Brock Lesnar, The Royal Rumble, and the Art of Pissing Off Your Own Fans

I realized recently why I like WWE more than most other wrestling fans and don’t really enjoy AEW: I’m a bad person who enjoys seeing people get upset. AEW’s vision for wrestling is very positive, it’s inclusive, and it’s about pleasing their rabid audience, who are maniacally into every show and cheer loudly for all the wrestlers. This approach has a lot of upsides in terms of the “we’re all in this together” vibe of the promotion, and the way it’s been branded and marketed to this audience is part of why it’s been doing well for an upstart company. The downside is that it makes it hard to tell a story that authentically gets fans riled up in the way wrestling can. Sure, the company has some heels like MJF and Pac who will do villainous things, but because the underlying feeling about the company is so positive, I never get the sense that people are genuinely upset by their actions — they’ll boo and play along with the story because that’s “being a good fan,” but they’re not actually pissed because the company itself is portrayed as benevolent and caring, even within its own fictional universe.

This is a big contrast to WWE, which for a long time has portrayed itself as a heel company in storyline. Its hottest storyline ever involved Stone Cold Steve Austin fighting the boss, Vince McMahon, and recent storylines have involved similar demonic authority figures who meddle with the crowd’s favorite wrestlers. This approach has myriad downsides, and has probably cultivated the general feeling of resentment many fans have towards WWE, but it can also still be harnessed to tell stories that have an emotional weight that I’m not sure a company like AEW could quite pull off. The clearest most recent example was “Kofimania,” in which 11-year veteran Kofi Kingston finally got a chance at the world title that eluded him his whole career. He ended up jumping through hoops set up by Vince McMahon, who claimed he didn’t feel he was championship material, before finally winning the big one at Wrestlemania and then going on a lengthy Cinderella title run. But in the end, the clock struck midnight and it all came crashing down at the hands of Brock Lesnar.

This was one of WWE’s shrewdest meta-booking moves of the year, and it made fans legitimately irate. They hated that Kofi went on this long run only to be booked to get squashed by Lesnar in four seconds. They hated that Brock, who wrestles only part-time and has been portrayed as someone who hates wrestling and the fans, was champion again, which meant his title would disappear from TV. A segment of fans will still insist they hated it because it was “bad storytelling,” but they should learn that an unhappy ending isn’t always a bad one. This succeeded in making people hate Lesnar even more and it gained Kofi tons of sympathy because, once again, the company screwed him and didn’t see any value in him. If this match had gone on for 10 minutes with Brock winning, that emotion wouldn’t have been there — the feeling would have been that Kofi got a fair shot, it was a good title run, and everyone would have moved on with their lives.

Booking moments like this are part of why Lesnar is the best heel in wrestling. WWE has meticulously booked him like a god over the years, and he’s always there to crush the dreams of your favorite wrestlers with his stupid repeated German suplexes. His mouthpiece, Paul Heyman, is one of the best talkers in wrestling history and is the perfect guy to bloviate about his accomplishments to further piss off the fans. Fans believe in Lesnar because of his legitimate credentials (former UFC champion) and because he rarely shows much of his personality to the public. At a recent Minnesota Gopher wrestling event, Lesnar was a guest coach and was seen smiling and taking pictures with children, and it was jarring because the image of him seen on WWE — a ruthless beast who only takes pleasure in tormenting others and hates having to show up and wrestle — is so rarely contradicted anywhere.

This past Sunday, Lesnar decided to enter first in the Royal Rumble, and it answered the question many fans have about why WWE invests so much in him. The Rumble match is an annual favorite that involves 30 wrestlers entering the match one-at-a-time every 90 seconds until only one is left standing in the ring. Typically, the ring fills up with guys who sort of fake fight while one notable thing is happening at a time, but this year’s was different: with Lesnar starting first and vowing to eliminate everyone (his reasons were never outright stated, but presumably it was to prove his dominance and make children cry), this match instead became a series of dramatic confrontations, with a variety of wrestlers trying their hand at slaying the beast while fans speculated on who would be the one to do it. It was the best one of these matches I’ve ever seen and an example of WWE’s antagonistic storytelling method being executed perfectly.

This match is fascinating because the entire first half is WWE pissing off its own audience, and it’s just not something you see in any other storytelling medium. Lesnar starts in the ring and predictably throws out a series of wrestlers who aren’t portrayed as being close to his level competitively. These first eliminations (Elias, Erick Rowan, John Morrison and Bobby Roode) aren’t exciting to watch necessarily, but they create a context for the rest of this match, establishing that Lesnar is unstoppable and that eliminating him will be nearly impossible. So by entry #6, fans are getting a bit uneasy, wondering if anyone can take Lesnar down or if WWE is really going to book him to “bury” the entire roster.

At #6, Kofi Kingston comes out and it’s the first confrontation of the match that feels like a big deal due to their match months earlier. And as Kofi starts kicking the crap out of Lesnar for a few seconds and the crowd goes nuts, WWE’s booking of that match fully clicks for me, because I feel how desperately the fans want to see the likable face overcome the monstrous heel. Kofi is the first to survive the first 90 seconds and then he’s joined by Rey Mysterio, a legendary cruiserweight whose large adult son, Dominick, was assaulted by Brock months ago. 90 seconds later, they’re joined by Kofi’s tag team partner, Big E (who is big) and all three of the faces team up and go after Brock.

The fans are hyped for this trio to eliminate Brock, but he ends up eliminating all of them after a couple incredible spots that showcase his freakish athleticism. Then Brock eliminates the next few guys without much effort (Cesaro, Shelton Benjamin, Shinsuke Nakamura, MVP), giving the fans some time to breathe and continuing to build a sense of uneasiness in the room, a feeling that Brock might actually win this entire stupid match. At this point, I glance at Twitter and Reddit and just see fans yelling about how horrible the match is, how much they hate everything, etc. But this is exactly what WWE wanted them to be saying and the company is playing them like a fiddle at this point — this whole segment of the match is like a symphony of audience manipulation.

