ROMAN REIGNS AND THE DANGERS OF "DESERVE" IN THE IWC
- INTRODUCTION -
Almost every day I see comments from frustrated professional wrestling fans claiming that Roman Reigns "doesn't deserve" all of the opportunities WWE has given him. This comment is incredibly reliable regardless of how Roman Reigns evolves and regardless of how his booking changes.
At this point, if a pro-wrestling fan is reciting the same laundry list of criticisms that have been leveled at Leati Joseph Anoaʻi over the past two years, I tend to question their true intentions as it relates to their love of professional wrestling.
In theory, up until now, Roman's critics believe his "shortcomings" harm the sanctity of professional wrestling, that the company set a destructive precedent by pushing an "inexperienced" and "less charismatic" pro-wrestler "too fast, too soon", that he didn't "organically" become a fan-favorite prior to the push, and that he's just not cut out for the role of "top guy".
In practice, most of those criticisms come out as reductionist soundbites like, "He has a limited move set", "He's terrible on the mic", "I just don't like his attitude", "He's nothing but a pretty face", "He can't wrestle", and "No one likes him except stupid fangirls".
At best, a lot of these criticisms represent the unoriginal group-think of any fandom. We see this kind of mass-opinion regurgitation in all of entertainment today. An idea or a way of thinking becomes "cool", and a subset of any fanbase will latch onto that idea and promote it regardless of whether or not it reflects their natural inclinations (or reality).
At worst, a lot of these criticisms represent the divisive vitriol of a specific collection of pro-wrestling fans who feel their grip on the medium loosening as "non-traditional fans" make their voices heard in the internet wrestling community.
The defensive fan hive-mind is a phenomena that might appear relatively harmless on the surface, an inevitable byproduct of shared passions and the freedom to express opinions. But it can lead to a break from reality and a decrease in empathy. A potential exchange of ideas mutates into simplistic thought-clusters where we become trapped in a hyperspace that reassures us "everyone thinks the way we do and those who don't are just idiots".
While I've always been an unapologetic fan of Roman Reigns since his main roster debut, both the character and the performer, I haven't abstained from offering constructive criticism. I've done my best to keep those criticisms focused on creative missteps like the writing or the booking of his character. And there were certainly times when I didn't agree with creative choices Roman made in his performance, but those choices never negatively affected my overall opinion of his fundamental talent & appeal nor my opinion of his fans.
Just as I'm not going to like every performance an actor gives in every film, I'm not going to like every choice a pro-wrestler makes. Unlike film or television, however, pro-wrestling caters to the expression of instantaneous emotional responses, and the belief that those gut-reactions are indicative of a performer's true worth or true ability. There is some good and some bad that stems from that dynamic.
In this piece, we will explore the good, the bad, and the ugly as it relates to the internet wrestling community's complex relationship with Roman Reigns. We will start with the foundation of the Reigns character, and then gradually work our way through the mine-field that is pro-wrestling fandom in the year 2016.
My goal is to shed some light on a few inconvenient truths while demonstrating that there is no "right way" to believe in professional wrestling.
WHO IS ROMAN REIGNS...really?
When I look at my real experience of Roman Reigns, I see a performer who, in the right narrative circumstances, excels and captivates even those audience-members who choose blind hate over deep consideration.
What I noticed throughout Roman's ascent, first and foremost, was how much he wanted to succeed. That should never be taken for granted. The effort, regardless of whether or not I thought he delivered a promo successfully, has always been evident. Secondly, I noticed that his booker didn't seem to understand the natural appeal of his look nor the fundamental nature of his character. Roman is most convincing and exciting when he plays the strong, silent warrior.
And not because he's "bad on the mic" or should never speak.
He's simply excellent at portraying a strong, silent warrior. He plays that archetype better than anyone in the WWE. There's a big difference between being so bad at something that you shouldn't do anything and being so good at something that it should remain your primary focus. Steve Austin never bothered doing a moonsault off the top rope, and we're all the better for it.
