Fantasyland - Chapter 22, webpage 3, continued
Making Make-Believe More Realistic and Real Life More Make-Believe
Pro wrestling emerged during the entertainment boon times of the 1910s and 1920s, when it had to compete both with ascendant sports like baseball and boxing as well as with theater and now, movies and radio. Pro wrestling split the difference between the two: real people in physical competition, but the characters and action and outcomes all extreme works of scripted and improvised fiction. During the 1930s, the sensible American public registered and rejected the phoniness, and pro wrestling went into decline.
It had a brief renaissance in the 1950s, thanks to the new medium of TV which needed content, and all the networks started airing matches. California's athletic commission officially agreed to keep pretending professional wrestling was real. If people preferred to believe an entertaining lie was true, that was their right as Americans. In 1957 matches were suddenly drawing Madison Square Garden's biggest crowds for any events in years, and one night, as a pair of hero and villain wrestlers kept "fighting' after their match finished, audience members started fighting over the outcome. Five hundred New Yorkers rioted, throwing punches and bottles. "Many of the fans," the Times incredulously reported, "believe the sport to be a true contest-of skill and strength. But that seemed like the swan song; pro wrestling's fakery was still a fundamental problem, it was a niche taste: as TV got flush and respectable, the networks moved on. During my youth in the 1960s and '70s, pro wrestling was a ridiculous, low-rent artifact quickly headed, everybody figured, for oblivion.
Until the 1980s. Cable TV programming had arrived, even more shamelessly willing than broadcast TV had been to sell anything. And then the networks, feeling threatened by cable and because the free market totally ruled, abandoned their old qualms about presenting fantasy as reality and began broadcasting wrestling once again. The new laissez-faire economic era also permitted a defacto monopoly to form what became the World Wide Wrestling Federation and then the WWE. The businessman in charge of the monopoly, Vince McMahon, had a brilliant insight, realizing that America’s Barumesque strain had reasserted itself: fake versus real was no longer the point, because wrestling's audience was not fully habituated, as one scholar of the realm has written, to "believing and disbelieving in what it sees at the same time." And so during the 1980s, the WWF and other promoters were finally free to end the Big Lie. In the old days, wrestling always officially insisted it was real. Finally it could stop pretending, because "real" and "fake" were relative, because nobody really cared anymore.
In less than a decade, pro wrestling mushroomed from a business generating a few tens of millions to half a billion a year. The audience expanded beyond its old blue-collar job niche to the middle classes, families, college
kids. It was transgressive, a fun con. And the real and fictional parts of the wrestler’s lives were now indiscriminately mixed and merged. In professional wrestling matches, any occasional, inevitable bit of unscripted authenticity was known as a shoot - old-time carnival lingo for when the gunsight on a shooting gallery's rifle aimed accurately. The standard fakery of matches in pro wrestling was known as work, and in the 1980s WWF producers invented the worked shoot: as one historian (and fantasy novelist) explains, they started incorporating "the real events of a wrestlers' personal lives as part of the story . . . alcoholism, cheating relationships, childhood trauma and problems with the law, are fused from reality into the fantasy."
Is there a more apt metaphor for our recent cultural transformation? America became a worked shoot.
I recall in the late 70’s watching world wide wrestling with my grandfather. On Sunday mornings we’d watch the weekly World Wide Wrestling Federation matches in the “squared circle”. My grandfather was a very mild mannered man, I hardly ever saw him get really excited or lose his temper, except when he watched Wrestling. I recall matches with Andre the Giant, Bruno Sammartino, Jimmy Snuka, the Wild Samoans, and the Indian Strongbows. I also recall George “The Animal” Steele biting open and spitting out the padding in the turnbuckle pads. When the matches started my grandfather would start mouthing off at the wrestlers, he always had a favorite he wanted to win. Pretty soon he would be off the couch jumping up and down yelling and screaming at the TV. He would do this repeatedly up and down throughout the hour. After Wrestling was over, we’d watch candlepin bowling, and after about 15 minutes he would calm down into his usual self. I didn’t think I had the right to try and explain to him that the wresting was completely fake and choreographed, so I never mentioned such and we had a blast watching the matches. My grandfather was born in 1901, he had gone from horse and buggy to automobile, he had lived through WWI, the Roaring 20s, the Stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression, WWII, the Korean War, McCarthyism, Vietnam, the 70s and 80s. I wonder now if he knew that the fights were all staged, if he knew reality from fantasy in this one area of entertainment, not that it really matters. But I wonder now what his neuroreality was like having lived through all those times.