Keith Lee comes out next — he’s a massive, athletic star on the rise and was a popular pick to knock Lesnar out. Brock’s reactions to Lee are hilarious and the two behemoths go toe-to-toe. Because Lesnar has just been manhandling everyone in the match for so long, Lee looks incredible just for holding his own against him, and when he takes Brock off his feet with a shoulder tackle, the crowd goes crazy (think about that for a moment — the crowd cheered loudly for the most basic move in wrestling). The two collide mid-ring and are down when Braun Strowman, an even more massive man, joins the fray, so at this point Lesnar is exhausted and up against two giants. But when Lee and Strowman start fighting each other, Brock sneaks up and eliminates both, and the crowd totally deflates. You can feel them thinking “that was our chance and they just blew it.”

Ricochet, the pre-eminent flippy-doo wrestler of this whole generation of flippy wrestlers, comes out next, jumps right into Brock’s arms like an idiot and gets casually ragdolled into the corner. Then Drew McIntyre’s music hits and he comes to the ring looking like a guy from the cover of a romance novel and stares down his enemy. Brock focuses in on him and starts removing his gloves, knowing that McIntyre means serious business. But Ricochet comes to and kicks Lesnar in the balls, then McIntyre hits his signature “Claymore kick” on Brock and sends him toppling over the top rope.

The crowd reaction to this is something seldom seen — it was like their home team just won the Super Bowl or something, and I practically expected champagne to start popping. And it wasn’t a bunch of fans cheering because they love the WWE brand — it was because they legitimately, in real life, hate Brock Lesnar and were overjoyed that he was eliminated from this match that it was starting to look like he was winning. And now, just by kicking this large albino-gorilla-looking guy over the top rope, McIntyre (who has mostly been a villain in WWE) is instantly the most beloved face in the company. WWE brilliantly doubled down on this booking and ended up having McIntyre win the whole match about 30 minutes later, setting him up to face Brock for the title at Wrestlemania.

Brock Lesnar’s performance in the match was legendary — he was terrifying, brutal, and looked completely unstoppable. He’s so incredibly good at pro wrestling, but a lot of fans don’t realize it because they legitimately resent him due to how he has been booked and portrayed. WWE harnessed those negative emotions in this match and used it to create a new star in McIntyre, who had been previously directionless. This match was a perfect example of the give-and-take of wrestling storytelling and how context and build can create amazing moments. In order to feel as joyful and happy as fans did in that moment Lesnar was eliminated, they first needed to be really furious.

A Good Segment From Monday Night Raw, Which is a Good Show

I’m not sure if there is anything in other media quite like the relationship between wrestling fans and WWE’s flagship show, Monday Night Raw. Clocking in at three hours every Monday night, Raw is the most-watched wrestling show in the world despite the fact that seemingly everyone hates it. There is an entire industry now of YouTubers, podcasters, and social media personalities who build their entire brand around trashing Raw and dramatically talking about how TERRIBLE and SO BAD everything is, and it’s become something of a bizarre shared ritual where fans tune in to bitch about the writing, the wrestlers that are being pushed, the amount of talking on the show, and pretty much anything else anyone could possibly complain about. This sort of contrived “suffering fan” schtick is insufferable to me and it’s part of why I tend to keep my wrestling fandom guarded in public.

I’ve always enjoyed Raw, but often it’s been something like a guilty pleasure. I have a certain respect for the difficulty of putting on a 3-hour show every week for a fickle and tough audience, and if the show ever had major flaws (and boy did it ever), I usually would find them fascinating instead of frustrating. It provides a lot of analytical fodder, thinking of how they could have handled certain wrestlers, how they should be telling a story, what a segment was trying to accomplish that it didn’t, etc. One reason I recommend wrestling is that you get a really strong visceral sense of how storytelling works in real time, and sometimes there is a lot to be learned in watching WWE step in it. But lately, for a variety of reasons, Raw has become an actual good show, with what seems to be a more logical booking philosophy and plan for its main characters. And it turns out, it’s just as fun to analyze something that actually works.

One segment in particular on this week’s show captured the essence of what I think pro wrestling should be. To the surprise of nobody who is familiar with my scorching wrestling takes, it involves the best professional wrestler in the world, Becky Lynch. That is a bit controversial because most wrestling fans on the internet think being a professional wrestler means doing the most cool moves, flipping around the ring like a gymnast, and having self-indulgent 4o-minute matches that are designed to get “five stars” from hack wrestling journalists and “this is awesome” chants from fans who don’t care who wins. I’m part of a shrinking group of boomer fans who really love the non-match parts of wrestling, and I think a lot of the art in this business comes from talking, promoting, and making people actually give a shit about the match. Nobody is better at that than Becky Lynch.

Becky has run roughshod over the roster since winning all the gold in the main event of Wrestlemania this year, and as with any long title reign, it’s brought out critics who are sick of her push and think she’s a bad wrestler because she isn’t putting on the aforementioned nonsense matches with all the moves and flips. These people are wrong, they’re bad, and they deserve to be shunned from the wrestling community. Because even months into this reign, the crowd still loves Becky and she’s still evolving as a character, from an outlaw rebel who was defying the company to the self-admitted “golden goose” of WWE who now has to fight to maintain her individuality and desire for the toughest fights while being “protected” due to her value as a corporate spokeswoman.

The target for Becky is Asuka, the Japanese wrestler who beat her nearly a year ago at the Royal Rumble and has continued to have her number since. Becky’s story is that WWE didn’t want her to face Asuka, figuring she’d lose again and it would damage her marketability as “the face of the company.” Asuka is a mega-talented wrestler who doesn’t speak much English but still has tons of charisma, and she’s only lost a tiny handful of matches in her entire career. Lately she’s taken to spraying her opponents with “green mist,” and in this week’s segment she hit Becky with it after signing the contract for the match at this year’s Royal Rumble.