The skills of Paul Heyman and CM Punk taught many modern wrestling fans over the past five years (especially the sort quick to hate a "WWE Chosen One") that a promo is the primary means of telling a story and articulating a character, and that promos must be Shakespearean-quality monologues. That's unfortunate, because there are a wide variety of ways to tell good stories in pro-wrestling. Roman tells his story through his body language and his grace of motion and a few carefully chosen words rather than a fifteen minute monologue about his similarities to "Jack and the Beanstalk".
Everything any audience member needs to know about the Roman Reigns character is summed up in a stoic gaze, a cocked fist, a few well-timed gestures, a howl, and some good music. That's it; a noble, morally grey personae fighting for honor and respect.
He's not an underdog. He's not an everyman. He's not a rebel. He's not "the most electrifying man".
Roman Reigns isn't even a "Sports Entertainer".
The Roman Reigns character is more myth than man, a handful of instincts and moods rather than a collection of catchphrases and tee-shirts. He is that mysterious alpha who rides into town, kicks everyone's ass, makes a bit of love, maybe gives a wink and a nod, grunts a sardonic observation, and then rides off into the sunset. Nothing more, nothing less.
To "humanize" that with lengthy speeches, sentimental familial ties, and pithy slogans is to negate the most basic appeal of that character. He is best as a blank slate so that the audience can project their fantasies upon him. The more we know about him, the less appealing he is.
He is that lone warrior we'd all love to be.
why do people love him?
If you're a fan of any performer, you either recognize yourself in them, aspire to be like them, or you find them attractive. More than likely, your fandom is based on some combination of all three.
That's how Roman's fans feel about him.
That's how every fan feels about the performer they admire; it's pure wish fulfillment. And yet Roman's fans are consistently singled out in the IWC (internet wrestling community) and harassed for commenting not only on his good looks, but on his good matches. Any praise is cause for immediate retaliation.
A pro-wrestling fan who happily cheers "He's so hot" is not a "fake pro-wrestling fan" whose opinion is utterly invalid. Even if someone's fandom of Roman is based primarily upon how attractive he is, that fan isn't an idiot who hasn't earned the right to express their point of view. That fan is just a human being. They have eyeballs and a voice. Are we to deprive them of that to make them "real pro-wrestling fans"? Does stifling a diversity of perspectives keep pro-wrestling pure?
Roman's fans love wrestling the way they love it, for the reasons they love it, and their opinion does not negatively affect anyone's existence. The negative reaction Roman Reigns and his fans receive with regard to his good looks is blatantly rooted in the insecurity of specific fans, and a fear of "non-traditional" forms of sexuality; meaning that while it's socially acceptable for a male wrestling fan to talk about how adorkably hot AJ Lee is, it's still not socially acceptable for a woman to gush about Roman's beautiful face. If she does, she's a "superficial idiot" who should shut her mouth and just go back to being a ring-rat.
The hypocrisy is so obvious it's almost self-congratulatory.
Praise for Roman Reigns is not inherently an attack on "real pro-wrestling fans" nor professional wrestling itself. It is, very simply, praise for Roman Reigns. Praise for Roman Reigns, whether it's about his good looks or his wrestling or his character is good for the pro-wrestling community because it contributes to an increase in enthusiasm for the product and it opens up a chance for deeper dialogues related to gender, sexuality, and society.
And it's important to remember that it took a while for today's "Roman-haters" to become your garden-variety haters who dismiss his fanbase as "butthurt chicks" and Roman as a guy who "still sucks". There was a time when the majority of pro-wrestling fans, diehard and casual alike, believed in Roman Reigns. All it took was a few ineffective creative decisions combined with the group-think of the IWC to give birth to the unnecessarily contentious environment we find ourselves in today.
WHY do PEOPLE HATE HIM?
Somewhere along the way, the Roman Reigns character started to be booked as a "fun-loving, crowd-pleasing, WWE Superstar" rather than "a title-seeking, relentless badass". There's a big gap there. That's like demanding a brain surgeon fix your toilet. It's just a different skill-set altogether, and it's squandering the talents of both. That's where the initial disconnect came and that disconnect provided the internet wrestling community with a lot of ammunition.
