clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

To understand feuds between virtual Instagram models, you need to understand pro wrestling

Every good face needs a heel

Even by the standards of the internet, the recent feud between two computer-generated Instagram models named Lil Miquela and Bermuda was almost incomprehensible. It spread across multiple Instagram accounts and seemingly unrelated websites, and in the weeks since, there have been timelines and character breakdowns that attempt to make sense of it. But if you really want to understand this feud between two completely fictional people fighting in a scripted conflict with the illusion of being real, then the best place to start is in the world where that happens all the time: professional wrestling.

But first, let us examine our contenders. In this corner, hailing from the Uncanny Valley, is Lil Miquela, a “virtual influencer” whose backstory includes a “real name,” Miquela Sousa, and whose rise to a nebulous online fame has led to collaborations with brands like Prada. All this has happened despite the fact that she does not technically exist, even if her high-res looks are convincing enough at first glance that you could be forgiven for missing that last bit. It’s only on second glance that you realize that she looks slightly more like a Pixar character than an actual human being.

A fictional model with endorsement deals, an album, and a vaguely sinister mystery about who’s really behind the account is a strange enough concept to get your head around, but it really gets weird with the introduction of her foe Bermuda. She’s another virtual Instagram model and also Miquela’s ideological opposite, a crucial ingredient in creating an archnemesis. Miquela is portrayed as a Brazilian-American who posts about defending DACA and uses her modeling fame to support charities that benefit homeless youth. Bermuda’s account, which simultaneously declares her own hotness while denying climate change and lauding James Damore, is loaded up with pro-Trump memes interspersed with her own modeling pics, which look more like low-res screenshots of The Sims than the pixel-perfect shots that Miquela posts.

If Miquela is Pixar, then Bermuda ranks somewhere around the DreamWorks knockoff animated movies you can buy at Walgreens every Christmas, and that’s kind of the best part. It gives her an obvious human motivation, a burning jealousy at being replaced by a newer model that is easy to understand narratively, even if Bermuda never acknowledges it herself. See, in more sense than one, Miquela is a face, and as every professional wrestling fan knows, every good face needs a heel.

The conflict kicked off when Bermuda appeared to hack Miquela’s account, and there was a brief moment where it seemed like an actual feud was taking place, at least between the people who run the two accounts. But before long, it was clear that the Instagram audience was getting a taste of what the professional wrestling world calls kayfabe — the blanket term for anything within the storyline that’s meant to seem real.

If you really want to understand the complexity of kayfabe and how it relates to the blurred line between reality and fiction in the Miquela vs. Bermuda battle, the best place to start is a 2001 episode of Monday Night Raw.

Toward the end of the show, there’s a match between Lance Storm, a young wrestler who was new to the company, and William Regal, a veteran whose most recent on-screen role had been less about wrestling and more about his exploits as the bumbling, put-upon “commissioner” of the World Wrestling Federation. Regal is clearly playing the cowardly bad guy, and as the match begins, he’s reacting to Storm’s fiery offense by reeling from the hits and stumbling around the ring like one of the Three Stooges. And then something happens.

Storm throws a punch that, unlike most pro wrestling moves, looks like it actually hits. A few seconds later, Storm goes for a pin, and rather than the customarily dramatic two-count, Regal immediately shoves Storm away. When he stands up, he’s got blood gushing from his nose. From there on, the scripted, theatrical fighting style of pro wrestling is replaced by Regal legitimately attacking Storm, apparently in revenge for breaking his nose. He dumps him out of the ring, bouncing him off the ropes backward in a move that looks legitimately dangerous, knees him in the head a few times, and then spends the next few minutes brutally elbowing him in the chest and face, before finally locking on a version of his signature move, a submission hold called the Regal Stretch, which looked a lot more painful than it usually does. When Storm taps out, Regal refuses to let go — a pretty common tactic for one of pro wrestling’s bad guys, but something that seems a lot more vindictive here.

On turn-of-the-century message boards, there was an immediate outcry. Some fans wanted Regal punished for his violent, unprofessional response to an in-ring accident, others saw it as an appropriate reaction from a veteran to a younger wrestler whose mistake caused a legitimate injury and put them both in danger. The one thing nearly everyone agreed on was that it was real.

Until a few years later, that is, when someone asked Storm about the incident, and he told the real story: it turned out that the whole thing had been planned. Regal had been getting frequent nosebleeds as a result of a sinus problem that he’d later have surgery for, and the backstage staff wanted to shift Regal’s character from the on-screen bumbler to something closer to a vicious, capable veteran. The entire thing, including the appearance of Regal deviating from the script, had been planned from the start.

In other words, a fake fight pretending to be a real fight turned into another, completely different fake fight pretending to be a real fight. In wrestling, this happens so often that there’s a term for it, and people occasionally complain about how tired they are of seeing it.

In pro wrestling, anything that’s fake — all the pageantry that goes along with the scripted fighting — is called a “work.” Anything that’s real is called a “shoot.” That term was lifted from the first step of a takedown in actual Greco-Roman wrestling, hearkening back to the early carnival roots of pro wrestling, where they’d keep a “shooter” around to deal with any tough guys in the crowd who were so convinced that wrestling was fake that they wanted to step into the ring and try it themselves.

The modern audience, on the other hand, is well aware that wrestling is scripted. One of the best ways it’s ever been described is that the wrestlers are pretending to be legitimate competitors, and the audience is pretending that they’re at a legitimate sporting event. They’re in on it, in the same way that every audience for a scripted drama knows what they’re watching. The only difference is that, if you say you’re into Game of Thrones, nobody ever feels the need to inform you that the dragons aren’t real.

But because actual shoots do happen, and because the business spent the better part of a century working the audience into thinking it was real, pro wrestling has this unique ability to break the fourth wall while keeping a secret fifth wall in place. Those are called “worked shoots”: the times when someone acknowledges the unreality of what’s going on around them, but in a way that advances the action within the story. When the legendary Japanese grappler Antonio Inoki got frustrated with an opponent and stomped him into unconsciousness, that was a shoot. When Lance Storm and William Regal planned their match to give the appearance that they’d gone off-script, to the point of wildly over-the-top selling at the start of the match to underline the change when things got “real,” that was a worked shoot.

Lil Miquela vs. BermudaIsBae was a worked shoot.

This became apparent the moment Miquela regained control of her Instagram account and made the breathless confession that Bermuda had demanded: she isn’t human. (Which is something everyone already knew.) From then on, it was a work. It was pure kayfabe, a storyline about how Miquela was a robot actually built by an ersatz Cyberdyne called Cain Intelligence. (Uh, not to be confused with Kane, the wrestler who is kayfabe the fire-demon brother of a zombie cowboy, and who is shoot running for mayor of Knox County, Tennessee.) Needless to say, Cain Intelligence also does not exist.

A post shared by *~ MIQUELA ~* (@lilmiquela) on

But that doesn’t mean that Miquela’s feud with Bermuda and the sudden reveal that the fictional model that Prada struck a real endorsement deal with is actually a fictional robot with a supervillain nemesis isn’t worth discussing, or that it doesn’t matter. In staging it the way they did, Miquela’s creator(s) brought the idea of that secret fifth wall, the one that usually only exists on the four sides of a wrestling ring, into an entirely new medium and audience.

After the initial shock of Miquela getting hacked and being forced to admit that she was a robot who escaped captivity to become an Instagram model — the truest possible iteration of the 21st century American dream — the beats of the story have been pretty standard sci-fi. Like Miquela herself, and like Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Nature Boy Ric Flair before her, this work blurs the lines between reality and fiction, but thanks to internet media, it manages to make those lines blurrier than ever before.