20 YEARS AGO – Bruce Mitchell Feature Column: Adult Contemporary – The controversy over WWF’s move to edgier programming (later dubbed “The Attitude Era”)

By Bruce Mitchell, PWTorch senior columnist

Steve Austin (photo credit Wade Keller © PWTorch)

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The following column was published 20 years ago this week in the Pro Wrestling Torch Weekly Newsletter by Bruce Mitchell. His long-form monthly columns in the 1990s were a staple of the PWTorch Newsletter’s rise to prominence, part of pro wrestling journalism moving to places it hadn’t gone prior.


BRUCE MITCHELL COLUMN

Adult Contemporary – The controversy over WWF’s move to edgier programming

“Television is democracy at its ugliest.”
— Paddy Chayefsky

The biggest crock in wrestling these days is the controversy over the WWF’s new “contemporary” direction. Suddenly various fans and small town newspaper columnists are wringing their hands in self-righteous indignation over the effect Shawn Michaels’s ass has on the impressionable youth of America. Vince McMahon is so sensitive to this criticism he defended the new direction on Raw against the Los Angeles Times piece that has yet to even appear. He wasn’t sensitive enough to change the direction he chose to combat WCW’s star power, however. Titan Sports is doing its best business in years, after all.

Suddenly it’s not enough that pro wrestling delivers television ratings, house show gates, merchandise revenue, or pay-per-view buys. Now wrestling promoters are supposed to provide role models for children, like they supposedly did in the good ol’ days. By this standard the WWF is coming up a little short. Hunter Hearst Helmsley talks about his “guided missile,” or Sable is pretty much naked, or Steve Austin says “damn,” “hell,” or “ass,” or some maniac is trying to kill people with a chainsaw and these critics are shocked.

The WWF is bad for kids, they moan. Even wrestlers such as Bret Hart and Davey Boy Smith cite the vulgar direction of the WWF as part of the reason they left the promotion. Jim Cornette, part of the WWF’s front office, wondered aloud on television why he got into this business while commentating on Goldust’s antics.

Who are these people kidding? From the first time a carnival worked the wrestler vs. the ringer scam a hundred years ago, through “Dangerous” Danny McShane cutting his forehead and bleeding all over Texas, to the Sheik throwing fire at his hapless victims, to those Bruiser/Crusher bloodbaths, through the Fargos in Memphis, Johnny Valentine, Ray Stevens, Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, the Ultimate Warrior, through countless hours of Saturday morning television, one thing has been constant: professional wrestling has never been suitable viewing for children.

Wrestling is violence with the thinnest veneer of sports covering it. Wrestlers in every promotion in every era have always solved their on-air problems by beating somebody up. No educator or professional who works with children has ever endorsed pro wrestling as a model for appropriate behavior. Any teacher who has ever heard the plaintive cry of “He hit me first!” (not coincidentally, the motivation for almost every feud in wrestling) knows pro wrestling has no redeeming social value.

As an elementary school teacher, I’ve learned to dread the infrequent times my students discuss pro wrestlers. The worst was the day the biggest kid in my class offered to Vaderbomb his pal before I interrupted the proceedings. (Okay, okay, that wasn’t the worst. The worst was the morning a child walked into my class yelling, “Mr. Mitchell said the ass word!” because he heard me discuss Steve Austin on a local radio talk show. Hoo, boy. Turned out Dad was a listener.) Nothing in wrestling, though, has caused more annoying and inevitably painful “karate” demonstrations on the playground than those no-good Power Rangers.

Pro wrestling historically has been marketed mostly to adults but (Hey, kids! The midgets!) it has also been willing to take a buck off of any children who wanted to come along. Parents, like marks, were expected to know better. If not, well, that’s why they call them marks, young or old.

So the pious concern over the WWF’s new direction is misplaced at best, and hypocritical at worst. At least the marketing of t&a, gang warfare, homophobia, racism, cursing, misogyny, sexual perversion, anti-social behavior, and cannibalism, if you count Mike Tyson, is aimed at supposed grown-ups — the kind who put the “adult” into Adult Entertainment.

It’s each adult’s decision whether they buy into this stuff or not. The hypocritical irony of the recent criticism of the WWF is that the wrestling these critics seem to be nostalgic for was the one time wrestling was clearly harmful for children — the era of Hulkamaniacs, Little Stingers, Little Warriors, and all the rest.

