A couple years ago, I was listening to the excellent podcast Wrestlesplania (hosted by Rachel Millman, it’s good, check it out) and in one of the early episodes, Kath Barbadoro shared a truth from wresting that I’ve thought about all the time ever since, especially this past week.
Sometimes in Pro Wrestling, unless you’re really clued in to the backstory and the character narratives going into any night, it can be hard to tell who you’re supposed to be cheering for. Character trajectories and story arcs evolve; heroes sometimes turn into villains (“turn heel”); storylines can emerge that you’re not sure how to parse at first. But there’s one foolproof way to tell who’s being cast as the hero and who’s being cast as the villain.
Every wrestling match is unique, but at the same time, every wrestling match is the same. The hero (the “face”) respects wrestling. And the villain (the heel) disrespects wrestling. So, therefore, they must wrestle, over the honour of wrestling. So if you want to know who’s the villain, just look for who is being cast (or will be cast) as disrespectful to wrestling. Once you know to look for this, it’s easy to see.
This is an old technique. If you go back to Ancient Greek storytelling, there are a lot of classic story arcs (Order versus chaos, Rise and fall, even Good versus Evil) but the most important story arc of all - the one that’s senior to every other narrative, in every story - is “Respects the Gods versus Disrespects the Gods.” It holds the highest spot in the narrative hierarchy.
In the Greek stories, you always have two storylines going on simultaneously. You have what’s going on down on earth, which can be complex, and nuanced, and often hard to interpret at first. Real life is complicated; there’s rarely such a thing as a “pure” hero or villain. But then up in the pantheon, you have the second storyline, which is the Gods watching what’s happening down on earth, and figuring out amongst themselves how the story is going to work out - specifically, figuring out which of the humans down on earth they deem to be respectful, and which are disrespectful.
Once that senior narrative gets established, the earthly story becomes a foregone conclusion. When the “respecters versus disrespecters” narrative gets established for the audience, it’s effectively impossible to undo. Even if it flies completely in the face of what’s actually happening on the ground (which was often the case! The Gods often disagreed, or got it wrong!), the absolute clarity that this narrative creates is irreversible.
So, you can replace Wrestling or Zeus with “America”, or “the troops”, and it works pretty much the same way. If there’s a developing storyline, and you’re able to take control of the media narrative by framing it in terms of “The ___ respecters versus the ___ disrespecters” you’re going to win every time. “There they go again, folks, disrespecting America.” It’s like controlling the centre of the board in chess.
A few years ago, Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, refusing to stand for the flag in protest of police brutality and of the killing of Black Americans. Since then, up through the killing of George Floyd and subsequent eruption of Americans everywhere, the issue of the fundamental relationship between policing and being Black in America has not been able to escape the more senior narrative of "America Respecters versus America Disrespecters.”
It’s very sad to see these mechanics work in real time.