At this point, it’s worth observing that spraying green mist in people’s eyes is not something that people generally do, and it’s seldom seen in the real world. That’s part of what made this segment feel so definitively pro wrestling to me: it’s this ridiculous character trait that has been passed down in Japanese tradition (notably by The Great Muta, who Asuka cites as an inspiration) and it’s just this weird wrestling thing that exists and is accepted by fans. The reason it’s accepted is because of performances like Becky’s in this clip: of course we know wrestling is fake, and within the realm of fakeness the green mist is even faker, but she sells it seriously and believably as if it is incredibly painful. And because she is so damn good at this, and it’s presented without any irony or winking at the audience, fans actually believe now that this mist is a real dangerous thing, that Asuka can hit it at any time, and that the most pushed woman in the company’s title reign could be in jeopardy.

Then Becky demands a microphone and delivers a fantastic promo while recovering from the mist and looking into a camera that she is blindly swiping at with her hands.  Maybe it got a little too fanciful with its language, but I felt the emotion and the intensity, and it was from someone who just is their character, not someone who is playing a role and thinks of themselves as a performance artist. And now because of segments like this, I want to see the match and there’s a clear sense of stakes — Becky needs to win this match to prove something to herself and to get revenge on Asuka. All of this build-up is going to make their match at Royal Rumble feel bigger, the moves are going to mean more, and it will almost certainly be awesome, even though I don’t think either of these wrestlers has ever done a flippy move in their life.

This should be Pro Wrestling 101, but the current landscape is polluted with an “everyone knows wrestling is fake so nobody will care about anything so why should we even try” mentality where everyone just does outlandish goofy crap and winks at the audience. I can’t even go to indie shows because all of them feature so much dumb nonsense on the card, and WWE’s competitor, AEW, continues to struggle at telling stories that have any real sense of gravitas or stakes like this one does, despite the ridiculousness of the green mist. So, bizarrely, Monday Night Raw, the punching bag of fans, is my favorite wrestling show right now and the one that I think has the most talent and a philosophy that makes me want to watch.

A Dispatch From the Wednesday Night Wrestling Wars

The most polarizing character in wrestling right now is Orange Cassidy, a comedic character who performs in the ring as if he just woke up from a hangover and has no interest in anything that is going on. When he enters the ring, he lightly kicks his opponents in a parody of the typical “babyface fire-up” in wrestling, when the heroic character regains their strength and starts hitting all of their impactful moves. Fans react with ironic shock at Cassidy’s “brutal violence,” and it’s generally been a popular gimmick that taps into the type of ironic comedy and memes that are currently popular with the youths.

While Cassidy is a minor player in All Elite Wrestling, the upstart promotion that just began airing a weekly TV show called “Dynamite” a few weeks ago, I increasingly think he is the litmus test for potential fans of the company. AEW stormed onto the airwaves on TNT with a wave of momentum from fans who are fed up with WWE’s monopoly on large-scale American wrestling and its various frustrating creative and booking decisions. However, in a few weeks, AEW has lost hundreds of thousands of viewers as potential fans tuned in and lost interest. I’m one of those who has eventually tuned out, and Cassidy is emblematic of the reasons why.

It’s not that Orange Cassidy is necessarily unfunny — it’s that he represents a flaw in the core of AEW’s DNA that makes it impossible for me to enjoy it as a fan of wrestling. Even though wrestling is fake, I think it is at its best when it feels real and it taps into authentic emotions and makes people feel invested in the winner of the match. Maybe that sounds like a silly notion if you don’t watch wrestling, but think of it like any other form of entertainment. If you read or watch  The Lord of Rings, of course you know that the world is fictitious, that hobbits and wizards and orcs don’t really exist. But it is still presented as a world with its own set of rules and logic, which combined with serious storytelling makes you still feel an attachment to the characters. Once you’ve suspended your disbelief in this way and gotten caught up in the world, storytelling moments like Gandalf’s “death” generate emotional reactions that are very real, even though he is a fictional character.

The massive problem I have with AEW that I haven’t really seen discussed much (most hardcore wrestling fans and critic types love this show) is that it has absolutely no suspension of disbelief, in part due to the comedic hijinks of a character like Orange Cassidy, whose entire gimmick and humor is based on knowing that what you’re watching isn’t real. But it goes beyond Cassidy: because the show is aimed at the young male wrestling fan who knows the ins and outs of wrestling shows, it plays constantly to that base with insider jokes and winks at the audience. The matches themselves don’t feel real either, even for the standards of pretend fighting — a lot of the matches in AEW are more like choreographed gymnastics displays, with the clear goal being to “put on a great match” instead of trying to win or hurt your opponent.

AEW’s champion, Chris Jericho, is one of wrestling’s greatest performers, but over the run of the show his character has become increasingly goofy and silly, with promos that more closely resemble bad SNL sketches or improv routines than the classic style of wrestling promo that I love. Instead of building conflicts based on emotion and real-life feelings, his segments are increasingly focused on props and jokes, and because he is funny, fans don’t desire to see him lose the way they should with a heel champion. Even when Jericho gets booed by the fans, it’s obvious that they’re playing along because “this is a good heel promo,” not because they actually hate the guy and want to see someone beat him.

Another potential star, Jon Moxley, left WWE right before the launch of AEW and talked a big game about how he was held back there creatively and was going to change wrestling once the shackles of the evil corporation were off him. What got me most excited about AEW was to see what this guy could do with more creative freedom and a chip on his shoulder. But it became apparent pretty quickly that he had no brilliant ideas: he just wanted to behave like a generic badass who walks through the crowd and loves violence while “wrestling” garbage deathmatches with contrived weapons that are in no way believable or entertaining, such has his indulgent, interminable match with Kenny Omega at their last pay-per-view. Moxley said he hated WWE’s “hokey shit,” but his match with Omega was the hokiest thing I’ve ever seen in wrestling with its use of mouse traps and other dumb weapons.

AEW’s women’s division has also been a massive problem, in part due to WWE having a monopoly on talent and in part due to AEW being run by a bunch of guys who don’t seem to care much about telling stories in the division. Its champion, Riho, weighs about 95 pounds and wins all of her matches with sneaky roll-ups. Undersized heroes will always be a thing in wrestling, but Riho doesn’t even seem to have a mean streak or a switch she can hit where she starts kicking ass. She’s portrayed as completely sweet and innocent, someone who would never hurt a fly, which is boring in a wrestling context where I want to experience some catharsis in a staged fight. So just the idea of this demure character being the best women’s wrestler in the company is another of the many things reminding you of how fake AEW is.

