I am not a role model. I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.
- Former NBA All Star Charles Barkley
With these three sentences, Barkley made explicit what American sports fans have always known, but may have been unwilling to acknowledge: morality is not all that relevant to some professional athletes. This is not to say there is no concern for good behavior. Every league has its villains, athletes who have earned the ire of the fanbase due to their ethically questionable behavior, or even the suspicion that they have committed this kind of behavior. Evidence of this response can be seen in the negative public reactions directed at superstars such as Barry Bonds, LeBron James, Lance Armstrong, Josh Hamilton, and dozens of others. But ultimately, morality is simply not always important to fans of professional sports, at least in terms of its impact on what teams they root for. Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett may be widely perceived as a "dirty" player, but this does not prevent Boston fans from cheering for him.
This dynamic is in stark contrast with professional wrestling, which is not technically categorized as a sport, but rather, sports-entertainment, a hybrid of athletic competition and written storylines, with the outcomes of the matches being predetermined. In wrestling, fans are (at least in theory) encouraged to root for the wrestler whose behavior comes closer to aligning with traditional ideas of proper morality. This wrestler, the "good guy," is traditionally referred to as the face (short for babyface), and the "bad guy" is known as the heel. While morality has very little to do with the athletes one chooses to root for in professional sports, it has everything to do with the wrestlers one chooses to root for. But as of late, the very idea of the wrestling hero has changed. This point is especially true regarding the largest wrestling promotion in the world, Connecticut-based World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE, although it was known as the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF, until 2002). No longer does the face inevitably take the moral high-ground over the heel. Instead, wrestlers are considered as "good" based on their adherence to WWE's untraditional moral code, a code that is based heavily on uniquely American ideas of individualism and exceptionalism.
One example of how faces have started acting in a "heelish" manner can be seen in the actions of wrestler Chris Jericho (a face) on the April 8th, 2013, edition of Raw, WWE's flagship television program. (Please note that WWE wrestlers and performers will be referred to by the names they use on WWE programming throughout this article, and not by their legal names, although in some cases the two are one and the same).
The segment begins not with Jericho, but with a match between Fandango (whose gimmick is that of an arrogant, graceful former ballroom dancer) and Kofi Kingston (a high-energy fan favorite). Fandango had been feuding with Jericho over the previous few weeks. Their issues started when Jericho mocked Fandango's name and purposely mispronounced it. Offended, Fandango later attacked Jericho after one of his matches. Their feud culminated on April 7th at WrestleMania (the "Super Bowl" of WWE programming), where Fandango pinned Jericho cleanly, without cheating or interference. This would not prevent Jericho from attacking Fandango the next night, in the middle of his match vs. Kingston. What follows is the text of the live commentary from the Raw announcing team of Michael Cole, Jerry Lawler, and John Bradshaw Layfield as Jericho ran to the ring and interrupted the match:
Cole: Look at this! Jericho! It's Jericho! Jericho assaulting Fandango!
Lawler: Jericho is all over this dancer!
Cole: Jericho unloading! Ruining the debut of Fandango here on Raw!
Layfield: Now why would Jericho do this?
Cole: I don't know, he's your buddy. Fandango sent flying into the barricade!
Layfield: I do like Chris, but he lost last night legally.
Cole: Well, he's upset because he lost to Fandango last night.
It is clear from Layfield's interaction with Cole that Jericho has no valid reason for attacking Fandango. None of the announcers bother trying to justify it; this assault on Fandango stems only from Jericho's frustration from losing to him. This does not seem like a valid reason to attack someone, especially someone who is unprepared and already engaged with another opponent. Fandango did not do anything to provoke Jericho, and if anyone is displaying questionable moral behavior, it is, in fact, Jericho. But despite this, Jericho is positioned as the face, the hero, the wrestler that is supposed to (and does) elicit a positive reaction from the audience. This one segment of Raw is indicative of a larger pattern within WWE: the face no longer has to act in a fashion that is morally superior to the heel's behavior.
