STOP LYING TO ME, BABYFACES: OR WHY WWE HEELS ALWAYS WIN
- INTRODUCTION -
The following has been true in professional wrestling for as long as I've watched it:
Speaking the truth is good
The babyface is good
Therefore, the babyface speaks the truth
Lying is bad
The heel is bad
Therefore, the heel lies
This logic also follows in real life. This is an important logic that keeps the necessary guardrails on society or, in pro-wrestling's case, the guardrails on narrative structure. Certainly, in real-life, this logic must bend to accommodate a more nuanced reality. A good person may have to tell a lie for the sake of the greater good. Pro-wrestling can, and has, successfully explored such nuances. But, as complicated as reality is, it remains true that bad people tend to lie and good people tend to tell the truth. There's no worthwhile reason to spend much time questioning that.
When we fiddle with these simple truths and needlessly call them into question or mistake their premises, absolute chaos usually follows. Veer too far down the road of "Well maybe it's good to lie" or "Well being good is just so boring" and reality will mutate into something dark and unsustainable. Nothing will make sense, actions will not have logical consequences, and people will happily reveal the worst in themselves.
Listen to the crowd of RAW. That is the sound of chaos. Look at social media and message boards related to the pro-wrestling community. That's the bedlam that comes when A is not A in people's minds. And this is partially because it's no longer true that heels lie and babyfaces tell the truth.
The opposite has become the norm in modern WWE.
- LIARS BY DEFAULT -
"If I'm supposed to boo The Miz, who is a heel, why is it that I agree with pretty much everything he says and why do I want exactly what he wants?"
Whether it's Triple H pontificating about the value of hard work or The Miz describing, in minute detail, how meaningless the Intercontinental Championship was on Dean Ambrose's shoulder, heels consistently make accurate and even inspired observations about life and their opponents. Heels tend to speak with confidence and certainty, and, more often than not, they're proven right. They say they're going to win and they win. They lose, and they talk their way out of it through snarky humor or they immediately retaliate (demonstrating cunning, resiliency, and decisiveness). Or they vanish off television for months after their loss, and so their loss is forgotten.
Heels consistently say what they mean and mean what they say, and they move through the WWE's world with a sense of purpose and a deeply ingrained sense of rightness.
Babyfaces respond to this by simply stating the opposite of what the heel states.
By default, that makes them liars.
For example, a few weeks ago on RAW when The Miz observed that Dean Ambrose didn't even seem to care about being Intercontinental Champion and that his demeanor harmed the status of the title, Dean argued that he didn't want the "Hollywood life" that The Miz represented.
Dean proudly proclaimed, "I'm not a brand! I'm Dean Ambrose."
That is a factually inaccurate statement. It's also an oxymoronic statement. When the character says, "I'm not a brand" he's revealing that he either doesn't know what's going on around him or the situation reveals that the performer is delivering a line that is far removed from the truth.
Because Dean Ambrose is a brand.
Dean "Lunatic Fringe" Ambrose is, quite literally, one of a multitude of physical representations of the WWE-brand. He is like a single pixel in a sea of pixels that, when assembled, projects the WWE-logo. Every wrestler, commentator, and panelist is an extension of the WWE-brand. Everything that appears on-screen at a WWE event is a part of the WWE-brand. For a babyface to say, "I'm not a part of this brand!" and for that to somehow be indicative of goodness, or a reason for me to cheer him, is absurd, especially when their opponent just recited a laundry list of far more cogent truths.
It just sounds like a lie.
Any "anti-brand" sentiment expressed by a WWE character, especially when it's not done well, is a painfully transparent attempt to capitalize on the idea of dissent within the community.
The WWE might as well make a tee-shirt that plainly states on the front, "I'm not a brand. I'm Dean Ambrose!" and on the back, "This is not a tee-shirt".
Dean's words come off as insincere because his gimmick, manufactured by the company, seems to think it exists apart from the company that created it. The Miz's words come off as sincere, and completely self-aware, because he values himself and he believes that his perspective can help restore a championship to its former glory. The Miz appears to be occupying reality while Dean appears to be occupying fantasy.
The Miz's desire also aligns with my desire as a wrestling fan. I want to see the Intercontinental Championship mean something again. I want to see the person who holds it have a clear, consistent stake in that title's stature. The Miz was the only character in the story who actually seemed to value the prize.