The Roman Reigns push itself was not the problem. Roman's push simply wasn't well-written. It was built upon a preconceived notion of what it means to be a "top guy" and what a "top guy's" skill-set should be. It wasn't built for an individual human being with a unique set of experiences and a unique set of skills.
Everyone has their creative lane, and this is something "haters" and the Roman-critics tend to forget. Roman Reigns is not untalented. In fact, he's incredibly talented. There's nothing inherently terrible about Roman Reigns. He is, indeed, "top guy material", but he was never permitted to be his own top guy. He had to be "everything to everyone" rather than focus on what he does incredibly well.
If The Rock was blatantly booked to be "the next Hogan" in this internet age where many fans are savvy to the business and booking practices of the WWE, all the while reading a script written for "the next Hogan", would The Rock have become The Rock or would he have become some weird, micromanaged WWE-Superstar-blob who failed to resonate? The Rock only becomes The Rock when his real-world personality is permitted to inform not just his character, but the entire direction of the company. In recent years, WWE Superstars have experienced the opposite dynamic, straining to adhere to an ill-fitting, preordained mold as the company dictates their personalities to them.
Imagine an alternate universe where the WWE had heard the positive response Roman Reigns elicited at the 2014 Royal Rumble when he lost to Batista. In this alternate universe, imagine the next night on RAW we find out that getting a taste of the spotlight meant everything to Roman, that hearing the audience cheer him, and feeling so close to the main event at WrestleMania was the most important moment in his life. It was an awakening. From there, imagine Roman leaving The Shield stable of his own volition, revamping his attire and his gimmick, ripping through opponent after opponent for the next full-calendar year before arriving at the grandest stage of them all against Brock Lesnar for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. No "funny" promos. No goofy grins. Just spears and wins and fist-bumps and training montages and "One versus all".
Does Roman Reigns still suck?
Can Roman Reigns still not wrestle?
Is Roman Reigns still not ready?
This is why I'm suspicious of those who continue to level the same laundry list of complaints at Roman Reigns. To say, "he can't wrestle" and to argue "he sucks on the mic" is, for lack of a better phrase, so 2015. Such complaints also completely ignore the realities of the way he was booked. These criticisms just don't apply to his present circumstances nor his present incarnation (if they ever did). Ever since the company tweaked his character to "The Guy", a gimmick more in-keeping with his strengths, Roman Reigns has delivered good performance after good performance. That's not a coincidence. His real-world personality is finally dictating the direction of his character, and so he appears more comfortable. He is slowly but surely evolving into the battle-hardened, mythic gladiator he was always meant to be.
"But he was carried by AJ Styles!" comes the contrarian, easily predicted point of view, a shallow attempt to suggest anything and everything Roman does is and always will be bad no matter how good it actually is. Any good wrestler will squash this argument immediately by stating that "getting carried" is not only common, it's inevitable (Steve Austin says this all the time on his podcast without an ounce of shame).
The fact remains that Roman Reigns, relying upon his strengths as a performer and booked according to those strengths, has consistently been in excellent matches and inspired incredibly intense emotional responses from pro-wrestling audiences. The same would almost certainly be true of any inherently talented performer who was booked according to their strengths and encouraged to stay in their creative lane. That fact is not negated by whether or not he was "carried" or any awkward promos he cut a year ago.
Since returning from his suspension, Roman has looked, sounded, and behaved more convincingly than ever. He has some mileage, some scar-tissue, and it's made him even more interesting. His subdued anger, his stoic gaze, and his sly grin have all taken on greater significance. He's being forged in the fire, and he's still here. He will not stop and he will not give up despite the rejection he faces.
That's a great story.
Is it so hard to understand why a large portion of the WWE fanbase loves him?
the hypocrisy of "deserve"
Given the measurable improvements with regard to his booking and his performance, what's genuinely worth criticizing about Roman Reigns today? What is this vocal, angry sect of the pro-wrestling community really getting at when they talk about "deserve"? What point are they really trying to make...without expressly making it?
Roman Reigns, for these particular fans, remains "undeserving" of his "good fortune", but Finn Balor is entirely deserving of a WWE Universal Championship match against Seth Rollins in the main event of SummerSlam following his first night on RAW?
Because Finn has "indy-cred"?
