Can WWE break away from being a sideshow entertainment company and go mainstream? 411's Wyatt Beougher proposes some changes that would improve WWE’s overall reputation in the eyes of the public...
Introduction: So last week we took a look at three tropes that the WWE regularly utilizes that they need to do away with, in the form of unlikeable, bullying faces, ineffective champions who lose non-title matches far more than they win title matches, and the fact that Divas just don't have personalities outside of "mean girls" and/or "jealous". It was a mixed bag of comments last week, with some people focusing on what exactly a trope is and if the things I wrote about qualify, but it was one commenter, who came relatively late to the dance, who inspired this column. Matt in New Jersey left a string of three comments that are absolutely worth seeking out and reading in their entirety, but, in the interest of remaining true to the new column format, I'd like to highlight the last sentence of his first comment:
Vince whines and complains that nobody takes him or his company seriously as mainstream entertainment, and that they can't escape the image of being a product for redneck yokel idiots. Well, has he considered not gearing his content ENTIRELY to redneck yokel idiots?!?
Which raises an excellent point - if Vince doesn't want to be seen as a sideshow form of entertainment, then why does he seem to only care about pleasing the same people who still think honest-to-goodness sideshows are still acceptable forms of entertainment? Matt made some compelling examples (characters with above-average intelligence are always heels, people from outside the United States are heels unless they profess a love for the United States), and then RAW went ahead and reminded its viewing audience of two more. First was the awful Daniel Bryan/Brie Bella/Kane stuff, which played out like a poor man's See No Evil and reduced a women who had just wrestled for the WWE Divas Title seven days earlier into a screaming set piece incapable of defending herself or even getting to safety without the assistance of her husband. Second was the awkward and uncomfortable "tribute" to Mr. T's Hall of Fame induction speech. T's original speech was awkward, but it was so earnest that it had a charm all its own. The abomination they aired on Monday night stripped out all of that heart and character, instead adding in some autotune and the vaguely racist "dancing mamas" from Brodus Clay's Wrestlemania entrance a couple of years ago.
Yeah, not playing the crappy Schmoyoho-lite version.
Not only did Vince miss the boat on the Autotune craze by a solid two years, the video served to illustrate what has always been a glaring weakness for the WWE: making compelling characters who aren't white males. The Rock is an obvious exception to this rule, but look at the African-American wrestlers currently working in the WWE right now - Big E Langston was a forgotten champion whose momentum fizzled at around the time he (and his title) became a prop in the Real Americans break-up, Brodus Clay just wore blackface on NXT last week (not a joke - Google it), Darren Young gets off relatively lightly because he's currently injured, David Otunga is gold on the microphone yet they can't find anything worthwhile for him to do on television, JTG has been MIA for like four years now, Kofi Kingston went from being Jamaican to Ghanian and his character changed not a whit, Mark Henry is barely around and when he does show up it's just to lose, in spite of being in the best segment of his career less than a year ago, R-Truth and Xavier Woods are token "dancin' black guys", and Titus O'Neil got pushed for all of fifteen seconds before being forgotten again, and the Funkadactyls are basically the Compton Clovers from Bring It On. And don't even get me started on a pair of Puerto Ricans playing Spaniards or a Tongan playing a Mexican.
I find myself wondering if it says more about Vincent Kennedy McMahon that he thinks that this kind of thing is acceptable, or if it says more about us as wrestling fans that we continue to go along with it. While I understand that the Internet Wrestling Community makes up only a small portion of the overall fanbase for professional wrestling, and that, as with anything on the internet, even the IWC has a great deal of racists and sexists amongst its members; however, is wrestling fandom as a whole so culturally regressive that we deserve to be lumped in with our baser brothers and sisters who genuinely want to see that kind of lowbrow garbage? As I mentioned in a reply to a comment on last week's column, the WWE has renewed their focus on marketing to children in the post-Attitude Era, so are racism, sexism, homophobia, and misogyny really concepts we want passed on to a new generation of wrestling fans? I have a teenaged daughter and I've watched wrestling with her since she was very small, and while it's certainly not as bad as the Attitude Era, with her being able to grasp a lot more of the subtext on a given wrestling show, I find myself too frequently trying to steer her away from certain segments or angles.
Would fans of the main roster shows really not understand how great this was?
For instance, I've gone out of my way to get her into NXT, because it's generally the least offensive (and, consequently, best booked) weekly program, and I want her to see just how good wrestling can actually be. That led to me having to try to explain why Emma, who was a strong, confident, competent woman in NXT, is now suddenly a bumbling putz in a third-grade relationship with a goof with a unibrow. This past Monday, after the Kane/Bryan/Brie stuff, she texted me and said, "That was dumb, dad." And I couldn't argue with her. She's a huge fan of horror movies, including See No Evil, which we watched a little less than two months ago, but this angle has done nothing to make her more interested in the upcoming sequel that the first movie didn't already. Over in the YES! YES! YES! Facebook Group, Adel C Nammour said that he believes WWE is turning Kane into an over-the-top cartoony villain to make Bryan into a clear-cut hero for the kids. It's a good theory, and probably a true one at that, but I have to ask - can't WWE find a happy medium where they paint in the broad strokes for the children while offering some subtlety, continuity, and actual logic for adults?
That kind of multi-layered storytelling isn't impossible, and, in fact, it's usually films and shows aimed at kids that do it quite well. Look at the original Shrek (which was my daughter's favorite movie for quite some time and which I've consequently seen no less than 400 times), or Adventure Time - there's a lot of humor in there that's ha-ha funny for the kids, but there also are less obvious themes and ideas that are appealing to adults as well. I'm an unabashed fan of Adventure Time, which entertains kids with some off-the-wall, over-the-top humor and situations, but it also manages to teach important lessons about friendship, interpersonal relationships, and even love, among other themes. While I'd love to see [Adventure Time creator] Pendleton Ward book the WWE for a year, just to see what he could do, I don't even think that would be necessary - all the WWE needs to do is make RAW and Smackdown more like NXT. If they gave their characters believable motivations and limited the kind of lowbrow nonsense that we saw on Monday night, it would go a long way towards gaining Vince more mainstream acceptance.
Any company that can make a video package like that one (not to mention one that is willing to go the extra mile like they did) is certainly capable of producing eight hours of compelling television weekly, which brings it all back around to Vince. As a fan of the Cincinnati Bengals, I'm extremely familiar with just how wrong things can go when you've got an owner stuck in the past and completely out of touch with reality, so here's hoping he actually decides to retire and leave the company in the hands of Stephanie and Triple H. While I doubt they will change things too drastically while Vince is alive, at this point, I'd be happy with any incremental improvement. We've already seen an uptick in focus on the actual "Wrestling" part of the name and the implementation of Wellness and Rehabilitation programs to improve the safety of current and past performers; now it's time for the "Entertainment" to catch up.
Wyatt Beougher is a lifelong fan of professional wrestling who has been writing for 411 for over three years and currently hosts MMA Fact or Fiction and reviews Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.