Friday 25 April 2014

Heels, Babyfaces And The ‘Grey Area’ By Adam Ferguson

It’s 2014 and now, more than ever, professional wrestling is starved of babyfaces who fans love to cheer and heels that people get a kick out of booing. In truth, as avid watchers we’ve been deprived of authentic good guys and absolute baddies for a while now – probably for the best part of a decade. But the troublesome ‘grey area’ that we often speak about has pillaged its way onto shows and into storylines incessantly throughout the last year or so. This zone of moral ambiguity is an invention of perception, playing host to an audience so emphatic in our unquenchable thirst to generate some form of self-control over Monday Night RAW that we occasionally attempt to hijack the show.

Maybe it’s okay that the era of the quintessential protagonist versus model antagonist is gone. Maybe not. It is a debate worth having though and, unsurprisingly, one that I’m going to write about here. In this primarily WWE-focused musing, I’ll firstly consider the possible reasons behind the apparent decrease in outright heels and babyfaces in wrestling. Then, I’ll examine the impacts felt by a contemporary product deprived of said clinical roles. Finally, it’ll all be about looking forward as I question the need for clear-cut personas in 2014 rasslin’.

So what, or who, has ushered in this sense of a moral free-for-all?

John Cena. That’s right, the internet’s favourite wrestltainer. At least, he’s partially to blame. Wrestling is an odd one. It is engulfed in parameters that can be stretched, shrunk and twisted, but it is a phenomenon that also only exists within a bubble separated from all other mainstream forms of entertainment. And the man who embodies all of that contortion better than any other is John Cena. Though we’ve hounded good guys for decades – The Rock’s early years spring to mind – the Cena dynamic since 2006 is unrivalled in terms of audience reception. When Edge cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase on Cena at New Year’s Revolution, a dormant hatred suddenly spewed from the mouths of many WWE fans. Heel Edge was cheered throughout their feud, and from then on the likes of Triple H, Umaga and Randy Orton (all heels) received support from those seated around arenas.

Fast forward to the present day and the Wyatt Family, a trio of men who kidnapped and battered Daniel Bryan not too long ago, are hailed vehemently when pitted against the leader of the Cenation (more on the Wyatts later). These days, you’re guaranteed to hear at least half of the audience boo John Cena and cheer his opponent, which negates any pre-existing heel/babyface interaction. Other than the staleness of his character though, this isn’t necessarily Cena’s fault. He’s not the one booing himself, although I’m sure he does every time his ears ring with Nikki Bella’s requests for more shoes. In reality then, Cena himself just about gets off scot-free. Rather, those who choose to boo him are the culprits. Which is a pretty neat segue into my second reason behind the heel/babyface demise: us fans.

We, the WWE Universe, seemingly pride ourselves in our ability to create change. In a way, we tend to carry around a modernised sense of self-worth, that it is up to us and us alone to dictate who goes ‘over’ and who does not. The Cena issue is a great example of this, and so is our recent treatment of Big Dave. I was excited when the Batista return promo first aired, as I’m sure most of you were too. Yet, before the man had a chance to put on those God-awful tight-shorts, we were booing him. Heck, we even coined him ‘Bootista’. Why? Because we wanted change. Despite their best efforts, WWE had to turn the recently christened movie-star heel, not necessarily because that exact role switch was what we wanted but because, as fans, we had the power to instigate change.

Perhaps then, part of the problem lies with WWE. Like any efficient company looking to shill the next pay-per-view or subscription-based network, WWE places the fans on a pedestal. We’re called the “WWE Universe”, and everything they do is for us. But should WWE be so explicit in their bombastic touting (no pun intended) of fan appreciation? Perhaps rather than spending ten minutes of RAW air-time telling us how to affect the show by voting on the app (on your selected device go to the app store and search for “WWE App”, then hit the downlo- oh, sorry) they should focus on having bad guys do bad things to good guys, or girls. Better yet, it might be a good idea for the ‘E to slow down a tad on the whole ‘let the fans dictate the show’ frame of mind.