If I'm supposed to boo The Miz, who is a heel, why is it that I agree with pretty much everything he says and why do I want exactly what he wants? If I'm supposed to cheer Ambrose, who is a babyface, why is it that his words sound hollow and I get the sense that he doesn't care much about anything at all?
WATCH THE VIGNETTE BELOW FOR MORE CONTEXT
The situation is worse than if my desire conflicted with Dean's desire; it's that I genuinely have no idea what the character wants to achieve nor do I have any idea what the character is actually doing in his world, because he's never said it! The only time I knew what Dean Ambrose wanted was when he thirsted for revenge against Rollins in the wake of The Shield break-up. That was him at his most compelling, and it's because he had a relatable motivation. Now, all I know is what Dean Ambrose thinks he isn't. I don't know what Dean Ambrose is. The result is that I don't care about the character.
One might suggest I'm inclined to applaud The Miz "because the fans want to be the heel today". In some cases that may true (see Roman Reigns), but not in the specific scenario I just outlined between Dean Ambrose and The Miz. The dated concept of "the fans want to be the heel" doesn't apply to every fan. I don't want to be a heel. I'm just naturally inclined to cheer people who give good performances, who speak the truth, who follow-through on their promises, and who maintain their deeply held beliefs (see Jinder Mahal).
Unfortunately, heels in the WWE today tend to be the only characters who fit that model: accurate, active, principled, and motivated.
Carmella's latest speech on SmackDown Live about being cheated out of The Money in the Bank briefcase is yet another example of heel-rightness.
She cites precedent, she is sincere, she speaks with passion, and she is undeniably correct in everything she says.
Why am I supposed to boo her?
Babyfaces rarely formulate such coherent perspectives. They tend to be inaccurate, passive, complacent, and listless. The only aspect of their character that seems to make them a babyface is that they have a bottomless pit of respect and love "for the fans".
- I DON'T CARE THAT YOU LOVE ME -
"It's simply putting the cart before the horse - or the babyface before the over."
On the June 19th, 2017 episode of RAW, Seth Rollins delivered yet another promo where he talked about how much he appreciates the adulation and the support of the fans. This promo also doubled as an advertisement for WWE 2K18, which features Seth Rollins on the cover.
The connection being forged here is blatantly disingenuous; Rollins' words suggest that the support of the fans is somehow related to his face being on the cover of a videogame. He's incredibly grateful for that, and he wants me to know that he appreciates me. This is supposed to make me like Seth Rollins more and it's also supposed to make me buy the videogame.
If this was a real press conference or a video-package in the vein of WWE 24, I might believe it. But the scene, presented in this way, isn't just disingenuous, it's not even effective:
A) it's unclear what the criteria are for getting on the cover so it's unclear why he's even on the cover
B) Rollins being on the cover contradicts the fiction that he has a contentious relationship with the company
C) this promo brazenly merges two fundamentally disparate concepts (moral righteousness & consumerism).
In reality, Seth Rollins is on the cover of the videogame simply because the WWE wants him to be on the cover of the videogame. It has nothing to do with the actions and desires of the fans, and it doesn't need to. The narrative assumes I want to be on the cover of a videogame. I don't. I want to watch good wrestling and good promos.
But the WWE tries to lead fans to believe that we accomplished something because Seth Rollins is on the cover of the videogame. That feather in his corporate cap is our feather too, or so the story goes. His presence on that cover is an award, an incentive, a reason to feel like "we did it", and Seth Rollins' words reinforce the idea that his continued success is our continued success.
But is it?
If so, why exactly?
It's not as though he wrestled for the cover.
And what if I didn't care about videogames at all, as some fans surely don't? What if I wanted Charlotte or Sasha on the cover, as some fans surely did? What if all of this has absolutely nothing to do with what's actually interesting about Seth Rollins?
With a promo like this, the WWE is gambling on my gullibility and especially on my patience. The WWE seems to think viewers are willing to listen to a babyface talk for ten minutes about their success rather than watch them do anything interesting. The WWE constructed a narrative where "goodness" or "what's interesting" is about getting one's face on the cover of a videogame (which couldn't be more antithetical to what Ambrose supposedly represents, and Ambrose is also a babyface on the same show as Rollins). This videogame story ends up being a kind of money-trap, wherein "goodness" is also defined as the fan's willingness to spend $60 to show support for Seth Rollins.