The full-court marketing press that Titan Sports led on unsuspecting kiddies and their parents in the ’80s, covering the “beat ’em up ’cause they’re different” ethic of wrestling with a sick cover of merchandising malarkey, was obscene. The best part of the current Hollywood Hogan character is that Terry Bollea finally abandoned the “say your prayers and take your vitamins” role model crap that helped make him a focus of the steroid scandal. No one knows how many children who idolized the wrestlers of that day followed them into drug abuse when the opportunity came for them to get the same type of bloated bodies their heroes had. At least now, the type who is most likely to be influenced by Degeneration X is probably old enough to go to the strip club if they want.

One difference between that era and today’s shock value approach is that now parents have a better chance to responsibly monitor their children’s wrestling viewing. There are no cartoon shows or vignettes doing charity work to fool parents into thinking wrestling is appropriate for their children.

And as much as these phony moralists might argue otherwise, it’s the parents’ job, not Vince McMahon’s, to oversee their children’s television viewing. The advances in technology have expanded consumer choices in entertainment, including television. As the consumer choice has expanded so did the number of bad choices. When I as an adult choose not to watch often manipulative, cynical, pandering shows like “Touched By An Angel” I am making the same choice that any parent can make for their child about wrestling shows.

And while many parents weren’t sophisticated or knowledgeable enough about wrestling in the ’80s to make informed choices for their children, that is hardly the case today. Now the WWF has made parents’ jobs a lot easier.

Any parent who doesn’t understand what the WWF is up to after seeing Goldust with a ball gag in his mouth, or Shawn Michaels in his briefs grabbing himself, or Sable as the Human Blow Up Doll stripping down to her g-string, or Stone Cold saying “ass” five times in 30 seconds, has more serious problems than what their kids watch on television.

The WWF is vulnerable in one major area, though. The WWF is asking for a public relations fiasco in the mainstream press by continuing to have children’s toy sponsors like Milton Bradley Karate Fighters. The WWF needs to make a major effort to sign up new sponsors like the beer and pick-up truck advertisers who support pro sports. It’s too bad Penthouse magazine doesn’t do much television advertising because Raw’s new targeted demographic would be a perfect fit.

Vince McMahon also ought to save his “Friendly Vince” persona for another time and forget about making phony promises to clean up the Saturday morning Live Wire show. If the WWF can’t get Live Wire moved to a later timeslot, USA ought to slap a warning label on it and forget it. USA, after all, is the network that runs gambling tout shows on Saturday morning encouraging viewers to break the law and bet on ballgames. These shows, with their fraudulent success claims, are a bigger con than anything the WWF usually pulls.

The alternative direction that ECW and Paul Heyman pioneered, the fast-paced music and cuts, the bad-ass posturing, and New Japan style fake-shoot angles have been an inaugural success at the box office and a mixed success critically.

Superserving the strip club audience (or the audience that wishes they were in a strip club instead of their parents’ basement) has brought more passion and aggression to the product than the WWF’s security force and many of their wrestlers are accustomed to experiencing.

The recent riots at WWF house shows are indicative of one of the keys to success in this approach, a key that ECW has also failed to master. The alternative approach ironically takes more discipline than the all-American approach. Many of the wrestlers now immersed in what those in the business sometimes call the “religion gimmick” know that you can get away with more if you thump that Bible because you take advantage of the trusting nature of true believers. Hardcore offers no such benefits. The balls-to-the-wall approach takes more discipline because you have to know how to use it for maximum positive effect.

For example, a couple of years ago I attended my first ECW spot show. First match, Ian Rotten grabbed the house mic and called his opponent a “mother f—-.” I raised an eyebrow toward the guy taping the match — not that I was shocked at the phrase, just at when Rotten said it. “Happens all the time,” was the blasé reaction. By the end of the show the word had been used so many times no one paid the slightest attention to it.

On the other hand, there’s the HBO show “Oz,” a show that finished at the top of many influential television critics’ year-end “Best of” lists. The emotional crux of the series was a brutal scene of torture, revenge, and excrement. A verbal description of what happened in the scene, never mind the scene itself, would get the ECW show yanked off the air if the station manager heard it.

But because the producers of “Oz” paid so much attention to detail and to the emotional truth of the story they told, the show was hailed by critics as a television break-through. And because it was so intense and so well-done it was saved from brick bats — except, that is, from the same fringe that complained about the airing of “Schindler’s List” on NBC because of the occasional unclothed breasts. The key to the success of “Oz” was the producer’s extraordinary discipline and attention to detail. Sometimes in art, it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.

As anyone who followed pro wrestling last year knows, discipline is not WWF management’s strong suit. The Bret Hart debacle was a classic case study of personnel mismanagement. Vince McMahon was too busy coddling, in-turn, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels and ignoring or caving in to their misbehavior that he destroyed what was left of his credibility with his wrestlers, no matter his, Hart’s, or anyone else’s interpretation of the phrase “reasonable control.” It’s telling of the WWF’s lack of discipline that both Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels recently dodged doing jobs that would have helped strengthen other wrestlers and storylines. No one can afford to take Vince McMahon’s promises of trading a job now for a boost later, if they can avoid it.

