The Rock’s done it. Jesse Ventura’s done it. Hulk Hogan just couldn’t do it. The wrestling world craves it. What is it? Legitimacy.
Wrestling, and the WWE in particular, is desperate to breakout of its little niche and make it with the big boys, the mainstream forces of entertainment, finance and politics. Tell a wrestler you believe their sport is fake and prepare to run – wrestling is *desperate* to be taken seriously; but no matter how much money Vince McMahon and the WWE make, no matter how popular they are, wrestling will always be viewed as merely "sports entertainment" by the men who matter, like an amusing but slightly embarrassing family member, to be hidden away when the real business is done.
WWE has boxed itself into a corner. For years they were happy to market themselves as "sports entertainment", a hybrid that existed nowhere else. Now that unique selling point has limited them. Though they now call themselves "sports AND entertainment", it’s too late for WWE. The damage has been done, it is caught between two stools, neither sporty enough to wedge itself in alongside football and baseball in the American consciousness, nor well enough written or acted to be a soap.
And yet corporate America is loath to turn it’s back on a billion-dollar empire, so the WWE paddles on the shores of the mainstream, making odd forays into politics and legitimate sports. Vincent K McMahon wants to be legitimate, and if he denies it, just show him the XFL-sized hole in his balance sheet; the whole sorry football episode stank of an exercise in positioning. Can’t get taken seriously as a sport? OK, we’ll hijack one of our own.
But ironically, the WWE is only caught between two stools because it struggles to live up to corporate America’s expectations. It doesn’t have to change its product; if it simply celebrated its unique fusion of styles, the mainstream would eventually come to celebrate its fiscal power.
This is a stronger possibility than Vince thinks, and it is yet to happen because the WWE exhibits something that the movers and shakers cannot stomach. The WWE’s archaic and occasionally objectionable attitudes. Corporate America is not prepared to endorse some of the writing and booking policies which make the WWE an embarrassment in their circles.
The WWE is an extended cartoon in which there is only black and white, good and bad-at least what the writers want us to believe are good and bad. Wrestling characters have no hidden depths, they exist purely for their feuds and fights; they live in a tiny parallel existence, and some of the attitudes in that world have got to change.
For example, the way the WWE uses its foreign wrestlers. In mainstream circles, it could be seen as racist. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the WWE is intentionally racist, it’s just that the broad writing style plays up foreign wrestlers’ most obvious trait-their race. So we have Tajiri, an extremely talented grappler, jabbering away like a fool to provide us with our cheap laughs. Of course, there’s nothing as nasty as Colonel DeBeers (South African with a horribly racist gimmick in mid-80’s AWA), but we are invited to laugh when Eddy Guerrero puts on his thick "Gringo" accent or Funaki mangles the English language, and it shows the WWE in an embarrassing light. They have always used wrestlers from other countries to manipulate audience reaction-the Bolshevics were Russian whipping boys at the height of the Cold War, the Gulf War (Slaughter, Adnan and the Iron Sheik) was shamelessly exploited too, and check out the knee-jerk cheap-pop attraction of La Resistance (a two month wonder, if that) but the adversarial creation of heroes and villains is more dangerous when it is based on nationality or race. Some of us still remember Roddy Piper clocking Jimmy Snuka with a coconut (and for those kiddies who can’t remember, Uncle Vince replayed it for us recently) or painting himself half black to fight Bad News Brown, and it is not such a big step from laughing at the differences of other races to hating them. In today’s multicultural society, corporate America must regard this as an intense embarrassment; they cannot have a serious conversation with the WWE whilst it is chuckling behind its hand at the Vice President from Japan.
Now, this change will be unpopular. The WWE needs to rethink the role of women in its product. That may mean no more T&A, no more HLA, no more bra & panties, evening gown or lingerie matches. Told you it would be unpopular-tough medicine but necessary if the WWE is to become legitimate; corporate America may well be as sexist as a John Wayne Bobbett convention, but it does not show this face to the public. The WWE, on the other hand, seems to celebrate it, regarding women as boys would, a flash of boob here, a peek of ass there, totally unthreatening titillation. The WWE completely controls their divas, even sculpting their body to capture the accepted look via the ever-necessary boob job.
Believe it or not, there was a time when women’s wrestling was respected; the Great Moolah was respected-and as a wrestling champion, too. Much as I enjoyed her work, I think it all came to an end with Sherri Martel’s managerial work for Randy Savage, Ted Dibiase and HBK; she was a great champion but also possessed a great body. Guess which one won through. There are very few real female wrestlers in the WWE, possibly only Molly (teased for having a big bum), Jacqueline (used incredibly sparingly) and, at a pinch, Victoria (portrayed as a woman on the edge of a breakdown); the others may have a few moves but they can’t run a wrestling match, resulting in blown moves galore and less fan interest each time they have an outing-Trish Stratus v Stacy Keibler means more posing and less wrestling. Of course, making octagenarian Mae Young give birth to a sex aid, go topless or straddle Eric Bischoff whilst wearing a thong is really nauseating, it has all the hallmarks of an initiation into a boys club; and putting women through tables is tantamount to abuse-yes, I know different rules apply in the WWE, but not in mainstream America. They must shudder every time the wood splinters.
