While not an official partner or sponsor of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)'s No Name Calling Week anti-bullying and harassment effort, the WWE is promoting it through its social media channels. Is this a case of good corporate citizenship, or does it only serve to highlight one of the shortcomings of their current product?
It would be too easy, and miss the point. In and of itself, using their considerable reach to spread a positive message and at the very least spark discussion among the "WWE Universe" about harassment in all of its forms is the right thing to do. But what change can they hope to affect when their own product so often features the very behavior they purport to want to combat? And are they drawing negative and potentially damaging attention to that product when they position themselves as an advocate of such efforts?
WWE's latest foray into anti-bullying education came to the Cageside Seats' staff's attention by means of the following update on the company's Facebook page:
As you can see, several fans who follow the company at the social networking site immediately jumped on the obvious contradiction between what WWE is saying and what it does on national television every week. Just last Monday, one of, if not the, biggest stars in the history of the Stamford, CT based corporation verbally attacked a middle-aged man for his weight and physique before singing a song designed solely to call a female character ugly. And while it is true that these are characters playing roles, and that everyone involved is being compensated for their efforts, there is a years-old pattern of humiliation, abuse and, yes, name-calling.
Pro wrestling is an artform that relies on manufacturing conflict. At some point, this necessitates that the performers hurl insults at one another. And, as some of the characters being portrayed are "bad guys", some of those insults will be malicious and hurtful.
So should WWE in particular and the industry as a whole avoid championing pro-social behavior? What can they do to at least avoid ridicule for their incongruity on the issue, and at best to maximize their influence?
We have some ideas:
Eliminate the personal and punitive
Wrestling journalism is an inexact science, to say the least. The business is built on maintaining secrecy, and even the most reliable sources have to be taken with a grain of salt. But often times multiple signs point to the same things.
This might be the case with The Rock's attacks on Paul Heyman on the 20th anniversary edition of Raw. Former head of WWE Creative, Brian Gerwitz, has long been identified as one of the primary writers of Rocky's material. The Wrestling Observer Newsletter noted that with return of Dwayne Johnson to WWE programming, Gerwitz has returned to prominence at the writer's table.
Now, this is where we get into kayfabe/shoot conjecture, but there are many stories of how Gerwitz and Paul Heyman were often at odds when both held sway on the creative team. While there is a storyline reason for Rock to attack Heyman - he's managing the Brahma Bull's next opponent - there is also the appearance of taking the opportunity to land some personal shots.
Again, this is just the latest example of something like this. Rumors abound among the so-called 'smart marks' and wrestling press of situations where a performer is punished for some transgression by being humiliated on camera. Miz was the butt of several weeks worth of jokes after a botch resulted in R-Truth being injured. Drew McIntyre lost a planned push but was also the victim of several squashes at the hands of monsters like Big Show and Mark Henry shortly after an embarrassing incident with his now ex-wife Taryn Terrell that involved the police being called.
Which is to say nothing of company patriarch, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Vince McMahon's propensity to demean employees on air in skits such as the "Kiss My Ass Club". Many of the performers involved in those scenes are people that are alleged to have done something wrong or fallen on Vince's bad side.
Why even risk the appearance of impropriety in such cases? In an organization that so often claims to want to shed the stigmas attached to pro wrestling and be known as an entertainment company, wouldn't it be better to handle personal and professional issues behind the scenes?
Where have all our heroes gone?
Too often, the worst acts of persecution and torment are perpetrated by the baby faces or "good guys". John Cena encouraged the audience to call Eve Torres a slang-term for prostitute while wearing a "Rise Above Hate" t-shirt. The Rock's two plus year return has brought with it many of the veiled homophobic taunts that were more prominent during the Attitude Era, but are far from gone from the product today. Sheamus and Randy Orton are known to punch first and ask questions later, and the former even has a case of grand theft auto on his recent record, while the latter has decommissioned defenseless opponents via head trauma.
Not every character has to be a boy scout, but shouldn't some of them at least appear to be trying? The form is built on morality plays, where a protagonist is presented with obstacles that might be solved by less than virtuous means, but where he or she ultimately triumphs in a manner that is noble. We were recently treated to such a story in Alberto Del Rio's capture of the World Heavyweight Championship. Why is that story the exception rather than the rule?
The heels should be acting in anti-social ways (see the Big Show's performance opposite Del Rio and Ricardo Rodriguez in the aforementioned storyline), and then they should be the ones punished for their transgressions. There is room for characters who exist in the grey areas, but the most prominent stars in the company, those marketed as the heroes of your youngest fans, should not be doing things a middle school student would get suspended for or acting like the villain in a teen movie.
Don't try this at home
At the height of pro wrestling's popularity, the then World Wrestling Federation saw fit to pull back the curtain a little to reveal that the long-held belief that wrestling was "fake" was at least partially true. This was done, at least in part, to protect itself in the courts of public opinion and the law from blame and liability for children who injured themselves trying to replicate the physical feats they saw on television.
Will the threat of similar litigation be necessary for WWE to change its approach to their on-air content regarding bullying and name-calling? Perhaps the legal eagles of Cageside Seats could speak to this better than I, but it doesn't seem too far fetched that a civil case could be brought against the company by the parents of a child damaged by someone modeling Cena's treatment of his opponents, or the family of one who was punished for recreating his behavior.
The main tenants of kayfabe - that these are 100% real issues between people who will settle them with violence - are necessarily dead and gone. Perhaps it's time to take it a step further and remind kids that the verbal altercations they watch on WWE television shows are also fictional, and the dramatic tension created and resolved there is not anything that should be taken into the real world of a school yard, living room or work place.
Sure, it goes without saying and would be overkill for the vast majority of your audience. But it wouldn't induce any more eye-rolling than the Be a STAR campaign.
The best answer is probably a combination of all three. WWE can model the right things, and be the most effective partner to worthwhile efforts like No Name Calling Week, by keeping personal grievances and professional punishments out of their entertainment productions, having some of their most promoted baby face characters take the high road in their quest to defeat heels who clearly do the wrong thing and by being exceedingly clear to their most impressionable audience members that the physical and verbal aggression they see is make believe.
What do you think, Cagesiders? Can a pro wrestling promotion ever promote "No Name Calling" with any credibility? Are there other things you'd like to see WWE do to keep their shows in line with their public relations, or is this all just so much politically correct over-analyzing?