The idea of the face with heel tendencies is not an entirely new phenomenon. As wrestling writer David Shoemaker notes, it can be easily traced from today all the way back to the WWE (then WWF) heyday of Hulk Hogan, one of the most well-known and popular wrestlers of all time, who famously encouraged his fans to "say your prayers and take your vitamins." Despite his good guy persona, Shoemaker writes, Hogan would often display arrogant behavior and was not above using heel tactics like attacking his opponent before a match officially began. The idea of the anti-hero was further cemented on the December 15th, 1997, episode of Raw, when WWE Chairman Vince McMahon famously introduced what is now known among wrestling fans as the "Attitude Era" with the following words: "We in the WWF, think that you, the audience, are, quite frankly, tired of having your intelligence insulted. We also think that you are tired of the same old simplistic theory of 'good guys' versus 'bad guys.' Surely the era of the superhero who urged you to 'say your prayers and take your vitamins' is definitely passe."
Although Hogan might have acted like a heel, he is widely perceived as the archetypal WWE "good guy," and McMahon's shot at both Hogan and that archetype is obvious here. The coming years would feature the rise of two transcendent face superstars - "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson - who would obliterate the conception of the face as a "superhero." Both men were beloved by the fan base, in large part due to their incisive, sharp, and often hilarious mockery of their opponents; mockery that their opponents did not necessarily provoke. They were antiheroes on some level, and their success set a precedent and created a blueprint for modern-day good guys to follow.
It is clear that in WWE, wrestlers do not have to take the moral high ground to be a face. But this raises the following question: if better moral behavior does not separate a face from a heel, then what exactly does? McMahon implies that the two should not be so far apart when he dismisses the idea of wrestling being about "good guys versus bad guys," and the current product is an obvious example of these words being more than rhetoric. But the separation between the heel and the face is integral to professional wrestling. The audience must be given a wrestler they have a reason to cheer for and a wrestler they have a reason to cheer against. If this does not happen, then there is no reason for any fan to make an emotional investment in the product, and one of the most unique forms of entertainment on the planet becomes two people wearing very little clothing engaging in glorified play-fighting. So what makes a heel different from a face in today's WWE? The answer still has to do with morality and being the "better" person, but not traditional ideas about them. Instead, the face in WWE can be defined as the wrestler who acts in accordance with WWE's unique moral code, a code that, as previously mentioned, has deep roots in the uniquely American concepts of individualism and exceptionalism.
Ideas about the importance of individualism are seen throughout the history of the United States, from Horatio Alger novels to the concept of the American Dream. In his famous "Rugged Individualism" speech (delivered during his 1928 presidential campaign), Herbert Hoover elaborated on what this idea means: "We were challenged with a...choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines...The acceptance of these (European) ideas would have meant the...undermining of the individual initiative and enterprise through which our people have grown to unparalleled greatness."
Hoover's ideology here does not seem to require much explanation. He believed that what made America so successful is the emphasis on the individual initiative, on letting people make their own choices and succeed on their own merits. Also worth noting is his emphasis on this type of "rugged individualism" being uniquely American. Whether this is true anymore is certainly arguable, but it is safe to say that individualism is still highly-valued in the contemporary United States.
But what has changed are the conceptions of what exactly it means to be an individual. Social scientist Daniel Yankelovich writes that as the late 1990s began, one of the "emerging conceptions" of individualism was the realization among Americans that "the image of the individual as an aggregation of needs, each demanding to be filled to the brim, is false and misleading. Young Americans are learning that self-expression is not necessarily achieved through a career as a dancer, filmmaker, photographer, body-builder or architect. Instead, self-fulfillment is expressed in phrases like 'he is his own person,' 'she is a real person,' 'she is who she is.'"
Here, Yankelovich highlights the importance of individual autonomy to Americans; the emphasis on allowing people to be who they want to be and letting their authentic personalities and lifestyles shine through. We live in a country that, for the most part, encourages genuine self-expression and people living their lives in whatever manner they desire, so long as they stay within the boundaries of the law.
American Exceptionalism is defined on the official website of the Republican National Committee as "the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history," and this is more or less the generally accepted definition of the phrase. Nowhere in this definition is there any mention of America and American culture being superior to others, but there is an obvious implication of these ideas. As Glen Greenwald writes, "the desire to believe (the superiority of the United States) is so strong, the need to proclaim one's unprecedented superiority so compelling, that it's hardly controversial to say it despite how nonsensical it is." That making this kind of statement is "hardly controversial" reveals the degree to which ideas about American superiority are embedded in American society. And indeed, examples of American exceptionalism can be seen throughout history, one prominent example being the idea of "Manifest Destiny" that was so popular in the nineteenth century and used as justification for the settling of the American West.
