WWE’s Heels: the Jerks, Cowards and Miscreants vs. Corporate Hedonism

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.

McMahon and the WWE have repeatedly distanced themselves from any liability for worker safety

While organising is linked to petty villainy in McMahon’s mind in the on-screen drama, it seems to be the same in reality for the WWE. Though, to be fair, the WWE does take steps to increase safety and maintain standards (more than many independent rivals), McMahon and the WWE have repeatedly distanced themselves from any liability for worker safety, especially in relation to the ever-increasing knowledge about the dangers of concussions in contact sports. When concussion trauma was linked to the murder-suicide committed by wrestler Chris Benoit, WWE deflected the focus on their industry any way they could and wrote the whole thing off as an individual’s actions that had nothing to do with them. WWE may not have been responsible for Benoit’s actions, but that doesn’t mean that the environment they profit from, and the unsafe cultures they reward, are above question.

Certainly it’s part of the culture that – when there’s money at stake – wrestlers work injured. Recently, Rey Mysterio blew out his knee (yet again) wrestling a television match, even though it was universally predicted that – already injured – Mysterio would likely end up in surgery again when he wrestled (he did). Though suffering a concussion this year, Randy Orton was quickly, and conveniently, cleared to wrestle only days later. Someone like John Cena refusing help leaving the ring after being injured on a house show earlier this year might have made for a good show of bravado, but sets a tough standard for those lower down the card who don’t have his multi-million dollar income and have a lot to lose from injury mismanagement. “Working hurt” makes no sense, but remains as much a part of wrestling culture as it was in the bad old days.

It’s also made more problematic by the WWE’s all-year schedule. As they proudly proclaim, there’s no “off-season” in wrestling. That’s good for the fan, but less so for the basic worker who need to hang on to their “spot” and doesn’t want to risk falling behind (in the highly ego- and politics-driven backstage realm) due to taking some time off to heal – let alone just taking some time off just to spend a little time with the family away from an airport. Great performer John Morrison was recently rushed back into the fold, potentially far too early after a neck injury, for a cheap pop on RAW. Despite the health risks he took, Morrison continues to be ignored when it comes to on-screen time, victories, and worthwhile storylines.

Insiders frequently see these “pushes” and “de-pushes” as being tied to backstage politics. More objective observers might call that workplace bullying.

One of the reasons the WWE can get away with this is because the wrestlers have so little power: technically, they’re not even employees of the WWE. Instead, they’re classified as “independent contractors”, despite being contractually forbidden to work elsewhere and required to travel whenever required and meet out-of-hours (ie. 24 hours) corporate obligations and standards. In a press release a while back, WWE corporate proudly boasted about how they maintain full control over their wrestlers’ careers and licensing, avoiding pesky negotiations with middlemen (or the wrestlers themselves). Attempts at outside interests are rarely welcomed in the WWE, especially if you’re a woman (i.e., worthless) – just ask former “Divas” Mickie James or Maria, who made the mistake of starting singing careers.

All of this works for the top guys, of course, who have enough money to take care of themselves. But the “sink or swim” workers lower down the card may find their bodies “battered” and “bruised” (as WWE loudly proclaims on their “don’t try this at home” video) and generally used up, with most of their earnings spent on travel from town to town (that the WWE doesn’t pay for). Drugs and pain-killers, often taken just to keep up with the never-ending schedule, are another – all too frequent and too large to cover here – issue.

This “independent contractor” status was an issue raised briefly when Linda McMahon first ran for senate. It’s an issue that deserves to be raised again, and hopefully will be once more now that she’s running again. Classifying its employees as “independent contractors” reduces the WWE’s obligations to its employees and presumably saves them a bundle in tax, but the chains that bind their performers make it a blatant rort, if only ethically, thanks to whatever legal loopholes the WWE is squeezing itself through.

With Linda running again, this appearance of this “heels unionize” storyline starts to make a lot more sense.

Whether or not a union would solve these issues is debatable, but it’s a debate that needs to be had – openly and publicly – and its pretty disgusting for McMahon and the WWE to be treating worker safety and organization as a “bad guys” storyline when they have serious question to answer about the legality of their worker classifications and the long-term safety of their industry.