Further damaging AEW was WWE’s ruthless and frankly evil decision to put its “NXT” show head-to-head with AEW by switching to a two-hour cable format. And it’s formed an obvious contrast with AEW by taking itself seriously with high-level performers and a logical storytelling flow week-to-week. To me, the breakout star on NXT since its move to cable has been Rhea Ripley, and she has also served to expose many of AEW’s flaws. She is everything missing from AEW: a wrestler who is serious, has star power, looks and acts legit, and the fact that she’s a woman has only further turned a spotlight on the clown show that is the competition’s women’s division. While AEW’s champion barely looks like she could hold her own in a fight, Ripley gives off the vibe that she’s going to rip someone’s head off at any moment. There is intensity and emotion in Ripley’s performances, which are a far cry from the bland choreography in AEW. She’s now set to take on long-reigning women’s champion Shayna Baszler in a match that feels much bigger than anything AEW has offered.

Baszler is her own contrast to AEW and its champion. While Jericho has been putting on interminable promo segments that seek to “entertain” and make people laugh, even though he is a heel, Baszler is no fun whatsoever. She’s a mean, sadistic bully, and she’s held the title for so long and is so ruthless that fans are becoming desperate to see someone knock her off the mountain. And since NXT has an incredibly talented women’s division, fans get to speculate and hope that one of their favorites can be the one to dethrone Shayna. That’s just classic heel wrestling psychology, and that’s what I find fun in wrestling more than segments that are desperately trying to be clever. Even though the fans of NXT are aware of a lot of the behind-the-scenes information, they buy into Baszler because she is believable and serious, and everyone is emotionally invested in seeing who can beat her.

I feel a little bad for these opinions, because the truth is I wanted an alternative to WWE, and I like that AEW exists to push them a bit instead of letting them become complacent. At the same time, I’m not going to watch a show I don’t like because “it’s the right thing to do,” and I also don’t believe WWE is evil and AEW is some virtuous company when both are run by billionaires, who are all inherently horrible. For all of WWE’s faults, they still deliver storytelling that has more emotion and takes itself more seriously than AEW, which seems to lack the confidence to do anything without winking at you and reminding you that it’s all just for show. That might appeal to certain fans of irony and memes — the people who love Orange Cassidy — but it doesn’t speak to what I think pro wrestling can be.

 

 

Give Me What I Want

A few weeks ago, I was watching WWE, and there was a promo segment between Batista and Triple H. Batista had just returned to wrestling after embarking on a successful Hollywood acting career in movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and was setting up a feud with his former mentor for WrestleMania. His rustiness from the business might be why he seemingly forgot all of his lines when he went on stage, which resulted in one of the most awkward verbal exchanges I’ve seen in my years of watching wrestling. For multiple minutes, all he did was yell “GIVE ME WHAT I WANT” at Triple H in his most intense wrestler delivery that sent spit all over the place. The absurdity of the promo helped it reach instant meme status.

Beyond the comical nature of the promo, what I think resonated about it was how Batista unwittingly captured the tone and tenor of fanbases in 2019, especially WWE’s, which is notorious for spending most of its time grumbling about the company’s booking decisions rather than enjoying the show. But while hardcore wrestling fans have long been known for being jaded and miserable, the “give me what I want” ethos has now spread to almost all circles of fandom via the internet. Unlimited viewing, listening, playing, and reading options have cultivated a sense of entitlement in audiences, who increasingly want their entertainment to only reflect their own personal tastes, values, and desires. A popular TV show like Game of Thrones comes with weekly episodic recaps on 240 different websites which all tediously pick apart the storytelling choices, character beats, directorial decisions, possible plot and logic holes, etc. Like wrestling, a lot of TV now is watched by groups of “smart” fans who are less invested in the story itself than in the making of the story and whether it fits their own vision for how things should go.

Thrones has been the most frustrating in this regard. This is an incredible show, with a scope and scale never before seen on TV and a roster of morally ambiguous, well-drawn characters with compelling backstories. It’s delivering spectacle with huge battles and dragons, but also is examining dark, adult subject matter like rape, abuse, suffering and redemption in a way that is far deeper than ever attempted on TV. Yet if you look to find analysis of these artistic qualities of the show, you mostly will come up empty outside of the work of a couple of dedicated writers (my favorites are Sean T. Collins and Gretchen Felker-Martin). Instead, what you get is every random writer on every website complaining about what the writers should have done instead, bemoaning choices made by characters, complaining about “problematic” elements of the script, etc. Rather than take the show for what it is and appreciate its obvious strengths (while still pointing out areas where it could be improved), I get the sense that many are going out of their way to be dissatisfied with it as it reaches its final episodes.

I’m always in favor of thinking critically about art, but this strain of fandom feels jaded, myopic, and unproductive. I don’t think most people doing this are seriously engaging with the show and what it is trying to say; they’re viewing it with an ironic detachment, snarking about minute details and completely missing the bigger picture. Everyone spends more time wondering how the characters traveled from Winterfell to King’s Landing so quickly instead of thinking about the actual overarching themes of the work. No one is obligated to enjoy Game of Thrones or all of the creative decisions of the show, but there is rarely even an attempt to engage with it in a reasonable way. So we’re in this weird situation where this show is massively popular, it’s amazing, and yet it feels almost underrated as a work of art, because so few people are even making a good faith effort to engage with and appreciate the greatness that is right in front of them.

But far from just cultivating a blasé attitude towards art, this “give me what I want” mentality also causes art to be more safe and less impactful when it’s taken seriously by creators. A few weeks ago, the creator of Bojack Horseman retweeted someone saying that shows shouldn’t depict rape for the same reason they don’t depict someone having diarrhea — because audiences don’t want to see it. It concerned me because Bojack is one of my favorite shows in part because it has made such an effort to show its audience what it doesn’t want to see. As a viewer invested in the characters, I didn’t want to see Bojack and Diane self-destruct and struggle with depression and alcoholism. But because they have, the show was able to explore mature themes about overcoming personal demons in a way that resonated and was cathartic. The version of Bojack that avoids uncomfortable topics would basically be a kid’s cartoon.

