Why Is Wrestling Satisfied with Being a Distraction?

I won’t sugarcoat it: right now, there are few things less important than professional wrestling. Between last week’s torrent of grief in the wake of the deaths of Hana Kimura and Shad Gaspard, the ongoing trauma and anxiety stemming from the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and this week’s series of protests in response to the police killings of black men and women—protests that have been met with escalating violence by police departments who are as well armored as the National Guard reserves many governors are calling upon—how does one watch wrestling, let alone day anything substantive about it? That’s what I’ve been asked to do, but as it stands I’m looking at the clock on my computer screen, tensing up the closer it gets to the time my small city will take to the streets in solidarity with so many others.

It feels pointless, professional wrestling, and yet it shouldn’t. I don’t know how to articulate this to its fullest extent, but in watching what we’ve been given over the past three months, the past year, the past five years, the past decade, and so on, what I’ve realized is that while wrestling is as integral to the fabric of American culture as anything else on television, it is somehow the medium most distant from addressing something, anything about life in this country. Every message one derives from modern wrestling in the United States of America is one that has to be applied to it from the outside, whether it’s the nature of wrestling in a vacuum or the frankly all-time owner vs. labor image of Vince McMahon sanitizing his hands in disgust after two of his wrestlers busted into his office during the Money in the Bank match earlier this month. It’s unintentional, the messaging these images carry. More than that, they’re antithetical to what wrestling is trying to be at this moment, which is a distraction from the sickness, the death, the fire, the incompetence, and the grief of this moment in time.

That would be true even under normal circumstances. Wrestling accidentally positions itself to be a commentary on labor issues and class issues all the time. Steve Austin and Vince McMahon is probably the most successful story in the history of wrestling, and it’s one where a dude in blue jeans who drinks terrible beer decides that he’s not going to take shit from his abusive boss anymore. Until he ends up being friends with the abusive boss. Daniel Bryan, in order to win the WWE Championship at WrestleMania XXX, had to fight a faction called The Authority, which was led by Stephanie McMahon and Triple H, both of them being executives of the company. After returning from injury (a story that is itself a nightmare), he eventually turned heel with a gimmick that saw him upset about the lack of care given to the planet. Sami Zayn, a wrestler who started an organization that provides medical aid to those affected by the Syrian War, is a heel on WWE television because his bosses think that he’s annoying.

The only thing that’s changed in 2020 is the look and feel of wrestling, how, due to greed, wrestling has shrunk itself down to fit in empty gyms and football fields in an effort to give us the same tired bullshit, the same plastic characters fighting over props that you can buy for half off on WWE’s webstore if you’re watching the show. People bemoan the lack of realism in professional wrestling when a wrestler puts his hands up to catch someone on a dive—what about the realism of having a fight over nothing when there’s a riot going on outside. WWE is trying to get real with a storyline about Jeff Hardy’s troubled history with substance abuse, but what does it say that things like this are the only way a wrestler’s life as a real person comes to the forefront?

Is it within wrestling’s power to address real issues? Honestly, no. The way WWE and AEW are set up allows for the occasional joke about or reference to the pandemic, but wrestling is booked the way it is to insulate itself from the very real, very damaging critiques that can be and often are leveled against it. The WWE has taken great steps to assure people that it is an apolitical entity, to the point that they don’t bring up victor of WrestleMania 23’s Battle of the Billionaires and WWE Hall of Famer Donald J. Trump at all, probably because they don’t want to further publicize the amount of money they donated to either the Trump Foundation or his presidential campaign, Linda McMahon’s tenure as the head of the Small Business Administration, or current role as the head of a dark money, pro-Trump social-welfare organization, America First Policies, as well as its Super PAC, that has a history of racist, anti-semitic, and otherwise bigoted leadership. AEW, by contrast, has set themselves up as the company that puts wrestling first, which is probably pretty cool if watching wrestling is something that’s still fun for you, but if that’s all it wants to be then why is it so important that it needs to happen right now?

Wrestling’s continuing presence on television felt wrong three months ago and it feels worse now, the weird cosmic energy of WWE’s universe and whatever AEW calls its narrative landscape just do not fit in a world that is in this much pain. That it is content to serve as a distraction, that it wishes to put smiles on faces when the only people smiling right now are those who revel in that pain, feels like active harm. If it had something to say, the past three months may have been tolerable. But we are beyond smiles on faces now. We’re living in a world where wrestlers are tweeting about bullying, the virus, and police brutality while working for companies that can’t do simple things like ask the Undertaker to not wear a Blue Lives Matter shirt during the documentary about how awful the matches he’s wrestled as part of the effort to whitewash the human rights abuses of Saudi Arabia were. It’s incredible, in a way, how a business dedicated to distraction cannot help but draw attention to how it contributes to the injustices it seeks to distract one from, but bad actors are keen on telling on themselves. It’s time we start listening. It’s time we start demanding more.