Don’t Look At Me: On Seeing and Being Seen in the Crowd

It’s early summer, 2015, and WWE is coming to Japan in a couple of months. We have tickets for one of the two shows, and to my delight, Kevin Owens, NXT champion and newly arrived on the main roster, is on the card. In preparation, I have gone to the stationary store and bought nice paper, the kind with gold threads woven into it, and a new pen. I sit down and I put the pen to the paper and I write:

Dear Mr. Owens,

And here I stall out, three words in. I look at the salutation and feel immensely foolish. So formal, so awkward. Worse, that’s not even his real name! But I can’t call him “Kevin,” how ridiculous. I don’t even know what to call this person I’m writing to, and what am I doing? I don’t think I’ve written a letter in a decade, and I’ve certainly never written a letter to a celebrity or athlete or anything like that. Why am I trying to write a letter to Kevin Owens? I have absolutely no idea.

The thought rises inevitably in my brain: This is stupid.

“This is stupid,” I say out loud.

Across the room, Dan makes an absent-minded “mmmm?” sound. He’s got his vast hoard of Lego bricks scattered around him on the floor. He clicks a last one into place. “There,” he says. “So what do you think?” He holds it up, grinning: a sign composed of Lego saying Let’s Go Finn.

Photographic proof

“It’s great,” I say. And it is. It’s adorable. He’s a middle-aged college professor, and he’s made an adorable Lego sign for his favorite wrestler when he comes to Tokyo.

“Thank you,” he says, satisfied. Then he looks apologetic. “I’m sorry, did you ask me something?”

I look back down at the paper. “That’s fine,” I say. “You answered it.”

He starts to clean up his Lego. “Just write your letter,” he says softly.

So I just write my letter. I write Kevin Owens about seeing him live and how much I admire his work. I am mortified to realize that I am thinking about comparing him to Picasso. I confess to liking El Generico as well as Sami Zayn.

(You know, absurd as it is, if I had to pick just one artist to compare Kevin to, it would probably be Picasso).

I write about watching his Ring of Honor feud with Generico and how much it moved me, about how I felt watching their matches.

(I mean, have you seen their fight at Final Battle 2010? Have you seen Picasso’s Guernica? They’re both works of art composed on the timeless theme of holy shit, human beings sure can be fucking monsters to each other).

I write that I’m pleased he’s moved up to the main roster and that I look forward to seeing what he’ll do there. I write a lot of stuff. Once I get started, it’s not actually that hard at all, I discover. My hand cramps up a couple of times, but I bravely soldier through it.

(Upon reflection, screw it, I’m going with the Picasso comparison).

I’m reaching the end of my space on the back page, if not the end of my emotions. There’s room for just a few more sentences. I start to lower the pen–and my hand halts.

The pen hovers above the paper, irresolute.


Every generation finds its own unique way to be isolated and lonely growing up, but coming of age in rural Maine before the Internet was a special kind of alone. It’s difficult to overstate how isolated an odd, intense child can feel with little connection to the wider world, and as I grow up I’m convinced (like millions of others all around the world in every era) that I am the only person to ever feel so alone, the only person to ever be so out of place.

What I have are stories, and I consume reams of them, nearly every book in my little public library. I devour with particular greed, over and over, stories about dreamy eccentric children finding their way into other, more magical worlds; opening doors that turned out to be Gates and becoming part of a story. Tales of wizards who stand before some misfit lost soul, there to announce: You have a Destiny. You are Chosen. Because there has to be a Gate for me, right? No one could be so lonely to no purpose at all. There has to be a magician who’ll find me. There has to be a wardrobe, or a police box, or a tornado that will take me to where I truly belong, where I have a role to play in a vast sweeping struggle between titanic forces.

Unwilling to passively wait for my destiny, I search for my Gate with a single-minded ferocity. If I touch all the bricks in the tenth row of the wall in order by the end of recess, surely a secret door will open in the wall. If I walk between these two birches with a clear enough image fixed in my mind, I will open my eyes to see a new world. If I walk between the birches backwards. If I touch all the bricks in the eleventh row.

If I do it with my fingers crossed.

If I have in my pocket a white stone polished by the sea.

If. If. If.

Solitary and odd and desperate, I develop a terrible fear of being looked at. I look into my books, the only Gate I have, and I refuse to make eye contact and I come to dread anyone’s gaze. There’s a sort of sideways defiance to it: to be looked at, to be paid attention to, is to be fixed more firmly in this world, and I am not of this world. I’m only temporary here, I’m just passing through. Don’t look at me. Making eye contact fills me with panic, as if something unspeakably horrible will fall on me from the heavens if I’m singled out, if I’m seen. No. No. I’m not here. Don’t look at me.