This is not unusual as a sales tactic, but it is a tad insidious for it to be woven directly into the very fabric of the WWE's present fiction, and for it to be done in such transparent fashion in a promo. In the past, fans would buy a videogame because it looked fun and was marketed effectively. They'd buy a tee-shirt simply because they liked the person it represented because that person had been booked intelligently.
Today, it's as if fans are supposed to like what the merchandise itself represents, and then reverse-engineer that appreciation for merch back to the talent it benefits. And the result is not what the WWE seems to want. Seth Rollins is not magically more over just because he's suddenly on the cover of a videogame. He's certainly not more over because he's proud to be on the cover. It's simply putting the cart before the horse - or the babyface before the over
And that's a shame because Seth Rollins is incredibly talented, and he has demonstrated, in the past, an ability to play both a powerful heel and a powerful babyface.
But I can't emotionally invest in a character whose sole defining attribute is his ability to succeed, especially when I don't know what makes him distinct.
Knowing that the company is firmly behind him does not make him appear more heroic, more admirable, nor more worthy of support. If anything, it has the opposite effect. Knowing he's on that cover means I don't have to worry about supporting him because it means the company will take care of that for me. Just as they assume my fandom, I'm safe in assuming my fandom is inconsequential.
This is why I just don't believe Seth Rollins when he cuts promo after promo about how much he loves and appreciates the fans. I'm not doing anything for him and I know that. His success is determined by his legitimate bosses. I don't get the warm and wallet-loosening fuzzies when he thanks me because it's far too obvious that I'm supposed to. It's like someone is profusely thanking me for something I never did, and I still have no idea who they even are.
Ever met someone and within five minutes of meeting them they just decide you are best friends? I have - and it's awkward and very off-putting. It becomes a legitimate problem in your life. My love, which hasn't been earned through action or familiarity, is taken as a given, and I watch in a kind of terror as it's regurgitated back to me.
I didn't ask for this, I think, why am I now obligated to repay a love I never even earned just because this stranger has made an unrealistic decision about me?
Whether or not Rollins really cares about the fans is irrelevant to me.
As a wrestling fan, I want to see principled warriors and flamboyant characters of all genders battle for championship supremacy - it's that simple.
I do not want to see WWE Superstars earn Employee of the Month plaques.
Bray Wyatt, yet another heel character, agrees with me.
On that same Monday Night Raw, Wyatt interrupted Rollins' videogame promo and chastised him for hypocritically embracing the company's labels. Rollins responded that he was "The Man!" and that he would beat Bray up.
Yet again, the heel is stating the obvious truth. The heel is articulating what I think and feel about this babyface. The heel believes in something right and true, and I can't help but nod in agreement even though I know I'm supposed to agree with Seth Rollins.
That's a problem because the person speaking the truth is not the person on the videogame cover. The WWE's current heel & babyface formulas simply do not result in the pushed character garnering more support.
So why exactly does this keep happening?
- BRINGING A SCRIPT TO AN IMPROVISED FIGHT -
"Triple H was free to deliver lengthy, powerful monologues about how pro-wrestling is his religion...Roman Reigns was not afforded that same privilege."
First and foremost, heels appear to have less rigidly scripted promos.
Over the past few years, it's been obvious that performers like Stephanie McMahon, Triple H, Paul Heyman, Bray Wyatt, Chris Jericho, Kevin Owens, Samoa Joe, and others have more freedom on the microphone than their babyface counterparts.
Given the chance, these performers do what they must in order to shine (as any performer should), even if it comes at the expense of the babyface in the scene. Either due to their position of legitimate authority or their years of experience, these performers playing heels are simply more able to deliver better performances.
This problem is often diagnosed as the heel performer "not putting the babyface over" or "burying the talent".
That sounds good on a podcast, and it's an easy criticism to regurgitate, but it's not going deep enough. The problem is that, in fundamental terms related to the creative structure of the WWE, before any performer even opens their mouth, the person who's improvising always has the advantage.
