A History of Violence: politics, profits, and the changing face of the WWE

Curator's Note

In 2005, the WWE held the “Judgment Day” pay-per-view, of which the main event between John Cena and JBL is considered one of the bloodiest, most violent matches in history.  In 2010, up-and-coming wrestler Bryan Danielson was released from the company for being too violent during an episode of Monday Night Raw. Professional wrestling has been described as a “macho soap opera” and therefore it is fitting that the story of the WWE’s journey from bloodbaths to the land of TV-PG is one of tragedy, greed, and politics.

The WWE’s transformation began after the 2007 murder-suicide involving wrestler Chris Benoit. The company took considerable negative publicity for the crime and soon began to make their televised programming less violent. Violent matches were relegated to PPV events and, in June 2008, all of the WWE’s programming became TV-PG.

On the June 7, 2010 episode of Raw, the cast of the WWE’s NXT interrupted the main event, destroyed set pieces, and, beginning at 0:27 in the clip, Bryan Danielson choked the announcer with his necktie. The attack continued for several minutes, but it would be these five seconds that would cost Danielson his job. Danielson had been the main focus of the fledgling NXT program and was believed to be destined for stardom, making his release all the more shocking.

The violence of the act was the cited reason for his release, but other factors may have played a role. Linda McMahon, former WWE CEO and wife of Vince, is a current Republican candidate for Senate and is likely reluctant to give her opponents any easy targets. Furthermore, keeping a TV-PG rating translates into a different pool of sponsors, ones more likely to abandon the company should another scandal arise. The elements once synonymous with the WWE -- profanity, the objectification of women, and offensive storylines -- have also been curtailed in an effort to keep the TV-PG rating. Those fans looking for a “mature” product have an alternative in the TV-14 TNA, which garners only a fourth of the viewership of the WWE.

As the WWE gears up for SummerSlam, Danielson has returned to the independent wrestling circuit, where fans greet him with showers of neckties as a show of support. He is, to date, the only casualty of the WWE’s effort to offer a more family-friendly product; an honorable goal but also one with considerable financial and political benefits. 


 Totally random point, but it's funny that you mention Danielson since he *spoiler* actually returned from that suspension tonight at SummerSlam. 

Though it was always thought of as a suspension behind the scenes, the WWE "officially" released Danielson for his actions, so bringing him back and using him as a major reveal in perhaps its biggest story in a few years says to me the company isn't totally committed to sticking to its guns on the issue -- especially if it means bad business. 


Thanks for getting us going David, and I love the example you selected.  Bryan Danielson is such a landmark figure in wrestling as the independent performer that non-WWE fans lauded for years, and when he finally does “make it” to mainstream wrestling on national television he gets involved in this example of violence that became too real for WWE.

I also commend your bringing up Chris Benoit, as the specter of Benoit hangs over WWE’s move to PG programming, as well as the firing of Bryan Danielson given how the tie-choking example apparently hit too close to home for WWE in relation to Benoit’s crimes.  The ramifications of the Benoit murder-suicide, as well as factors such as Linda McMahon’s current senate campaign and the high numbers of wrestlers passing away at a young age, work to weave a complex context to view this example of violence.

I did have a question for you, as you mention the move to PG programming has led to WWE abandoning practices such as the objectification of women and the reliance on profanity.  These are not bad things, obviously, and yet there seems to be a lamentation amongst many wrestling fans for the move to PG programming.  My question is why, in your opinion?  What are we losing that wrestling fans are clamoring for?

Finally, I wanted to address the key point, in my opinion, you make regarding this example – the notion of violence that is too real.  Theoretically, wrestling that is done in the most aesthetically pleasing way looks so real that we can momentarily suspend our disbelief and feel as if the violence is real.  That makes this example you have selected so utterly fascinating, as Bryan Danielson is fired (and then rehired as Cory pointed out) for doing his job very well.  And here again we point to Benoit – a wrestler that was praised by many fans for doing his job so well, until the unthinkable happened and suddenly there were terrible consequences.  Danielson is often likened to Benoit, and here we have a moment where the similarities become too real for WWE.  But Danielson certainly didn’t really harm any one, demonstrating wrestling’s (unique?) ability to blur lines between reality and fiction in complex ways.


