Professional Wrestling may bristle at being marginalised in mainstream popular culture, but the benefits from being seen as a cultural irrelevance (while raking in millions of dollars and marketing all kinds of conservative values to the children – and adults – in its audience) also works in its favour as often as not. Mainstream culture’s failure to examine professional wrestling seriously lets them get away with all kinds of things that no other media organisation could, or should, get away with, and pocket a tidy profit while doing it.
Interestingly, last Monday on the WWE’s flagship show RAW there was an odd development – not the kind of outrageous, overblown sex or violence that sometimes draws the attention or ire of the mainstream media (something the WWE has worked hard to avoid of late), but a (relatively) quiet storyline development that showed something that’s rarely seen on mainstream television: a group of workers forming a small group and sitting down together to discuss workplace safety issues and getting legal advice on how best to deal with their problems.
This is the kind of thing that should draw attention in any medium: workplace issues – unless tied to the prurient lure of dizzy corporate hedonism – rarely get much coverage in the popular media. Presumably. workers’ rights don’t make for interesting television, and people only seem interested in unions on film and TV when they’re corrupt. That’s a shame, considering that the divide between the rich and the poor continues to widen and wealth is increasingly held by a small percentage of the population. As The Guardian reports, a 2011-released census report “revealed that 46 million Americans live in poverty” and that “the richest 20% of Americans control 84% of the country’s wealth”. Narrowing it down further, the top one percent controls 25 percent of wealth. According to the CIA (!), the USA ranks 39th (out of 136!) in the list of income distribution inequality.
Of course, TV’s all about telling us that we could be next in line: questioning the way things work could blow your big shot when it finally arrives. Don’t fight it – the next millionaire could be you! (It won’t be.)
No wonder mainstream culture heaps awards on delusional tripe like Slumdog Millionaire, which ignores all social, political and economic problems behind the existence of slums, and instead replaces them with a pretty story about winning a million bucks on TV and marrying an Indian supermodel. (It’s the most blatant example of recent times, but far, far from the only one.)
So, any actual focus on workplace issues in mainstream film or TV is of extreme interest. And, in fact, compared to most of the WWE’s dim-witted writing, this little moment was actually pretty engaging.
Oh, one problem though… Those workers getting together to quietly and resolutely discuss the safety issues in their workplace and look into their legal rights and options.
They’re all “heels”.
That’s wrestling talk for jerks, cowards, miscreants, and general assholes.
What a devious plan formed by these villains: workplace organising!
Now, wrestling is full of these “I’ll sue!” and “call my lawyers!” stories to establish bad guys. Real men settle things with their fists (and suplexes) not through fancy lawyers with their fancy learnin’. And, in the context of professional wrestling, that’s fairly understandable: wrestling (as a genre) has its own rules and conventions, and being able to settle your problems cleanly in the ring is one of them. No real harm there. In fact, one of my favourite moments with the otherwise dishwater-dull Randy “The Viper” Orton was one of these moments.
Back when Orton was a psycho-bully asshole bad guy (instead of the psycho-bully asshole good guy he is now), he was busy causing all kinds of problems for the family of (real life) WWE owner Vince McMahon, his (real life) familty, and his (real life) “doofus son-in-law”, wrestler Triple H… mostly by brutally “punting” them in the head as they lay helpless, and then looking confused about what just happened (he “hears voices in his head”, y’see). When confronted about it, Randy reached on of the great heights of ridiculous and ridiculously great wrestling logic. His case was simple: they knew he was insane when they hired him, so if they fire him, he’ll sue. Now that’s great (ridiculous) villainy!
There’s no doubt that it ties into the WWE’s overarching negative representations of mental illness (fakers), the legal system (swindlers), and plenty of other things (“I was not responsible for my actions!”), but it reaches a point of hyper-ridiculousness that keeps the real-world connections at a (reasonably) fun and safe distance.
But reaching that kind of hyper-reality ridiculousness is an art that the WWE only sometimes stumbles over, and often seemingly by accident (they’re generally incapable of maintaining a long-term storylines or characters – Randy reverted to his usual generic psycho-bore not long after).
Too often the WWE’s attempts to play off real-world tensions and anxieties lack that extra boost of “fun”, and simply ends up as the coarse and ugly vision of an out-of-touch corporate billionaire. Anyone who has followed WWE head Vince McMahon learns quickly just how juvenile, simplistic and simple-minded McMahon’s understanding of the outside world is. Fans call him a genius for having built up the WWE into a monopoly (through the usual ugly corporate tactics), but he’s more likely to be remembered by culture at large for his obsession with penis and “poop” jokes and degrading practical jokes (see here and here) than his “genius”. (It’s a sense of “humour” his son-in-law and likely heir-apparent Triple H sadly shares.)
Despite the usual catch-all deflection that wrestling is just “entertainment”, McMahon certainly has no qualms about putting out clear statements in his product. When McMahon’s wife Linda was running for senate, the WWE immediately launched a pre-emptive defence, with the shows suddenly dominated by a “Stand Up for WWE” program, a “don’t criticise us!” propaganda tool lauding the positive qualities of WWE that fooled only the most passive of fans. The WWE’s current alignment with anti-bullying campaigns and GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) were similarly transparent, completely misrepresenting the ideologies that McMahon and the WWE peddle to children all over the world. Shortly before Linda McMahon’s defeat in the senate race (a fairly humiliating one, given the busloads of money she threw into it), McMahon, in the words of Jon Bershad at Mediaite, “made poop faces while wearing a diaper with his wife’s opponent’s name on it”.
As typical (and unfunny) of McMahon as that is, most of his ideological campaigning is much more insidious, ongoing and persistent. It’s not subtle, but the fact that he’s managed to run a monopoly while marginalising and stereotyping every “foreign” or “alternative” culture and actively and intentionally reducing the presence of women in the industry to a borderline joke without ever being seriously called to account for it shows just how persistence (and lack of mainstream vocal opposition) can normalise the obscene.
So the “union” storyline currently unfolding seems to fit into that usual more-insidious form of marginalisation and discrete editorialising. It’s really no surprise that right-wing McMahon would see his villains and outcasts form a cowardly stable of workplace dissidents, making sure that they’re booed for doing so. Despite the presence of mask-wearing super-villain Cody Rhodes (a great current performer!) and legal advice coming from David (“Mr Jennifer Hudson”) Otunga, there’s been no real “fun” excess in the story so far. No doubt, discussing a workplace safety issue is villainy enough.
Of course, we’re expected to believe that the workplace safety issue is silly in itself (and it’s presented as such), but that’s not exactly comfortable in an environment such as wrestling, and the WWE, in which workers’ rights, welfare, and safety can be hugely problematic concerns (try googling “dead wrestlers” sometime).
Take away the storyline motivation behind it all (Triple H, new COO of the WWE, may be losing control of the company…long story, don’t ask), the real WWE has plenty of serious questions to answer about workers’ rights, welfare, and safety. Now that Linda McMahon’s running for senate again, they hopefully will be asked. And they deserve to be.
Convenient timing for WWE’s storyline, it seems.