What is Kayfabe?
Have you heard of “kayfabe”? The word caught my attention when I came across it in David Perell’s Friday Finds newsletter. It stood out as bizarre, and my brain tried to make sense of what the etymological roots might possibly be--is it of Latin or Greek origins?
Kayfabe is a professional wrestling term meaning “the portrayal of staged events within the industry as ‘real’ or ‘true’, specifically the portrayal of competition, rivalries, and relationships between participants as being genuine and not staged.
Kayfabe was invented because wrestling drew in crowds and money as a result, but it was a bloody sport where participants could easily get hurt or even die. Therefore, Kayfabe or fake wrestling storylines were invented to keep the audience drawn in, while opposing parties minimize the risks involved.
Why Kayfabe Matters Outside of Professional Wrestling
But why does Kayfabe matter if you don't care about professional wrestling? This brilliant video by Jake Orthwein (a Write of Passage alumni!) presents a hypothesis by Eric Weinstein that draws comparisons between professional wrestling and modern politics. Ever since the invention of destructive weapons such as nuclear technology, it has become too risky for politicians to initiate wars. Therefore, much like professional wrestling, political storylines are created to keep the masses entertained, push hidden agendas, and to deflect blame to opposing parties. (This is also known as “Power to Coerce.”) Foreign countries infiltrate and amplify Kayfabe through social media to drive discord. Kayfabe leads to public health challenges over political disagreements. For example, vaccination rates in the United States are arguably not as high as they can be because of anti-vaccination storylines running its course through social media.
What I would like to add to the conversation is how one might get better at recognizing Kayfabe storylines, and how to disrupt the hold they have on society.
As most have witnessed, it is extremely challenging to convince an anti-vaxxer based on scientific data. At times, I find that pro-vaccination individuals rely too much on data-based arguments and neglect to dig deeper into why anti-vaxxers are impermeable to their pleas. Instead, here I propose that empathy development is a more important precursor to convincing someone to change their minds.
Specifically, empathizing with someone entangled by Kayfabe requires first identifying a Kayfabe storyline that occupies our minds and examining why we care.
Developing Empathy through Taylor Swift
For the longest time I didn’t understand how people could believe in anti-vax conspiracies. How can they always justify what’s happening, no matter how tenuous the evidence, into their theories? Isn’t there an obvious cognitive bias here? But one day, I accidentally stumbled across a subreddit focused on potential relationships of Taylor Swift with other women. That came across as a shock to me as a casual listener of Taylor Swift--I would hardly call myself a Swiftie, and only knew her most famous singles. Despite being queer, I had no idea about these rumors about her, but members of the subreddit have compiled extensive evidence.
You might scoff or laugh, but the number of subreddit subscribers has climbed dramatically from its humble beginnings, and this theory is considered quite mainstream on TikTok. Some celebrities have posted publicly about their “gaylor” status. If you go down this rabbit hole, you will see a lot of self-admitted equivalence between “gaylor believers” and conspiracy theorists.
r/gaylorswift subscribers - graph generated from subredditstats.com
Clearly I have drank the kool aid given that I just made a graph for this topic
There’s a high likelihood that these “Gaylor Swift” stories are all part of Taylor Swift’s public relations strategy to cater to both straight and queer Swifties alike. While there’s much discussion about whether Taylor Swift is queer baiting or actually closeted, it seems to benefit her brand either way to generate these rumors, which is a classic sign of Kayfabe in the works.
I have tried to self-examine and ask myself, why do I believe in such theories, and check out the subreddit every day? What a time-consuming obsession!
It’s because if this storyline were true, Taylor Swift would be the most famous closeted celebrity of my generation. And I painfully relate to the emotions involved here in her songwriting and her life, as a semi-closeted person. (I am not out to my family, who have yet to discover my online presence.) This is a common theme that resonates with many gaylor swifties, who poignantly points out why listening to Taylor Swift for us is often bittersweet. Her music and lore captures having a performative life, juxtaposed with the pain of having the people whom we want to know us, not know us at all.
Given this self-examination, I can empathize with anti-vaxxers—there is often some deeper connection to the Kayfabe storyline, and evidence to the contrary isn’t something that can break that tie. Personally, I have spoken to an anti-vax friend and saw that they had strong convictions to avoid the vaccine, stemming from traumatic experiences dealing with medical professionals in the past (among other reasons.) While the person is still staunchly anti-vaccination, I feel there is room to continue the conversation and investigate alternative ways to meet common ground.
By the way, if you are reading this essay, I’m assuming that you are a pro-vaccination person out of pure statistics for my target audience. And you’re probably thinking, “Yeah! Anti-vaxxers are all misled by Kayfabe!”
But what if I tell you that pro-vaccination news can be just as misleading? There is a recent report suggesting that hospitalization rates might be inflated because of methodology issues. (In simple terms, it seems that in some specific studies that are not generalizable*, people who are hospitalized for other reasons who happen to have COVID-19, are counted as hospitalized due to COVID-19.) And I had heard this reasoning a while ago...from my anti-vax friend! So please don't walk away thinking that Kayfabe is specifically a tool used by the conservative agenda (if you are in the US)—it is found everywhere.
There is a cognitive bias known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon or frequency illusion, where noticing something for the first time leads to a tendency to notice it more often. I’m hoping to trigger this here by introducing the word Kayfabe to your vocabulary. Perhaps you’ll notice it more in your lives and hopefully, use it to enhance your empathy?
In a future essay, I will continue this conversation by addressing “internal Kayfabe”--the way stories we conjure up in our inner monologue cause unnecessary suffering, and what to do about that.
*An astute Gaylor redditor pointed out that by including this reference without a disclaimer, I had inadvertantly contributed to more Kayfabe—oops! This is why I love the internet—there's no better way to refine one's ideas and make course corrections.
WOP Prompt #2: What’s something you know about the world that other people don’t realize?
Questions for Draft 1:
- Personal: I find that the WOP essays I find the most impactful to me are the ones where the author is able to share vulnerability in the personal parts of their essay. Here I've added some...is it the right level? Would you prefer more or less?
- Observational: Is this enough to chew on? The video on Kayfabe is well worth a watch and I hope I did it justice in my summary, but TBH there’s still a lot I want to learn about it by reading the book from which the video is based.
- Playful: I’m hoping that my willingness to share my weird obsession with Gaylor and sprinkling of memes are considered somewhat entertaining, but let me know if you think there are additional areas where playfulness can be tuned up.
- Changes I’d like to implement:
- Refining language--I didn’t have time to run this piece through ProWritingAid!
- Louis: "It would benefit from stronger development of the personal reasons why ppl find anti vaccine stuff compelling"
- Draft 2:
- Implemented language feedback from reviewers
- Clarified why empathy is needed (it’s because data-based arguments don’t work)
- Revised conclusion by adding personal story on anti-vaxxers, how Kayfabe is true for “liberal” media as well
Gratitude to My Generous Reviewers:
- Mich Chow
- Rachel Koppelman
- Chris Wong
- Lyssa Menard
- Kelli Jackson
- Nick Miller
- Raymond Song
- Louis Alley
- Yuhong Wang
- Michael Sklar