What I found interesting about this moment and the entire NXT attack was that it was WWE's most concerted effort in quite a while to shake up the status quo as far as their storylines. There was a need to elevate the degree of violence In order to differentiate this moment as a major event so far above and beyond the normal WWE environment. There was a total and complete destruction of anything "WWE": its wrestlers, its commentators, its stage crew and even its ring, the normal locus of violence in professional wrestling. This was a dramatic and intense moment and representing a far more accurate degree of real-life ruin and war-torn scenery. The realism was furthered because there was no pre-show "run though" of this attack, so much of what happened was more spontaneous and unexpected than the usually heavily-scripted and heavily rehearsed Monday Night Raw show. Yet, this representation of violence would have been considered "PG", or at least up until the moment that Danielson "crossed the line" by choking Justin Roberts with the tie. If anything, the "mass destruction" as a whole should surely be far more traumatizing to a younger audience than a smaller part of the whole scene, one that was shown for only a few seconds.

The relevation of NXT as a collective group intent on making their mark was considered to be WWE's most interesting and intriguing "angle" in months and a brave step forward in giving the younger wrestlers on the roster a chance to shine in the spotlight. This was done after many years of criticism that WWE relied too heavily on the same wrestlers in the top positions with the company. Danielson (ne Daniel Bryan) would have been one of the younger stars featured for most of the last three months if he had not been released because of the tie-choking incident. At least now that he has returned to WWE he will have the chance to find a good measure of success based on his use in this program.

Thanks for the comments everyone.  I think we've got an exciting week ahead of us with this feaure.

@Cory: I do think that it all eventually comes down to the business aspects of it.  Now Danielson is more valuable to them as a performer than he is as an example of their committment to TV-PG.  I think we see a similiar approach in the way that Randy Orton was allowed to get away with far more "bad behavior" a few years ago because of his status in the company, when there were several examples of less marketable wrestlers being released for smaller infractions.

@Shane: I personally do not mind the WWE's move to a more family-friendly product, but I also feel that I'm probably a good bit older than most of those complaining.  In their efforts to make a "cradle-to-grave brand" for families, the WWE has essentially abandoned a certain group of fans that they helped create: those that were raised during the "Attitude" era of the 90s and on ECW.  I understand the animosity of those fans because they're getting the short end of the deal here, but with the Internet and a booming DVD market, they aren't really without alternatives.

@Shane cont.: I agree that Danielson is one of the best at creating an air of reality.  I think that the comparisons between him and Benoit stop there, however. Benoit was liked and respected by his peers and no one believed him capable of what he did, but Danielson fits the quintessential "nice guy" bill to a tee.  He's a vegan, is a self-described nerd, and has a sense of humor that comes through during his matches.  I see him as a someone who could be a figurehead player for the WWE in the mold of uber-nice guy John Cena.

@Ari: You're correct in your observation that the other aspects of incident were perhaps more traumatizing to our hypothetical younger viewer that the WWE was trying to protect.  I do think that the level of violence used in the attack was done so to help the audience disconnect it from the rest of the program; a way to make them notice and acknowledge that something outside the expected parameters of the show was happening.  The entire Nexus angle is something that I believe has worked better than I would have anticipated and I think, with one or two exceptions, the WWE has succeeded in turning them into overnight stars.  The true test will be where they go from here.

Hello, all, this is my first post to InMediaRes and the subject of wrestling is an appropriate place to start.

What I wonder about in this discussion about "crossing lines" and the positive reception of the NXT angle is, to what degree is wrestling as an industry (but especially the WWE) accepting and propogating the idea that old-school "heat" is actually a bad thing to be avoided?  

Jim Cornette is the most vocal (surprise, surprise) advocate for the "good ol' days" of the territories when the heels were able to rile up fans so much that they would be jumping over guardrails to get at them.  When he and other "oldschoolers" speak of these tales, it is always described as positive thing:  "we *really* made the fans hate us, thus they cared more and it was nothing but money going forward."

This incident was posited as "well, it seemed a little too real and fans might get riled up about it so we better ixnay it before we get any negative publicity."

By curbing any incidents that seem "too real," there seems to be an explicit rejection of the old school theory of "heat."  As a theoretical concept for describing good fan buzz, it doesn't seem to quite describe the same thing anymore, at least as far as the McMahons are concerned.  That, moreso than any awareness of the matches being "rigged" or what not, might be one of the reasons that legitimate combat sports like UFC might be generating more of the heat that wrestling used to.

