It has been said by wrestling minds much more significant than my own that pro wrestling is, in some ways, a mirror for the culture of the time. Looking back on the key eras of the 80s, 90s, and 00s, it is easy to see that thesis in action.
The 80s saw larger than life hero Hulk Hogan face off against cartoonishly large adversaries while the roles of villains were usually staffed by foreign (or at least faux-foreign) antagonists.
The 90s, during the mainstreaming of shows like South Park and the emergence of rap/metal wrestling, focused on anti-heroes like Steve Austin battling the evil corporation, giving those in power the finger. It was also the era of the “cool” heel, with nWo shirts flying off the shelves and D-Generation X going from being a group of shit disturbing heels to shit disturbing faces.
In the 00s, things settled down a bit. In fact, they settled down a lot and we entered the PG era of WWE. No more blood, no ho-trains or rowdy chants of “suck it” (unless it was a really special occasion), and villains became a little less dangerous.
And here we are today, in 2019, where the best heel in WWE is an insufferably “woke” vegan who carries a WWE championship made of hemp.
In a safer, cleaner, less offensive world, what greater villain could there be than a guy that preaches to a crowd out for a good time about the value of sustainability? Who is more an enemy of the WWE Universe than someone that reminds them of all the things they come to a wrestling show to forget? Corporations are bad. The planet is doomed. Drinking straws are killing whales. These and other more serious messages about the world around us bombard our media feeds relentlessly. Everywhere we look, we are reminded of the need for safe spaces and to approach life with mindfulness – except in wrestling. Wrestling is where we can go to see the bad guys get theirs. It’s where a steel chair to the back is a perfectly reasonable response to a problem. It’s where we can yell, make signs, and cut loose from polite society for an hour or two.
At least it is when Daniel Bryan isn’t around.
The New Daniel Bryan character is that preachy friend we have on Facebook that won’t stop posting memes about how meat is murder. He’s the guy that calls you out on the offensive joke you probably shouldn’t be telling. He’s that person ahead of you in line at Starbucks that has to order soy milk and ethical beans when all you want to do is get a coffee before work.
The New Daniel Bryan is the assault of woke culture on all of us, and he is winning.
You know, I don’t actually miss the Attitude Era of wrestling. I mean, I miss the roar of those crowd and the ocean of signs during that first pan shot every Monday night. I miss over the top blasts of fireworks and Titantron videos. I miss not being able to predict what was going to happen from one minute to the next, but, as far as the majority of the actual content of Attitude Era WWE programming? I’m good without it.
I don’t need a wrestling pornstar, gravy bowl matches, or naked Mideon. I don’t really even need a hero that flips the bird every time he enters a room and binge drinks in front of me.
However, I also don’t need it rubbed in my face that I’m a bad person for ever enjoying those things and for drinking my soda with a plastic straw. But, this is where we are. Call-out culture is everywhere. Safe spaces are everywhere. Music, movies, and other things that we loved at the time are now viewed through the woke lens. Now, loving those things makes us feel bad. And that’s okay. What was good then isn’t going to be good forever. That’s just life. But don’t rub it in our faces.
Unless you are Daniel Bryan.
Bryan’s portrayal of the villain we hate because, deep down, we recognise he’s right. Bryan is the perfect response to outrage culture and the era of social media shaming. He’s a good thing gone too far, a guy that not only makes his point but makes you feel like a jerk in the process. You’re a jerk for believing in him, a jerk for being wasteful, for having a leather belt. It’s really bold stuff when you consider the money Bryan isn’t getting by not having any merch to sell. He’s not a cool heel. He’s maybe the squarest heel we’ve seen this side of Bob Backlund. It’s a character that brings back Chris Jericho’s suit-wearing “best in the world at what I do” character. A heel relishing in being a heel. A gifted performer getting to do what wrestlers do best: present a version of their true self with the volume turned way up.
As someone who watches the main roster with a critical eye, not because I don’t want to enjoy it, but because it has become increasingly hard to do so, I really have to give credit where it is due for the New Daniel Bryan. With the journey he has taken us on, from his run to the top, to his forced retirement and return, to his subtle and shocking heel turn, Bryan is doing his trainer, the Heartbreak Kid himself, very proud.
It’s an interesting coincidence that HBK also had a career-threatening injury that forced him into what looked like early retirement, only to return to do some of the best work of his career. It shows the value that taking some time off can really have for these guys, even when it is forced upon them. It adds to the compelling argument for a rotating roster, off-season, or another way to get talent some time off to heal up and “learn a new hold” as Jim Ross would likely add.
In 2019, it’s hard to pick our heroes. We are often left disbelieving the things we learn about individuals we idolised growing up. It’s a time when we are never really sure who to cheer. From one moment to the next, a spectacular fall from grace is waiting. But, at least in the case of the New Daniel Bryan, we can be absolutely sure who to boo.
Til next, I’ll see you marks around the loop.