TV shows often push contemporary issues in their shows. Look at the latest series of Doctor Who and how they have managed to shine a light on so many issues. Another show where this has been done throughout its illustrious run is the WWE.
Finger on the pulse
Wrestling has always had one finger on the pulse of society. Even in the eighties. Look at the villains. You had the Iron Sheik representing the “evil” middle east. Then there was Nikolai Volkoff cashing in on the frosty relations between the US and their Russian counterparts. It’s fair to say that it has always mirrored a version of reality.
The attitude era
But this was taken to new levels during the attitude era. Gone were caricatures. Instead, the characters on our screens were humans. Sure they were still larger than life but they were complex. Bad guys had moments where you were allowed to feel sorry for them. Good guys were flawed and we had anti-heroes like Stone Cold Steve Austin. Hell yeah.
Better and edgier
This focus on reality and little nods to a more informed audience made for some compelling storytelling. Let’s consider Austin and how he coined his “Austin 3:16” catchphrase. This was on the back of a lengthy feud with Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Jake had struggled with substance abuse and had found god. This was adopted into his onscreen persona. Austin’s character took a dislike to the piety and the rest is wrestling history.
Battle for ratings
The attitude era was a boon time for creativity in wrestling. Worries about reputations were cast aside and the focus was on ratings. It was all about beating WCW and Vince McMahon did it beautifully. Creating a rugged and hard-hitting product that lived up to its flagships shows title. It truly was Raw. And sometimes they got it right and sometimes they got it wrong – Do you remember Mae Young giving birth to a hand? Gross.
The PG era
Fast forward to the WWE buying out WCW. The competition was gone. There was nobody to challenge the mighty WWE and as we all know competition is what drives evolution. With that taken away, the WWE reinvented itself. The product was more homogenized for all ages. Designed to appeal to the broadest spectrum. Basically, it was trying to reattract the kids. Because kids buy merchandise and merch=money. It was just good business.
Of course, the product alienated a certain portion of its fans by transforming in this way. Ratings dropped and as fans became more informed and “smarter”. They began to cheer people they were supposed to boo and boo people they were supposed to cheer. Flame wars erupted on Reddit accounts and on internet forums. Brand satisfaction was low. So what did the WWE choose to do? Inject some realism.
A classic example of this is CM Punks infamous pipe bomb. Amid fears Punk was leaving the company he swaggered down and interrupted a match and cost John Cena a victory. He then sat cross-legged on the entrance ramp and delivered one of the most hard-hitting promos of all time. Effectively blurring the line between what was real and what was fiction.
Fast forward to more recent feuds and you have Jeff Hardy being taunted by Samoa Joe for his drug use. This is deeply personal. Hardy’s involvement in drugs is fairly well reported. But is using someone’s real demons like this a step too far in the name of entertainment? Is that not what reality TV is? Did the world not watch Scott Disick’s self-destructive spiral on the Kardashians with bated breath? Why shouldn’t pro-wrestling do the same?