When a performer of any kind is free to improvise they're forced to draw from a well of personal truth (or personal experience). That's the nature and strength of improvisation. Improvisation also requires the performer to listen to people in their scene and engage with the world around them. What comes out sounds and feels more honest than whatever comes out of someone who is reciting heavily scripted dialogue hastily committed to memory.
The babyface performers are operating, by default, at a creative deficit. What they say and do will never sound honest and convincing against a heel who is playing an entirely different, more liberated creative game.
In short, the current creative environment encourages heels to be good actors and babyfaces to be bad actors. All the babyface can do is read their hackneyed lines as best they can, drawing from an insincere creative well that has nothing to do with their actual, personal truth.
A perfect example of this is Triple H's feud with Roman Reigns leading into WrestleMania in 2016. Triple H was free to deliver lengthy, powerful monologues about how pro-wrestling is his religion and that while he doesn't need to be WWE Champion he wants to be WWE Champion.
Roman Reigns was not afforded that same privilege.
Reigns had to persist down a rigid creative path. No improvisation. No articulating his motivations in realistic terms. No connection between the real-life man and the character. The audience never even got to hear what Reigns even wanted. At no point was he free to acknowledge the negative reception he got nor was he allowed to pass judgement on the fans who booed him.
He just had to keep his head down, play the role of babyface, pretend everyone was cheering him, and say that he was going to beat Triple H at WrestleMania. And while he was proven right and did defeat Triple H, it was not a rightness that reflected the truth of Reigns' emotional journey nor the reality surrounding the character. It was a victory that existed in a kind of vacuum, a Reigns-centric fiction distinct from the reality we knew he perceived and the reality we regularly observed.
That disconnect only intensified resentments, emboldened people to boo, stymied Reigns creatively, and resulted in the opposite of what the company actually wanted.
It was (as so many babyface victories are today) just another booking decision rather than the culmination of a good, believable story.
It's only recently, in the wake of retiring The Undertaker, that the Roman Reigns character is unapologetically speaking the truth. And his promos have been stellar as a result. His swagger and his confidence have been captivating. The performer seems to be genuinely enjoying himself, and so it's all the easier to buy in. The gimmick isn't at odds with the reality anymore, and that has made for thoroughly enjoyable television. He appears liberated, and that feels like a victory for everyone who persisted in supporting him despite the WWE saddling him with terribly scripted dialogue for over two years. He's still not a heel, as so many fans cry for, but he's become something so much more interesting than a heel; but more on that later.
In Triple H's feud with Seth Rollins the subsequent year, Triple H also soliloquized like a philosophical mafia boss about being great while Rollins limped on a crutch and read from a carefully crafted script designed to elicit sympathy. Triple H seemed like he was giving a good performance, Seth seemed like he wasn't.
Creative dynamics such as these are partially to blame for the crowd turning on babyface characters, and for babyface characters just not being as popular. And if a heel character does have to recite bad lines...well...they're a heel, so if they're getting heat for their bad dialogue and bad acting then at least they're still getting heat. So whether a performer playing a heel is creatively stifled or creatively liberated, they still can't lose.
This contributes to the chaos and inconsistency we regularly witness both in stories and in audience responses.
- ALTERNATIVE WRESTLING facts -
"The real-world frustration of the performer is filtered through the fiction of their character, and so that frustration makes it seem as though they're complaining about losing."
The other, even more damaging reason babyfaces sound like uninspired liars and heels sound like daring observers of truth is that the two tropes are literally occupying different realities today.
What does that mean, exactly?
WWE heels exist in a fictitious universe where the WWE and professional wrestling is a business organization where all that matters is who you know, what corners you're willing to cut, and how much money you're able to make. Wrestling itself, in this fictitious reality, isn't so much a sport as it is a means of showcasing one's personality and earning bigger and better opportunities in the entertainment industry. This fictitious universe closely resembles the legitimate WWE organization and the actual reality of professional wrestling today.
WWE babyfaces exist in a universe where the WWE and professional wrestling is a means of attaining one's childhood dreams and all that matters is showing appreciation to the fans, working as hard as one can to earn opportunities, and putting smiles on faces. Wrestling itself, in this fictitious reality, is also not so much a sport as it is a means of "having fun", giving "great performances", and inspiring "this is awesome" chants. It's not really about winning; it's about being a beloved superstar and recreating the magic of the past.