@Bryce: Great observations about the changes in heat and the heel/face dynamic (Heel = bad guy, Face = good guy, for those unfamiliar with the terms). 

I don't think the WWE is actively avoid generating too much heat, to be honest.  It is more a function of something you touched on in the last paragraph, about the fan's knowledge of wrestling being predetermined.  I think that "heat" has changed significantly because of that and the majority of wrestling fans are going to appreciate a good "performance," whether its as a face or a heel. To use Danielson as an example, just look at the reactions he got in ROH and other indies when he was working heel.  Granted, that is a different fan base than the WWE, but you see something similiar in the way that Randy Orton became a face: he was such an effective heel that fans appreciated him and would root for him.

Regarding the UFC and MMA: I think that wrestling fans are still going to turn to pro wrestling for "heat," because wrestling has the edge over UFC because it can sustain heat and deliver a satisfying payoff.  With the UFC, there's always a chance that a fued could end decisively 30 seconds into a bout and there's really no significant emotional component.  This could just be ignorance on my part, but I've yet to hear of a UFC fan wanting to see a match so that they could see an athelete "get what's coming to him."  I'd argue that a significant part of the SummerSlam audience tuned in to see the Nexus get what was coming to them and were satisfied when the did.

I think that you can make an argument that the WWE has changed the role of heat in pro wrestling, but I really don't think anyone could say that it has hurt them financially, which seems to be Cornette's point anyway, heat as a way to make money.

...on what element of "gets what's coming to him" heat "the Ultimate Fighter" (the Spike! reality-based show) adds to UFC.  

One could argue that former WWE performer Brock Lesnar has worked that type of heat better than anyone.  He came in as a cocky heel; perceived by UFC "smarts" as "overpushed" (which, in the strictest terms of competitive sports, he was...who gets a title shot after two fights?).  He delivered "promos" (i.e. post-fight interviews) that riled up the audience and made many of my UFC friends actively wish for his comeuppance.  Then he experienced his illness, which defacto comprised something of a face turn, and hence he delivered more of a "badass babyface" promo after his last fight.  

Real life does often quell the payoffs (i.e. short fights) but it can also introduce storylines in a more effective way than wrestling.  When Brock is suffering an illness, it's legitimate and not seen as hokey.  When the WWE runs an angle, no matter how serious, so long as it doesn't "cross the line," it remains an angle in the fans' eyes and they see it as hokey (though they may still find it entertaining).

I've been watching "Psych" in the past couple of years; it airs on the same network as RAW and there's been some crossover with the actors/characters.  What's fascinating about it is that "Psych" almost never goes for pathos.  Even though it's a show about murder mysteries, it plays as a farcial comedy that derives its entertainment from winking at you half of the time it's telling you a story that should be darker than it really is.  Wrestling seems to proceed in that direction now and when it doesn't, it stands out more.

Really interesting points regarding wrestling and MMA being similar forms of presentation with fans of wrestling seemingly migrating to UFC.What makes it even more fascinating is the way that this example seemed to strike a note with many disgruntled wrestling fans – an angle that was presented as serious and different rather than the sort of wink-wink-nudge-nudge WWE product. /*-->*/


Really interesting points regarding wrestling and MMA being similar forms of presentation with fans of wrestling seemingly migrating to UFC.  What makes it even more fascinating is the way that this example seemed to strike a note with many disgruntled wrestling fans – an angle that was presented as serious and different rather than the sort of wink-wink-nudge-nudge WWE product. 

I agree completely that UFC has been able to produce narratives where fans can identify with certain characters and hope for others to get their comeuppance – for example, any one who has ever seen Tito Ortiz I am convinced would love to see him beaten to a pulp, fighting fan or not.  And Brock Lesnar used his experience in wrestling to play up his MMA character, relishing in the fact that the fans abhorrence of his early UFC career, due mainly to his involvement in wrestling, was key to his pay-per-view success.  He made people care, and the results of his battles mattered a great deal.

However, wrestling would seemingly have an advantage over competitive sports in that the outcomes are predetermined – the dreaded “fake” word.  In this instance, wrestling’s artifice is to its advantage.  I am not sure I agree that wrestling will always be seen as just an angle, as lacking realism, because as fans like us know, the magic is when we can momentarily suspend our disbelief that it is a scripted angle and get lost in the moment – when we “mark out.” 

