Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fans and a Fallen Icon

Seven years after one of pro wrestling’s grimmest tragedies, a researcher in the U.K. is asking fans how they remember Chris Benoit, and what they believe WWE should do to manage his troubling legacy.

Chris Benoit, seen here performing at Baghdad International Airport in 2003. Less than four years later, Benoit would kill his wife and youngest son, then himself, in a tragedy that still resonates with pro wrestling fans all around the world.

By: James Swift

June 25, 2007 is a day professional wrestling fans will never forget. That night, a three-hour television special was scheduled to air live from the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi, Texas. The big storyline at the time involved the scripted “death” of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Chairman Vincent McMahon, who on a television broadcast a week earlier, was supposedly “killed” in an automobile explosion.

Those who tuned into “Monday Night Raw” that evening, however, were instead met by real-world tragedy. Earlier that day, the body of Chris Benoit -- a former World Heavyweight Champion -- was discovered in his Fayetteville, Ga. home, alongside the bodies of his wife, Nancy, and youngest son, Daniel.

The television program was quickly cancelled and replaced by a career retrospective, that, to this day, generates passionate debate among pro wrestling fans. As news began to trickle out that Benoit may have been responsible for the deaths of his spouse and child, WWE quickly spun into damage control mode; a day after the much-criticized “tribute show,” McMahon issued on an-air statement announcing that his organization would no longer mention the incident, or Benoit himself. Dedicating the program to all who had been impacted by the “terrible incident,” McMahon referred to the broadcast as the first step of a “healing process.”

Almost seven years later, that “healing process” still appears to be a work in progress. Years after the double homicide-and-suicide, WWE took great strides to omit references to Benoit from its broadcasts, merchandise and Internet archived footage. A company-produced Encyclopedia released in 2008 made no mention of Benoit’s career after 2004, and even the use of Benoit’s trademark wrestling maneuver -- a painful submission hold known as the “Crippler Crossface” -- vanished from other performers’ repertories. Even the mentioning of Benoit by WWE Hall of Famer Ric Flair, during his own induction speech in 2008, was later edited out of subsequent DVD releases.

Even today, fans dispute Benoit’s lasting legacy. Should he be remembered as an all-time great performer whose life ended with inconceivably horrific actions, or do the gruesome murders completely supersede whatever he accomplished during his wrestling career? An equally intense debate among fans has been how WWE chooses to remember Benoit as a performer; does the grisliness of the crimes justify his complete omission from their vast media library, or was his career too noteworthy -- and his legacy too influential -- to erase from company history?

An “Aca-Fan” Takes the Case

The polarizing nature of the debate regarding Benoit’s legacy, as well as how WWE executives continue to handle it, piqued the curiosity of Tom Phillips, a senior research assistant at the University of East Anglia’s School of Film, Television and Media Studies.

“I’m interested in how fans use the Internet to communicate with one another, the types of social structures that can exist online, and how hierarchies can exist in intra-fan relationships,” the 29-year-old Norwich resident told Uncommon Journalism. “Anyone familiar with wrestling fans online will tell you that their behavior is rife with interesting examples to discuss.”

As co-chair of the Fan Studies Network, Phillips refers to himself as an “aca-fan” -- that being, a researcher who is personally invested in the fan cultures he studies. In the past, his work has focused on topics such as the Angry Video Game Nerd and the View Askewniverse; the latter stemmed from his PhD thesis, Fandom and Beyond: Online Community, Culture, and Kevin Smith Fandom.

Phillips said he has been a fan of professional wrestling since his youth. He fondly recalls his childhood favorite, a face-painted World Championship Wrestling (WCW) grappler named Sting, and watching a VHS copy of “WrestleMania VIII” over and over. Viewing the 2008 film “The Wrestler,” he said, rekindled his interest in the industry.

While Phillips wasn’t a regular pro wrestling viewer at the time, he vividly recalls hearing about Benoit’s death, and the horrific revelations thereafter. “Even in the U.K. it was being reported on frequently,” he said, “and I spent the day in the office I was working in glued to the radio to hear the hourly news bulletins for any updates.”