Furthermore, individualism and exceptionalism are inherently connected with each other. For example, in his book American Narcissism: The Myth of National Superiority, Wilber Caldwell wrote that the "American concept of individualism contains not only the roots of American exceptionalism, but also inescapable implications of national superiority." Of course, these same implications of national superiority can be seen in American exceptionalism in and of itself.
All of this established, the question of how American individualism and exceptionalism are integrated into WWE's moral code becomes significant. The importance of acting in accordance with both in determining who is a face and who is a heel can be seen clearly through the career arc of one superstar wrestler in particular: CM Punk.
Punk started his career with WWE in 2006, and until the summer of 2009, was mostly portrayed as a face. This changed when Punk began feuding with fan favorite Jeff Hardy. Real-life events can take on significance even in the carefully-constructed universe of WWE, and this feud provided an excellent example. Jeff Hardy has a long history of substance-abuse problems, while Punk is straight-edge and does not drink alcohol or use drugs recreationally. While his straight-edge beliefs had been a major part of his in-ring persona before he signed with WWE, this marked the first time they would be emphasized during his time with the company. In the process, he would prove how important concepts of individualism and exceptionalism are to WWE's moral code.
The issue between Punk and Hardy began on June 7, 2009, when Punk, cashing in his "Money in the Bank" contract that gave him a title shot at the time of his choosing, beat Hardy (who had just completed a grueling match) for the World Heavyweight Championship. Punk successfully defended his title in a match on June 15th, and again on June 28th, this time in a singles match against Hardy. The latter match ended in controversy, with Punk "accidentally" kicking the referee in order to disqualify himself and keep his championship (in a normal singles match, titles can only change hands via pinfall or submission). Punk claimed that the kick was the result of an eye injury that hindered his vision, while Hardy claimed that Punk, sensing a certain loss, got himself disqualified on purpose. As tensions between the two escalated, Punk began to cement his heel-turn by flaunting his perceived moral superiority (due to his straight-edge lifestyle) over not only Hardy, but the entire WWE fanbase. His words to Hardy on the August 21st, 2009, edition of WWE Smackdown are indicative of the message he conveyed throughout their summer-long, back and forth feud: "When I beat you at SummerSlam and I take back my World Heavyweight Title, it will validate everything I've said in the past. I will prove once and for all, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that straight edge is the right way, that straight edge means I'm better than you. Jeff, I have to get rid of you to teach these people the difference between right and wrong. I have to get rid of you to teach them how to say, 'just say no.' I have to get rid of you so they stop living in your moment, and they wake up, and they start living in my reality."
Punk makes some valid points. Hardy, while not directly endorsing substance-abuse, encouraged fans to maintain a thrill seeking, hedonistic lifestyle. Punk, on the other hand, is advocating for a more disciplined approach to life, including the avoidance of drugs and alcohol. While it is obviously impossible to decide which lifestyle is "better," it seems that Punk's is certainly more compatible with traditional ideas about good and bad, about "right and wrong," as he puts it. At the very least, grounding oneself in reality and maintaining a straight-edge lifestyle comes across as healthier (and requiring more discipline) than the haphazard lifestyle Hardy represents. So it is unlikely that either Hardy or the fans objected to Punk's ideas as much as they objected to the way Punk presented his ideas. How did Punk present his ideas? In a way that violated their sense of individualism and exceptionalism.
When Punk tells Hardy that he has to get rid of him "to teach these people the difference between right and wrong," he indicates that Hardy is acting in the "wrong" way, he himself is acting in the "right" way, and that the audience is not informed enough to know the difference. It is through these exact words, and not his more general praise of the straight edge lifestyle, that Punk imposes limits on the individuality of Hardy and the viewing audience. Yankelovich wrote about how modern-day individualism includes the idea that people should engage in genuine self-expression. Punk discourages this kind of self-expression when he implies that the only "right" way to live is his way; therefore, anyone who acts differently must be "wrong." In other words, Punk is creating an environment where individual self-expression is not only devalued, but portrayed as foolish and wrong-headed. This is an idea that the audience would be expected to (and does) react poorly to.