To be fair, the lack of discipline is hardly confined to the WWF. It has caused problems throughout the history of ECW and is also a major problem, perhaps worst of all in the business, at WCW.

As you might expect with the lack of discipline, the early creative results of the hardcore approach are mixed for the WWF. Austin 3:16 is a clear success, making Austin the most popular wrestling performer in the country. Austin’s swearing just adds a little salt to a primo act. Shawn Michaels and Degeneration X are so effective at blending the worst of their behind the scenes attitudes with their tremendous performing ability that they have eclipsed the NWO and anything at ECW for cutting edge viewing. That Michaels seems to be capable of a live meltdown at any moment only adds to the high-wire nature of the act.

The rest? The WWF’s ethnic gangs, with the exception of the rising Rock, are a bust. Mick Foley seems to be reverting to Cactus Jack just in time, since the multiple personality gig was starting to get a little silly. Chainsaw Charlie is going to get lame fast since ol’ Uncle Terry probably won’t actually whack off any of the New Age Outlaws’ limbs. The Mero Family storyline is worthy of a psycho-sexual treatise, what with Sable’s husband supposedly degrading and abusing her by not letting her take her clothes off in front of sex-starved loner-types. Despite efforts to humanize the characters, the Undertaker-Kane storyline belongs in a Ninja Turtle movie. The Head Bangers are to Metal what the Bushwackers were to The Sheepherders.

And then there’s wrestling’s answer to the class showoff, Dustin Runnels. It would be easier for the audience to buy Goldust-Sex Pervert if the gimmick hadn’t been watered down by Dustin going from Gay to Pretend-Gay to Family Man to Cuckold to Pervert so quickly. Runnels’s “I’ll do anything” attitude is emblematic of the lack of discipline in the WWF’s approach. The WWF has to know what is pushing the envelope and what is offensive and unimaginative. Marc Mero punching Sable in the face would get a reaction. So did Goldust in black face. Both are bad ideas, and it takes discipline to know why.

Actually, Goldust’s attention-seeking gimmicks seem more like a guy who based his act on a couple of porno mags he bought on his one visit to the adult book store than a real life pervert, and the audience seems to sense it.

Interestingly, the most perverse, unsettling, subversive gimmick in the sport isn’t in the WWF or even ECW. It’s in WCW, the same promotion that Eric Bischoff claims is toning down on-camera misbehavior. Raven’s Nest, to put it bluntly, ought to be renamed Raven’s Rough Trade. The clues aren’t subtle. This All-Male-Revue features Raven, who had the classic butch/fem abusive relationship with Stevie Richards, so much that the Richards character went back to submissively serving Raven after declaring his supposed independence. Raven constantly talks of his alienation and rejection from his parents, without being specific as to the reason. Everyone in the Nest vies for Raven’s love. Saturn didn’t steal his look from Taz, he took it from Biker Boys magazine. Lodi’s look is straight out of every college gay bar in America. Hammer, whose name fits this concept perfectly, comes right from the peep shows. Nice fishnet, too. Billy Kidman has got the Bus Station Runaway look down cold.

Why do you think Raven wanted to “recruit” Scotty Riggs, whose only distinguishing characteristic is he looks like an (American) male model (and Eric Bischoff)? Tellingly, the climactic moment in Raven’s courtship came when Raven DDT’d Riggs unconscious, then lamented damaging his face and claimed to feel his “pain.” Hammer then carried Riggs out lovingly over his shoulder. What did Raven and his boys do to Riggs, exactly, to get him to embrace his true nature? And the Nest doesn’t like Chris Benoit because he’s simply too straight.

Compared to that, Goldust and Luna are just wanna-bes. If the WWF wants to succeed in the alternative “contemporary” world, they’ll have to sweat the details as carefully as Raven did. The WWF can take heart. Every revolution in pop culture first comes with howls from those who don’t know they’ve been passed by. With their new direction, the WWF has offended the right people.


VIP MEMBERS, explore more of Bruce Mitchell’s remarkable work from the 1990s in the Bruce Mitchell Columns section HERE.

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NOW CHECK OUT THIS PREVIOUS FLASHBACK: 10 YEARS AGO – TNA in Montreal, Quebec (12-27-07): A.J. Styles, Kurt Angle challenges for World Title, Eric Young vs. James Storm, plus Samoa Joe, Jay Lethal, LAX, Abyss, Kim

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