What other factors have tombstoned the heel/babyface era then? Arguably, the most impactful element of the lot has been, and still is, excellent character creation. Man, it’s tough not to applaud and revel in the brilliance of an outstanding character. I mentioned the Wyatt Family earlier because they are the epitome of compelling personas. Bray’s enticing promo skills demand more than simply respect, rather, heaps of adulation too. Completed by the creepy-yet-ruthless pairing of Luke Harper and Eric Rowan, the Wyatt Family are a cult act that have the potential to transcend wrestling. Nowadays, we are spoiled by the plethora of quality television shows and films boasting characters with profound meaning and engaging demeanours. Wrestling – certainly, WWE - is taking heed of this character-centric mind-set.

On the other hand, now that the audience collectively emits exceedingly high expectations, superstars who aren’t the flavour of the month are not met with any sort of reaction. A generic babyface? Silence. A boring heel? Silence. In essence, the aforementioned ‘grey-area’ in wrestling is actually just a reflection of changing audience anticipation: not for goodies and baddies but for characters who we can sink our teeth into. And it ain’t just the wrestling audience either – the contemporary attitude towards villains on the big screen has altered. Everybody loves Loki from Marvel’s The Avengers because he is a tremendous, layered character, and also because he is played by Tom Hiddleston. Which brings me onto my final point regarding some potential reasoning behind the downfall of wrestling heels/babyfaces…

Much like Hiddleston, who has developed a significant fan following since he began portraying Loki, there are many wrestlers who will always be cheered by a loyal fan base regardless of their heel/babyface status. I would argue that, presently, the most prominent example of this is Cesaro. Though he is presented as a heel on television, and has been since his WWE debut in 2012, there are tropes of fans who have always cheered him and continue to do so – fans who have followed Cesaro’s career since his days as Claudio Castagnoli in Ring of Honor. Proverbial “indie guys” tend to amass instant support upon reaching the WWE because said support is already harnessed to their personas; the same could be said for CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Dean Ambrose and even those who are no longer with the company, such as Chris Hero (or Kassius Ohno, in NXT) a guy who undoubtedly would’ve carried his ROH-generated backing into RAW.

While you mull over and inevitably pick apart those reasons (us wrestling fans love having an opinion) I’m going to swiftly and succinctly consider the impacts of the heel/babyface loss.

From WWE’s standpoint, there hasn’t really been any detrimental impact, at least not yet. Commercially, the company is doing as well as ever – they just released the WWE Network figures in tow with their Wrestlemania 30 buy rate, which hit over one million buys domestically. In terms of our enjoyment, there hasn’t been much of a negative impact either. I can only speak for myself and I personally believe this year’s Wrestlemania was one of the best since 2001. Admittedly, much of the enjoyment was generated from the buzz surrounding Daniel Bryan, a babyface who we all love, but it is worth considering that the murky good guy/bad guy landscape actually aided Bryan’s rise and Wrestlemania’s success; being part of a wholly united wave of support for D-Bry felt just that bit better because it was such a rare of exhibition of consolidation in wrestling fandom.

Performance-wise, there might be an issue. For the guys and gals looking to rise to the top and stay there for the rest of their respective careers, perhaps neither our impassioned applause nor our relentless boos are helpful. For a while the support, or otherwise, certainly can be a significant assistance and, in that sense, a wrestler getting ‘over’ is fine. However staying ‘over’ is the hard part. Unless you break the glass ceiling and attain an aura of continuous relevance, much like John Cena has, once a cheered heel loses his/her cheers, it might be hard for them to regain adulation as a babyface. It could be argued that Dolph Ziggler currently finds himself stranded in that exact predicament – as a heel, Ziggler was cheered throughout late-2012 and early-2013, yet his subsequent babyface run left a lot to be desired and now he finds himself sitting alongside Josh Matthews and Alex Riley on RAW pre-show panels. For Ziggler, the repercussions of being applauded as a heel but not to the same degree as a babyface mightn’t be terminal, but for others such as Zack Ryder, they probably are.

To conclude, let’s peer ahead into Santino’s glass ball (anyone?). Times change and wrestling does too and, for now, it appears that setting out clear heels and babyfaces isn’t a huge necessity for success. Although it would be convenient for fans to interact with unambiguous characters creating a situation where we know who to back and who boo, this is a notion that just isn’t plausible in 2014. And you know what? Perhaps it’s not essential either.

If you’re interested, follow me on Twitter (@elloJasonIsaacs) for more wrestling-related tweets and discussions.

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