That tweeter’s hot take was almost certainly aimed somewhat at Game of Thrones, which has been notorious for its portrayals of rape and abuse towards women. A certain segment of liberal types have hounded the show with accusations of sexism for years, assuming that the on-screen depictions of violence against women are endorsements of that behavior from the makers of the show — an extremely ungenerous reading of the material that doesn’t really hold up to any reasonable interpretation. The prevailing belief seems to be that these sorts of taboo, sensitive topics should simply never be portrayed in media due to their unpleasantness. Actress Jessica Chastain recently tweeted as such, saying “Rape is not a tool to make a character stronger. A woman doesn’t need to be victimized in order to become a butterfly.” This was in response to the Sansa Stark character acknowledging the abuse she’d faced, how she still lived with it, and how it had shaped who she was. In Chastain’s desired version of the show, Sansa never would have faced suffering, and there would be no insight into the very real abuse women face at the hands of men, both in Westeros and the real world.

This is where the “give me what I want” mindset goes past simply being about lame crowd-pleasing stuff and crosses over into something resembling censorship. Of course, any time the subject of rape is brought into entertainment, it needs to be taken seriously and portrayed in a thoughtful, humane way. I don’t think the Thrones writers have always gotten it right (the infamous Jaime/Cersei scene from a few years ago being the predominant example), but for the most part the show has made an effort to portray the realities and effects of abuse on its victims. Characters like Sansa, Theon, and others have endured abuse and lived with the consequences in a way that has rarely been depicted on TV. If your argument is that rape should never be in entertainment, then that is diminishing a major part of art’s function, which is how it can express feelings of personal traumatic experiences in a shared way that makes people understand it better.

A lot of these arguments strike me as the same types you see from people who want to ban classic novels for being too “dangerous.” What these people really want is for art to be a sanctuary, and for all entertainment to be blandly inoffensive, shiny and flawless. Those who nitpick every barely relevant detail of the logic and character choices often think of themselves as being smarter than the rest of the audience and the writers, when really they have this same childlike mindset towards art. For them, a show like Game of Thrones only exists to be joylessly ripped apart as a means of validating their own perceived intelligence. They don’t want to think about the actual themes or the storytelling.

As we stare down the barrel of another eight million superhero movie sequels and live action Disney remakes, it’s hard not to be a little concerned about the future of art that actually attempts to provoke and challenge audiences. Part of my frustration with the response to this season of Game of Thrones is that we’re really witnessing an end of an era — I doubt another show will capture the public imagination quite like this one, much less one with this much depth and artistry. And yet the response to it by many seems to be a collective shrug, a snarky comment or two while glancing at their phone. That’s why the present and future of entertainment is Marvel movies and other audience-pleasing franchises that don’t require too much thinking or attentiveness. Of course, there will still be real artists making powerful, important work outside of the mainstream — but good luck trying to discuss it with anybody.

Becky Lynch is Making Wrestling Real

Wrestling fans are used to hearing people tell them “you know it’s fake, right?” My rebuttal to this is to point out that all TV shows are fake. It’s like asking a fan of Game of Thrones if they know that the dragons in the show are CGI. If anything, wrestling is much more real than other things on TV, including heavily edited “reality” shows. It has predetermined outcomes, but the physicality is more real than most people assume and the storytelling is often tethered to reality in a way that other scripted shows aren’t.

I think wrestling is at its best when it has that connection to reality and gets viewers to forget that they’re watching characters. But these days, with social media and WWE’s branding of itself as a “sports entertainment” company, wrestling is probably the least immersive it’s ever been. The talented wrestlers are often stuck delivering overly scripted, inauthentic promos and too many matches feel like choreographed ballet routines instead of a fight. While the show has moved away from larger-than-life characters like The Undertaker (a dead guy), it is still hard to get emotionally invested in what’s going on because a lot of the wrestlers aren’t allowed to truly show what they can do.

This all ties into why the last few months of Becky Lynch have been so satisfying. I already wrote about her feud with Charlotte Flair, which culminated in Becky keeping her title at Evolution, WWE’s first all-women’s pay-per-view, in an epic last woman standing match that was my favorite in WWE this year. Since then, Becky’s star has continued to rise: I don’t know if she is literally the most popular performer in the company, but nobody is getting the reactions she does, and her character is connecting with the audience in a way that few ever have. And much of it is due to how her character feels real, how it intertwines with her actual self, and how she tells stories in a way that creates maximum immersion. It’s to the point that when Becky is on TV, I actually do think wrestling is real for a brief moment. I want her to win, I feel happy when she gets cheered, and I hate her opponents. I’ve always tried to keep an ironic distance from wrestling because it’s “cooler” to watch that way, but I’m all the way in this and there’s no getting out. I’m a “mark,” as they say, and it feels great.

After dispensing with Charlotte Flair, whose father once famously said “to be the man, you gotta beat the man,” Becky has christened herself The Man in a clever post-gender angle. It’s her character showing confidence while also acknowledging the reality that she’s on top and is genuinely the most exciting thing in wrestling. WWE tried to portray this new-found confidence as villainous, but it resonates too much with people who feel like they’re not getting what they deserve and lack Becky’s ability to do something about it. While most people are stuck without real options in scenarios where they feel undervalued, Becky’s character lives in the wrestling reality where you can beat the crap out of your co-workers and show you’re better than them. It’s very cathartic, and I think fans are living vicariously through Becky as they witness someone who they perceive as being underrated by the company climb all the way to the top while taking no prisoners.

Becky has created this unique connection to the audience in part by showing a deep understanding of her character and staying true to it in publicity appearances and on social media. When she explains why she calls herself The Man, it’s part Becky Lynch, part Rebecca Quin, and the line between the two is blurred in a way that only happens with wrestlers. Observe how she toes the line in this interview for an LGBT news outlet, touting her accolades from the wrestling world while also making real-world points she actually believes about gender/sexuality equality.