The impact of the Benoit murders, Phillips said, is still palpable in many online wrestling forums and communities.

“I tend to read more about current events, storylines, and matches rather than watch, and it is in reading a number of different sites on a regular basis that I became aware that the specter of Benoit looms large,” he said. “The invocation of his name is still so divisive, and that it’s like that after so many years is really interesting to me.”

The Internet Fan’s Champion

Benoit, Phillips said, was always a favorite among online wrestling fans.

“Fans loved his intensity, and I think the general feeling was that he was someone who embodied a hard-hitting wrestling style, as opposed to being a sports entertainer,” he said. “Benoit wasn’t the most charismatic performer, but in the ring he could tell a story with some of the best performers in history.”

Compared to his wrestling peers, the 5’11 Benoit was one of the smaller men on the WWE roster. His realistic offense -- culled from years of wrestling in Japan, Canada and smaller U.S. organizations -- made the Montreal-born performer stand out from his contemporaries. Benoit’s size, intensity and even the real-life political opposition he faced from other wrestlers, Phillips said, made him a hero to online wrestling fans across the globe.

“I think a lot of affection for Benoit is that he was someone who the fans chose to support, rather than being forced upon the audience,” he stated. “Fans’ suspension of disbelief relies on a performer making it easy for them. Chris Benoit was someone whose offensive arsenal looked realistic, looked as if it hurt, and looked as if he meant it.”

Benoit’s nicknames reflected that aggressive persona. For a majority of his WWE tenure, he was referred to as “The Rabid Wolverine,” and his moniker “The Canadian Crippler” stemmed from a real-life incident in which he accidentally broke the neck of a fellow wrestler in 1994.

In terms of how fans today remember Benoit, Phillips said online communities seems to be evenly split among those who believe that his crimes should be detached from his wrestling career, and those who believe it is impossible to separate the two. Phillips found the dyadic online reactions so intriguing, it inspired him to pursue a full project about contemporary fan perspectives on Benoit.

“I’ve actually wanted to do this project for a couple of years now,“ Phillips said. “I felt that a study on responses to Benoit might still be provocative in 2014 and so far I’ve been proved right – the survey has currently received over 500 responses.”  

Gauging Fan Responses Today

Phillips said his research uses the Benoit murders as a complex case study to examine the grieving process in fan cultures.

“Where previous academic work has looked at reaction to celebrity deaths, posthumous fandom, the interplay between character and actor deaths, and using fannish texts as a means to cope with grief,” he said, “what the Benoit case study allows is an examination of an individual where fans are unsure whether the expression of bereavement or continued fandom is even appropriate.”

Recently, he began distributing online questionnaires. “This is both an ethical and methodological decision,” he said. “From a practical viewpoint it’s easier to ask fans the questions directly rather than trawling through forum responses.”

The questionnaire is split into three sections, asking survey-takers about their histories as wrestling fans and their knowledge of Benoit, prior to the homicides and suicide; their individual reaction upon first hearing of Benoit’s death; and lastly, how they respond to Benoit and the homicides today.

“Directing questions in this way allows me to understand each individual respondent and their personal fan narrative,” he said, “something which I feel is a real benefit of qualitative research.”

Since 2007, researcher and pro wrestling fan Tom Phillips has been fascinated by the online "memorialization" of Chris Benoit. His current research examines how fans view the wrestler's legacy, seven years after Benoit murdered his wife and youngest son. (Photograph courtesy of Tom Phillips)

While generalizing the responses he has received thus far may take some time, Phillips said most respondents believe that Benoit’s history of concussions, in conjunction with poor mental health, were major contributing factors to the homicides and suicide. This is something of a contrast to initial media coverage of  the crimes, in which Benoit’s use of steroids and other pharmaceuticals were pegged by many as catalysts for the murders.

While Phillips said he has received responses from some fans claiming that Benoit was “framed” for the murders -- or that the homicides were elaborate “hoaxes” -- he said such “extreme” responses are clearly a minority perspective.

“Those who tend to have more ‘extreme’ views like this tend to write much less overall,” Phillips said. “Those who have more considered, normative views appear to take more care in crafting a response.”

