This Sunday night at MetLife Stadium, WWE’s 35th annual WrestleMania event is being built around a women’s match for the first time. In a three-way “Triple Threat” match, respective Raw and SmackDown brand champions Ronda Rousey and Charlotte Flair defend their titles against each other and Becky Lynch. The winner leaves with both belts, an extra bit of stakes to help put the special occasion over the top.
The elevation of the women’s division is the WWE at its most performatively woke, bragging about how awesome they are for now taking female talent seriously and pushing them to the main event level while abandoning all responsibility for the previous, T&A-heavy status quo where the distaff performers were scolded for wanting to have entertaining matches.
Honestly, though, nobody should really expect any better from them. After all, this is the same company that has does paid propaganda for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, has deep connections to the Trump administration and has repeatedly featured culturally and racially insensitive characters as villains, among other things.
In other words, it shouldn’t really surprise anyone that WrestleMania 35 features a prominent woke villain on the card: WWE Champion Daniel Bryan.
Since November, when Bryan suddenly did a 180 from beloved everyman to vaguely maniacal preachy environmentalist heel — with the explanation that he essentially lost his mind from too much time in a hyperbaric chamber — he’s become a bizarre caricature of himself, one that feels at least mildly problematic in the context of WWE.
The man behind the gimmick, Bryan Danielson is, legitimately, a voracious reader who’s incredibly environmentally-conscious. It was their shared interest and activism that served as the original ice-breaker between him and his wife, Brianna (WWE’s Brie Bella), and on WWE reality shows like Total Divas and Total Bellas, it defines who they are relative to Brianna’s more materialistic sister, Nicole. Hell, when they got engaged, the ring was “eco-friendly,” a custom-designed conflict-free diamond.
Still, actual socio-political issues were generally referred to only in broad strokes, both in wrestling storylines and on the companion reality shows. Basically, you saw the real Danielson and Brianna talking about making micro-level changes regarding the environment without any larger discussion of climate change. The Daniel Bryan character, meanwhile, at least as a good guy, didn’t really allude to any of this past, beyond working in his (sometimes) veganism and getting a shot at main eventing WrestleMania in 2014 by doing his own take on Occupy Wall Street, albeit with the actual politics removed.
So it’s only natural that, in the WWE of all companies, Bryan’s new villainous turn as, essentially, the galaxy brain version of a tree-hugging hippie is what led to him going deeper on WWE programming. Some of it has a blatantly comedic twist: There was, for instance, the time he bashed Chase Field’s official Royal Rumble Burger on Twitter, or the exaggerated rant about consumerism that turned into a pledge to replace his championship belt with something more sustainable, free of leather from a slaughtered cow (named Daisy, apparently).
He even parlayed that into his own custom championship belt, a fully sustainable one with a hemp fiber strap and carved wooden plates decorated with earth stones. It’s this side of the ledger where the wrestling persona is so exaggerated that it’s not as if you can argue that there’s any damage being done for, say, animal rights causes. He’s being so utterly ridiculous that you’re booing him for the degree to which he is annoying and preachy, not because of what he believes in.
“Of course you don’t want to listen to this, because you and the entire Baby Boomer generation are the great parasites of this world. You see, these people bowed down to you when you came out, but they don’t realize that you and your entire generation: You take, you take, you take and you give nothing back, putting profits over both the people and the planet. Every. Single. Time. And they bow to you for it! THEY BOW TO YOU FOR IT! It’s like you pulled this incredible magic trick! This illusion, that you’ve concealed from them, all the economic and environmental debt that you’ve created, and they’ve become satisfied with trading Instagram likes. And Facebook messages. And social media stuff. All while you’re in the back hoarding all the wealth, hoarding all the power. And they ignore it! Because they’re distracted! You’ve created an environment for A.J. Styles to become a hero. Where his brand of ignorance and impotence is the perfect distraction.”
There was no self-deprecation here, no surrealistic references to specific farm animals. That was more leftist podcaster blowing off steam than pro wrestling promo. Perhaps doubly so with how Bryan turned it back to his feud with Styles, who had guested on the streaming talk show of “conservative comedian” Steven Crowder just 24 hours earlier. The old adage in wrestling is that the best heels believe that they’re actually the babyface, or good guy, and that certainly holds with Bryan. And while McMahon often insists that there are no more heels and babyfaces because it doesn’t reflect “real life,” that’s clearly not the way that Bryan’s storylines are framed, which gets a lot more complicated by WWE’s audience demographics.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, demographic research shows that pro wrestling fans are a diverse group that leans further to the left than most sports fans. While Bryan’s promo got a mix of polite boos and stunned chatter live, online it was a smash hit, getting well over 1.5 million views on Twitter alone. Wrestling fans loved it, and non-fans got a taste of why wrestling fans get a kick out of this stuff.
But exactly what kind of message does it send that Bryan is the villain? Or more to the point, why does the guy making fairly mainstream leftist arguments have to be the bad guy? Because he was agitated? Because he’s sometimes a bit of a goof? Even when he’s a pushy asshole about it, it’s not as if the things that the more alarmist Bryan promos call out aren’t actually systemic issues.
Of course, there absolutely is a risk of the WWE alienating its fans by injecting large-scale, real-world problems that affect their daily lives into their escapist junk entertainment. Especially because in the past when wrestling storylines would get into exploiting wars and other conflicts, they were — as cynical as it is to say — usually matters that the average person didn’t consider to truly affect them. In 2019, though, things like climate change and wealth distribution are a much different matter, especially for the people who make up the bulk of the WWE’s fan base (which, again, isn’t who you think).
And so, the more it feels like Vince McMahon and the WWE are telling us that Daniel Bryan is wrong, the more the company makes itself the real bad guy.