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WRESTLING COLUMNS

The Bureaucratization of Pro Wrestling
October 16, 2007 by Aaron Groh


Editor's Note: The author of this column can be contacted via the OWW Forums, where this submission was first posted. Feedback can be posted automatically by clicking here - but remember you must sign up for the forums to post feedback on a column. Thanks you!


The year 2001 marked a complete shift in the direction for the world of pro wrestling. This year provided a time of great and unprecedented change, the likes of which the industry has never seen and marks the beginning of a new era for pro wrestling. For it was this year where WWE had established itself as the dominant federation of wrestling, as it ran its competitors WCW and ECW into bankruptcy and the obituaries of the wrestling world. Now with the entire industry in its clutches WWE now survives unopposed as the leader and arguably the embodiment of the business itself. Thus, with all the talent, money, and exposure the industry has to offer, WWE has changed its management model to adjust for its position of dominance.

The new model Vince McMahon and WWE has been using for the last seven years has come under much heated scrutiny criticism from a large portion of the wrestling fan base. Fans denounce and repudiate many of the business tactics and decisions of WWE due to the fact that fans feel like WWE is running its promotion based solely on what satisfies itself at the expense of the fans. Wrestlers are increasingly either fired or are taken in a direction that is seen as either unwise or unpalatable by fans, which causes much anger toward the company. Are these moves just part of a Vince McMahon ego trip? Are McMahon and WWE shaping the product to deliberately enrage its fan base? Are backstage politics shaping WWE to the fans chagrin? I would argue no to these questions and to others of similar ilk. As I see it, based on the monumental events of 2001 WWE and the industry as a whole is going through a phase of total bureaucratization. Thus, the wrestling industry is beginning to shut itself in its own 'iron cage' of bureaucratization.

This 'iron cage' is an idea coined by German Sociologist Max Weber to describe the process of bureaucratization and the human experience that relates to it. Most central to this process is the idea that the 'ideal-type bureaucracy' strives for the greatest amount of rationalization and efficiency. Typically to assure that a corporation or governmental department increases both these aspect, power within the body becomes more centralized and layered. We see this taking place in WWE now as all creative decisions are monopolized by Vince McMahon and his creative teams. All gimmicks and storylines are conceived, edited, and initiated within this core of power. They have received these powers in an effort to increase rationalization by allowing only one core brain to make the decision for the entire body. If one needs an example of this, it is not hard to find a shoot interview of a begrudging and disgruntled former WWE wrestler who has locked horns with the creative team and McMahon over their creative vision. A more precise example comes to my mind of an interview with Raven where tells of being frustrated with WWE creative shooting down his storyline submissions and the lack of their own.

The efficiency comes from lack of decent and enforces unity of vision, while attempting to reduce creative conflict. However, it also stresses the need for greater corporate profit a further need to sustain itself by any means. We see this as WWE tries to outline success based on merchandise sales and television ratings rather than fan feedback and quality of matches. In his autobiography, Ric Flair elaborates on this point when he discusses the quality and length of WWE's matches in comparison to the matches of his prime. He talked about how a typical match on 'Raw' will last five minutes, which is not long enough to have a good match. However, Ric Flair explains, this happens because the new measure of success not the quality of a wrestlers match or work but the ratings they pull instead.

Another aspect of bureaucratization that is worth noting is how regulation becomes indoctrination. Endless rules and regulations are rationalized as the only tool to create efficiency. The rules are a means to seek efficiency through incentivizing complete harmony and homogeny. Punishing those who conflict with the bureaucratic powers is a typical way creating such homogeny. Although most of the cases of "dog house effects" over conflicting with those in power creatively are only rumors, but if they are true then they serve as examples. If WWE has a creative vision that they deem the most rational, then those who conflict with must be dealt with. Bureaucracies see conflict as irrational and counter-productive, thus it will seek to minimize them through various "carrot and stick" measures. Creatively speaking, we see WWE pursue this line of creative harmony with how they dispense gimmicks to their new wrestlers. Today WWE is ultimately the biggest decision maker on which wrestler has which gimmick. A bureaucracy would feel the need to maintain this amount of creative power over the power of the individual. Also it is important to keep in mind that the measuring sticks used by WWE analyzing the effectiveness on certain gimmicks are very rigid. We see gimmicks discarded or thrown to the dirt very quickly, because WWE cannot afford too much time to test the success of a gimmick if it may negatively affect the over-all product.

