WHY I WANT TO LIKE ROMAN REIGNS
I’ve always liked Roman Reigns.
I’m a twenty-eight-year-old married man.
I’m fairly certain I could be labeled a “smark”, and, like many who write about pro-wrestling on the internet, I have my fair share of criticisms for the WWE.
But I still unapologetically like Roman Reigns - a stance that is becoming increasingly passé among that coveted 18-35 demographic.
Despite the fact that I like Roman, the WWE is doing everything in its power to make me not like Roman.
A lot has been written and said about how Roman Reigns is clearly not ready for the main event at WrestleMania. The reasons that Roman Reigns should not win The Royal Rumble and go on to headline ‘Mania are so abundantly clear that not only is it mystifying that the WWE seems to forge ahead with their Roman-plans, it’s mystifying that nothing has seemingly been done to improve Roman’s performance.
For those who might not frequently watch wrestling, but have somehow stumbled upon this site, I’ll briefly sum up Roman and his issues for you: Roman Reigns is destined to be the WWE’s next franchise player. The company clearly wants Roman to be a massive star and their plans seem to involve placing Roman in the main event at WrestleMania - the most coveted spot in all of pro-wrestling and one that should represent the best performers in all of pro-wrestling. Roman’s got the look and the style and the potential to be a new star for a new age. But the company, instead of hiding Roman’s weaknesses and emphasizing his strengths have tried to make Roman a well-rounded and captivating talker and worker on par with other successful superstars like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Fans have reacted negatively to how transparently the company has tried to “shove Roman down their throats” despite the fact that Roman consistently struggles on the mic and is often criticized for possessing a limited move-set.
This is but one of many reasons the fans are upset with the company, and why some fans have chosen to outright dislike Roman Reigns. The character has come to represent the company’s disconnect with the fans, the company’s fundamental break with inescapable reality - the primary point of contention between the WWE and their audience which has defined the majority of the past decade.
Instead of writing about why “Roman ain’t ready”, I’m going to write about why I like Roman Reigns, what it is that exists in that performer that actually can one day convincingly headline WrestleMania. Everything I write from here on is from the perspective of someone who genuinely enjoys the heart and soul of this character and wants the WWE to more intelligently, convincingly bring that heart and soul to the surface. I see in Roman a great addition to an increasingly excellent roster, a unique, yet universally appealing performer who could easily be exactly what the WWE seems to want him to be if and only if the WWE would get out of its own way.
I like Roman because I remember what it was like to be a twelve-year-old boy. My awareness of childhood, the painful twinge of nostalgic faith in fantasy permeates my modern-day experience of pro-wrestling. I’m fortunate in this, because it means that every so often my belief in the narratives and the spectacle of pro-wrestling shatters all cynicism and frustration and in The Moment of Pop I become an ecstatic child again. I become a believer. I experience catharsis. Joy.
When Roman’s music hits and he walks through the crowd and gives fist-bumps to children and smashes his foot onto the ring-steps and climbs the turnbuckle and thrusts his fists into the air and screams, the kid in me wants to pretend the corner of my couch is a turnbuckle and then stand up on the edge of it and mimic Roman's pose.
He is the perfect representation of what your average young male wants to become - a strong, capable, cool warrior who all the men fear and all the ladies love.
At that impressionable age, I gravitated towards those male role-models who represented that ideal of masculinity, a fantasy I wanted to transform into reality.
Hence why I looked up to The Rock throughout the majority of my adolescence. I would mimic the way he walked and snapped his head from side to side, transforming the grim halls of my high school into a WrestleMania entrance ramp.
As I matured into adulthood, I gravitated towards the more psychologically deep characters (not that The Rock is without psychology), and those workers who represented greatness in in-ring craft - a common maturation process for wrestling fans.
But today, I’ve gotten to the point in the way I watch where I appreciate each of these characters from the perspective that their designed to appeal to.
Roman, when he’s firing on all cylinders as he was throughout his run with The Shield, as he was at last year’s Royal Rumble, and as he was before his promo at Survivor Series. is the epitome of that pre-teen, early teen fantasy.
Many have criticized Roman for lacking emotion and lacking personality.
Roman is at his absolute best when he has absolutely no personality.
Roman doesn’t need a personality. In fact, I’d argue Roman shouldn’t have a personality.
Roman is a beacon of adolescent fantasies in the way John Cena is a beacon of childhood fantasies. The more of a blank-slate Roman is, the more viewers in general (not even just pre-teens and teens) will be able to project themselves onto that character. But that adolescent audience will do the most projecting because they’re so desperate to figure out their place in this world. The associations they make are so intense that they'll end up writing about it on their pro-wrestling website fifteen years later.
Just think back to when you were a teenager.
Awful isn’t it?
Now imagine you get home from school and you turn on RAW and out comes this guy who can do everything you’re afraid to do, and when he gives a kid a fist bump it’s like he’s reaching through the screen and bumping your fist, telling you, “You can do this too. Follow me! One versus all!” And then he whips his hair through the air and raises his arms over his head and smashes people in the face. You hear the girls scream when he arrives, and suddenly everything makes sense to you. That’s who I want to be! That’s who I’ll cheer for!
Roman didn’t pontificate about the meaning of life or give a nuanced speech on the importance of knowing right from wrong. He said nothing. He just walked to the ring and smashed his foot, and yet, as a kid, you’re completely sold on a vast fantasy that defines the rest of your life.
Have you noticed how characters in popular young adult franchises like Twilight and Hunger Games are always kind of “blank” and “emotionless”, lacking in uniqueness and the kind of nuanced humanity that defines adult protagonists?