It seems to me what wrestling needs more of are angles that seem “real” like the invasion angle depicted here.  This seems to be the only way where it doesn’t reflect Bryce’s Psych aesthetic he mentioned.  However, the issue then becomes if the NXT invasion would have resonated if all angles looked like this one, rather than be the exceptional case attempted very rarely.  And as David pointed out, the WWE seems to have contextual factors like Linda McMahon’s political career to dissuade these things from ever being “too real.”  Still, it is intriguing that Danielson was fired for, essentially, crossing some line that made the angle appealing to the very audience that the genre of wrestling appeals to.


 First of all, David, I want to thank you for a great and timely piece to get our discussion started this week. As I think we'll see, several of our pieces touch on the position professional wrestling finds itself in, an industry built on creating the illusion of violence and purporting it to be real but which almost all of its fans know is not. Much of the fascination with wrestling, both from a critical perspective and from a fan perspective, comes from what Coleridge labeled the "willing suspension of disbelief" and the blending of violent drama and athletics. Of course, as the wrestling industry has become more comfortable with admitting that wrestling is entertainment, we have seen some degree of ambivalence as to where wrestling should be in terms of realism, and we have different territorial and certainly international standards for what comprises realism in the pro wrestling world.


In response to the really intriguing discussion thread here, we have to look at WWE's reintroduction of Daniel Bryan last night. One could argue that it was the fan outpouring regarding the suspension that led to his return, but--as others have pointed out--WWE didn't exactly shy away from the suspension and chose to make it a more public decision on their Web site. John Cena and other wrestlers commented on it, and they weren't punished in any way that I've seen. In short, the WWE both suspended him as a public face-saving measure but didn't shy away from the potential for drawing "old-fashioned heat" from the incident. One of the stories I've seen floating around was that the suspension decision didn't come from WWE management but rather the USA Network, and that WWE had no choice but to serve some punishment out for an incident that took place on USA's network in a post-Benoit world. In that case, then, Bryan became a temporary scapegoat for what was obviously a WWE decision (even if the necktie-choking hadn't been pre-planned). If you look at it from the network's viewpoint, they are acting in a way to respond to criticisms they might have faced--or feared--post-Benoit and a recurring point of complaint about WWE more generally. This may have not been over the line by WWE's own standards, but--considering how they wanted to be perceived and the central importance of the USA Network now that all of its first-run programming save WWE Superstars is on USA and Syfy--they acted in a way to both preserve their new image and their relationship with USA. We may think back to the USA Network before WWE ever came on and the incident that led to SCW being canned from USA years ago dealt with two wrestlers hurling pig feces at one another, I believe. So there's a long history of network/promotion interplay that plays a role in this analysis (and one only has to think back to the tension between ECW and "The Network" as a blatant example of that or WCW's mockery of Standards and Practices). We've seen WWE encounter this complaining from external forces when it crosses too wholly into the real world in other ways as well--think back to the anger from some WWE stockholders that the company sent out a press release on the death of Mr. McMahon, for instance.
But I think there are some issues underlying the WWE's move to PG that go beyond anger about the loss of violence. There was a perceived grittiness that had to do with realism about the WWE from mid-1997 until rather recently, this idea that the company featured stars "with the volume turned up," that the WWE was pulling up the curtain to the backstage and letting us in on the politics, etc. I think some of the fear of the PG has to do with a concern that the company will abandon its play on the border between real and fake and some of the drama that has added the most dramatic tension to shows at the exclusion of the "it's just entertainment" comedy which seems to be aimed toward younger fans. After all, aside from a few years of the "attitude era," it's not like most wrestling promotions labeled as more "authentic," "real," etc., has ever been that unfriendly to family viewing in the past, save perhaps ECW.
Since it came up, it's most interesting to read the objectification in this regard. I would argue that the objectification of women continues wholeheartedly in the WWE and in fact is much worse now than it was a few years ago. Sure, the WWE shows less gratuitous sexual imagery, has cancelled its deal with Playboy, and so on, but it's women are called "Divas," its investment in truly marketing and training female wrestlers is much lower than it was a few years back, and the announcers still treat female characters primarily as eye candy, with their wrestling being filler or truly secondary most of the time.



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