Darkness has consumed the WWE universe.
I’m not talking about a dark cloud covering the sun-type of darkness. No, this is something much more substantial; something much more permanent. Like any epidemic, this didn’t happen overnight. The warning signs have been evident for quite some time, certainly long enough to have prevented it from spreading. Instead, the darkness was given safe harbor to incubate, slowly growing in size and strength, until it was strong enough to consume an entire universe all at once. And that’s exactly what it did as Ronda Rousey struggled to leave the ring under her own power following the incredible beating she suffered at the hands of Charlotte Flair at Survivor Series.
A battered babyface defiantly refusing help after a brutal beatdown is the truest mark of a babyface. It shows toughness, it exhibits an inner fire that cannot be extinguished, it validates why you as a fan should support a hero as they overcome the challenges of a particular journey. At least it used to. As Rousey limped up the ramp inside Staples Center she was met with little love; the audience was hardly sympathetic or supportive. Despite having her head smashed between a steel chair (among other things) for no good reason, fans cheered the perpetrator of the vicious beating and booed Rousey for, I’m not really sure, surviving it?
— Marty △⃒⃘ Vasquez (@ABeardedMaster) November 19, 2018
The beating Charlotte gave Rousey was no great comeuppance; it was not a well-deserved receipt or some form of physical justice that we as wrestling fans recognize as the natural order of things. In point of fact, it was very much the opposite. Charlotte, unable to defeat Rousey within the confines of a normal wrestling match, purposely got herself disqualified in order to circumvent a loss in what used to be known as heel heat in pro wrestling. But that was before the darkness took over.
The first time I noticed the darkness was back in January of 2017. It was the first SmackDown Live episode of the new year when Dolph Ziggler, fresh off his intriguing rivalry with The Miz, betrayed his friend Kalisto in a surprising heel turn that largely remains in place today. Heel turns are, of course, a normal facet of pro wrestling storytelling. But there was something different about Ziggler’s heel turn that night, something that gave me an uneasy pause. It had nothing to do with Ziggler or Kalisto and everything to do with the live audience, specifically the manner in which it reacted to the turn.
As Ziggler carried out the unprovoked attack, which clearly shifted his character from the babyface side of the roster to the heel side, he was not serenaded with a chorus of boos. Fans throughout the arena jumped to their feet in vehement support of the surprising turn of events. Before long the majority of fans in attendance were raising their hands in the air and chanting ‘Yes!’ in a celebratory moment of complete defiance towards the desired reaction the fictional reality was designed to create.
I knew then that something was amiss, but instead of digging deeper into the issue I allowed the voices of others to sway my opinion. This is what happens, they said, when you stop telling compelling stories with compelling characters and lose the ability to lead the audience where you want them to go. They weren’t wrong per se. The glaring disconnect between WWE and a large portion of its audience has hardly been a big secret. The vexing push and pull that derailed the promotion’s master plans for Roman Reigns is but a microcosm of a larger problem that has unquestionable affected most main roster characters for the past several years. Still, I knew in my gut that there was something bigger at play.
Not wanting to fully accept the explanation of the vocal critics, I conjured up an explanation of my own. Heel turn pops, I told myself, are the new title change pops; brief moments of untamed joy exhibited by a live crowd excited to experience something important regardless of the defined roles of WWE’s overall narrative (like an audience instinctively cheering directly after a title changes hands, even if a heel won the match). I can see now that my original thesis was way off base. It was, in fact, the darkness getting stronger. Almost two full years later, the recent string of heel turns throughout WWE’s various brands and the way the audience has reacted to these turns has finally allowed me to see the forest through the trees.
Pro wrestling, more so than most other forms of storytelling, is an exploitative medium; you must exploit the fan’s desire to see an outcome in order to make money. First, you plant a seed, and then you tease the harvest in such a way that maximizes profit before delivering the goods. You either make the audience feel like they need to see someone win a glorious victory or suffer a deserving defeat. For the longest time, WWE chose to emphasize the glorious victory component of their exploitative storytelling process. The promotion was built on the supreme hero structure embodied by early performers like Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales. These regional acts successfully exploited ethnic pride, among other elements like socio-economic status, to garner loyal support against a laundry list of heel challengers.
In the early 1980s, Hulk Hogan and the Hulk-a-Mania movement exploited the renewed sense of American exceptionalism that swept the country at that time. Hogan was big and bold; an irresistible force that represented everything good and pure in America. He was, in many ways, a living and breathing campaign metaphor for the brand of politics being sold by Ronald Reagan’s administration — a sale’s pitch a majority of the country was buying in droves for most of the decade. Hogan’s character exploited every major facet of American life in the 1980s, making him one of the premiere pop culture icons of his time.