Now established as The Man, Becky entered a feud with Ronda Rousey, WWE’s current biggest star in terms of mainstream appeal who has proven to be a natural at professional wrestling. They exchanged barbs for a couple of weeks, with Rousey notably mocking Becky for taking odd jobs and retiring from wrestling for awhile while she was dominating in UFC. Lynch’s response to this was up there as one of the best babyface promos I’ve ever seen, as she described her real-life upbringing and struggles as an independent wrestler as a contrast to Rousey, who she perceived as being bred for greatness. It was character-defining in establishing Becky as someone who worked her way to the top, never got handed anything, and developed an authentic connection with the fans in spite of how she was often portrayed. Wrestlers are rarely thought of as artists by the general public, but there is real artistry here in her choice of words, the delivery, and the way she connects her real-life self to her on-screen character.

But, as has happened a weird amount of times in this storyline, reality intervened. On the Monday before her big match with Rousey was scheduled, Lynch led an “invasion” of her show, Smackdown, on Raw. They do this every year and usually I find it to be contrived nonsense. But this became a prime example of how the real world and the wrestling world can merge to create unmatched serendipitous drama.

While the wrestlers were randomly brawling, Becky took a legitimate punch to the face from Nia Jax, the giant of the women’s division. Now, I’ve never been in the ring (surprising, I know), but my understanding is that a lot of the strikes, while not being completely fake, are done in a way to protect the opponent and cause no real damage. The top goal in this choreographed play-fighting is to make sure no one gets hurt while still putting on a show that appears realistic. So what Jax did was an egregious blunder: nobody is supposed to just land a full punch to someone’s face or it creates what happened here — a serious injury and a lot of blood.

Becky went down briefly, and had what is later described by WWE as “a severe concussion and a broken face.” But then she got back up and finished out the show with blood all over her face and hands. She hit Rousey with a chair and then taunted her from the crowd, completely owning the entire scene while bleeding profusely and I’m sure being in a tremendous amount of pain (not to mention being concussed). She looked like the coolest person who ever lived and I knew I was witnessing an iconic wrestling moment.

If there was any doubt, this cemented Becky as a legend and a character unlike anything wrestling fans have seen. It was also when I realized that the women’s division in WWE genuinely feels like the most important and coolest thing on the show, which was always her goal. The downside to the moment is that, well, she had a severe concussion and a broken face. And that meant she wasn’t able to actually have the match with Rousey, which was likely going to be main event the show and be a huge moment for women’s wrestling in WWE.

One of the narratives running through Becky’s story has been the idea that the company has “held her down,” which was basically true as she was booked to lose a lot for multiple years. But somewhere during this push, I think she has opened the eyes of people backstage and it feels like the machinery is totally behind her now. A good piece of evidence was this mini-documentary they did on her finding out that she wouldn’t be able to wrestle Rousey.

Out of all of the reality/fiction-blending things involving Becky recently, this is the most impactful. It’s mundane in how it shows her going through a fairly bland real-life routine of calling her mom, checking her phone, and eating. But then she receives the gutting news and there’s this moment where she is simultaneously Becky Lynch and Rebecca Quin. She wants to have this match to kick Ronda Rousey’s ass, but she also wants this match because as a performer, she’s spent years working up to this point, building all this momentum, and now she feels it could slip away because of a co-worker’s careless mistake. It’s heartbreaking to watch and as real as it gets.

The silver lining to all of this is that if Lynch recovers (which isn’t trivial given a concussion), she could be in line to main event WrestleMania, the biggest show of the year, against Rousey, which seemed unthinkable a few months ago. Women have never main evented that show and I honestly never thought they would — not because they weren’t capable, but because I never felt like the company would get behind it. But Lynch has given the company little choice with the artistry of her performances and the way she has rallied fans behind her organically. As a performer and character, she is making wrestling feel real, and it should lead to her finally getting what she deserves: the biggest match of the year, on the biggest stage, with thousands of people chanting her name.

I’m Still Obsessed With a WWE Storyline

A lot has changed in professional wrestling since I started watching as a kid in the late 90s. Back then, WWE was in the midst of its renowned “Attitude Era” when characters like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin were at their peak and the show was geared towards young men, which resulted in a lot of car crash TV techniques, bizarre outlandish storylines, and a high level of violence. Today’s WWE is different: it’s now a publicly shared company and about 10 years ago shifted towards family-friendly PG fare, with a deeper focus on in-ring athleticism. But by far the biggest change in the company in my time as a fan is the portrayal of the women.

Back in the Attitude Era, women were essentially objects. They were run out there to titillate the crowd and were often featured in “bra and panty” matches, mud wrestling, and various other degrading activities. While there were always a couple women who could actually wrestle, they were overshadowed by the slew of models WWE signed for their looks and then trained into mediocre/bad wrestlers who worked sloppy 2-3 minute matches.

In the last couple years, WWE has undergone a “women’s revolution,” where they’ve started recruiting women who are real wrestlers and put them in more high profile matches. This charge was led in part by Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch, first on their developmental show, NXT, and then on the main shows Raw and Smackdown. With the addition of former MMA star Ronda Rousey to the division, WWE has finally put some effort into some semblance of gender equality and has by far the deepest women’s division it’s ever had.

Despite this, some residue from the previous era lingers. Vince McMahon still runs this company and has made a habit of booking cute blonde women as champions, regardless of their in-ring ability. The women get more screen time, but they still rarely feel like complete characters, usually falling into a couple broad archetypes: the heels are Regina George mean girls while the babyfaces are just happy to be chasing their dreams and are always hugging each other and crying. I’m about 99% sure that WWE doesn’t have any women writers on its staff, and it’s evident in the way many of the characters are portrayed.

Meanwhile, WWE has gleefully marketed and hyped its self-proclaimed “women’s revolution,” but the only reason it needed to happen is because they were so shitty in the first place. Fans largely catch on to this, and I think it’s part of what is fueling this Charlotte/Becky storyline that I wrote about last month. Because Becky doesn’t really fit WWE’s mold for a champion: she’s kind of quirky, she’s attractive but not in the very specific way Vince McMahon likes, she’s got an Irish accent and an unusual speaking voice, she’s not blonde, etc. All of this fan resentment over the direction of the women’s division is now coming out in the Becky character and the crowd’s response to her.

