On Gimmicks and Humanity in the WWE

Originally posted 3/28/13; Updated 12/14/15

Though sites like Wrestlecrap and Bleacher Report often discuss the campy occupation-based gimmicks of professional wrestling’s past as misguided and embarrassing mistakes, I feel that they are more accurately described as part of professional wrestling’s continued reflection of North American culture, particularly in the United States.

Both the economic boom (and subsequent crises) of the 80s and 90s led to a growing interest in various occupations. Not only were more jobs being created in different sectors, but also there were also more sectors than ever before. Indeed, new kinds of jobs were being created, and at a rapid pace. With this growth came both further insight and growing curiosity as to what these new jobs entailed.

Professional wrestling felt the influence of this growth strongly. Rick Martel was no longer just a professional wrestler; he was a model as well. The Big Boss Man was a corrections officer while Skinner hunted alligators, Irwin R Schyster worked for the Internal Revenue Service, Doink moonlit as a clown, and you can probably guess what Duke “The Dumpster” Droese did for a living outside of professional wrestling.

Fans were interested in these characters not necessarily because they could relate to them personally (though, hey, who wouldn’t like to see the taxman get a beatdown?), but perhaps more importantly because they were curious as to what a clown or model would do in a wrestling ring.

“What the hell is a male model like anyway, and how does he behave outside of work? How does being a garbageman affect someone’s personality, and how does that influence anything else he decides to do? This is ridiculous but I have to watch it, because that guy is traipsing around the ring in a weird mask looking for something to repossess and why is he doing that… what is going ON here?!”

These are the questions people ask, even if not directly; there’s a reason game show hosts introduce their contestants to television audiences with questions about their occupation almost immediately.

The mid to late 90s saw the return of a more “rebellious” era in American culture, and this rebellion was reflected strongly in 90s media. Watch any commercial (or read any print advertisement) from the 90s and notice that the antagonist is almost always an older authority figure, such as a teacher, one’s boss, or the stereotypical curmudgeonly old “geezer”. These images defined youth as the just leaders of culture, promoters of a cutting edge approach on everything from technology to morality.

Bob “Mr.” Backlund’s education and manners-obsessed character in the mid 90s was the perfect foil for this increasingly youth-centered culture, as figures like Backlund were represented as too “out of touch” to be anything but tyrannical buzzkills in an evolving society, a direct impediment to everything WWF’s “New Generation” era and Diesel’s sunglasses defined as “cool”.

In fact, this development of authority as evil took a more focused turn in the late 90s, as professional wrestling focused more on tyrannical bosses (like you might see in Mr. Burns on The Simpsons, for instance).

There’s been enough said about how Steve Austin and Vince McMahon’s long feud defined the Attitude Era and led to a second wave of national success for the WWF to fill a million books, and I’m sure Eric Bischoff’s name is often invoked in that conversation as well.

What of the current era, then? Well, the reality television that dominated airwaves from the late 90s and into all of the 00s is no longer a mere fad. In fact, the insane popularity of reality television has evolved into a cultural element weaved into almost every single show on TV, informing American culture as a whole.

Of course, there are still reality shows on television; even “reality competition” shows like WWE’s own Tough Enough. However, the genre itself does not exist the way it once did because it’s more a part of entertainment as a whole now. For example, even chefs on cooking shows or news anchors on your local broadcast stations focus more on presenting their personalities and humanity than they ever did in the past.

The WWE is no exception to this shift in American media culture. The company now focuses more on guys with “real names” (even if not their birth names) like Seth Rollins, Curt Hawkins, and Wade Barrett, and less on the occupation based gimmicks that captured people’s attention in the past. Indeed, even the franchise of the entire company is a guy who goes by his extremely boring and bland birthname of John Cena.

Even the more outlandish personalities in the WWE are more human than ever. In 2013, Brodus Clay taught Tensai to have fun and “let his freak flag fly”, renaming him “Sweet T” and encouraging him to embrace that side of his humanity. In present day WWE, Kevin Owens connects with fans, whether positively or negatively, with minimal frills: his character is that of a regular guy obsessed with success as a means of supporting his family and securing their love; he didn’t take kindly to his son’s love of John Cena, for instance.

Though we’ve seen tyrannical bosses take the form of corrupt GMs in the current era, their motivations are more human than ever. Vickie Guerrero stacked the odds against WWE’s heroes not because she was a corporate tyrant like Vince McMahon, but because her very human romantic interests in Edge and Dolph Ziggler (and personal connection to her nephew Chavo Guerrero Jr.) motivated her to do so. The John Laurinaitis character was obsessed with stifling CM Punk and John Cena more because he was disrespected and insecure about his own failures as a professional wrestler than anything Vince McMahon attacked Steve Austin for. Finally, while Triple H and Stephanie McMahon formed their characters in The Authority to ostensibly preserve the WWE’s corporate interests, their involvement stemmed from a familial connection: they were really created to carry out the interests of Vince McMahon: the grandfather of their children.

While wrestlers in the 80s and 90s often debuted with fleshed out and outrageous backstories based on successful careers in the world of country and rap music or stock-car racing, wrestlers today often make their debuts with minimal talking points, creating more of a bare canvas that can be developed over time by adding further interests and personality traits. Heath Slater’s obnoxious persona developed into a grating and obliviously egotistical Southern Rocker while Justin Gabriel’s interests included skydiving and other “thrill seeking” activities. Even Maryse developed from sultry and sexy to more of a money grubbing egomaniac over time, while the Sasha Banks character went from wide-eyed, shy rookie to an overconfident young woman obsessed with winning at any and all costs.

I share these varied examples over different time periods for a few reasons. For one, I suggest that corny gimmicks of the past are not terribly different from failed sitcoms of the 80s or an outdated fashion trend of any time period. It’s easy to claim that a failed idea was a dumb one, and in more than a few cases they most certainly were. However, professional wrestling gimmicks are as reflective of their contemporary culture as any of the aforementioned cultural markers, and to dismiss them without understanding the context in which those ideas were created might rob you of a chance to enjoy some fun gimmicks in professional wrestling.

What I’m getting at is that I’ll gladly watch Henry O. Godwinn dump a bucket of slop over the Greenwich snob Hunter Hearst Helmsley again ’cause, hey, as dumb as it seems now, maybe a pig farmer being at odds with a trust fund kid isn’t so hard to relate to after all. If nothing else, it’s fun.

Secondly and finally, the way these corny gimmicks have developed over time has provided contemporary professional wrestling with flexibility in how tropes from the past are presented now.

Fandango’s introduction is a brilliant example, as he is a young star who was hung up on the pronunciation of his name: the signal of his very identity and humanity. He might be an outlandish gimmick character reminiscent of the 80s and 90s, but what he cares most about is consistent with what is culturally significant in today’s society and in today’s WWE.

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