This week something dawned on me and it was pretty momentous. In fact, I think it very well could be one of the main reasons why some wrestling fans do not like the WWE product as it is now. And actually, it is pretty simple:
The WWE version of professional wrestling is not meant for us.
That’s it. That’s the truth. We remember the WWE/WWF from our childhood. We remember the over-the-top characters, the crazy storylines, the promos we barely understood. We remember the big bumps, the chairshots, the insane dives. We remember the outraged announcers, the screaming fans, and the little girl crying in the stands. We remember blood feuds, family jealousies, and mascot madness. We remember all these things and we cling to them the same way we cling to other things from our childhood.
Think about your high school locker. You probably never thought about it much at the time, but your high school locker was possibly the first space you ever had that was “yours.” You kept your stuff in there. You had your own combination for it. It often served as a social meeting point for friends, “Let’s meet up at Johnny’s locker after lunch.”
Now that you are thinking about it, you are probably smiling a bit. You may be remembering the combination or if you could “pop” it open. You may be remembering an old girlfriend’s sweater she stored in the top shelf. You may be remembering being pushed into it during a particularly sad episode going up against a bully.
But if you returned to your high school today, you would just see the locker for what it is – a metal cabinet designed to keep you from having to lug 100 books around all day. Someone else is using “your” locker now. Someone else has it decorated differently. No one is meeting up at Johnny’s locker after lunch any more, they are meeting up at Susie’s locker after English class. Your old girlfriend’s sweater has been replaced by a compact, a hair brush, and what is that… a scrunchy? They still make those?
But you still have your memories of “your” locker. And those memories are valid. It isn’t that you saw the locker incorrectly, you just saw it through your high school self. And that person looks at things a little different than the person you are now.
The WWE tried to warn you. They told you their product is rated PG. It isn’t the Attitude Era where they pushed the boundaries. Or maybe they still are pushing boundaries, it is just the boundaries are a little different for you now. Honestly, Charlotte’s verbal humiliation of her father is just as boundary-pushing as the Triple-H/Trish Stratus innuendo-laden training sessions back in the day. But we were younger and found different things edgier.
The WWE has tried to cater to their aging audience while still holding on to the younger kids. They did so by adding some more “grown-up” storylines, resulting in layers and layers of bureaucracy. They have tried to appeal to some of the more athletic appeal of their wrestlers while still allowing people like John Cena to make poopy jokes. They work to get the crowd to pop for The New Day’s silliness while they thrust and gyrate their way through their introductions.
The WWE tries to have it all. It wants you to enjoy their product at the same time your 8 year old can enjoy the product. They hope you are a life-long viewer, but they still need to appeal to the young fans and get them hooked. Those two things do not normally go together though. It is the reason why a lot of wrestling fans transition from WWE to promotions like New Japan Pro Wrestling or Ring of Honor, promotions that focus on the athletic competition and less on character antics.
The brand split could help with this. But their audience would be split until major events where the brand collaborated. One show could contain the great wrestlers and have the athletic competition spotlighted. The other could have the comedy, the shenanigans, the storyline dramas. In fact, they almost did it before when Smackdown was focused on the Smackdown Six and let them tear down the house all over the world. But now, it seems less and less likely that the combination of both things could work.
Now that I think about it, there is another television institution that has pulled off the trick of having lifelong fans while still attracting new ones. The analogy also helps me describe this phenomenon I am discussing. And that television institution is: Sesame Street.
Yes, Sesame Street. You remember Sesame Street from when you were a kid. You loved watching the adventures of Ernie and Bert, or enjoying the friendship-against-all-odds of Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus, or learning to Count with Count von Count, or seeing if SuperGrover could actually help this time, or seeing if Cookie Monster could control himself, or laughing at Oscar throwing shade at everyone, or even seeing what kind of news Kermit would bring us as a reporter on the street. You have memories that are good. You hold those characters and those memories dear.
One day you sit down to watch Sesame Street with your child. You look forward to revisiting those childhood characters. But then, HE comes on your screen. And he stays on your screen. And he is in every damn sketch. And he keeps giggling like an annoying brat. And he keeps talking about himself in the fucking third person. And you just want to scream and rip the head off that fucking little piece of shit Elmo! Arrrrgggghhhh!!!!
(Okay, maybe I got a little carried away there. I’m calm now.) But you start to blame this red Muppet for everything you don’t like on the show. You irrationally claim that Elmo has just ruined Sesame Street and you can’t believe it is even still on the air. Filled with rage, you turn towards your progeny expecting to see sheer disgust on his face as well. Instead, you see him smiling and laughing and talking to Elmo through the television screen.
How could this be? You are certain that this Sesame Street is not as good as the Sesame Street you watched as a kid. What was wrong with your child? Or worse yet, did Elmo have some sort of mind-control capabilities? (By the way, I haven’t completely ruled out that possibility.)
Finally, it hits you. Yes, Elmo is the most annoying thing on the planet, but your kid still likes him. Because Sesame Street is not for you. It is for your child. Sesame Street has been carefully planned and written to appeal to younger viewers. The lessons showcased are based on many many years and study of childhood development and learning. The key word being childhood. You are an adult now and beyond the lessons Sesame Street is trying to provide.
Sure, Sesame Street throws a few winks and chuckles to the parents to keep them from becoming homicidal. But that only goes so far. It still wants you to watch with your child. So you begin to appreciate it for what it is. You begin to recognize the different lessons being offered. You begin to admire the puppeteers and the voice actors and the writers. You finally understand what a genius hippie Jim Henson actually was. In short, you begin to appreciate the show on a different level, a grown-up level.
But one more glance at your child and you also realize you are enjoying the show on a third level. Through your child’s eyes. You smile at watching your child giggle when Grover trips and falls down. You laugh along with him when he sees Cookie Monster eat not just the cookies, but the plates and tables and chairs at the picnic because, face it, your child’s laugh is funny.
So you decide, despite that demon troll Elmo’s existence, Sesame Street is still awesome. It just isn’t for you anymore. But the making of the show still fascinates and watching your child enjoy it is worth suffering through the shrill sound of Elmo’s voice. But your child can still enjoy the show itself and create his own fond memories.
That is professional wrestling. As we get older, we can still enjoy the nods and winks directed our way. We can also admire the timing and skill in putting together these matches. We can appreciate (or dislike) the writers for crafting interweaving storylines. We can be awed by the stresses these athletes put their bodies through on a nightly basis.
We can also enjoy watching others enjoy it. We can smile at a whole arena going crazy for The Rock, or bursting out in a “Yes!” chant for Daniel Bryan. We like watching our children wear their Elmo shirts … I mean John Cena shirts and cheer at the match results.
Maybe we start to enjoy ROH or NJPW better than WWE because they focus more on the things we enjoy as adults. We can still hold on to our memories even as we outgrow them. We can even occasionally allow ourselves a guilty pleasure and be a little childish, recapturing that magic we knew when we were younger. We just can’t forget that it is not for us. But we can still enjoy it.