Punk's implication that he is right and that everyone else is wrong also violates the audience's sense of exceptionalism, as far as exceptionalism can be connected with ideas of cultural superiority. It might be incorrect to say that drinking is glorified in the United States, but it is certainly not something that is frowned upon. In fact, it is widely perceived to be an integral part of American life. Because of this fact, it is important to note that Punk is not telling the audience that they should drink less, but that they should not drink at all. Those who continue to drink, despite his warnings, are inferior beings who choose to live in a dream world instead of Punk's "reality." This ideology can be construed as a direct attack on American culture, a culture where drinking is perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged on many occasions. If drinkers are inferior to teetotalers, and America is mostly made up of drinkers, then the inevitable conclusion to be drawn is that there is something inferior about American values. Punk is essentially telling the (American) audience that their cultural values are idiotic, which is obviously irreconcilable with ideas of American superiority and exceptionalism. But Punk's argument is not completely off-base. A society without alcohol consumption might be preferable to a society with alcohol consumption in some ways (there would obviously be a decrease in drunk driving accidents and alcohol-related violence, to begin with). Furthermore, anyone with a perspective that privileges traditional ideas about morality also seems likely to promote sobriety. If Punk's views and Hardy's views are taken in a vacuum, Punk could easily be viewed as the face. But based on WWE's moral code, he is unquestionably the heel.
He would continue to work as a heel until June of 2011. At this point in his career, Punk was frustrated with his position in WWE and planned on leaving the company. This frustration manifested itself in his onscreen persona, most notably in a June 27th, 2011, promo on Raw that garnered effusive praise from not only the fanbase, but those within the industry. It was shocking due to Punk's open criticism of Vince McMahon and the backstage politics of WWE, memorable due to Punk's eloquence, honesty, and anger, and more than anything else, it was nothing close to a typical face promo. Punk even went as far as criticizing the fanbase; faces, basically without exception, never insult the fans. Yet this promo catapulted Punk to the top of WWE; he went from on the verge of leaving the company on the night that he cut the promo to winning the WWE Championship less than a month later. Moreover, it made him so popular among WWE fans that he essentially became a face immediately afterwards. So it should not be a surprise that in this promo, Punk takes an entirely different approach to individualism and exceptionalism than he did when verbally sparring with Jeff Hardy. Instead of limiting the audience's individualism, Punk asserts his own. He continues to portray himself as superior to others, but instead of dwelling on this point, he emphasizes how WWE positions itself as being above its own fanbase. Although it is difficult to condense this promo into a few sentences, the following excerpt may best capture Punk's overall message (Punk is addressing John Cena, a nominal face who draws strong support from women and children and considerably less from adult males. At the time of the promo, Punk was scheduled to face Cena for Cena's WWE championship at the next pay-per-view event, Money in the Bank): "I don't hate you, John. I don't even dislike you. I do like you; I like you a hell lot more than I like most people in the back. I hate this idea that you're the best...because you're not. I'm the best. I'm the best in the world. There's one thing that you're better at than I am, and that's kissing Vince McMahon's [butt]."
Punk's appeal to the audience's ideas about individualism is obvious here. He is confident that he is the best wrestler not only in the company, but "in the world." If this is true, then based on merit, he should be the face of WWE. But Punk is not perceived as the best. That title belongs to Cena, Punk's implication being that this is the case due to Cena's ability to "kiss Vince McMahon's [butt]." In other words, Punk is being held down in the company due to backstage politics; his position is not consistent with his abilities as a wrestler and as an entertainer. Again, an important aspect of individualism is the idea that people should succeed or fail based on their own merits. Punk asserts that he is failing in the company not because he is not good enough, but because the powers-that-be do not like him as much as they like Cena and others. This kind of power structure - where the biggest stars are the ones the boss likes best, and not the best performer - is in direct opposition to ideas of individualism. The audience supports Punk because they understand the unfairness of his situation and sympathize with him not getting the credit he feels that he deserves. They, like Punk, believe that the best wrestlers should be the ones that WWE push to the top.
Punk also highlights how WWE violates the fanbase's sense of exceptionalism, even while claiming his own superiority over other wrestlers. The fans believe that there should be a direct relationship between their values and the content on WWE programming. Or, to simplify things, they think that WWE should give them what they want. But WWE has continually ignored their desires, and no other wrestler exemplifies this phenomenon better than John Cena. Cena, as noted earlier, is a polarizing figure among fans, and is so actively loathed by a large portion of the older male fans that in 2011, WWE began producing a "Cena Sucks" t-shirt in order to profit off of their hatred. Despite being fully aware of how these fans felt about Cena, WWE has continued to portray him as the biggest star in the company, an almost-invincible monster who loses so rarely that fans sarcastically nicknamed him "Super Cena." This nickname has stuck to the point that another wrestler, Ryback, referenced it live on Raw.
