"I think it's something that people know but they don't want to talk about it, they always want to keep it hidden." ~ Nia Jax
We don't talk about fatness. Not because it isn't real. We've been conditioned to view "fat" or "big" as bad words. The words say nothing about someone's attractiveness, personality, capabilities, or their health, but it's a word we refuse to say or acknowledge. It's easier to pretend it doesn't exist.
To illustrate my point: Years ago, I was at a house gathering with friends. The homeowner, who was overweight, expressed how her insecurities related closely to her size. A friend, wanting to make her feel better, opined "you're not fat, you're beautiful." In those five words, he suggested, unintentionally, that someone can't be fat AND beautiful. He thought lying about her physical shape would serve as a compliment. He tried to pretend like her reality wasn't a reality at all.
I understood what Nia Jax meant. It's how we always treat sensitive discussions. It's how we had hoped the WWE would treat this particular discussion. They chose not to and ended up telling what was a good story: Alexa Bliss manipulated Jax for Bliss' gain, preyed on Jax's insecurities, and once Bliss' true nature was exposed, Bliss caught Jax's hands.
It's a logical narrative that stayed true to everything we know about the characters involved (well, except for Mickie James), created an emotional conflict people can relate to, and helped Jax in her evolution as a hero. Yet, even as the story was unfolding, we never trusted the WWE in telling it.
In presenting Nia Jax's full quote, Sean Rueter touched on a growing question within fiction: does it have a right to tackle hateful attitudes and sensitive subject matters?
Rueter brought up comic books, games, and nerdom I know nothing of. I know television and movies. I know fictional shows and films that tackle racism, poverty, abuse, sexuality, mental illness, discrimination, and topics that make us nervous. I know that type of commentary can be handled with care, smart writing, and solid execution.
Last year we saw Get Out find a unique approach to commentary on systemic racism. Lady Bird used comedy to speak of class and belonging. Orange is the New Black tackles a gamut of ideas ranging from sexuality to literal and figurative confinement, to our ability to empathize with others. None of that is comfortable, but we've shown a capacity to digest it and give these tellings deserved acclaim.
We don't give the WWE that same space and were hesitant with the feud between Jax and Bliss. Based on some comments (admittedly not the majority) from Rueter's post, some felt the story was cheap, exploitative, and unnecessary. Some felt Jax should transition to being heroic without playing on her experiences with being bullied.
In fairness, professional wrestling is an odd-fitting medium for any story falling outside the confines of the ring and meant to evoke emotion. And wrestling fans tend to have a parasocial relationship with the performers. Playing on the real lives of the performers can feel personal. But the criticism felt off because we don't say the same thing when other forms of art attempt something similar.
But there is the difference between the WWE and other shows: the WWE has burned us too many times to get the benefit of the doubt. We have seen how film and television can get social commentary right. We don't have memories of the WWE doing this well. So we'd rather them stick with tried-and-true wrestling and leave the commentary to the professionals.
Between Piggy James, Jinder Mahal mocking Shinsuke Nakamura, or Booker T. losing under the weight of rhetoric rooted in racism and class discrimination, we've been burned by a company that has steered toward the offensive or dropped the ball in moments when they could do something meaningful. Even while the WWE managed to avoid the offensive in this case, we were prepared for Jax to lose at WrestleMania with no retribution on the horizon.
Cain A. Knight was right in his assessment of fan reaction to the storyline: Nia Jax didn't HAVE to win. The story is allowed to continue unfolding after WrestleMania. The story is also allowed to not end happily. American History X comes to mind as a film that ended in a depressing manner with zero redemption for Edward Norton's character.
But the WWE doesn't have the type of equity to get away with that. In their effort to write something inclusive of an audience beyond the studied wrestling fan, the WWE doesn't have a good enough history to chalk up a result as "good heeling." For the viewer this story was aimed toward, this wasn't the time to bank on them sticking around for the comeuppance. Just give them want they want when they want it.
And that's what the WWE did. They didn't get cute. They didn't shoot for the long game. They capped off the story of someone's history with getting bullied and made sure they had their moment of triumph. The WWE played it safe and played it well.
So now comes the question: can we trust the WWE with social commentary moving forward? Because this isn't going to be the last of their attempts.
The WWE, and Vince McMahon specifically, has always been ambitious in wanting to be more than wrestling. The company serves a diverse community with a large range of experiences and battles in life. I saw it at WWE Fan Axxess through the fans that attended and the numerous charities with tables set up. It showed at WrestleMania when Finn Balor walked out with some of New Orleans' LGBT community. It's natural for the WWE, like television in general, to want to include social commentary into their program to connect deeper to an audience outside of the typical wrestling fan.
In a form of art that is built around conflict and the concept of "good versus bad," there will be moments when characters (heroes especially) are molded by life challenges. There will be moments when villains play on those challenges through their words and actions. And we will have to trust the WWE to handle the telling of that conflict with care and sensitivity.
It isn't bad to build conflict this way. It may create feelings of uneasiness. We may not always want fiction to remind us how cruel our world can be at times. But that uneasiness doesn't mean the WWE, or fiction in general, should avoid using social commentary as a means of advancing their plots and building the ethos of its characters. But it does put pressure on them to do it well.
I've never trusted the WWE with this. I said it when writing my thoughts about diversity in NXT, but the story between Triple H and Booker T. still sticks with me. The use of discriminatory rhetoric was low-end and unneeded, the telling of the conflict itself was weak, and a conclusion that never offered any form of redemption for the protagonist (or even a message we can gain something from) was hard to swallow.
But despite the mistrust that I have held onto, I can readily say that the WWE did well with the story of Nia Jax and Alexa Bliss. Not solely because Jax won (though I feel it was the right call). But because the WWE put some care and thought into evolving its hero through conflict. Brian Gallagher says that social commentary, and cinema in general, "is a representation of our lives as well as our ability to learn and grow as human beings." WWE, to their credit, captured that.
It's clear the WWE isn't afraid to discuss our world and don't plan on keeping its realities hidden. As the company continues to strive for more, I'm prepared for that to continue. Many years of falling well short of reasonable expectations don't erase the mistrust, but this one story is a good start toward rebuilding it.