I’m thirteen when I note in my diary with forlorn pride that no one has looked at me or spoken to me in school for four days. That’s okay (it’s not okay). It’s a badge of honor. I’ll be ready, I know it. I’ll be ready to go when I find my Gate.


There is, of course, no Gate.


Eventually, I come to accept this. I grow up. I make friends. I fall in love! I find a career that’s meaningful to me. I move halfway around the earth with nothing but sixteen boxes of books and two cats and I make a life with another odd loner. Painstakingly, bit by bit, I stitch myself back into the world I rejected, and the aching need to escape into another world fades away into the living of life.

What remains, annoyingly, is the terror of being looked at. I’m all right with people I trust deeply, or in class where I have knowledge to give, but a stranger’s gaze still fills me with dread and a panicked desire to flee: I’m not here. Don’t look at me. It’s irrational, it’s stupid, and it’s as real and undeniable as my own pounding heartbeat.

I manage to make do. I wear shoes until they almost fall apart, unable to brave the polite and incurious regard of sales staff (No, you can’t help me, don’t look at me). I struggle to get proper medical care, because I will say anything, any lie at all, to get away from the unbearable weight of the doctor’s attention (No, everything’s fine, there’s no pain, I’m not here, don’t look at me).

The Internet evolves, and I discover that there, seen yet unseen at the same time, I can make a mask of words for myself, and that mask can be more eloquent and graceful and witty than my slow stumbling self. It’s the me I always wanted to be. It comes to feel, eventually, more real than I do.

I fall head over heels in love with wrestling and don’t even know why. I watch fans on television holding up signs, begging for attention, and am mystified; they may as well be lifting signs saying Please dump a box of tarantulas over my head. I go to two live shows and watch people screaming for wrestlers to look at them, look at them, look at them, and I’m stunned, completely uncomprehending.

No. This is only half true. The other half is that of course, of course, to my horrified surprise, I envy them. I watch them reach out to touch Dean Ambrose and I’m sick with jealousy at the ease with which they call his name and jockey for his smile. I want to be able to do that. The fierce intensity of my longing shocks and shames me; at live shows I drop my gaze as wrestlers pass by as if it were a demand, an assault, as if it were something terrible and dangerous. I don’t understand: after decades of trying to be invisible, why wrestling, why these people, why am I thinking, Where is my box of tarantulas?


My letter to Kevin Owens is nearly finished, just room for a few more sentences. My pen is still hovering. Hastily, before I can think about it, I add in a hurried scrawl that I’ll be at the Tokyo show, I’ll be wearing a Sami Zayn shirt, and I will of course boo him. I say this with a bravado that I do not feel–if cheering wrestlers is a challenge, booing may be well out of my range. I suspect that I will, as at previous shows, applaud politely and quietly. It seems… inadequate. This letter, I realize belatedly, is a sort of advance apology, an attempt to express in print what I’m worried I won’t be able to in person. So be it, I suppose. I sign it, seal it up, address it to the Performance Center, go to the post office, drop it in the mailbox, slam the box shut, and laugh quietly to myself all the walk home.

And then I forget it entirely, as you might forget writing a letter to Santa Claus, or putting a message in a bottle and throwing it into the sea. There, I think. That was a dumb impulse and I did it and got it out of my system.


The Tokyo show is my third live wrestling show, and my first in Japan. There are cosplayers outside the venue, including one of the Rock who is apparently a fixture at these shows and is greeted with adulation whenever he wanders by. There are a few foreigners scattered about, though I’m the only one in a Sami Zayn shirt. We’re in the sixth row, they’re good seats. The show (the day before Beast in the East, in which Kevin will lose the NXT title to Finn Balor) is fun, the audience hot. The penultimate match is Finn versus Chris Jericho. Jericho comes out to deafening adulation–not even the founder of the Bullet Club can top it–and they have a great match where he comes to respect Finn. To this day it’s one of the best matches I’ve seen live. Dan waves his Lego sign.

The main event is John Cena versus Kevin Owens. Dan has decorated a Japanese fan so it’s pro-Cena on the front and pro-Kevin on the back, for convenient ambivalence. The crowd cordially and vocally dislikes Kevin even as he comes to the ring, which is rare for a Japanese audience. I’m so delighted by this, so happy to have a chance to see this match, that I totally fail to drop my gaze as Kevin enters the ring and his eyes pass over the crowd.

So I’m looking right at him when he finds me in the crowd, makes eye contact, and nods at me.