When we last left off with our hero, she was chasing Charlotte’s title after “turning heel” at Summerslam, and was in an ambiguous character direction where she was acting heelish but getting huge cheers. To WWE’s credit, they’ve stayed the course with this and are finally writing a storyline that is worthy of the women performers that isn’t draped with their “look at what we’re letting the women do!” sloganeering. At the Hell in a Cell event, Becky reversed one of Charlotte’s moves for a surprising fair win. On the next episode of Smackdown, she celebrated in grand fashion in one of the best promo segments on the show in a long time.

If it wasn’t obvious before, this segment made it clear that in WWE’s mind, Becky is unambiguously a heel. She’s gloating, rubbing her win in Charlotte’s face, calling her a bitch and then beating her up. The announcers fall over themselves defending Charlotte and portraying her as sympathetic (which, to be fair, she kind of is). But the fans are still purely behind Becky, because this is an exciting character we’ve never seen before: a woman who simply doesn’t give a damn. After so many obnoxious heels and flat, goody-two-shoes babyfaces, it’s refreshing to see a woman character who has an edge, who is brazen and does what she wants, the way men like Stone Cold Steve Austin did at the height of the show’s popularity.

And Becky has real depth as a character, in part because Rebecca Quin is such a good performer. Sometimes in WWE, it feels like a flip is switched and someone becomes a totally different person when they change their heel/face alignment. This is the same character the crowd loved before, but she’s gained a new focus and has stopped caring about what anyone thinks of her. And now that she’s champion, she’s very proud of herself and is lording it over everybody while egotistically basking in the fans’ love of her.

I want to talk about Becky saying “bitch” at the end of this promo. Because to someone over the age of eight years old, it shouldn’t be a big deal to hear the word, and I’m sure if anyone who doesn’t watch wrestling is reading/watching this, they’re wondering why the crowd is gasping at it. Part of it is that WWE has been in this very safe, corporate PG era for a long time now, so any swearing has become somewhat unheard of. But also, wrestling has this effect on you where it sort of turns you back into a little kid when it really works, so in the moment I was like “OH MY GOD SHE SAID THE B-WORD. THAT’S A BAD WORD. THIS WOMAN IS OUT OF CONTROL.”

And as ridiculous as it sounds, WWE letting Becky say “bitch” might be the clearest sign that the company is fully invested in her now. The only other people I’ve heard say the word on TV recently are Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar, who are the two top stars in the company. It’s trotted out on serious occasions when they want a character to look badass. When the guys did it, it just came off as tryhard and misogynistic, but Becky being a woman and delivering it with perfect comedic timing made it work in this instance.

WWE is not a very admirable company and I’m loath to give them too much credit for a story that has been partially told by accident. But this story is sneakily pretty progressive compared to a lot of other media. How many other TV shows have a storyline between two women that isn’t about a man, where both characters feel real, have flaws, and their motivations make sense? Not very many, and I hope WWE sees the success of this feud and does more of this, because they have the talent to do so. This is what a “women’s revolution” actually looks like.

I’m Obsessed With a WWE Storyline

At this point, I’m sure many people know of my deep abiding love for professional wrestling. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about more because it fascinates me so much, but it’s pretty overwhelming to try to explain this very complex and weird art form to other people, especially those who aren’t necessarily inclined to be interested in it. Believe it or not, there are many people out there who think wrestling is lame and refuse to let themselves be entertained by it.

So this post will be my one attempt to sell any non-converts on professional wrestling. If you’re wondering why I like it, it’s because I love a good story, whether it’s through music, a sporting event, video games, film, etc. But none of those mediums can compare to wrestling when it’s done well — which is not as often as I’d like, but even then you can always just snark on the product.

One ongoing storyline in WWE encapsulates everything that is great and consuming and frustrating and amazing about wrestling. I tend to watch WWE with more of a detached and analytical fascination (which is how I kind of process all art), but this storyline has me emotionally involved like I was when I was a kid and thought everything that was happening was real.

Part of this is because it involves my personal favorite wrestler, Becky Lynch. She debuted on WWE television a couple years ago along with her friend Charlotte Flair, the daughter of wrestling legend Ric Flair. They were put into a haphazard team because the writers didn’t know how to write a storyline for women that didn’t involve them arbitrarily organizing into catty groups. Eventually, Charlotte, the member of the group most tabbed for greatness, became the champion. She attacked Becky from behind after losing a non-title match to her to ignite a rivalry between the two, then cheated with the help of Ric to beat her at the Royal Rumble event in January, 2016.

The rivalry with Charlotte helped form Becky’s character as an old-school plucky babyface who does everything the right way and fights with honor. In the world of WWE, this means that her main job is to eat shit from all the heels. She became the first women’s champion on Smackdown when WWE split the brands, but quickly dropped the title to the conniving heel, Alexa Bliss, then faded into the background with few relevant storylines.

Somewhere in this time I became a die-hard Becky fan, and I’m not even sure when. At some point, I realized this was maybe the most talented performer on the roster and I couldn’t believe how little she was used. She is good at the actual wrestling part, but really excels at acting and talking, and she used those skills to organically develop a character that felt real and genuine. She has an uncanny ability to gain sympathy from the audience, which she had plenty of opportunities to show as she got screwed out of every opportunity for the next two years.

Last year, Charlotte was moved over to Becky’s show, Smackdown, and the writers wrote an awkward storyline that mended their friendship, at which point Becky settled into mostly a sidekick role to the more pushed Flair, who won the championship later in the year. Charlotte eventually lost the title to the underhanded tactics of Carmella, an obnoxious heel who isn’t a great wrestler, then took time off to fix her breast implants (yes, really).