If we take a look at gimmicks and wrestler characters of this new era, the typical complaint from the average fan is that they lack the creativity the gimmicks of yesteryear had. If this is true then it would be further evidence of bureaucratization. Individual creativity is suppressed by bureaucracies because it does not enforce the same homogenous vision I explained earlier. This suppression of individual expression and creativity leads to a "cog in the machine" effect where people become only parts of the bigger machine as a whole and nothing more. One could argue that that is what WWE's developmental territories do to the next generation of wrestling superstars. They are trained from day one to do business in every way WWE would have them do. Everything from how a wrestler wrestles, listening to the powers that be, to giving promos is shaped to how WWE would have them do these things. The purpose for this is to maintain stability and homogeny when they make it up to WWE roster. I remember personally watching an old episode of "Tough Enough" and seeing Tori verbally lambast one of the competitors who had previous wrestling training for not doing things the "WWE way". Professional exploration of wrestling methods and manoeuvres is deemphasized which may lead to most wrestling matches looking alike because they have all been trained to wrestle the same way. I recall reading one of Jim Ross' Blogs where he says that the old territories were best for wrestling because wrestlers could migrate to different places and learn different things, thus growing as a performer.

The suppression of individual creativity and involvement (otherwise known as human regimentation) is evident when one thinks of today's WWE promos. As we all know, the promos and interviews the each wrestler gives are scripted. This is evidence of bureaucratization that Mick Foley speaks out about in his book "The Hardcore Diaries". He talks about how the scripted promos create wrestlers who don't have to think. They don't have to get too creatively involved in the direction of their character, the only step to success they need to take are the exact ones WWE would preordain them to do. Mick Foley is widely seen as one of the best promo givers in the history of wrestling, from his perspective, because he has to get personally and creatively involved in what he has to say. His complaint is that wrestlers no longer have to do that due to efficiency reasons. Because of time constraints WWE can't afford to have promos go over the time allotted to them regardless of quality.

The one thing that bears looking into is looking at the business' biggest superstar to gauge the bureaucratization of wrestling; and that star would be John Cena. There is a lot of anger directed at this wrestler because he seems to represent, to many fans, the bureaucratization that has occurred in wrestling. His ascension was something fans of all stripes heralded when he first took on his white rapper gimmick. Fans loved his raps he would spin because they were creative, entertaining, and at times racy. But these same qualities were shaky ground for WWE who feared a possible backlash of stock holders, so this creative outlet was snuffed. Instead Cena gives promos that fans find un-entertaining, dull, and generic. There was even a time when WWE pulled one of Cena's shirt off of production because they were uncomfortable with the phrase "Ruck Fules". His wrestling style and matches are also up to much scrutiny by fans these days, as they seem to think that his wrestling style has begun to match his promos. Many fans have grown agitated by his wrestling because he seemingly lacks a versatility of moves, perhaps a by-product of WWE training. If all these criticisms are true, or hold any sort of merit then one would be hard pressed to not see why he is becoming increasingly scrutinized; because he has become a living representation of the course of the industry, a course of bureaucratization that many fans find unsavory.

If the wrestling industry is becoming more bureaucratized today, then what prevented this from occurring earlier? Perhaps the answer lies in the competition of the '90's. Perhaps the competition encouraged more personal involvement and creativity as a way for WWE and WCW to one up each what of the original ECW? It is possible that the reason it had such a rabid fan base and is so over romanticized now is because it thrived on a weakness of central power and an emboldening of individual wrestler creativity as they forged their own gimmicks and wrestled the way only they wanted to. But if that is true then, the reason of its demise arises. Perhaps the answer is that it wasn't bureaucratized enough. Because ECW never practiced any caution in its business decisions, it was too risky to survive on television. And where does this leave TNA? Perhaps the best course open to them is a sort of middle ground between WWE of now and the old ECW. Maybe a structure where the individual and the central system share power and emphasizing uniqueness is the best model for them to follow in an industry dominated by a bureaucratized corporation. But probably the most important question to ask is: Will this bureaucratization of the Wrestling industry have a reverse effect? Max Weber would argue an emphatic "No". Weber argued that bureaucratization is always occurring and there is nothing to stop the door of the iron cage from closing. However, I am optimistic that it will, although the possible causes remain incredibly hard to determine.

by Aaron Groh (View/Submit your feedback here)..




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