One of the biggest problems of the modern day wrestling, at least modern WWE is the fact that they are not connecting with a broader audience the way they did in the Attitude Era and during Hulkamania. The blame is put everywhere including the talent, the writing, the booking and even the audience. While all of those factors can contribute to a bad product, the main reason for a lack of interest in WWE is simple.
Vince McMahon is out of touch with modern society.
First, let’s look at the success of Hulkamania. Hulk Hogan was a very patriotic, family-oriented and virtuous character. This character mirrored a lot of pop culture and social conflict of the 1980s. Movies like Rambo: First Blood Part II, Die Hard, Predator and the Rocky franchise depict patriotic and strong-willed individuals facing a foreign threat. Most of Hogan’s opponents were similar characters: foreigners that seem nearly impossible to defeat. This was a direct result of the Cold War that seemingly peaked in the 80s. The Soviet threat was often seen as an inevitability and Americans were prepared for destruction.
Having larger-than-life characters like Rocky Balboa, John Rambo, Major Dutch, John McClane and Hulk Hogan overcome these insurmountable odds extracted a feeling of pride and nationalism, a feeling perpetuated by the presidency of Ronald Reagan who was arguably one of the most nationalistic presidents in the history of the USA. Vince McMahon and the WWF did a brilliant job replicating this feeling in the wrestling product which led to massive success and mainstream appeal.
Now let’s move on to everybody’s favorite—the Attitude Era—specifically “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
Austin, in the traditional sense, cannot be considered a good person. He is a reflection of the times he lived in. The 90s initiated an era of moral corruption. Events like the Rodney King trial, the LA riots and the OJ Simpson trial made the general population question the integrity of our justice system. Naturally, society began to revolt and they developed a nihilistic sense of thinking.
Nothing mattered, especially traditional values. This was adopted as the major theme in a lot of the mainstream media: movies, tv, music and of course pro wrestling. The Simpsons was a show that really defined the 90s and inspired similar shows like South Park, Family Guy and Rick and Morty. Some of the show’s main characters’ lack of morality is presented as comedy, ignoring the real personality issues. Movies like Pulp Fiction, Fight Club and Reservoir Dogs made unethical protagonists the norm, much like Steve Austin was. The mixture of society’s unrest with authority and the prevalence of moral corruption was the reason why Stone Cold Steve Austin resonated with the mainstream audience.
The success of Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin can be mostly credited to one thing: recreating a feeling that was present within the general population. When you are able to do that the quality of the product does not really matter. Just look at both 80s and 90s WWE. When you are able to capture that feeling, the casual audience will welcome anything. Vince McMahon in 2019 is trying to recreate a feeling that is no longer the spirit of this era and that is never more apparent than with the way he pushed Roman Reigns.
Our current times have become more complex than ever before. Economic and political issues have become more common and destructive. People feel like they are stuck in their current standing whether it be economically, socially or even personally. There is a desperation to try and move up. I’m not saying this was not present before but it is more common than before. There is also a rise of individualism. People are more focused on how they can better themselves rather than a whole group. These two ideas go hand-in-hand. Shows like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Stranger Things depict protagonists who are stuck in an unfortunate situation and have to make drastic changes to overcome it. A lot of the MCU movies present the idea of individualism. Iron Man, Thor, Captain Marvel and Black Panther all featured protagonists who were stuck in the ideas they were raised with but then developed their own thoughts and beliefs.
The reason Vince McMahon cannot connect with the audience today is that he is a billionaire who does not experience economic and social distress. Often it feels like Vince not only doesn’t see the value of characters like these but also sees them as losers. A lot of his babyfaces are presented with the same level of contempt as a Roman Reigns. Wrestlers like Finn Balor and Dolph Ziggler are presented as losers for trying to change themselves and grow as competitors. Sami Zayn and Daniel Bryan are heels because they care about things. It is almost as if Vince McMahon is purposefully being a contrarian because society does not match his own values.
You never get the feeling that Reigns has struggled the way the working class struggles. He gets awarded title matches despite not earning them and at times even after losing. His actions often go without consequence making him seem privileged and entitled. His “2kewl4skewl” attitude is really not one that resonates with even the younger audience as there is more appreciation for education in today’s society than let’s say in the 90s. He fails to accept defeat and instead of acknowledging that he needs to improve, he instead puts the blame elsewhere. In the Brock Lesnar feud, he lost multiple times against Lesnar and he lost clean. He then started to blame referees and Heyman and Lesnar but was not willing to look within himself to find the real issue. At his core, Reigns is a sore loser. He did not learn from his experiences and stuck to his old habits. The lack of growth of his character conditioned the audience that nothing will ever change with him and that it is pointless to keep watching and hold out hope that things will be different. This is why the modern audience does not get behind him. He is the antithesis of what the mainstream consumer is looking for in their protagonists.
There was a point where Vince McMahon was pushing the right man, even if it seemed accidental. Daniel Bryan started to break the barrier of the mainstream audience because he encapsulated everything that they were feeling. Bryan was stuck in the mid-card despite his great talent and fan support. This was both true in and out of storyline. He never received the title matches he felt he deserved but instead of complaining and blaming everything else, he found within himself the means to succeed in WWE. The audience noticed this and demanded he get pushed. While Bryan did eventually reach the top of the mountain at WrestleMania 30, it felt at times that the company was pushing against Bryan’s rise as opposed to with it.
After years of stable business and an exclusive claim to America’s top mainstream wrestling promotion, there is finally competition. AEW just today announced officially a new weekly television show airing Wednesdays on TNT. NJPW continues to make in-roads in America. For the first time in many years, WWE has some real competition in the marketplace. Let’s hope this competition will make WWE realize that it is possible to have people care about protagonists and will take the right steps into making people watch and more importantly care again.