by David Beard and John Heppen
Fans of pro wrestling are typically divided into two groups, “marks” and “smarks.” The fiction is that a fan is either a smark or a mark. It’s a little like “Santa Claus” — either you believe or you don’t.
We propose a third path. We propose that there are marks, and there are smarks, and there are cases in which “marks” and “smarks” are two halves of the same personality.
A mark is a pro wrestling fan who believes that pro wrestling is “real,” rather than recognizing the existence of “kayfabe” (that is, rather than recognize that it is a performance with a predetermined outcome). The marks at a wrestling match are invested in the contest; they root for their favorite wrestler the ways that a football fan roots for their team. Like football fans, the “marks” among wrestling fans experience euphoria during moments when the match is going well for their wrestler, and stress when their favorite wrestler is “on the ropes.” This tension between the two emotions generates a sense of pleasure called “eustress” (Wann, Schrader, & Wilson, 1999). Like football fans, the “marks” among wrestling fans may experience a borrowed sense of self-esteem if their pick wins; they consider themselves triumphant when their chosen wrestler has triumphed and may distance themselves from a wrestler who disappoints them. [This phenomenon is called “basking in reflected glory” in Cialdini, Borden, Thorne, Walker, Freeman & Sloan (1976), “cutting off reflected failure” in Snyder, Lassegard, & Ford (1986) and “cutting off future failure” in Wann, Hamlet, Wilson, & Hodges (1995)]. In these ways, marks believe in the authenticity of the competition like traditional sports fans (McBride & Bird, 2010, 169).
The “mark” term is borrowed from the lingo of con artists and carny folk, who refer to the suckers who fall for their schemes as “marks.” Notably, the “marks” do not refer to themselves as “marks” anymore than the victims of con-men do; this term is foisted upon them by those fans who “see through” the theatrics . Those fans are called “smarks.”
A smark (“smart mark”) is a wrestling fan who understands that the outcome of a pro wrestling match is pre-determined. Craven and Moseley (1972) stated that these fans enjoyed wrestling for its camp appeal. Smarks “approach the genre of wrestling as would-be insiders… [and] possess truly incredible amounts of knowledge about the history of wrestling, including wrestlers’ real names and career histories, how various promotions began and folded, who won every Wrestlemania ever” (McBride & Bird, 2007, p. 169).
Because they know that the winner is chosen before either wrestler enters the ring, “smarks” approach a wrestling match the way that a theatregoer approaches a new staging of a play they’ve already seen: they applaud the performance. The “smark” enjoys the precision or skill of the coordinated movement of the wrestlers — the spectacle, not the competition.
Smarks claim that “kids are marks” or that “we were all marks when we were kids” — according to McBride and Bird (2007), smarks “view marks with scorn” (p. 169).
And yet, they can exist within the same person. McBride and Bird (2007) hinted at this when they claimed that “the spectator’s performance of credulity in the face of the fantastic nature of the display” distinguishes wrestling from true sports (p. 166). Smarks till feel the tension of the match in ways very much like the ways marks experience that tension. There can be elements of the mark in the typical smark.
Revised from Sports Fans, Identity, and Socialization: Exploring the Fandemonium [edited by Adam C. Earnheardt and others].