By 1997 it was most definitely not ‘Morning in America’ anymore. A rising counter-culture movement changed the music we heard on the radio, the programming we saw on television and the basic rules of decency in American society. We did what we wanted, we said what we felt and we didn’t give a damn about the sensibilities of those who couldn’t keep up with the times. Steve Austin was a perfectly calibrated character who, like Hogan before him, could exploit the new attitude (pun intended) of the country.
While this incredibly abbreviated history lesson may be obvious to some reading this right now, it’s worth noting that an ever-growing portion of WWE’s current audience knows nothing of this basic psychological foundation in which the pro wrestling industry generally operates. Those who began following WWE as far back as 10-12 years ago only know the polarizing acts of John Cena and Roman Reigns, who never achieved the unbridled support of the WWE audience writ large. WWE now employs a distinct ensemble approach to storytelling; you no longer pay to see someone win or someone lose, you pay to experience the WWE Universe. It’s a unique business model that no other promotion in the world has the means or motive to execute. Because wins and losses are no longer the primary focus of conflicts, clearly defined characters types are rapidly becoming a thing of the past as well. WWE has cultivated this concept and successfully reeducated its audience to believe that it can truly root for whomever they want; you can cheer or boo as long as you’re making noise. The audience certainly has been making quite a bit of noise lately.
WWE has willfully created a universe where the inmates are now running the asylum which, not coincidentally, is how a great many people would also describe the current political landscape of the country. It’s no secret that we are living in, shall we say, trying times. A third of the country believes they are fighting to restore American values largely defined by the flawed nostalgia of a bygone era and the vague promise of a better tomorrow. A third of the country believes they are fighting to save the country as we know it from malicious tyrants and treacherous charlatans. A third of the country wakes up every morning with the lofty goal of simply getting through the day amidst the unprecedented chaos and divide that currently defines the American way of life.
These are, in fact, dark times.
This darkness, not surprisingly, has now infiltrated WWE’s fictional universe, just as the over the top and worry-free sentiment of the 80s did, and just as the unapologetic anti-establishment sentiment of the late 90s did. Only now, WWE storytellers are no longer exploiting the basic emotions of its audience to lead them towards a story’s natural arch. To the contrary, the audience is now exploiting the fiction to exercise the considerable angst building inside them like a volcano about to erupt. As a result, WWE now exists in a bizarre parallel universe somewhere between Vince McMahon’s fantasy world and the stinging reality in which we all live.
People today are angry (no matter which political or ideological principles define them) and believe they must fight with an unprecedented vigor for what they believe. The fight mechanism in our collective brains is beyond activated. And so when Becky Lynch attacked Charlotte after a fair and hard-fought match at Summer Slam, of course the audience went nuts for Lynch. When Charlotte attempted to smooth things over and offer a forgiving hand of friendship, of course the audience rejected her – that sort of behavior is no longer perceived to be the admirable response of an even-keeled babyface, but a sign of weakness.
After weeks of ‘Boo the Woo’ Charlotte is once again back in the good graces of the audience. How, by mimicking Lynch’s attack that caused the fans to turn on Charlotte in the first place, that’s how. And now Rousey, a character that has been presented and received as a pure babyface since her debut, is the one left without a place to sit once the music stops. The recent turn of events within WWE’s women’s division is, admittedly, incredibly compelling. It’s fascinating to watch and by far the most entertaining aspects of WWE’s programming. Entertaining as it may be it poses a serious question, is this new dark reality the future of WWE as a whole? And if the answer is yes, what does that mean for the pro wrestling industry as a whole? Will these types of heel turn angles even be considered heel turns anymore?
Aside from Lynch and Charlotte, Nia Jax, Dean Ambrose, Daniel Bryan and Johnny Gargano have all recently displayed massive shifts in character in recent weeks. Jax has certainly been treated like a traditional heel since her stiff right hand removed Lynch from the Survivor Series card. But how will she be perceived when she steps into the ring against Rousey, who has been utterly rejected two nights in a row? How will that reception affect the overall story of the women’s title moving forward? Will Ambrose or Bryan be spared or rejected? We’ve moved passed WWE portraying an inconsistent narrative from week to week. The new question is, will the audience’s reaction be consistent from one week to the next? That’s an incredibly scary thought.
It’s difficult to predict anything right now; the guiding light of WWE’s world has been removed. And as we, in reality, have come to find out, the danger of living in darkness is that you can’t see where you’re going. When you finally get somewhere it may not be where you want to be-but by then it’s already too late.