It is important to emphasize here that WWE chooses to portray Cena like this and to keep him on top of the company. He is not forcing their hand by winning matches based on his physical merit; he wins only because WWE has chosen him to win. By putting Cena in this position, WWE is indicating to a large portion of their fanbase that their opinions do not matter. And if their opinions do not matter, then it stands to reason that their opinions must be inferior. This mindset violates the fans' sense of exceptionalism in obvious ways. As Americans, they have been trained to believe that their values are the correct values and that their values should prevail over differing sets of values. WWE, by ignoring their preferences, is telling them that their values are wrong: brooding, heavily-tattooed, snarky CM Punk is not allowed to be a wrestling superstar, but John Cena, a true company man who never criticizes the fanbase and sells bundles of merchandise to the young children who love him, is. WWE commits the same sin that Punk did when he told the fans that they were wrong to drink alcohol. They are indicating to the audience that their values are inferior, and Punk emphasizes this when he indicates the correlation between Cena's position in the company and his relationship with McMahon.
Punk's career serves as just one example of how the moral code of WWE - that is, how WWE defines who is good and who is bad - is based heavily off of individualism and exceptionalism, concepts that have a special place in American culture. There are slight exceptions, of course. In the spring of 2013, a wrestler named Jack Swagger, working under a "Real American" gimmick, began feuding with Mexican wrestler Alberto Del Rio. Throughout this feud, Swagger and his manager Zeb Colter consistently professed their beliefs about American exceptionalism and superiority, yet through their jingoistic, xenophobic rhetoric, they were portrayed as the heels. It is worth noting that Swagger and Colter, through their exceptionalism, were neglecting the importance of individualism: they believed that Del Rio and other immigrants should be removed from the United States, instead of being allowed to come to the United States and make their way up in society through hard work and talent.
Regardless, individualism and exceptionalism are significant factors in how WWE determines who the face is and who the heel is. But why does this matter? To begin with, it might indicate something about what American values are in contemporary society. WWE has a large, diverse fanbase that includes a significant presence from ethnic minorities, females, and college-educated adults. This is to say that the WWE audience is highly representative of American society as a whole and that their values and beliefs should be mostly consistent with those of the general population. Furthermore, WWE has a vested interest in having some wrestlers represent what the fans value, and others who represent the opposite values (again, without this dynamic, a fan has little reason to make an emotional investment in the programming). To put it another way, we can reasonably expect all wrestlers to either mirror or act in opposition to audience values in some way. That heels in WWE do not value individualism, mock or ignore audience values, and do not care about the opinions of the fanbase may indicate what Americans do value: individual autonomy and the validity of their personal opinions. Furthermore, the morally questionable activities that faces are allowed to commit - such as insulting or attacking others without significant provocation - reveal that these sorts of activities are acceptable. Abusing others, it seems, is perfectly fine, so long as the person being abused acts in violation of the attacker's values, assuming the attacker holds what the audience perceives as the "correct" values. These being values, once again, that are based heavily on exceptionalism and individualism. In other words, we can see WWE as holding up a mirror to American culture itself, just as effectively (and perhaps more effectively) than any other form of entertainment.
Although WWE is often dismissed as low-IQ entertainment, its complex moral code and reflection of American values reveal it to be something much more than that. It is not a cultural aberration meant only for the pleasure of the easily amused, despite some outside perceptions (Glenn Beck, among others, recently made news for referring to wrestling as "stupid"). Nor does it represent something as simple as a "sort of mythological fight between Good and Evil," as Roland Barthes once described American professional wrestling as doing. Much more than that, WWE is a reflection of shifting cultural norms, and for this reason alone, it deserves more cultural credibility than it is generally given. The in-ring aspect of a sports-entertainment company like WWE can never be as "real" as professional sports for obvious reasons. But to play off a common question from non-wrestling fans, it is certainly not "fake." And in some ways, it is more real than professional sports can ever be.
From guest contributor David Turkel