Because Finn wrestled in NXT for two years?
That's the best you got?
That boring, predictable defense?
I'm pleased Finn Balor is facing Seth Rollins at SummerSlam. I like that match-up. I think it's best for Roman and Seth if they go their separate ways for now, and I know that Finn is more than capable of delivering a five-star main event match. He is a reliable pro-wrestling veteran who is sure to excite fans both casual and diehard alike. But I cannot ignore that a guy many RAW-specific viewers have never seen before won two matches in a row on his first night on the WWE's flagship show, and is being catapulted into one of the biggest matches of the year.
That's not a problem for me, but I don't spend time worrying about "deserve" and I don't make up a bunch of imaginary rules for who "deserves" what. This is why using the word "deserve" as support for any argument as it relates to your likes and dislikes inevitably leads to hypocrisy and contradiction. For the casual viewer who only watches RAW, Finn Balor deserves absolutely nothing. For the diehard viewer who knows about Finn's indy-history and his ascent through NXT, he's an absolute shoe-in for a SummerSlam main event.
Is one perspective more right than the other, or are they just differing points of view based upon differing, fallible human experiences? "Deserve" is a really big, powerful word that implies some kind of karmic, moral significance to the events of our lives and the structure of society. It should be used with a little more care in our internet wrestling community.
When I read these kinds of "deserve" Tweets, comments, arguments, and when I hear podcasters talk about why someone like AJ Styles is so much "better" and more "nuanced" than Roman Reigns, it starts to feel like these people aren't defending professional wrestling at all. It feels instead like they're defending a belief in their own unchecked rightness. It sounds less like they really believe in the idea of "deserve" and more like they simply want to maintain a stranglehold on what it fundamentally means to be a "real pro-wrestling fan".
the "real pro-wrestling fan"
So what does it mean to be a "real pro-wrestling fan" to these people? I won't presume to know exactly what the answer to that question is, but I can make a few observations based upon what I've seen and heard over the years.
It seems, to a certain group of fans, loving pro-wrestling "the real way" means always "going against the grain" in terms of the WWE's booking, sometimes simply for the sake of doing so. It means always respecting and supporting wrestlers with an independent background more than wrestlers with a WWE or sports-background, regardless of actual performance-ability in the pro-wrestling medium itself (e.g. a former football player who's consistent in his gimmick and graceful in the ring doesn't hold a candle to an indy-wrestler with a diverse move-set but a bland personality).
It means dismissing and insulting "fake wrestling fans", and it's just a coincidence that "fake wrestling fans" tend to be female, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ community.
It means believing there's such a thing as "the real way" to be a fan of something.
Such a belief-system defeats the fundamental purpose of fandom; which is to be inclusive and to have fun. At this point in his career, arguments about Roman Reigns' objective badness or his fans being "fake" are little more than gussied-up versions of "I just don't like this guy" or such arguments represent thinly-veiled prejudice.
"I just don't like him" is a perfectly viable perspective. I want to emphasize that it's fine to not like Roman Reigns. There are plenty of level-headed, kind, gracious pro-wrestling fans who simply aren't Roman Reigns fans. That's normal. That's good. We should have an assortment of perspectives in any community. They're not rude, obnoxious, divisive, insulting, or prejudiced people simply because they're not fans of Roman Reigns. They might even understand the appeal of the guy, but they're just not fans.
But there is a contingent within the pro-wrestling community who use Roman Reigns and his fans as a means of venting some unsavory, antiquated thoughts & feelings about the world.
To even suggest that prejudice exists in the pro-wrestling community and that it plays a role in the response to Roman often elicits an immediately defensive, angry reaction, claims that it has nothing to do with gender or race; that it's only about a "limited move-set", Roman's "inability to talk", and how obnoxious it is that fangirls objectify him. If someone is getting upset specifically because a woman is expressing her perspective on Roman Reigns, how is that reaction not related to her gender? To not see how such a reaction comes from a general hatred and fear of women is to remain safe in one's reassuring, delusional hyperspace.
