We’re in a time—wrestling fans, wrestlers, and citizens—of purported futility.
For wrestlers and fans, the business remains generally controlled by the same cast of rotating men who controlled it decades earlier. Wrestlers are still commonly misclassified, probably still get compensated a lower share of revenue relative to players in other sports, and are still subject to cultures of sexual misconduct. And it’s unfortunately not clear what immediate steps can be taken to address those issues.
As citizens, we live in giant, semi-connected communities in which people unnecessarily suffer, maybe less than before, but unlike several generations ago, we know very well that they suffer. And indeed, unlike just one generation ago, we see vivid images of their suffering streamed to our palms the moment their freedom or lives are destroyed. Despite this, there’s little a well-meaning person seems able to immediately do about it.
As of only a few years ago, wrestling from anywhere in the world can be watched, often live. Because of wide broadband access, streaming video, social media, and smartphones, there’s barely a limit to information, studying material, and useful connections wrestlers can access. Yet the industry leader produces an increasing number of weekly hours of programming that largely wastes a generation of the greatest talent the industry has ever seen. Still others with the final creative authority take their lesson mainly from the leader, and unreflectively reinforce the painfully antiquated values. And, importantly, rather than suffer the economic consequences for doing so, all of their businesses are salvageable at worst or setting all-time profit records, at best.
While our awareness and sense of helplessness grew, great powers of media and commerce came within the reach of average people. We’re inundated with global communication and economic systems that may move any bit of information or nearly any commodity from one spot on Earth to another within days if not an instant.
More seriously: The power not only to be aware of but to resolve the greatest problems humanity faces—social inequities, poverty, healthcare, climate catastrophe—are within our capacity. Even despite recessions and a pandemic, there’s more global wealth now than at any previous time — albeit only in aggregate.
For wrestling, the business has never been so populated with high-quality talent; acclaimed performances have exploded in recent years. And yet it is stifled.
Pro-wrestlers have no collective bargaining power, despite being asked to perform through a pandemic by profitable companies. Wrestlers could, together, demand collective bargaining. But we don’t.
Wrestling fans via their disparate consumer influence could organize their sentiments and successfully demand a better wrestling product than what exists. But we don’t.
These things could happen. But we can’t sufficiently agree about how to go about those remedies. Or we can’t agree it’s worthwhile to do so — or worse, we can’t even agree on the relevant facts.
Rather than empowering us, the flood of accessible information confuses and distracts us. We have great powers that previous generations only dreamed of, but we’re barely able to do much with these powers except find endless new ways to entertain ourselves. For the wrestling industry, and the world generally, the missing keys to equity are secured deep in a few castles surrounded by impassable moats.
On top of that, it’s unclear how the large numbers of people who’d be needed for such projects would even be coordinated, especially when incentives of self-interest tempt us constantly, and when our individual competition with one another seems to prevent even any initial traction toward the kind of organization needed.
To enthusiastically demand such improvements may be reasonable and noble, and possibly annoying to common sensibilities. It’s more emotionally easy — at least in the short-term — to instead disengage, or to mock such earnestness, or to double-down on futility and absurdity, to become it.
“[F]latness, numbness, and cynicism in one’s demeanor are clear ways to transmit the televisual attitude of stand-out transcendence – flatness is a transcendence of melodrama, numbness transcends sentimentality, and cynicism announces that one knows the score, was last naive about something at maybe like age four.”
– E Unibus Pluram
Orange Cassidy is a personification of that popular emotional defense against the tension between being so empowered but so unable to coordinate a more just world. What makes his presence stand out more: he’s surrounded by elaborate personas, all of whom are competing desperately with one another to get over. Finally, there’s a character who doesn’t try. In his reluctance to exert any effort, he affects the audience with the irony that points to the sense of defeat they know too well.
This isn’t an ascetic disposition, where one approaches material things with indifference, ignores trivialities, and accepts each day as a gift without expectations. To the contrary, this is a response that means to deaden oneself emotionally, preemptively, defensively, before someone or something can be of harm. We emerge above problems, not because we resolve them; only because we’re able to say, “Who cares?”
The safest emotional investment to make in this world is no investment. In relationships, in politics, in wrestling, we cynically expect to always be disappointed. Sincerity, even belief, is too risky. The only thing safe to believe in is the security provided by detachment. But it’s this cool skepticism that feeds the cycle of oppression. It relieves us from the trouble of resistance, and in doing so, we too become our own oppressors.
The genuine creativity in this version of the Orange Cassidy character is that he displays this attitude while somehow, if you can suspend disbelief, almost accidentally remaining competitive in hand-to-hand (hand-in-pocket?) combat.
It’s an apparently comedic character, but the dramatic catharsis for the audience, who knows a wrestling culture and lives in a wider society with such tension between capability and futility, is in the hope that Cassidy can be victorious while maintaining his utterly unemotional attitude. He can, unlike us, emotionally invest nothing but accomplish something. That is, in our time, the unrealistic fantasy realized.
In that sense, the character (perhaps like the “Broken” Matt Hardy persona whose rise to popularity is somewhat reminiscent of Orange Cassidy) is not redemptive or instructive, but escapist in a way that works for our peculiar moment.
Or, rather, if there is a lesson, it’s that our detachment, our distrust and disengagement with institutions, our surrender before the edge of the moat, is a means to victory — at least to the extent the character is victorious.
Maybe the difference for Cassidy, and the opportunity to be genuinely inspiring, is when he departs from his usual demeanor and dares to care.
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