wrestling is what npr-types (including myself in that grouping) would call low art. it doesn’t inspire deep criticism or really anything more than thinkpieces about why anybody would really bother going to a wrestling show in the first place. and to be honest, wrestling often earns that distinction by being socially regressive lowest common denominator nonsense.
that’s why i have to talk about bayley
but first i need to quote a person. grant morrison is a person most known for writing comics and upsetting nerds. This is what he said about writing Superman - “In a world, I’m reliably told, that’s going to the dogs, the real mischief, the real punk rock rebellion, is a snarling, ‘fuck you’ positivity and optimism…I have a desire not to see my culture and my fellow human beings fall helplessly into step with a middle class media narrative that promises only planetary catastrophe, as engineered by an intrinsically evil and corrupt species which, in fact, deserves everything it gets.”
when discussing storytelling, there’s always an insistence by a certain type of folks that you can tell a story about emotion and passion as long as the protagonist takes every opportunity to look powerful and strong and perfect in the face of adversity. this perspective helps to inform most pop culture narratives by ensuring that the cool hero gets beat up, makes a few smart-assed remarks and then wins because they are some type of cooler than their competition.
and that’s nonsense too.
wrestling exists on a double standard - it is both fake and real. and the point of wrestling as a whole is this double standard. when it’s fake (the pre and most match gestures, promos, match endings, etc.), the viewer discusses aspects of the performance. when it’s real, when the suspension of disbelief lifts, the viewer says “that looks rough, she must have gotten the shit kicked out of her.” because of this double standard, there’s a lot of impetus to position wrestlers as hyper-masculine gladiator types. tough guys and gals that can beat you up in real life so you’d better respect them. smart-assed rogues that win because they’re tougher and cooler than whoever they are fighting. most of the time, that’s all wrestling is really capable of.
bayley’s different. and that’s why she’s subversive.
it’s hard to describe bayley’s character in one sentence. that’s actually pretty easy to to do for most successful wrestlers - stone cold steve austin (wild drunk redneck), the rock (handsome self-absorbed goofball), hulk hogan (energetic weightlifting santa), etc.
bayley began as a wrestler that was also a starstruck wrestling fan. so she would try to talk about her matches, but then get distracted by seeing a wrestler she recognized. soon enough, she would be gushing over the person she recognized and lose focus. it’s not a bad gag.
eventually, she began to wrestle the people that she was starstruck by and time after time had it made clear that wrestlers are bad people. usually, these are familiar wrestling tropes that illustrate which characters are good guys and bad guys - the good guy trusts the bad guy, the bad guy proves their inherent badness and the good guy eventually gets to exact revenge in a match.
bayley’s different. instead of getting fired-up and ready to fight, she began to talk about self-worth. but it was never a sad thing. she became known for hugging everybody - the interviewers, the commentary team, the crowd, other wrestlers, etc. it became clear that bayley was not afraid to show genuine love and enthusiasm without it being couched in an ironic context or projected masculinity (often the best way for a lady wrestler to become popular is to market her as ‘wrestling just like the guys do’).
fast forward to last night. to get the audience excited, wwe likes to do pre-match promos. charlotte, the collegiate athlete and daughter of arguably the great wrestler of all time, is the women’s champion and will defend that title against bayley in an epic battle of lady gladiators. charlotte is quite good, but is clearly a character in a traditional wrestling mode. she wants to hurt her opponent and look good doing it (or whatever action movie cliches they give her).
bayley cries. not because her feelings are hurt or because of an injury but because she’s emotionally invested in her own well-being and success. you can see the doubt on her face, but her trembly voice over says “as happy as i am to be here, i belong here. no matter what those girls say - no matter how good they are or how beautiful they are - they don’t want it as much as i do.”
the hero is crying. she’s not the toughest or the strongest wrestler, but she’s the hero because of her emotional honestly and bareness.
when she enters the ring for her match, it’s synesthia from head to toe - the bright colors, the poppy music, the pure joy on bayley’s face. it might look silly, but that doesn’t matter because bayley is honestly silly. she enjoys being silly and her character has hit an emotional arc where she will fight to be silly.
she smiles into the camera while waving her arms around like somebody does while the cake comes out during a birthday party. then, she stops to hug a young girl that is chanting her name.
then, there’s a match:
and it’s 13 minutes of charlotte overpowering and stretching bayley. choking and wiping her boots on bayley’s face. every time bayley tries to get her footing, charlotte knocks her over. right at the end, bayley makes one last try to fight and gets knocked on the top of her head. charlotte is gloating and reaches to pick up bayley off the ground. then this happens:
bayley gives one last defiant stare, then loses. as charlotte gloats, bayley sits on the ring apron with tears in her eyes. as charlotte walks to the back, sasha banks (the modern-day daffy duck of wrestling) comes out to shame and degrade bayley for losing and crying.
charlotte turns around and chases sasha out of the ring. bayley’s emotional honesty and care have led the diabolical bad guy to begin to doubt their own actions. although she lost the match, bayley wins by proving that honesty and vulnerability is able to change the ignoble person into a noble person.
bayley’s story is the type of story that we need to hear. the idea that the only admirable figures are the toughest fighters and the sharpest wits is a poisonous, brittle thing. hoping and dreaming is not only admirable, but it’s a sign of toughness and emotional strength. the idea that we are getting this message so effectively in wrestling is outstanding, and the fact that we are getting this message in women’s wrestling is more outstanding.
women’s wrestling, at least on national television, has always been difficult to watch. for so long, the women were clearly written as objects. objects fighting other objects over boyfriends and appearance and every ugly regressive nasty thing you could think of. every women’s wrestler was expected to be a perfect human doll xerox. a million-dollar physical object without a single hair out of place.
and now we have bayley
after the match, bayley gets interviewed. and while she tries, she spends the whole interview holding back tears until she’s asked - “you represent so many of the young girls that are watching at home and that’s exactly who you are here. what is it like to show these girls that they can fulfill their dreams and come out here and be a role model for so many women?”
cries for a second, wipes her eyes
“there’s this little girl named izzy who had tears in her eyes after i lost and she is who i’m going to fight for when i beat you charlotte! i’m gonna beat you charlotte! and you too sasha! I don’t know what that was about. but i’m gonna…(quieter) i’ll take you too. i’ll take all of you.”
and that’s art. that’s emotion. that’s why i love wrestling, because it’s one of the few places you can go to be told that the world isn’t a junkpile. and even though it’s fake, it’s defined by how it plays with reality. it doesn’t matter if bayley is a character - she’s a real life wonder woman.
"In a world, I’m reliably told, that’s going to the dogs, the real mischief, the real punk rock rebellion, is a snarling, ‘fuck you’ positivity and optimism"
As an ex-journo turned internet-monkey, I’ve spent the last week carefully toying with the idea of producing a video about the belief that the traditional games media is ethically compromised and/or corrupt.
After much consideration, I’ve decided that this would be a massive waste of time…