The fantasy business of gambling grew much larger. Once state governments took over the numbers racket - that is, lotteries - they kept sliding further down the slippery slope. States colluded in the 1990s to create national lottery cartels that amped up the fantasy quotient; Powerball and Mega Millions encouraged even more wildly unrealistic dreams of even vaster wealth. Eventually most Americans would become regular lottery players, with the poorest third, probably not the least magical-thinking cohort, buying half the tickets.
And the states doubled down on the retailing of fantasy by legalizing casinos. Casinos are fantasy environments engineered to deny ordinary reality - no clocks, no views outside, plenty of booze. For most of a century, the industry had worked fine existing only out in the Nevada desert - and then
in New Jersey. But after 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Indian reservations were exempt from gambling laws, states saw no reason why white businesspeople shouldn't also profit from citizen-suckers' fantasies. During the 1990s half the states legalized casinos. Some legislatures permitted gambling only under a special double-fantasy system: casinos had to float on bodies of water, as if that prevented the state from being sullied. So they were installed in nostalgic old-time showboats and required to motor up and down rivers to sustain the fiction. But after a while they were allowed to remain docked, and finally they no longer even had to keep make-believe captains and crews. Despite the presence of casinos nationwide, Americans seemed to crave the full Nevada immersion even more, like believers making pilgrimages to Jerusalem or Mecca. As Las Vegas turned into a city posing as a theme park - with hotel-casinos that were huge new simulations of ancient Egypt (the Luxor), medieval England (the Excalibur), the seventeenth-century Caribbean (Treasure Island), Renaissance Italy (the Venetian), contemporary France (Paris Las Vegas), and New York City (New York-New York) - the number of visitors tripled. The difference between real and make believe has become harder to discern.
Not so long ago, American adults never dressed up in costumes, certainly not as an annual ritual. When my daughters reached their early twenties, obsessing more than ever over their Halloween costumes, they were shocked when I told them that. The change happened recently, and it is another small expression of the new protocols. In the 1980s, after the Halloween parades invented by freshly out gay people in San Francisco and New York, dressing up on Halloween became a thing straight adults routinely did in every corner of America.
But why did Halloween have to be just a single day, and why couldn't the adult insistence on fictional authenticity become more narratively elaborate? Thus live action role-playing-LARP-took off, allowing people to become characters acting out stories in the real world, sometimes for days at a time. The founder was evidently a young actor in Manhattan who liked reading Lord of the Rings out loud by candlelight with his pals while high. When they went to the next level, staging a Hobbit War outdoors on somebody's parents' farm, it was the ur-LARP. But LARPing soon became a medium rather than a genre, a platform instead of a particular game. LARPs started as combat games, as participants used weapons made from sticks taped with foam, then more and more abandoned fighting. Every possible premise and milieu generated LARPs - Old West, detective noir and Nancy Drew, futures dominated by AI or zombies, fictional pasts based on H. P. Lovecraft or Nicola Tesla.
One of the points of LARPing is to remain in character, to be a fictional being for hours or days at a time. LARPers have a disparaging phrase for real life, mundania, and people who never LARP are called mundies, like muggles in Harry Potter. For players eager to blur the lines between their real and unreal selves even more, Nordic LARP arrived in the United States in the 1990s. It de-emphasizes all the kid stuff, the combat and magic, and goes for more realism, with players aspiring to experience bleed, as they call it - to let their characters colonize their minds, to dream in character, to lose track of where real and fake begin and end.
And now there’s virtual reality. Virtual reality (VR) is a computer technology that uses virtual reality headsets to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulate a user's physical presence in a virtual or imaginary world. A person using virtual reality equipment is able to "look around" the artificial world, and with high quality VR move around in it and interact with virtual features or items. The effect is commonly created by VR headsets consisting of a head-mounted display with a small screen in front of the eyes. With this headset on, the brain can no longer separate virtual reality from actual reality – they both become one and the same.
Regarding selling a product, a car:
“What you market in a car,” the CEO of a car company finally admitted, “is not about what you use but about what you dream.” I bought a sports car last year, I bought it because it met my requirements – sporty hatchback. Recently I’ve seen car commercials on TV for this product. They include a little boy being chased home from school by 2 bigger kids down a snow covered street in the middle of winter. The little boy jumps over some shrubs and is cornered by the other 2 boys with snowballs. Intermittent are shots of the car racing down roads. At that point the sunshine brightens, all the snow suddenly melts, including the big kid’s snowballs, and the little kid starts tossing water balloons at the two bigger boys as they’re running away. Then I saw another commercial where 5 cars are driving down a road through the summer green mountains, and as they pass the entire mountains behind them suddenly get covered with snow. This seems like a perfect example of marketing a dream, a fantasy, as a profitable way of selling your product – marketing fantasy.
