than about what those ideas actually are.
With how pervasive surveillance and sousveillance are becoming, and with how virtually everyone these days has to ‘brand’ themselves on social media, I feel like kayfabe needs to enter common use. It’s a beautiful word and we’d all benefit from having it at our disposal.