This fictitious universe represents an idealized version of the WWE, the version the company wants the fans to believe in during autograph signings and live shows. Many of today's babyface wrestlers (Sami Zayn, Bayley etc) grew up watching the WWE and dreaming about one day headlining WrestleMania (or so their narratives go). Essentially, today's WWE-babyface is little more than a WWE-fan who was fortunate enough to get a tryout with the company. That is an incredibly fragile narrative existence because when these characters discover that the WWE is not, in fact, the idealized "giver of dreams" they once believed in, they become disillusioned.
A disillusioned wrestler isn't particularly likable, especially when their gimmick never exhibited any signs of pathos prior to the realization that their dreams would go unfulfilled.
Or, if these babyfaces do achieve their dreams, they no longer have an arch. Creatively, they've come to the end of their road. We've seen them get their WrestleMania moment, and so their character stagnates.
This idealized WWE universe that babyfaces inhabit has elements of the real WWE organization and professional wrestling, but it's farther from the truth than the heel's version of events. This means that heel characters are freer to comment on the legitimate nature of the WWE. A heel can break the forth wall if they want because their forth wall is already incredibly thin. When they dress down a babyface for being naive, for not understanding the cutthroat nature of the business, they're not actually disrupting their fictional universe because their fictional universe is not the idealized version of the WWE. Everything a heel says or does possesses some semblance of legitimate truth. Cheating isn't cheating - it's doing whatever it takes to win. An eyepoke isn't an eyepoke - it's a "veteran maneuver". As a result, heels appear smarter and more active than babyfaces and, again, that makes them more likable.
Babyfaces, meanwhile, go on talking about attaining their dreams and earning opportunities but everything they say is divergent from the reality we, the viewers, observe. We experience the WWE as a business organization that makes highly calculated business decisions (how can we not when they're telling us that's exactly what they are every week).
Yes, WWE puts a smile on our face and we enjoy a lot of it, but we know, like any other business, that it's cutthroat and competitive. Many viewers also grew up on a narrative that painted the WWE as a vicious organization. That conditioning is hard to break, and anything that reaffirms such a perspective is going to ring true. It's only within the last year that the company has embraced babyface authority figures and begun portraying the company itself as "good".
With few exceptions, all of this puts babyface characters at a severe disadvantage.
Not only do they not have the tools they need to fight back, they're literally and figuratively playing an entirely different game in an entirely different show about an entirely different universe that does not and likely will not comport with the viewer's experience.
The heel gives a great, true, improvised speech.
The babyface responds with, "I will beat you!"
And the foundation of the show becomes:
Speaking the truth is good
The heel speaks the truth
Therefore, the heel is good
Lying is bad
The babyface lies
Therefore, the babyface is bad
A good performance is good
Therefore, a heel who gives a good performance is good
A bad performance is bad
Therefore, a babyface who gives a bad performance is bad
What's the result of this?
People who should be booed get cheered. People who should be cheered get booed. Consensus fades and everyone in the audience makes up their own rules, fracturing into subsets of the larger fandom. These rules are based on some fact and some fiction. The WWE goes on crafting narratives that pollute the very definition of good and evil, needlessly confusing issues as the audience folds in on itself.
And whenever a babyface character gets frustrated with their "spot on the card" they must express that frustration in a manner that treats wrestling as if it's real, not as if it's a business. The real-world frustration of the performer is filtered through the fiction of their character, and so that frustration makes it seem as though they're complaining about losing.
Unlike a heel, they can't talk their way out of that loss. They must react to continued losses and a midcard existence as if it's their own fault, and not the result of the WWE organization booking them to be there. Babyfaces have to take responsibility for their actions, after all, where a heel doesn't. If the babyface does call out the WWE for not "providing them an opportunity" (which the crowd recognizes as code for "not booking me to win"), then that babyface appears ungrateful.
The real-life performer is caught in the worst kind of creative trap. It's just not possible for them to be honest or real as a scripted babyface, and so they don't get over. Their legitimate frustrations fester, the babyface character they play is polluted by that negativity, the audience's faith in the character fades (if it ever existed in the first place), and suddenly heroes are few and far between.