It’s the tiniest moment, over immediately as he moves on, but I don’t think I could be more utterly shocked if he had punched me in the face. Indeed, I discover, it does feel rather like having a box of tarantulas dumped over me: large, fuzzy, harmless tarantulas with many many legs that you know shouldn’t be terrifying (but still are). I grab Dan’s arm, stunned, heart pounding with a sudden realization. He gives me a worried glance and I manage to say, “It’s a Gate.” My voice is drowned out by the music and the ovation, but that doesn’t matter. “The ring. It’s a Gate,” I stammer in epiphany, and it is, it’s a magic doorway, a wardrobe and a TARDIS, it’s bigger on the inside than the outside, because it holds within it an entire world with slightly different physics and a slightly different moral code, an entire world of demons and monsters and warriors and beasts, and while we’re here in the audience we’re part of that world, part of that story. When the action spills out of the ring, when wrestlers look out and see us and hear us, they’re making us part of that fictional world, they’re opening the door and for a moment letting us into a story full of melodrama and conflict, a story where Evil and Good clash and maybe Good will win, if we cheer it loudly enough.

Or maybe Evil will deliberately, dramatically nutshot Good and get itself disqualified rather than risk losing outright, then try to hit Cena with the NXT title, get its comeuppance, and flee. If our cheers do shape reality, then it’s possible this was partially my fault, as I have apparently completely failed at my promise to boo Kevin Owens and instead cheered him with all my might, Sami Zayn shirt and all. My Japanese neighbors, who are crazy for John Cena, look askance at me, but I can’t even be sorry about that; I’m hoarse from screaming, giddy with terror and delight, awkwardness forgotten in a rush of astonishment (could he possibly have read my whole stupid letter all the way to the end and taken the time to find me in the crowd? What the hell). I’ve glimpsed another world. I’m ten years old again and I touched every brick in the tenth row and a door opened up and a monster looked out from the other side and nodded at me. It’s my Gate, I found it at last, and it only took me four decades.

The crowd is thinning out. Dan’s probably still got my finger marks imprinted in his arm, but he doesn’t seem to mind. “He looked at us,” he says, amazed. “He really looked at us, didn’t he?”

I loop my arm through his so we don’t get separated in the crowd streaming out of the arena. “I’m pretty sure he did,” I say, fiercely glad that whether it was the sign, or my letter, or just two foreigners in the crowd catching his eye, at least it wasn’t all in my imagination. We walk away from the ring and back out into the soupy-hot Tokyo summer night, into our own world, so full of awful things, but so worth fighting to be in. I look at the Tokyo lights and I am filled with gratitude that I never found that door I searched for as a child, that I never escaped this world. I am so happy to be in it now, full of startled wonder.


I would write off my reaction to Kevin Owens seeing me as ridiculous and over-the-top (in fact, I often have), except that I’ve seen other wrestling fans talking about their experiences the same way.

Colt Cabana was chopping one of Dalton’s Boys and we yelled at him to be nicer, and he looked at us and laughed and did it harder, it was the most amazing thing.

Remember that show? The one where Roman Reigns saw us cheering and smiled? I’ll never forget it, he looked right at us.

Barthes calls wrestling “the spectacle of excess,” but at another level we, the audience, are the spectacle. Wrestlers are there to be seen but also to see us seeing them, to hear our cheers and respond to them, to make us part of the story.

John Cena sometimes does this thing where, as he’s trying to break out of a hold, will visibly gain power when the crowd chants Let’s go Cena and visibly weaken when they chant Cena sucks, and it’s the hokiest fucking thing in the world and it works. The Young Bucks, the greatest t-shirt salesmen in the world, are masters of making the crowd feel seen and heard in a thousand tiny ironic ways. Many wrestlers’ entrances incorporate some form of acknowledging the audience. Sami pauses on the stairs to smile out at the crowd as they sing (Sami tends to be all about sound and singing, hearing more than seeing):

Becky Lynch stops to see and touch fans as she walks down the ramp, sometimes to hand one her goggles, tangible proof that they’ve been recognized:

Baron Corbin makes a dismissive, contemptuous gesture; Alexa Bliss turns up her nose at the outstretched hands, but you can only reject and refuse something you’ve seen, so in the end the effect is the same:

 

Wrestlers are liminal, a wonderful word which means “on the threshold, standing between two states or two realms.” They stand partly in our world and partly in the fictional world, and they hold the door open to include everything they can hear and see in the story. While we’re in the audience, we have a part to play in this huge sprawling tale, in this world of demon kings and warrior queens and cyborgs, giants and legend-killers. Wrestlers invite us into a world where we have a destiny, we have a role to fill, our voices have an influence on these maharajas and eaters of worlds and monsters among men.