Overall, the amount fans have written about Benoit in their responses has surprised Phillips.

“I’ve been contacted by a few fans who have let me know how completing the survey was a cathartic experience for them,” he said. “There are some fascinating – and startlingly personal – accounts in the data, and I feel privileged that people have shared that with me.”

The More Things Change…

Since the Benoit murders grabbed international headlines in 2007, the world of professional wrestling -- and in particular, the way WWE does business -- has changed considerably. With “wellness policies” taking tougher stances on substance use, especially steroids, the headliners of today are noticeably smaller than the top WWE stars almost a decade earlier. Strikingly, popular contemporary wrestlers like Daniel Bryan and CM Punk share physiques -- and wrestling styles -- more akin to Chris Benoit than towering pop-culture idols like Hulk Hogan.

In the wake of the Benoit murders, WWE programming has skirted away from the more explicit sexual and violent content that was the norm during the “Attitude Era” of the 1990s. Bloodshed and steel chair assaults -- especially blows to the head -- have all but disappeared from the world’s largest professional wrestling organization. While complaints about the so-called “PG Era” run rampant throughout online wrestling message boards, Phillips said the overall constituency of such Internet fan communities really hasn’t changed that much since 2007.

“I think one of the interesting things about wrestling fans is that generally in terms of demographics things haven’t really ever changed,” Phillips said, “it’s just the most dominant or visible demographic that has been altered.”

With the launch of the WWE Network earlier this year -- a multimedia service that grants customers access to the company’s voluminous video archives -- World Wrestling Entertainment executives were faced with a dilemma. Should Benoit’s matches be included as part of the package, and how would fans respond if his bouts were -- or were not -- accessible?

Ultimately, WWE decided to post Benoit matches on the Network -- with a content advisory displayed prior to most of his appearances -- although the search query “Chris Benoit” itself yields no results on the service. Many respondents, Phillips said, consider this a reasonable compromise.

“I think the general perception of Benoit’s inclusion on the Network is that the WWE handled it in the best way possible,“ Phillips said. “Although they aren’t directly allowing people to search for Benoit, his content is there for people that really want to find him.“

However, Phillips said he has much work to do before he can pinpoint precisely how fan reactions to Benoit have changed over the years. “This is something which is not easy to generalize at this point,” he said, “and I’ll need a bit more thorough analysis of my data to get a good sense of if or how attitudes have changed.”

When An Idol Falls

“Many years ago Henry Jenkins referred to wrestling as ‘masculine soap opera,’" Phillips said. "And I don't think another description could be more apt." The end dividends of his own research, Phillips said, could not only shine a light on the world of online wrestling fans, but give insight into how culture, as a whole, celebrates -- and condemns -- its vaunted figures.

“I think one of the most interesting things will be to see how online pro wrestling fans in particular have facilitated a culture where Benoit’s name may be considered taboo,” Phillips said. In his questionnaire, he asked respondents to “conceptualize” the content and tone of the websites they frequently visited. Overwhelmingly, he said survey-takers have used terms like “sarcastic” and “snarky” to describe their preferred online haunts.

“Online wrestling fans don't appear to cultivate community in a strong way,” Phillips said. “I’ll be interested to see how this disparate community has self regulated since the Benoit incident, and whether behavior tends to be consistent across different online spheres.”

The value of the study, Phillips said, extends far beyond the squared circle and Internet chatter. He brings up the recent conviction of Lostprophets frontman Ian Watkins; despite being found guilty of child sex offenses, Phillips said some of Watkins' fans continue to defend him, despite his “deplorable acts.”

By examining fan reactions to Benoit, Phillips believes a clearer understanding of how and why fans grieve may arise  -- especially when that grieving process is complicated by a subject whose actions or behaviors may be considered inappropriate.

“I hope my study can help explain the cultural reasons why this type of behavior may occur, and question whether celebrity culture fosters such extreme devotion even in the face of actions morally and ethically deplorable,” he concluded. “In a culture that values celebrities, how should we be expected to act when they are shown as fallible?”

Uncommon Journalism, 2014. 

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