“Belts Hold Your Pants Up. We Compete for Championships”: How Professional Wrestling Predicted America’s Current Entertainment, Media, and Political Hyperbole Machines

You can’t escape the madness, and you have to pick a side. Every morning millions of Americans fire up their favorite skewed morning program or online echo chamber, eagerly anticipating their daily dose of T-R-U… T-H. Excuse me, Freudian slip; obviously I meant T-R-U-M-P, arguably the greatest character our media-obsessed era has ever written. But is there even a difference? If we can define truth as unequivocally what is, then the truth of the matter is that our nation’s most fundamentally revered institution has transformed into the eye of the biggest shit storm America has yet to see in the information age. Calling our predicament a hurricane implies nature is to blame; our current state of affairs is entirely our fault, a festering by-product of the passive human desires to judge, hate, and be entertained.

Apologies to any remaining idealistic reporters who truly believe in fair and balanced journalism, but the almighty media dollar usurped your profession the day opinion began moving the dial more so than fact. Print isn’t dead; it’s just been poisoned. Any journalism school in the country will say as much: that the ultimate priority of the media is to operate as a healthy business first, and that ethics should resonate as a natural byproduct of good people seeking the truth. But in an era of total media inundation and dwindling attention spans, our generation’s classic chicken-or-the-egg paradox unfolds: should media outlets take the blame for blatantly promoting adversarial, extreme, finger-pointing content in an effort to make a living, or is the consumer to blame for continuously stoking the fire of discontent by preferring the lurid to the sensible? Ironically one brand of media, professional wrestling, long lambasted for being “fake” or “scripted,” began pushing the buttons of American furor long before the major networks decided to see which jackass personality could produce enough hot air to balloon their buoyed ratings back into the black. They have even managed to stay relevant for decades despite a meteoric rise in available content and a wild new sentiment that the world must be a place of harmony, actual human animal psychology notwithstanding.

So the juggernauts of professional wrestling would like to thank you, the hungry hungry hater, for acting exactly as they hoped you would for all these years. Even in a far more sensible time, when Americans still possessed opinions but didn’t feel the fiery need to eviscerate each other personally for voicing them, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Chairman Vince McMahon and his merry band of entertainment athletes knew that the human psyche craves discord, but more importantly loves taking sides. In two separate 1999 interviews referencing the origins of the sport, McMahon admitted, “On television I play this demagogue who’s so powerful,” and, after being booed out of the stadium during the infamous Montreal Screwjob, “we realized we could put me in a venue where the public could express its anger.” Of all the emotions to exploit at an entertainment event, McMahon recognized anger as the most profitable, the visceral equivalent of a natural high that summarily sweeps you away from the trappings of real life. “People love it because it’s an escape from the drudgery and stress of their regular lives,” McMahon told The New York Times in 2008. “We are so consumer-oriented. We never lift our ears from the ground. We give the public what it wants. We broke the mold.”

The true brilliance of the professional wrestling business lies in the conceit that every day is, by design, the most important day in the history of the company. The industry enjoys no offseasons, no All Star breaks, and no rearview mirrors. Unlike a book that you put back on the shelf after finishing, the wrestling business has your next adventure queued up and ready, complete with action figures and apparel. The inherent hype needed to capture an audience for years on end elevates the mundane to mythical: athletes become superstars, belts become championships. Angles, storylines, feuds, and heel-turns drive a train of enhanced reality that insiders call kayfabe, or the portrayal of predetermined, scripted events as “true” within the parameters of the promotion’s vision. Ride the train daily or come and go as you please. The industry itself does not care, because by recognizing the train’s existence, you passively concede that the form itself is worthy of acknowledgement as entertainment, if not art.  In 1998, right on the heels of another mainstream entertainment revolution fatefully called reality television, Vince McMahon tiptoed this line perfectly in an interview with New York Magazine: “I am the most reprehensible individual on the planet. … Uncaring, a powermonger, manipulative, very manipulative, always trying to get what I want and being very clever about it. Art imitating life and vice versa. It’s fun because some of it’s true, you know what I mean?” Which part was true, and which part was Trump, or at least the origins of the supervillain we love to hate but can’t keep our eyes away from? Regardless, the Attitude Era was upon us, both in professional wrestling and general cultural consensus.

