In the case of professional wrestling, the fans are easily influenced pack animals, meaning that the promoters act as our shepherds, corralling us how and where they wish. We watch only what we are given. The only significant interaction we have in the creation and content is to complain and make our views heard. Views that inevitably fall on deaf ears. In reality the only act of control we have over the product is the decision to watch or to ignore, an impact only significant on a mass viewer scale. At over three million watchers, an individual boycott is inconsequential. And so, this state of powerlessness means that the promotions can mold their product into virtually whatever shape they want as long as the ratings remain steady, and as fans we have to stomach it if we want to continue our love of the sport.
Promotions generally use this influence responsibly, more often than not trying to engage the fans’ wishes and tastes. However, while booking and creative may seem to be fan directed, the general direction, attitude and approach of the sport has always been under scrutiny. For example, in the nineteen eighties wrestling was family oriented, providing a level of entertainment which was accessible and stimulating to both adults and children, free of smut, edginess and innuendo. The merchandise at the time reflected this; t-shirts, action figures, and cereal for instance are all aimed in the sights of young teens and below. However the tone of the sport was shifted during the Attitude era, removing the innocence of the previous incarnation and liberally salting the sport with blatant sexuality and deliberate violence. Yet miraculously, todays merchandise features almost identical products, if not more juvenile than the Golden Era.
On the surface, the current state of professional wrestling has endeavoured to alienate the loyal kid fanbase with concepts far and above their heads and ones that should stay that way, but also, it has excelled at leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of the adult parental viewers who are hit with the full force of the pornographic concepts that their children are watching. Underneath, the core force of the sport remains, heels and faces are still locked in a ceaseless stalemate, and the matches themselves operate identically. The sport remains pure, but the entertainment is tainted.
Whether or not they should, children still love wrestling and chances are they always will, so why was a controversial overly mature approach adopted. Interestingly, this revolution was instigated by the music scene. Before the Attitude of the Monday Night Wars, the explosion of grunge music signaled a shift not only in music, but the values and outlook of the population at the time. Seemingly overnight bubblegum hair metallers were shunned for the suicidal angst of the contentious grunge artists. The dark desires of the youth blossomed and ran riot, sparking a rebellion testing the boundaries of good taste. Classic wrestling couldn’t be more foreign to these ideals. So, much like all other entertainment outlets, wrestling promotions had to aboutface and extend the grunge principles into their previously friendly product just so kids wouldn’t change channels to MTV. And paradoxically, the easiest way for promoters to appeal to children was for them to market to adults.
However, since the new millennium the population’s drive to shock has waned, yet professional wrestling is sustaining the status quo, albeit not as frequently, with regular instances of overstepping the line of restraint. Which is a potentially volatile situation, as children seem to be as impressionable as ever, as seen in the constant game of musical chairs between bandwagons, trends and flavours of the week. Also, the old generation, those who the company adapted for, are now into adulthood and have come to expect isolated incidents of smut, while the new generation who are just dipping their toes in the sport are being bombarded with a confusing cocktail of sexual innuendo and action figures.
Television producers can provide entertainment for any demographic they choose, but in doing so they must adhere to an unwritten contract of responsibility meaning they can’t unfairly seduce viewers. The existence of television standards committees and watchdogs are for this very reason. In a recent interview Vince Russo mentions the actions of spin doctors (hired by professional wrestling companies) who concoct wild justifications for angles and marketing that are clearly aimed inappropriately at children. Children who don’t know any better. And there is an ongoing series of instances that slip through the filter and into the minds of children, because the WWE is adamant in their production of segments featuring live sex, necrophilia, penis size, male strippers, rape and dead babies, and yet, on the same card they have live cartoons of pirates, boogeymen, midgets, superheroes, Indians, and gardeners. Further still, Shopzone offers a variety of merchandise ranging from preloved Diva panties, to action figures, children sized replica belts, inflatable urns and teddy bears. Surely with such a vast market, neither party is being fully and properly catered for.
Could it be that the WWE and other mainstream promotions to-be, are operating on two levels, a lower, basic and innocent intellectual level to interest children, and a separate higher intellectually but lower brow level for adults. The unfortunate part is that the children, lured by the cartoonesque side of wrestling, have no way of being shielded from the adult entertainment not truly intended for them. Could this hazardous marketing misfiring be a byproduct of the pursuit of pleasing everyone and in turn engaging none suitably.
Unfortunately, the liberal doses of risqué entertainment are most probably deliberately intended. A company that has had decades to refine its product wouldn’t have demographic botches, everything that goes to broadcast is founded on strong and proven logic. In some ways, targeting of clearly inappropriate material towards kids is exploitation. In another sense it is still exploitation but smart exploitative marketing as well. The WWE has identified what it needs to do in the new millennium, reinstate the solidarity of the fanbase to a late eighties level after the disruptive Monday night Wars slump. And it is using the two levels of taste to do this. First of all, the lighter elements, gimmicks and babyfaces draw in fresh faced children while they are beginning to develop their own preferences in television. Secondly, the smutty sexual content not only services fans created through the Attitude era but also make the average male viewer stop on the channel to see more. However, the truly clever part is the in between, the gap linking the two, during this transitional period the company is following a similar transition in its audience from child to teenager, offering juvenile laughs and similarly juvenile sexual scenes. Thus creating a progressive road of content and taste for the viewers to grow up along, hopefully staying true and continuing to watch throughout.
However, this doesn’t excuse the fact that at one stage or another the younger viewers are being exposed to concepts before they are old enough to understand and comprehend them. But regrettably, with the current approach there is no way that this can be rectified, the only hope being that children understand it is entertainment not fact. But upon wider inspection, this is hardly exclusive to wrestling, almost any program in the mainstream media treads in areas which it shouldn’t considering its audience, finding sanctuary in the theory that it is all fiction. And while the WWE and TNA (and previously WCW) does this knowingly, which is highly immoral and manipulative, they are doing nothing that another company wouldn’t or doesn’t. It is realizations such as this that expose the victimization of professional wrestling administrations, forever under the searing light of a magnifying glass by the media, universally characterized as gluttonous vampires of morality and all that is good and American. When in actuality, this is a description of the media business as a whole, from visual to print, where such characteristics are not only acceptable but admirable.
Us, unfortunately, we have still have no control regardless of how the cookie is crumbled. We can either watch, read, and listen to what we’ve been given. Or we can sit in a corner. Either way we become victims, one of loneliness, the other of manipulation. However, manipulation offers us a security, leaving ourselves in the hands of those who at least think they are doing what is best for us. The inexplicable love between pack animals and their shepherds.
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Over and Out