The fact that this already defensive subset of the community would double-down on their "right to hate", arguing that their hate isn't the least bit informed by the society outside of the IWC makes me even more suspicious of their motivations. Their anger is so intense that it's simply not feasible for it to stem entirely from a disdain for a particular wrestler's move-set or promo-delivery.
Pro-wrestling isn't apolitical and it doesn't exist in a cultural-vacuum, even though many of its most passionate fans and commentators desperately want it to be.
Pro-wrestling, like any form of entertainment, appeals to a broad spectrum of human beings in a wide variety of ways and for a wide variety of reasons. It always has and it always will, whether or not a particular promotion is interested in representing that. Pro-wrestling is a reflection of the world and its priorities. There truly is no "real" or "fake" way to love it. Some people really don't like that idea because they want to maintain a monopoly on fandom. They derive strength from keeping pro-wrestling a "good ole boy's club". This problem isn't any different from other societal issues where those in power (or those who are empowered by the status quo) fear relinquishing that power, and so they angrily lash out and find ways to dismiss and silence differing perspectives; deny the problem exists or distract from its existence by talking about something superfluous like a "limited move-set".
From comic-books to #GamerGate to the most recent Ghostbusters film (and yes) to Roman Reigns and professional wrestling, we're witnessing what happens when fandoms are forced to contend with the fact that art appeals to more than just the 18-35, white, male demographic who the entertainment industry historically caters to. As the entertainment industry slowly starts to represent those underrepresented in the arts & media, those who've always been its priority will lash out in strange and vicious ways. Point this out and you'll be quickly dismissed as a thin-skinned, self-eggrandizing social justice warrior who makes mountains out of molehills rather than a human being making an observation about reality. Meanwhile some members of the "key demographic" treat "non-traditional fans" like invaders and infidels, people who either have to prove themselves or people whose opinions just don't matter because pro-wrestling was never meant for them.
They're fake, after all, so why bother listening?
- conclusion -
We'll never extinguish "haters" from Social Media. That's not the goal of this piece.
But analysts who pride themselves on being thoughtful can easily set a better example for the internet wrestling community by not regurgitating critiques that come from the least thoughtful and most hateful members of this community.
It's passe to be the "he has a limited move-set" guy. That shouldn't even be considered a criticism at this point. It should be considered thoughtless spew. Because it is thoughtless spew. And it's an absolute mockery to be the "I hate these obnoxious fangirls" guy. If we're really "smart" to the business, then we should know by now that a move-set or a promo is not the end-all, be-all when it comes to being good at the art of pro-wrestling, and we should also know that fandom doesn't require a password and a secret handshake and a prescribed way of thinking and feeling.
That is a boring and predictable way of thinking about and critiquing pro-wrestling, and it's been shoved into our brains (or "down our throats") by a handful of veteran-commentators and defensive fans-turned-critics. It ignores that pro-wrestling is much more than moves and promos, and that's why such labored criticisms and exclusionary tactics appear disingenuous to me; they're euphemisms used to obscure a deeper hatred.
Roman Reigns is not the untalented boss' son in our office who failed upwards, snatching the promotion that we all deserved. He's a wrestler refining his craft whose initial connection with the crowd was squandered by bad writing and is slowly being rebuilt by good writing. And we're fans. That's what we are. We're not his co-workers. We're not wrestlers. We're not gatekeepers. We're not bookers. We're fans with likes and dislikes.
When we hold steadfast to our ideas of "deserve" we shut ourselves off from a wider variety of experiences and a more unbiased, more accurate reality. We place too much stock in our knowledge of a craft. We become bullheaded, complacent, ignoring and even insulting the talents of others under the guise of preserving some predetermined "right way of doing things". While it's only natural to think our favorite performers deserve success, it's important to keep in mind how that belief is rooted in a bias, that it doesn't always reflect reality, and that it shouldn't come at the expense of another's good time.
An accurate portrayal of Roman Reigns' life in the WWE cannot be easily reduced to an hundred and forty characters, "You still suck" chants, or claims that only girls like him because he's hot. Those statements simply aren't true, but if you believe in your idea of "deserve" you can convince yourself otherwise. It takes a lot more work to get at the truth of Roman Reigns and the reactions he inspires.
If he deserves anything...it's that work.
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