With Charlotte gone, Becky suddenly went on a long winning streak on television after months of eating pins and barely being utilized. She was always a favorite of the crowd, but now started to have real momentum, with louder cheers every time out. When she beat Carmella in a non-title match, she was rewarded with a hard-earned title opportunity at Summerslam, having defeated literally every heel on the Smackdown roster as well as Charlotte.

The next week, Carmella attacked Becky, at which point Charlotte returned to save her friend. To punish Carmella, the Smackdown GM gave Charlotte the same deal as Becky: a win in a one-on-one match against the champion and she would be added to the Summerslam match. This put Becky in the awkward position of wanting the best for her friend, but also not wanting her odds of finally regaining the championship to be decreased with the addition of Charlotte.

Sure enough, Charlotte won the match, and over the next few weeks building up to Summerslam they teased possible tension between the two best friends. And using sort of booking logic, it was clear that Carmella wasn’t walking out with the title, just because this wasn’t really her story and the title run she’d been on had run its course and had nowhere else to go. It was pretty much guaranteed that one of Charlotte or Becky would win and then one would turn on the other to set up their feud.

I share this exhaustive backstory because it’s important to understand the long-form, meandering nature of WWE storytelling and how it can get you invested in the characters at a level that doesn’t really have a comparison (except maybe soap operas, which might be the closest analogue to wrestling). I’d been on this two-year journey with the Becky Lynch character, through all the ups and downs (mostly downs) and now was deeply invested in her winning this title, or at least getting a meaty storyline where she could prove herself as a top player in the company after months and months of being underutilized. Another big part of WWE fandom is that the character and the performer (Rebecca Quin is her real name) can become intertwined — it wasn’t just that I wanted Becky Lynch to win, it was that I wanted Rebecca Quin the person to make it to the top because it would be evidence that the people who run WWE believe in her and understand how good she is.

So the match at Summerslam happens and it’s another in a long line of Becky Lynch disappointments. She locks Carmella in her armbar finishing move in the middle of the ring, but Charlotte sneaks up from behind, hits her with her finisher, and pins Becky to become champion. After the match, they hug and cry, but then Becky finally snaps. She hammers Charlotte in the face, beats the crap out of her outside the ring, and throws her into the German announce table. (It starts at 11:30 of this completely legal video.)

This is where the story gets hilarious and fascinating. Because what Becky did is almost always understood in wrestling as a heel turn, and you’re supposed to boo the heel for doing something unsportsmanlike, especially betraying her friend. Instead, the crowd explodes for Becky. They chant her name as she goes on the warpath. They boo Charlotte when they show her on screen and chant “you deserve it” at the end, saying either that Becky should be champion or that Charlotte deserved to get her ass kicked. These are some of the loudest crowd reactions any woman in WWE has ever gotten.

It’s a perfect story that was told completely by accident. WWE, because it is run by life heels like Vince McMahon, actually thought the fans would side with Charlotte in this story. They had no idea what story they were telling, and they underestimated how much the crowd was behind Becky and wanted to see her win. This becomes evident on the next Smackdown, when Becky is scripted to cut a classic “you people” heel promo and the fans don’t buy it whatsoever. If anything, they love her even more, and they’re mad at the company for trying to get them to boo this character that everyone was behind.

The cool thing about wrestling is that the crowd is a participant in the story, and if they’re not reacting the right way, you have the opportunity to change course (unless it’s Roman Reigns). It appears WWE did that last week on Smackdown, when Becky attacked Charlotte after her match to massive cheers, then called her a “bitch,” which in PG-era WWE is about the coolest and most rebellious thing any character can do.

There is a lot of weird wrestling stuff going on in these crowd reactions. On the most basic storyline (or kayfabe) level, Becky’s role in this story was much more sympathetic than Charlotte’s. She worked her butt off just to get into the match while Charlotte got gifted yet another opportunity. And while Charlotte didn’t technically do anything wrong, she also didn’t do anything right and was oblivious to the feelings of her best friend. On a deeper level, this is like a morality play with two characters representing larger ideas. Becky represents hard work, dedication, and the feeling of being overlooked when you deserve better. Charlotte, fairly or unfairly, will always be associated with nepotism and elitism due to her name and the fact that she has been pushed hard as a top star by WWE her entire career. I mean, her entire previous heel gimmick was about how she’s “genetically superior.”

Becky is not behaving honorably here, but who cares? The fans want to cheer Becky because they understand her plight, they’ve been in her shoes (kind of) and they relate to her struggle. Every time she beats down Charlotte, it’s a cathartic moment for everyone who has been thrust to the side or overlooked in favor of someone who was unjustly more favored by higher-ups at their workplace, school, etc. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s defense of “don’t hate me because I’m great” isn’t all that endearing to most people.

This story is still in the relatively early stages, and another fun part of WWE is speculating on where the writers will go with everything. It looks to me like the company has given up on Becky Lynch getting booed and is now positioning her as an ass-kicking anti-hero. She’s fixated on winning back the title and is done letting other people stand in her way. Her character has turned by dropping the silly steampunk gear and not playing to the kids anymore, but they might have accidentally made her the most popular face in the history of women’s wrestling by unleashing this ruthless streak. Charlotte is kind of the loser here, because her character didn’t really do anything wrong, but she’s getting booed because of this building wave of Becky support, which could plant the seeds for her to turn heel again.

I get the sense that this is very inconvenient for WWE, who seem to have long-term plans for Charlotte as a face character and were hoping she could run through a heel Becky on her way to the biggest event of the year, WrestleMania. The fact that it all blew up in their face is what makes this story so compelling. Now we get to see how they adapt to these crowd reactions and what they do with these characters, who are both in a moral gray area instead of the easy face/heel alignment that defines most wrestling feuds.

This story, if it’s not clear, is basically all I’ve been thinking about for the last two weeks. It’s something that only could have been done in professional wrestling, because it needed the long build-up, the crowd reactions, and the physicality. And there are all these layers to it, with the characters, the real-life personas, and the backstage machinations of the company all entangling, which blurs the line between reality and fiction. A lot of WWE is pretty stupid and lives down to outsiders’ perception of wrestling as an idiotic redneck spectacle, but storylines like this are why I stick with it.