Take Bella Swan, for example. Kristen Stewart who played Bella was criticized in the same way Roman is criticized - she was called “wooden” and “lifeless”.
And yet fans of the Twilight series (the people who Twilight is created for) will tell you how they completely “get” Bella Swan. “She is me! I know exactly what she’s going through! I love those books so much!”
Those books (and movies) are carefully designed fantasies that encourage readers to project, to fill in those purposeful gaps with the hopes and dreams of their adolescent mind.
Roman is no different. He succeeds when he says next to nothing - and not just because he struggles on the mic. He succeeds when he allows his visual language to speak for him. The character shouldn’t necessarily be a mute, but he also shouldn’t inexplicably devolve into baby talk.
I should not have been able to embed that promo in this blog. That simply should not be possible. You should not be allowed to see that promo, because that promo can do nothing but make you dislike Roman Reigns (unless you are his young fanboy or fangirl who's been sold so thoroughly on his fiction that you love anything he does). Despite the fact that you shouldn't be able to see that promo, the WWE freely allows you to copy the embed code. This promo is tantamount to a scene that should be left on the cutting room floor.
Roman literally says "Royal Rumble match" like he's talking to a little baby girl.
The more Roman just stares blankly into the distance, occasionally screams, and frequently smashes his fist into people’s faces the more accurately he reflects the most basic human emotional states - and that's something people can actually relate to. The more you’re allowed to look at that character as wish-fulfillment the more you believe in him. The more he does what he does in that above promo, the more inclined you will be to stare confusedly at the screen, roll your eyes, or tear your hair out due to extreme frustration as a result of what the WWE is doing to someone who could be a genuine success. And the WWE isn't just hurting this performer, they're hurting their most important moment of the year and the most important moment of many pro-wrestling fan's year by not using the 'Mania main event as the launching pad for a truly deserving, powerful star.
Apart from appealing to that adolescent audience, what works in Roman’s favor is that the 18-35 demographic still wants to look up to someone, and there are aspects of Roman himself that have inherent appeal for that demographic.
Just watch this one minute advert for WWE 2K15:
In just one minute everyone gets over. Roman included. And all he did was work out and stare at something.
He’s an excellent athlete. His move-set is obviously limited, but he moves with a kind of brutish grace other men his size typically lack. When Roman’s Superman Punch or ring-apron kick or spear are properly booked, almost any crowd will pop.
Roman could very easily be the franchise player that both kids and adults actually like.
John Cena is firmly fixed as the idol of children, a super hero character your average adult smarky, male pro-wrestling fan would despise even if he didn’t have the company’s endless booking favor (something Cena haters don’t seem to consider - the character would be hated today even if he wasn’t a 16-time champion and the lone top-dog).
Roman can only be that successful, universally appealing character when the WWE is intelligently considering what they actually have on their hands - and giving Roman "Superstar of the Year" when he's anything but "Superstar of the Year" is one of many guaranteed ways to alienate your audience and encourage them to dislike this man.
Roman Reigns is not the next Rock.
He never will be.
Nor should he be.
The WWE doesn’t need a new Steve Austin or a new The Rock.
The company needs a Dean Ambrose who is being Dean Ambrose and a Roman Reigns who is being Roman Reigns.
It is genuinely painful to watch Roman fumble through these terribly written promos - promos that seem so detached from the pro-wrestling fiction, even from the “sports entertainment” fiction that it’s genuinely perplexing they actually exist in the first place. It’s even more perplexing that the WWE would continue to promote these bad promos after the fact. You can watch Roman stammer his way around these lines as much as you’d like on Facebook, WWE.com, and the WWE’s own YouTube channel.
It’s so obvious that Roman is struggling throughout all of them, and it’s obvious that the writing itself is terrible, so we’re watching an unpracticed performer try to work out his kinks on national television using a terrible script. In any other creative or corporate environment those in charge would immediately try to course-correct when the problem is so blatantly obvious. What makes it all the more perplexing is that the WWE has been working in this medium for thirty years.
So do we blame the kid who’s tossed into that spot? Or do we blame the people who put him there before he was ready - like a hunter putting a rifle in the hands of an untrained kid and saying “Alrighty go out there and hunt, kill, and clean the biggest buck in all the land!”?
I’m not suggesting fans shouldn’t boo Roman Reigns. Unfortunately, his character is gradually becoming an emotional pin-cushion regardless of his universal appeal. He will become the vessel for fan-discontent when he’s supposed to be a vessel for fan-wish-fulfillment. Even though I like Roman myself and would cheer for him, the crowd’s boos will be the only way the WWE will genuinely know they’re not doing right by the character or the WWE fans. But I do encourage you to consider if your disdain for Roman is actually for Roman or if it's not the result of bad booking. Because I wager you popped for a lot of Roman's best moments in 2014, and there's no reason those moments couldn't have transitioned into a successful solo run apart from bad booking.
In not fully understanding the character of Roman Reigns and what that character represents, in attempting to make Roman something he simply isn’t supposed to be, the WWE has painted themselves, and one of their top men, into a pretty terrible (rather familiar) corner.
If those in charge studied Roman’s strengths and weaknesses, and booked the character in a manner that allows him to be exactly what he’s supposed to be - wish-fulfillment - people, both young and old, would catch on.
Where some might argue Roman needs more personality (a stance that seems to be the thinking behind the creation of his promos and the manner in which he performs) it’s important to remember that everyone has a very specific skill; something their good at, and then other things they're not good at.
Roman’s skill is being that archetypal adolescent testosterone-feuled fantasy - a nearly blank slate that encourages the young and the young at heart to dream that they too can leap through the air and punch Evil in the mouth.
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Pictures and video via WWE.com.