WWE makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, and it’s unavoidable. The impotent reply of “just don’t watch it then” isn’t applicable to such a towering behemoth. They have bought, sold and monopolized a huge proportion of American wrestling and floated it on the stock market. They’ve almost done the same to British wrestling and are having a damn good go at doing it in Japan. In the 21st century, they moved beyond physical tape libraries, and into abstract humanity. They are buying people, signing anyone with the smallest hint of talent, and leaving independent companies reverting to plans B, C and beyond.
In a recent review, I was very critical of those who decided not to wear their independence with pride and drink from the poisoned chalice of NXT UK. The specific word I used was ‘scab’ – a worker who crosses a picket line and betrays his fellow worker. Of course, as with many things published on the internet, the nuances of metaphor and tongue-in-cheek humor were lost and I had to endure an afternoon of people shouting “they’re only making a living” through my phone.
But, as I explained to a friend, I stand by what I said. Everyone has to draw their line somewhere, and as I watched a scene descend from innovation to complacency, I drew my line very firmly. It was wrong for all those bookers and wrestlers to sign those NXT UK contracts. I’m canceling my network subscription. I’m boycotting the WWE.
My friend’s response? “It’s easy to do that. WWE is crap.”
They were right on two counts. The second part of the statement, that the WWE is crap, is as near to being objectively true as an opinion can possibly get. In the Voices of Wrestling Match of the Year poll for 2019, NJPW got seven times the number of first-place votes than all of the WWE brands combined. WWE had the second-highest number of matches appear on the poll, but only the seventh-highest average rating.
Voices of Wrestling ask the critics, but what about the average wrestling fan?
GRAPPL, in their end of year poll, reported just six matches rated above 4.25 for the entire year. The biggest, wealthiest and most talent-rich wrestling company in the world had an undeniably terrible 2019.
If you enjoyed their year, and the NXT Takeovers and Kofi/Bryan were enough for you, I’m not attempting to mock your position. However, it must be accepted that your position is not held by the majority of wrestling fans or critics.
It is, however, the first part of my friend’s statement that is most important. There’s no challenge in giving up something that I don’t want. The bold declaration of “I’m not watching this anymore” is an impotent yell into space when I wouldn’t watch it anyway. I can’t take a moralistic abstinence from self-flagellation and expect a round of applause. I don’t make a point of telling everyone that I’m not watching the latest Fast and Furious movie, so why have I done so with the WWE?
The problem with WWE, is that they force you to take a moralistic stance on so many issues both in and around professional wrestling. Everything they come into contact with is struck by such a poignant sledgehammer blow, that it is impossible to ignore. It is impossible to divorce the moralistic part of your brain and either enjoy it for what it is or walk away. WWE is the company of forced politics.
An example of this clumsy sledgehammering into political discourse is the incredible announcement of NXT UK Takeover Dublin. We are not quite at the ‘Newspeak’ stage of our Orwellian descent into totalitarianism just yet, and words still have meaning. An Inuit has the proverbial fifty words for snow because they have a need to add nuance to their description of their environment.
Every word soaks up connotations and layers the more it is used, and these layers are often contextual. “UK Takeover” paired with Blackpool has connotations of a seaside town enjoying a thrilling wrestling event. “UK Takeover” paired with “Dublin” brings significantly more weight with it. It speaks to a very real conflict that has affected the lives of many people. I grew up in Manchester and distinctly remember the IRA bomb of 1996, and the uneasy fear that lingers after such a terrorist attack. If “UK Takeover Dublin” stokes those feelings within me, I can barely imagine the impact those words have on those directly affected by the conflict in Northern Ireland, especially now is very much a modern concern due to ongoing Brexit negotiations.
All corners of British and Irish wrestling Twitter were quick to point out their incredulity at the clumsiness of the title, and I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone who works there explained the potential connotations of “NXT UK Takeover Dublin.” If lots of fans on Twitter noticed it, then surely the staff of NXT UK noticed it too? Did they tell anyone, or was the meeting room akin to the press conference where Triple H slut-shamed Paige to a reception of brown-nosed titters?
Of course, intentions matter. I don’t believe that the WWE intended to align their event with a centuries-old conflict; it’s an example of their oblivious political sledgehammer. It’s a trait of the WWE, forcing their way into politics, that shows no sign of slowing down and if we’re looking at intentions, it’s important to consider what they are.
The most contentious political debate stemming from the WWE is what they are doing in Saudi Arabia. WWE will tell you that they are breaking barriers and having women perform in a country that has historically restricted their rights. There are those that claim that they are bringing entertainment to a country that is trying to move in a more progressive direction.
As I stated, intentions matter. WWE went to Saudi Arabia because they got paid fifty million dollars for each event. The discourse on how to improve women’s rights in a nation like Saudi Arabia was never a concern of theirs but was inherently linked into the decision to watch, review and critique for everyone connected to professional wrestling. The fan wasn’t able to separate themselves from those issues and was forced to take a stance because of that WWE political sledgehammer.
Art and politics are inherently connected, and that is absolutely appropriate. Music, writing and professional wrestling all have the power to use their art as a platform for social and political change. AEW signing a transgender wrestler was a catalyst for difficult conversations. WWE steamrolling their way through the Middle East collecting huge cheques is not. They are not starting a Socratic conversation with the world, they are a bulldozer that destroys any reasonable debate.
So, is a decision to abandon WWE because of their political clumsiness redundant, as my friend claimed? In some ways, yes, but it also feels like a resistance to the cliched, tired tropes that have accompanied the discourse the WWE has created. “They just want to make a living” has been emblazoned all over Twitter whenever someone criticizes NXT UK talent, and the simplicity of the perceived dunk has led to a snowball effect. At this point, it feels like it’s a Pavlovian response, subliminally programmed during the “Then, Now, Forever” segment. Few seem to question how redundant and impotent the statement is. There are as many immoral ways to make a living as there are moral ways, and everybody is going to draw their line in a different place. What is devoid from that copy-paste response, is any recognition of the line being in different places for different people and, more importantly, any critical thought as to where the speaker’s own line might be.
And there it is.
I’ve answered my own question.
The wrestling on WWE TV being good or bad isn’t really important. What has been important is the thought process that has challenged my ethical and moral beliefs. While these should never be permanent decisions, it’s important that the fan is critical of what is presented to them. It’s important that we don’t become a group of people mumbling “they’re just making a living” or “switch it off if you don’t like it,” or worst of all “it’s only wrestling, it doesn’t matter.”