The WWE didn't protect women. (MARLIN LEVISON/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

February 5, 2024   5 mins

The genius of World Wrestling Entertainment is that it lives on the boundary between the real and the fake. What you watch in WWE bouts is “fake”, inasmuch as the storylines are scripted, the wrestlers perform in character, and the matches are choreographed and predetermined. But the stunts are real, with a real physical cost to the wrestlers in the form of concussions and broken bones. Take the classic trick of “blading”: a wrestler hides a razor blade on their person and uses it to cut themselves mid-bout to make themselves look more dramatically injured. Fake fight, real blood.

In the carny argot of the sport, the word for this is kayfabe. Kayfabe is something more artful than a lie and more profound than a fiction. It doesn’t simply substitute a narrative for the truth: it turns the truth into an element of the storyline, and those storylines in turn shape the truth. A kayfabe feud can sour a real professional relationship. Kayfabe romances turn into real romances, and the real romance is written into the kayfabe. The end result is a world where even the most serious possibilities can be inoculated with irony.

The king of sports entertainment until very recently was Vince McMahon, who both ran WWE in real life and kayfabe played a domineering boss character called Mr McMahon. But last week, after four decades in charge, McMahon resigned, following the publication of sexual misconduct allegations against him in the Wall Street Journal. Perhaps coincidentally, just days earlier, he’d signed a major deal to take wrestling to Netflix.

The allegations are extensive and distressing: a former WWE employee name Janel Grant claims he took turns sexually abusing her in a locked room with another executive, trafficked her to other men in the company and defecated on her during a threesome. McMahon denies them all, stating: “Ms Grant’s lawsuit is replete with lies, obscene made-up instances that never occurred, and is a vindictive distortion of the truth.”

But these are not the first allegations to be made against McMahon, or the culture of wrestling he presided over. As far back as 1992, Rita Chatterton, the first female referee in what was then the WWF, gave an interview in which she said McMahon had raped her in 1986 then frozen her out of the company. (He denied this.) By then, though, the statute of limitations had expired. For the mainstream media, which had limited interest in women’s allegations anyway, wrestling was a niche concern. For the specialist wrestling press, pursuing the story would have been suicidal — McMahon controlled access, and would hardly indulge a journalist pursuing an unflattering angle. McMahon dictated the storylines in the ring, but he also had the power to control the stories told beyond it.

A few years later, in 1999, Rena Mero (who wrestled as Sable) sued what was then the WWF: she said she’d been stripped of her championship belt after refusing to do in-ring nudity, and had been pressured to participate in lesbian storylines. The parties had settled, in an agreement that barred Mero from wrestling for three years — and even from using her ring name. As standard, WWE contracts give the organisation copyright over wrestlers’ characters. This meant that if you left McMahon’s kingdom, you’d usually leave your career behind: the “real” you was of considerably less value than the kayfabe version.

So, anyone who valued their wrestling career would be advised to play nice with McMahon. Given that WWE essentially held a monopoly over the sport, your career and reputation were in his gift. It’s understandable, then, that after her three-year ban was up, Mero returned for a storyline where she played the in-ring McMahon’s mistress. At one point, her breasts were exposed on live TV. It was a twist that reduced Mero’s lawsuit to a piece of kayfabe, effectively invalidating her claims and furthermore, those of any other woman in wrestling who might speak out about harassment. Taking your accuser back is, cynically, the quickest way to make her look like an unreliable witness; and as Harvey Weinstein’s victims would later describe, leaving is not a simple thing when the man you’re trying to leave wields absolute control over your profession.

I knew nothing of these allegations when I was watching wrestling in the late Nineties. McMahon was protected by his power, but also by the convention of kayfabe. Wrestling fans pride themselves on their ability to suspend their disbelief in just the right amount — to confuse the ring with real life was to make yourself a dupe, or a “mark” in wrestling slang. The character Vince McMahon played was a womanising monster, but only the most childishly naive viewer would confuse that character with the man.

It’s the same gaslight logic that has sustained Donald Trump — a friend of McMahon’s and, thanks to the 2007 “Battle of the Billionaires”, the only president to also be a member of WWE’s Hall of Fame. We’ve seen it when Trump has faced his own allegations of sexual misconduct. “Grab them by the pussy” was “locker room talk” — essentially, the kind of thing that the character of Donald Trump would say. Yes, he was found by a jury to have sexually assaulted the writer E Jean Carroll, and further ordered to pay her $83.3 million in damages for subsequently continuing to insist that she is lying about it — but in Donald Trump kayfabe, he’s the victim of a leftist conspiracy and this is simply more evidence that his enemies are out to get him.

Kayfabe is a way to talk about the art of wrestling, but really, it’s a term for the ability of the most powerful to impose their version of reality, and confound everyone else’s. And every MeToo story is a story, at bottom, of who is powerful enough to dictate the truth. It’s telling that, for most men, their MeTooing coincides with a decline in their authority. Weinstein was well past his Oscar-minting prime. R Kelly had ceased to be a reliable hit machine, spending more time with his grooming victims than he did in the studio. Jimmy Savile — who was MeTooed before MeToo was a thing — had to be dead first. If Trump seems impervious, it’s because he is, so far, too big to fail.

It’s telling, too, that the men who have paid the highest price for MeToo allegations have often been low in the social pecking order. Stephen Elliott was a minor figure in literary journalism when he was anonymously accused of rape via journalist Moira Donegan’s MeToo-inspired “Shitty Media Men” open-source spreadsheet. The unsubstantiated claims led to his social and professional ruin; when he sued for defamation, that was seen as further proof of his turpitude, regardless of whether he was right. Last year, he reached a settlement with Donegan in which she would pay him damages.

McMahon has already resigned from WWE once, in 2022, when the WSJ initially reported that the company had made millions of dollars in payouts to women alleging sexual misconduct against him. He was replaced by his daughter Stephanie, and reinstated a few months later, leaving it unclear as to whether it was a real defenestration, or a kayfabe one. But this time, the reality of Netflix’s corporate reputation appears to have imposed itself over the preferred reality of Vince McMahon. At 78, it could finally be the end of his reign.

When the reporters who broke the Weinstein allegations for the New York Times wrote a book about it, they called it She Said. It’s a title that explicitly references storytelling: who is listened to, and who is deemed an unreliable narrator. A “she said” story is one you don’t have to pay attention to, until something changes and suddenly you do. Maybe that’s why the entertainment industry is where MeToo started: it takes a storytelling business to shift a storytelling problem. And maybe that’s why it’s taken so long for wrestling to have its MeToo moment: when one man rules the narrative, his word is not only the law, it’s the (kayfabe) truth.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.