Larger than life WWE superstars like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin ushered in the sport’s most bombastic and lucrative era, a hyperbolic echo chamber of sorts where story-driven hype and character development seemed to transcend the actual wrestling. At the absolute peak of his achievement in 2005, McMahon told Esquire, “Years ago, the promoters tried to tell the world that this was 100 percent sport. It was an insult to the audience. Professional wrestling has always been a show. When Abraham Lincoln wrestled, it was a show.” In the midst of an unparalleled worldwide technological revolution in which consumers could instantly scrutinize any public offering with the click of a mouse, professional wrestling was completely rewriting the public relations handbook. Why deceive the people when you can inspire, incite, or even enrage them instead?

Without missing a beat, the advent of corporatized reality television, famously starting with a Survivor series that drew over 100 million viewers for their finale, tapped into the very fabric of basic human emotions, a form of pure escapism that wrestling fans had embraced for years. Heroes, villains, treachery, deceit, love, and lust; reality television was reliably simple and addicting in its infancy, creating a forum for a budding generation of armchair activists to express another basic human emotion: righteous indignation. Denouncing the silliness of mind-numbing reality television, with its absurd narratives and repetitive challenges, may feel like a philosophical high ground to take at cocktail parties, but the numbers never lie. Dozens of entertainment outlets rushed to steal their slice of the reality pie that professional wrestling had been savoring for years, and the momentum has yet to slow despite the perceived communal notion that reality television lacks the emotional depth of its scripted counterparts. According to Nielsen ratings, in the summer of 2016, there were just four scripted series in the top 25. Besides reality television, other popular shows included Olympic trials, a NASCAR race, and, you guessed it, a handful of wrestling matches. Lascivious content produced immediate financial success, and where once a budding wrestling superstar needed freakish genetics and a healthy dose of charisma to succeed, now a bevy of vapid personalities needed only a role on a reality show and a massive lack of self-awareness for a legitimate shot at celebrity status. All the while the audience sits sardonically, judging the flaws and ineptitudes of others from their lackluster life perch, happily feeding a monster they subconsciously view as beneath them, like a king scoffing at a peasant.

Is it still T-R-U-T-H we crave? When it comes to politics, the answer is a resounding no. American government, originally intended to protect the masses from crippling central power, has been manipulated and twisted into the most overhyped Pay-Per-View wrestling match in the history of the information age. At this point taking neither side feels as useless as arguing with either side. Common sense tells us that if everything is a big deal, then nothing is a big deal. But the little boy who cried wolf obviously never worked for Vince McMahon or logged onto Twitter in 2019. At least in the realm of wrestling the audience anticipates a sweet release of temporary storyline closure before immediately being enraged again by the latest heel turn. The evidence begs the question: do we as a society even want closure of our political strife? If one side of the aisle ever collectively agreed to completely amend their political belief system and admit defeat, would the other side even celebrate the victory, or just slowly slink off the stage in utter confusion with no more battles left to fight?

Acclaimed scripted actor Robert De Niro lamented in a commencement speech at Brown University in 2017 that America and its political system has devolved into a “tragic, dumbass comedy,” specifically inferring that the downfall began with the election of our latest president. Taking shots at the greatest reality star of all time seems to be the only surefire way to grab headlines, but this disease of derisiveness didn’t just appear in the last election cycle. And until collective social consciousness starts examining the causes of our dysfunction instead of symptomatically throwing sarcastic, anonymous rocks at our perceived adversaries, the wound will continue to fester. Eventually, once the same repetitive storyline becomes stale, apathy takes hold, and much more tangible problems arise than who got eliminated last night on your favorite singing competition. The cold hard truth remains that even our best and brightest still buy tickets to the dumbass comedy or local taping of Monday Night RAW, because, as McMahon pointed out to The New York Times in 2008, “[consumers] get charged by the action and the humor, and caught up in the drama, like a soap opera or reality show.” So don’t blame professional wrestling, or its superstars, or its writing team for capitalizing on our need to cheer for a hero, and cheer even louder for a villain. Because when the show ends and the lights go down, the real madness is just beginning outside anew.