The World Is Ready for Daniel Bryan
I have a theory that the top, iconic, wrestling characters reflect the society that births them. In the world of professional wrestling, how could this not be true?
Vince McMahon’s traveling circus version of the wrestling model provides a perpetual, massive, national (and sometimes international) focus group. People make a lot of noise about ratings, but nothing is more instructive than the genuine reactions of thousands of people in real time because those ratings are just numbers — they don’t capture the FEELING of the audience. The WWE owes its longevity to listening to those feelings, understanding them, and out-putting a product that reflects those feelings. You give the people what they want.
My theory is that individual audience members, from all generations, all share a common bond through the cultural architecture of their times. Consequently, iconic characters are successful because they somehow tap into that collective consciousness in a way that, not only thrills us, but holds a mirror for us to see who we are and what we desire.
You can learn a lot about history just by watching old professional wrestling shows…
In the 1980s we had Hulk Hogan, the quintessential Cold War superhero. He was a manifestation of the desire for strength through patriotism, belief in self, and loyalty to your own. Like Rocky Balboa fighting Drago, he was a reaction to the subtle current of uncertainty and fear running through American society. In the face of that fear, he represented the rationalization that we, as a people, were powerful, righteous and that nothing could overcome our dominance. He was “The Real American”.
In the late 1990s we had Stone Cold Steve Austin, an emotionally unstable, unpredictable, violent anti-hero who very much represented the same sense of discontent and anger felt by young adolescent males at the time. The late 90s, though it ushered in an era of economic prosperity, stability, and relative peace, left many white youth with an aimless yearning for something more than a steady nine to five job. These sentiments were captured perfectly by Tyler Durden in Fight Club: “We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives”. From the deluge of cultural malaise came “The Rattlesnake”. He wasn’t here to beat the communists. He wasn’t here to teach your kids to take their vitamins. He was here to bring down the establishment. It didn’t matter why. It didn’t matter how. Stone Cold Steve Austin was here to unleash a can of whoop ass just because he could, just because he was angry. Every Monday Night RAW was catharsis. When Austin went crazy so did we and there was no greater release than watching someone tear down everything just to watch the world burn.
Finally, John Cena has embodied the attitudes of Post 9/11 America to a T. Like during the Cold War era, the threat of a foreign enemy (terrorism) rekindled the desire for indomitable strength, but not at the expense of our prosperity and leisure. John Cena doesn’t really fight for anything in particular. “Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect” are just buzzwords. Why are we hustling? To whom are we loyal? To what do we owe our respect? They are words that make us feel good, wholesome, but we’re not meant to put too much thought into the matter.
His strength is no longer aimed at defeating an enemy, but is supposed to be a comforting distraction from the unknown perils that lie outside the purview of our awareness. We don’t want to look into that abyss we merely glimpsed at on 9/11. We need someone to make us feel like it’s going to be all right. We may not fight our Post 9/11 wars personally, but we’ll go over-the-top with our show of respect to the less-than-one-percent who wear military uniforms in Iraq and Afghanistan. We offer our show of gratitude to the military establishment as prayers to the universe hoping that our reward will be never having to endure the horrors of war personally. John Cena is the yellow ribbon bumper sticker, the jets flying over The Superdome before the Superbowl. He is the business-as-usual champion; a nice guy; easily digestible like organic vegetable juice; the consummate company man; the dutiful consumer’s hero.
Now we arrive at Daniel Bryan. Could he be the next iconic wrestling mega-star? If one merely glances at his short stature, shaggy beard, and often goofy demeanor, it’s easy to dismiss the possibility. And yet, there’s something to the notion that Daniel Bryan is a mirror reflecting the current stream of collective consciousness.
It seems like we are entering into a post-hipster world, one in which people are more aware of the shortcomings of society and themselves, but also able to avoid the cognitive dissonance that comes with those revelations. People are becoming cynical to the jingoism of the early 2000s. People no longer trust the government to look out for their best interest. Simultaneously there is a conflicting sense that something must be done, but that “something” is nebulous.
We know we are trapped within a technological vacuum; we spend our lives finger poking smart phones, making connections with people hundreds of miles from our physical location, while we sit across an actual person at a restaurant. We are a society of deep contradictions, simultaneously more and less connected than ever before. How many people, surrounded by technology, crave a lifestyle of simpler times, or seek connection through yoga, social causes, Crossfit, or even Reddit.
Perhaps the most signature aspect of this new paradigm is that we, collectively, have not only become aware of the absurdity in our lives, but have met it with good humor. Our reaction is sometimes to lament our state of affairs, but more often than not, it’s to simply laugh and resign ourselves to our fate — like an episode of the Daily Show that points out government corruption without even a hint sanctimonious outrage, but by turning it into one big joke. In the face of our powerlessness, we sometimes just have to laugh. We try to enjoy the ride, even if it is a downward spiral.
When I re-watch Daniel Bryan interacting with Kane in Anger Management, I realize that Daniel Bryan is actually a terrible actor. At no point during his tantrums did I believe he was actually angry. He always seemed like he was just on the edge of laughter. It’s as if the Daniel Bryan character always has some meta-awareness that he’s just a Daniel Bryan character. And I don’t mean that the actor who plays Daniel Bryan has that awareness, I mean it’s like the character itself has that awareness. In other words, if WWE were a comic book universe, Bryan would be Deadpool, the comic book character who knows he’s in a comic book. Somehow, I think this is relevant to who we are as a people. Like the financial analyst who secretly sympathizes with Occupy Wall St., the lawyer working at a big law firm who secretly wants to be an activist, or the urban teen who plays sports to fit in, but is really interested in gay rights, we routinely adopt roles due to societal demands, knowing deep down, we’re just playing a character.
Even this past Monday, during his confrontation with Cena, as he pleaded that he was out to prove himself, you could detect an undercurrent of subtle joy as if he was already secretly enjoying his sudden popularity.
And somehow, all of that is all right. My enjoyment of Bryan never comes at the expense of my immersion. In fact, there’s something intangible about his persona that makes what should be shortcomings into endearing qualities that I would miss if he got rid of them.
Bryan embodies contradiction in other ways too: he carries the beard of a huntsman raised by wolves, yet he’s a vegan; he has one of the most complex in-ring styles in the history of professional wrestling, yet has the simplest catchphrase; in terms of in-ring storytelling, he is the best wrestling artist to come along since Shawn Michaels, yet his character stretches the limits of the “goofy nerd” label.
When people speculate that Bryan could replace Cena as the top dog in the company, it’s easy to reflexively say “No”. I mean, after all, just look at him. Look at that beard. Listen to his theme music. Look at that goofy side-step entrance on his way down the ramp…
And yet, in the age in which contradiction defines who we are, it is for those very reasons that I say “YES!”