Forever Young, Kids "R" Us Syndrome
Middle aged people wearing Halloween costumes or attending Burning Man are expressions of a phenomenon I described earlier - the commitment of Americans, beginning with the baby boom generation, to a fantasy of remaining forever young. The treacly term “kids of all ages” had popped up when baby boomers were kids. But its currency skyrocketed during the 1980s and 1990s, when American adults, like no adults before them - but like all who followed - began playing videogames and fantasy sports, dressing like kids, grooming themselves and even getting surgery to look more like kids. It's what I call the Kids "R" Us Syndrome. It became pandemic and permanent. It ranges from the benign to the unfortunate.
As soon as all boomers were adults, half the buyers of comic books and tickets to superhero movies - the three Supermans and four Batmans just the beginning - were adults. As a result, both genres boomed. Video and computer games grew from nothing to a multibillion-dollar industry, not just because the technology got more powerful and the imaginary worlds more irresistibly realistic and immersive but also because by the end of the century, the great majority of consoles and cartridges and disks were bought by people who didn’t have to ask their parents for money – the average player was in his thirties. Videogames, originally sold to boys to pretend they were grown-up action heroes, were soon bought by mainly grown men who wanted to play like boys.
The strictly children's hobby of collecting and trading baseball cards became a primarily adult thing in the 1980s, the same time that Rotisserie League Baseball was invented and became the prototype for fantasy sports. By 1988, there were half a million U.S. fantasy sports players. In any earlier era, to spend hundreds of hours a year on an elaborate game of make believe – I’m a team owner, buying and selling players – would’ve been unthinkable for anyone but children.
With the Web, fantasy sports became fully industrialized, a new imaginary national pastime in which a third or more of American males would eventually participate. Fantasy sports are an expression of two underlying Fantasyland features that appear again and again. It's a superrealistic fiction, based on athletes' actual week-to-week performances and years of stats and a free market in make-believe assets. And it has hyperindividualism: each individual fantasy "owner" has a team composed of athletes whose individual performances are all that matter, rendering real teams' real wins and losses irrelevant. Fantasy sports – where fantasy actually becomes reality.
The Reagan Era and the Start of the Digital Age
Just before the Clintons arrived in Washington, the Right had managed to do away with the federal Fairness Doctrine, which had been enacted to keep radio and tv shows from being ideologically one-sided. Until then, big-time conservative opinion media had consisted of two magazines, William F. Buckley's biweekly National Review and the monthly American Spectator, both with small circulations. But absent a Fairness Doctrine, Rush Limbaugh's national right-wing radio show, launched in 1988, was free to thrive, and others promptly appeared, followed at the end of Clinton's first term by Fox News.
Should the old federal broadcast rules have been abolished? Maybe, maybe not, but in any case, cable T\/ was making them iffy and the Internet was just about to start rendering them moot. In any case, when the Washington gatekeepers decided to get rid of that regulatory gate, it was a pivotal moment, practically and symbolically. For most of the twentieth century, national news media had felt obliged to pursue and present some rough approximation of the truth rather than to promote a truth, let alone fictions.
With the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, a new American laissez-faire had been officially declared. If lots more incorrect and preposterous assertions circulated in our most massive mass media, that was a price of freedom. If splenetic commentators could now, as never before, keep believers perpetually riled up and feeling the excitement of being in a mob, so be it.
Rush Limbaugh, raised by a family of politically well connected lawyers in southern Missouri, entered show business early. From his teens throughout his twenties he was the radio deejay Rusty Sharpe, then the radio DJ Jeff Christie before he moved to talk radio using his real name. His virtuosic three hours of daily talk started bringing a sociopolitical alternate reality to a large national audience. Instead of relying only on a magazine or newsletter
Fox News brought the Limbaughvian talk-radio version of the world to national TV, but it mingled straighter news with the newsish commentary. It permitted viewers an unending and immersive propaganda experience of a kind that had never existed before. The new channel's trademarked slogan was a kind of postmodern right-wing inside joke: since the rest of the national news media posing as objective were unfair and imbalanced in favor of liberals, Fox News would be "Fair and Balanced." As the new right-wing multi- media complex was establishing itself, on radio and now on TV, in the White House were a pair of glamorous Hollywood-connected liberal yuppies out of Yale - perfect villainous foils, as political infotainment entered its WWF era.
For Americans, this was another new condition. Modern electronic mass media had been a defining piece of the twentieth-century experience that served an important democratic function - presenting Americans with a shared set of facts. Now those news organs, on TV and radio, were enabling a reversion to the narrower, factional, partisan discourse that had been normal in America's earlier centuries. The new and newly unregulated technologies allowed us, in a sense, to travel backward in time.