In fact, a union for wrestlers was raised back in the ’80s by none other than Jesse “The Body Ventura”, former Navy SEAL (well, sort of), former wrestler, former wrestling announcer (occasionally wiped off of recordings by the WWE who tried to swindle him out of royalties), and former Governor of Minnesota.

In attempting to organise fair working conditions for the wrestlers and some degree of certainty and transparent standards, Jesse was sold out to the bosses by none other than… Hulk Hogan. Apparently the face of the company didn’t like the idea that workplace fairness and transparency might threaten his pay packet, already countless times larger than many of the wrestlers taking more risks and doing more work than Hogan. Jesse’s still talking, but it still seems like the mainstream media isn’t willing to pay any real attention (admittedly, Jesse’s evidence-lite Conspiracy Theory TV show probably doesn’t help his credibility much).

Even if “union” still sends some people into fits of anti-socialism terror, Ventura is pretty blunt about the basic aims of the whole thing:

“If you look at self employment, the wrestlers are signed to exclusive contracts. How is that being self employed? You can’t go work for another organization. They own you exclusively. How does that make you self employed? If they were truly self employed, I’d say fine, but when you look at the law and how it works, they’re not self employed. It’s laughable. If you look at it, wrestling’s still the only industry that doesn’t have a union and it’s not a union to fight Vince. It’s a union to get retirement. It’s a union to get health benefits. Let’s remember, wrestlers are not financial planners. You can go to Mickey Rourke’s movie and see that clearly. So, why shouldn’t there be a retirement? Why shouldn’t there be strength in those numbers? But, it falls on deaf ears because, you know, Vince isn’t going to unionize. Unless they have the courage to do it themselves, it ain’t gonna happen”.

Getting an outsider’s look into the industry after making The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky asked what should be an obvious question – where’s the Screen Actors Guild?

“I think the problem starts with the fact that they’re not organized and they’re not unionized. That’s the main problem. I mean, there’s really no reason why these guys are not in SAG. They’re as much screen actors as stuntmen. If not more. They’re in front of a camera performing and doing stunts, and they should have that protection. That’s the only thing that for me came out of it. Why doesn’t SAG help get these guys organized? They’re on TV performing. Or, if they’re not even on TV, the ring is a theater. So they’re not just screen actors, they’re theater actors. They’re performers. They should have insurance and they should have health insurance and they should be protected”.

So, the fact that the WWE’s “bad guys rush to the lawyers over workplace safety” has – so far – been presented in such a subdued manner shouldn’t make us pay less attention to it. Will this blow up into an “investigating workplace issues is for heels and cowards” issue? Probably. Given that ultra-powerful son-in-law Triple H is their target – almost certainly.

Wrestling is full of stupid stories, but that doesn’t stop insidious messages creeping through – especially for a product now aimed heavily at kids. The idea that workplace safety

issues being considered and questioned – in the face of a capricious and nepotistic organisation – is something that’s cowardly and dastardly is already something that has far too much traction in society. Media criticism of television stories like this isn’t about censorship – McMahon can say what he likes – but about making sure that the invisible connotations are made bluntly visible, and that these representations don’t slip into society unquestioned and unanswered.

Cultural ideas aren’t spread by speeches and political manoeuvring. They’re spread in smaller, less-noticeable doses. McMahon clearly has a vested interest in undermining industrial oversight, workplace safety, and worker solidarity.

Adding to the image and feeding it to thousands of children around the world can only serve McMahon’s ongoing interests in undermining authentic concern over the WWE’s working conditions and status an an employer, as well as continuing to entrench his own wealth and power.

The rest of the media shouldn’t be let off so lightly, either. Serious stories about workplace issues are rare and, when we see them, usually sensationalised or twisted into “the little lawyer that could” feel-good fluff.

WWE’s “union” storyline hasn’t blossomed yet – but it’s worth keeping an eye on, especially when Linda McMahon’s fresh bid for the senate will see the WWE turn subtly (and not-so-subtly) towards propaganda wrapped in the alluring guise of mere “entertainment”.