“Working Yourself into a Shoot”: When is a Performance a Performance?

A collag with WWE superstar Lacey Evans and a police officer handing her a speeding ticket.

As some of you may know, I love pro wrestlingย and I think it can be good data for the scholar of religion. Let me offer a recent example that lit up the wrestling fan twitters over the weekend.

The WWE, the world’s biggest wrestling company, toured through Canada over the weekend, holding a show in Edmonton, Alberta. While driving through Canada, one of the wrestlers, Lacey Evans, was pulled over for speeding. She posted this video on Twitter Saturday.

A little bit of context here. Lacey Evans’s wrestling character is a snobby southern belle who calls the fans and other wrestlers “nasties.” She’s a “bad guy” or a “heel,” in wrestling terms. She’s uppity, conceded, mean, and rude. The “do you know who I am?!” response in the video is a perfect example of her character. Like most of her social media posts, the entire video is Lacey Evans in character.

In wrestling terms this is called a “work.” A work is everything that happens within the fictional world of wrestling. Everything you see on TV during a WWE show is a work and, with the advent of social media, more and more of what fans read from wrestlers on Twitter or Instagram is also a work. The thing about a work is that the goal is to elicit a response from the audience. When a wrestler is “working” in the ring they want the live audience to cheer them if they are a “babyface,” or good guy, and boo them if they are a heel. The video that Lacey Evans posted is her working as a heel to get a response from the audience of fans on Twitter.

Well, she’s a good worker. The tweet went viral. It was even picked up by the Toronto Star. The video produced a backlash among wrestling and non-wrestling fans who replied to her defending Canada and chastising her for her attitude. The backlash was so strong that eventually Evans had to send out another tweet admitting that the police officer in the video was in on the work the whole time and that she was just “doing her job” to entertain the fans.

In wrestling terms, this second tweet is called a “shoot.” A “shoot” is something real or legitimate. It breaks the fictional world of the work. It’s something not part of the show or part of the character. Notice that the statement is signed “Sgt Estrella.” That’s a reference to Lacey Evans’ real name, she was a Sergeant in the Marines before she was a wrestler. She used her shoot name to sign the statement.

What I find interesting about all of this is that wrestling fans want to get worked. Since the 1990s, most wrestling fans know that the WWE is scripted entertainment and that the performers in the ring are working together to tell a story through their matches. In short, we all know it’s a work. This has made it a lot harder for wrestlers and wrestling companies to work the fans and get the responses they want from them. The companies need those responses because it’s the emotional response and enjoyment of getting caught up in the show, in the work, that makes fans spend money. Getting worked is also the fun part of wrestling for fans. They want to get sucked into the fictional world of the show. Wrestling companies need to work the fans and the fans want to be worked.

But here Lacey Evans worked everybody. Everybody who watched the video and got mad got worked. They lost themselves in the story she was telling about herself as a sassy, rude, arrogant, southern belle from America, talking back to a polite Canadian police officer. She even got the cop in on the work! This is great heel work. This is what wrestling fans should want. But instead the backlash was so big Lacey Evans had to break character and shoot. She had to admit that it had all been a performance.

But here’s my question, which was the real performance? It’s easy to see the first tweet and video, where Evans is working, as a performance. But isn’t the second tweet a performance too? Evans puts her biography out there as a former law enforcement officer and marine as a performance to show that she really isn’t the person she was previously performing to be. She selects the aspects of her identity best suited to the moment to perform the part of a supporter of law enforcement. And, that performance is still bracketed by her “PSA Listen up nasties” which sounds like her working character. It’s a shoot inside a work trying to answer another work.

It’s performance all the way down.

This whole situation is what the most famous wrestler of all time, Hulk Hogan, would call “working yourself into a shoot.” Because all of us are always performing. We’re all working.

A Religious Studies Guide to WrestleMania

On the first page ofย Imagining Religion, historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith writes:

For the self-conscious student of religion, no datum possess intrinsic interest. It is of value only insofar as it can serve as exempli gratis of some fundamental issue in the imagination of religion.

For Smith, and I agree with him, scholars should choose particular examples as data that suit particular questions that they want to answer. In this way, the scholar of religion is not bound by “the boundaries of canon nor of community” in their pursuits. Thus, the data for religious studies is not limited to things that seem “religious” in the common use of the term. Furthermore, it is not the “religious” data that directs our research, but the larger theoretical questions that we seek to answer through the data we select.

This brings me to WrestleMania. Todayย WWE will put on their 35th annual WrestleMania show and I think there are three aspects of the show that could be of interest to a scholar of religion in the Smithian vein. To be clear, I don’t think a religious studies approach to WrestleMania should go find the things that seem obviously religious happening at the event, nor am I arguing that pro wrestling is also a religion. Rather, I am pointing out a few places where a scholar asking certain questions might find some data to theorize with.

So, I present a Religious Studies Guide WrestleMania 35.

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