It’s not as if Vince hasn’t been given as example of the way forward on the sexuality issue. Remember the Chuck & Billy Gay Marriage angle? It really wasn’t that long ago. The WWE was delighted by the positive publicity they got in the "serious" papers during the storyline. It seems that the work was taken seriously by corporate America, and they found it very refreshing. They saw it as an example of the maturing of the WWE, and were ready to rehabilitate them, with the papers paving the way through their first steps to legitimacy. And what did the WWE do? Destroy it all in the name of the Bischoff v Stephanie storyline, whilst mocking the fact that corporate America was taken in by their "softening" attitudes.
The WWE couldn’t bear to leave Chuck and Billy as two gay wrestlers who loved each other-they both had to publicly declare in the wedding skit that neither of them was gay or found the other attractive. In fact, the WWE has always a problem with gay or camp wrestlers; they are seen as a threat in a physical, full body contact sport. Campness doesn’t have to be seen as weak though, Exotic Adrian Street used his to unsettle his opponents, but by the time Adrian Adonis appeared in the late 80’s, his campness was used for ridicule, a fat man in a dress. Being gay is either a subject for laughs (Pat Patterson’s alleged homosexuality always a ripe subject for jibes) or titillation (anything to do with lesbianism), but in modern American society this is unacceptable behaviour. It makes the WWE look ancient, unintelligent and unnecessary.
And the cheap laughs also come thick and fast when anyone who differs from the musclebound WWF norm is introduced. Of course, the physiques in the WWE are the exception in America, but WWE is its own little world, and anyone who doesn’t conform to its shape is feared and therefore ridiculed. George "The Animal" Steele seemed to make a career out of playing the "simple minded" yet brutal fool who captured the fans’ pity. There was no reason for The Oddities, other than their "differences"-Golga (John "Earthquake" Tenta) a fat man in a mask, Kurrgan, a silly, gentle giant, led by Luna, the screeching, shaven headed mannish woman. And why was midget wrestling so popular? Not for their grappling skill, that’s for sure. It’s embarrassing for wrestlers to make fun of physical, mental or economic difficulties-remember Jamison, the "homeless" manager of the Bushwhackers? I still wake up in a cold sweat…All this smacks of arrested development; it’s puerile, unintelligent and childish.
It will take a long time for these attitudes to change, even if the WWE wants to overhaul them in the first place. However, there is one change that can be made immediately- the writing. There are reports that the WWE was pleased with the public condemnation they received for the Katy Vick/HHH/Kane necrophilia storyline, but they should be worried. Each questionable angle takes them further away from mainstream legitimacy. Using real events to provide a "shoot" element to the writing (we’ve recently had heart attacks and cancer scares used in this way), cruelty for cheap laughs, as when Boss Man supposedly cooked Al Snow’s dog Pepper (Pepper, cooking, get it?), Mark Henry and Mae Young’s relationship (ironically, in spite of the writing, quite touching), Jake Roberts pretending to be blind to put The Model Ricky Martel over, Terri Runnel’s head popping out from under the sheets to put Val Venis right over, all these and many, many more, cheapen the WWE’s standing in the marketplace almost irredeemably. I really hope they know what they are doing with Zach Gowan, because to make fun of a physically challenged, one-legged man (wrestler or not) may ruin their position for many years to come.
The WWE’s greatest asset is its wrestlers, but they too are devalued when they sustain supposedly career-ending injuries, only to be up and about the following week-HBK got the double whammy in his recent comeback, playing on his real back injury and then jumping out of his wheelchair to sing and dance weeks later. This is what gives onlookers the right to say wrestlers are not real sportsmen; yes the bumps are real, of course it hurts, damn right they’re magnificent athletes. But if they step through the ropes a week after suffering a serious injury, what is America to think?
I have just the answer for the WWE’s legitimacy problems. They must allow their wrestlers to develop their own characters without interference from the heavy pencil brigade. For their role model, look no further than Kurt Angle; they allowed him to try things out for himself, and he created an enduring, hilarious, priggish egomaniac that we love to hate-the WWE may write storylines for him, but they don’t impose them on him. Every wrestler brought to the WWE has 2 things-some level of grappling ability and a certain amount of charisma (although in Brock Lesnar’s case, this may not hold true) and they should be allowed to find their own way, so if one of them turns out to be racist or sexist, that will have come from the wrestler, not the management. What’s more, they will be left with much more interesting, more entertaining, much more *real* wrestlers.
Characters grounded in reality, showing human failings, getting rid of the boys club sniggering racist, sexist atmosphere by turning the emphasis to real people linked to a wider community? A human, unpredictable, physical soap opera? Now that really *would* make America sit up and listen.