Things can go askew in this dynamic, of course. At times it’s clear an audience is enthralled by the cooler, more abstracted eye of the camera; you see people staring at the Titantron instead of the ring, hoping to see themselves being seen by the camera, hoping to glimpse their own reflection in the two-dimensional screen rather than be seen by the three-dimensional figures engaged in combat in front of them. I get the feeling that there’s an urge to wrench the narrative from the wrestlers who have so much control over it, to assert that we, the audience, are the true hero of the story. We are awesome, a crowd sometimes chants–for the benefit of the camera, not the wrestlers. The camera brings the spectacle to a wider audience, of course; but it also cools and flattens the experience. The camera’s gaze can’t create a connection with us. It crosses no thresholds, it opens no doors, it only reflects us back to ourselves like an endless hall of tempting mirrors.

At a certain level, it always startles me to hear wrestlers talking about how important it is to see and hear the audience; their self-awareness always manages, irrationally, to take me by surprise. Like when Stephanie McMahon appears on Up Up Down Down and talks with Xavier Woods–of course they know all this, much better than I do! Yet it feels vaguely like coming across Frodo and Galadriel having an earnest discussion of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey:

“It’s the person who’s performing that says I was there.” Wrestlers bear witness to our presence, they make us feel seen and heard (a rare and precious commodity; some will buy a hundred t-shirts to commemorate the feeling and to court it again). And for those of us in the audience who have learned to fear it, well, maybe for a few moments it’s okay. Maybe it’s not impossible to stand, shy and nervous, heart pounding on the threshold of a fictional world, seen and heard for just an instant.  


It would be grand to close this up by saying that now I have no problem with seeing and at being seen, in wrestling and life. But no, unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. I do try. Wrestlers need that energy from the audience to work, I remind myself. Looking away does them no favors. So I try. I wear a Kenny Omega shirt, I even tweet a picture of myself wearing it on the way to a show and tag him in it–and then when he stands on the turnbuckle and picks me out with a “too sweet” gesture I freeze: who, me? What? Why? I do better with Kazuchika Okada, who may or may not have developed the habit of giving us an imperious and puzzled frown when he spots us yet again in the audience–but then Okada always looks puzzled and imperious, so it may be nothing personal at all, I reassure myself.

“It’s Trent and Rocky,” Dan says at another show. “You’ve talked to them on Twitter. Just look at them as they come in.”

“Hhhhh,” I say, cringing at how much I want them to see me, and pretend there’s something immensely gripping on my phone.

“Hey,” Dan says. “Listen. You can’t say thank you without being seen or heard.”

And that’s what it’s about, really. In my letter to Kevin, I said that I’d boo him, and added that I hoped he would translate that into “thank you.” Of course wrestlers know that boos can be a form of thanks: negative and positive energy are both the tribute we give them. To look away, to be silent, is the worst ingratitude. I post gifs and write essays in part because I painfully regret my quiet in-person. I make this mask of words online say what I want, but it’s not the immediate, present energy that wrestlers need to keep that door open. I want my gratitude to be seen and heard. So I swallow hard and turn off my phone, feeling like it would be easier to bat a beachball around or do the Wave than to be here in this moment. But this is where I want to be, here where poor Rocky Romero eventually takes a vicious beatdown from a Suzuki-gun brute right in front of us while I cover my mouth with my hands and whisper “Rocky, Rocky, oh no.” His tormentor leaves him lying there, battered and unmoving, and I stare down at him, unsure what to say. “Get up, Rocky!” Dan finally yells as his tag partner suffers alone in the ring. “Trent needs you!”  “Yeah!” I say, a squeaky echo. “Help Trent!” It’s unlikely Rocky heard my tiny voice, but at that moment he seems to find the strength to drag himself back to the ring and help his friend. Did our support give him any of that strength? What magic that it’s even a possibility.

You can’t say thank you without being heard, you can’t give energy without being seen.  So I keep trying to say: Here I am in my world, this terrible and beautiful world, gazing into yours in admiration and wonder, in this uncanny place where they meet. Thank you for bringing them together, for standing on the threshold and hearing my voice. I’m here, I whisper, grateful to just be saying it. I’m here.

Look at me.

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J.J. McGee Written by:

I’m an American expat who lives in Japan and spends most of my free time being painfully earnest about narrative, character development, and slippage between kayfabe and reality in wrestling.

2 Comments

  1. Kieron
    September 2, 2017

    I lurk and read your stuff because you’re writing is frankly amazing and you manage that rare trick of explaining to me how I feel about this ludicrous adult pantomime in words better than I could manage.

    Even by your standards this is an amazing piece. I think it’s the best exploration of why we watch that I’ve ever read. Tremendous work 🙂

    • J.J. McGee
      September 3, 2017

      “This ludicrous adult pantomime” is the best phrase, I love it! And thank you so, so much, what kind words! Wrestling is such a weird and magical thing and it’s such a fun challenge to try and capture what makes it resonant (can I say “sacred”? I want to) while being honest that it’s also totally ridiculous.

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