Tonight, World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon will take to the ring on SmackDown. But he won’t be CEO — that title has been nominally transferred to his daughter, Stephanie — and he won’t be Vince McMahon, but “Mr. McMahon,” the corporate tyrant heel character who has played opposite the organization’s most popular performers since the 1990s.
We’re told that the real McMahon, in real life, has “stepped aside” while the WWE board of directors looks into a secret payment of $3 million in hush money to a departing employee with whom he allegedly had an affair, as well as previous nondisclosure agreements with other women employees with misconduct claims involving him and another exec, John Laurinaitis.
That is, McMahon will send out his alter ego — on a live wrestling show — to answer the headlines. If nothing else, it’s bound to boost ratings as morbidly curious viewers tune in.
Exactly what stunt “Mr. McMahon” carries out in the arena is of minor consequence. It is rather the decision to face serious charges of sexual impropriety, as a swaggering, macho caricature of the evil boss, through the veil of hyperbolic stagecraft, that says everything. It tells us he is only responsible to the fans’ image of him, which has been an illusion all along. This is the inevitable, grotesque new circus of #MeToo backlash, one that arguably began with accused sexual predator Kevin Spacey releasing vaguely menacing videos where he spoke in the southern accent of Francis Underwood, his scheming House of Cards character. Recently, Johnny Depp supporters fantasized about the actor quoting himself as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean during a defamation case against ex-wife Amber Heard as she testified to his abusive behavior. Outside the courtroom, Depp channeled the voice they wanted to hear.
Other men, like McMahon, will use their specific, self-constructed celebrity as a shield in a PR battle, or to cash in on the revelations of their wrongdoing. Marilyn Manson, accused by at least 16 women of sexual abuse and battery, has a legion of defenders arguing that he’s been unfairly targeted due to his deliberately transgressive shock-rocker persona. The comedian Louis C.K., who in 2017 admitted to masturbating in front of various women without consent, is promoting a new independent film project, The Fourth of July, in which he plays a therapist — as if to own and make light of the psychology underlying his infamous sordid acts. Elon Musk has, in his familiar guise of Twitter’s most irritating “debate me” dude, challenged a friend of the woman who said he pressured her for a sexual favor on a SpaceX plane to describe his penis.
Trevor Bauer, the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher accused of sexual assault by three women, recently became the first MLB player to contest a suspension by the league under their domestic violence policy, is suing one of the women who came forward and has sought to publicly affiliate himself with Depp as a fellow victim of damaging smears. (He likewise has fans trumpeting his innocence, some of them sporting “BRING BACK BAUER” merch.)
Meanwhile, the NFL is poised to suspend Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson — currently named in 24 civil lawsuits from women alleging sexual harassment and assault during massage appointments — but his five-year, $230 million contract is fully guaranteed whether he misses the upcoming season or not. The financial hit he takes will be minimized, and the Browns don’t want to void the deal.
Vince McMahon stands ready to anoint himself the mascot for all these men — the ones who refuse punishment, symbolic or otherwise, punching back at anyone trying to hold them accountable, using any power and influence at their disposal to overwhelm the victims. As a group, they couldn’t have picked a better spokesman, for McMahon knows well how to look as if he’s taking his punches, receiving his comeuppance, while retaining complete control of the scenario. He has relished the role of villain for decades, falling to heroes in spotlit displays of mock justice that he himself has scripted, never truly vanquished because he owns the scenery, the actors, the empire.
His resignation as chairman simply means he’ll pull the strings from behind the throne, and his turn as “Mr. McMahon” this evening will be a sham within a sham, meant to eclipse his troubles with a larger-than-life spectacle. What disgraced men do now is sell an alternate storyline, something more fun, dramatic and thrilling for the audience at home.
People are hungry for this — for any entertainment to sweep away another depressingly predictable tale of a famous man’s wrongdoing. They gravitate toward whatever lets them feel the world is not so fallen, that no reckoning is required. And soon enough, they forget it’s fake.