The solution, if the WWE is willing to see this as a problem, is very simple.
- GO BEYOND THE BINARY -
"The company has already set themselves down this more realistic, more combat-focused path with docu-series like Breaking Ground and WWE 24. It's well past time to go all-in with that aesthetic...
To fix this, performers who play babyfaces should be afforded the same creative freedom as performers who play heels. Babyfaces and heels should occupy the same reality at all times, whatever that reality is. Babyfaces, if they're rejected by the audience, should be free to respond to that noise in an honest way. And, finally, babyfaces should be empowered characters who are as capable of successfully navigating the WWE organization as their villainous foils (see New Day).
Or an entirely new kind of character rooted purely in athletic combat needs to be established, and a new WWE-fiction needs to be built around such a characterization.
The seeds for that world have already been planted in the likes of Brock Lesnar, Charlotte, and the latest incarnation of Roman Reigns (to name a few).
These are characters whose morality is less important than their athletic ability and their individual personalities. These characters are not defined by the traditional heel/babyface tropes - they are defined by their excellence in combat and their awareness of the wrestling world.
The crowd's reaction, for or against, would not be as important as whether or not it's an intense reaction (which it is, for all three) - the emphasis would be placed firmly upon the actions of the wrestler and the competition that is wrestling. Such a fictional world is one where the WWE reasserts its dominance over the crowd, and ceases to allow the tail to wag the dog (as it has been for years in the wake of "putting smiles on faces").
Debates about unruly crowds would become irrelevant because it would no longer be possible for the crowd to break the forth wall of a heel/babyface binary.
That binary just wouldn't exist.
The fight itself, the wrestlers themselves, and their actions would become the star and the viewer would simply observe and evaluate what takes place. The WWE would portray itself as nothing more than an impartial, successful promoter who only wants to put on the best, most lucrative matches and the most spectacular shows - it would be like the NFL, the NBA, the MLB etc. of professional wrestling.
Battles between good and evil would naturally remain in this world, but those battles would not be so rigidly determined by scripts - those battles would be determined by the real-life personalities of the wrestlers and the promoters (just as such battles are portrayed in legitimate sport, and the fans are free to choose whom they like for their own reasons).
Samoa Joe vs Brock Lesnar at Great Balls of Fire for The Universal Championships is the epitome of this more contemporary style of pro-wrestling.
Who is heel and who is babyface is so much less interesting and so much less important than who is going to win!
They're not even "shades of grey". They are just vicious warriors and the spectacle of their fight is, itself, the story. The crowd can't mess anything up with boos or cheers because the story doesn't defer to the crowd's evaluation of the events.
The story of Samoa Joe vs Brock Lesenar is a confident proclamation:
THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN - WATCH IT!
This is how all feuds should be presented by the company whether those feuds are based in a moral struggle or a simple athletic struggle; with confidence, not with deference to the whims of wrestling fans.
FOR AN EXAMPLE OF THIS KIND OF WWE WATCH THIS RE-IMAGINED RAW INTRO BY MONELLI FILMS
The WWE transforms into this kind of universe for characters like Brock Lesnar whenever they're on-screen anyway - it becomes a combat sport simulation with elements of entertainment and the fans aren't strong-armed, one way or the other, to behave in a manner that the WWE wants (just as MMA fans react to fighters in natural ways based upon what those fighters say at press conferences and what those fighters do in their personal lives).
This is a creative dynamic where "success" and "failure" are not determined by whether or not the crowd boos when they're supposed to cheer or cheers when they're supposed to boo.
It's all still a "work", it's just a more mature, more realistic "work" that treats professional wrestling as if it's an actual sport, not a means of making people happy.
That is a WWE and a cast of believable characters that easily avoids the pitfalls of the current creative system. That is a WWE where characters can be as cooky and outlandish as they want (not everyone can or should be portrayed as an MMA fighter, obviously) or as realistic as they want because all characters would by grounded by the sincerity of athletic competition.
It would be about the fight not about whether or not the crowd smiles.
WWE Superstars would no longer simply be employees trying to work their way up the corporate ladder. They would the best athletes in the world competing under the best banner in the world for the best prizes in the world.
Thus, a new, believable kayfabe is born.
The company has already set themselves down this more realistic, more combat-focused path with docu-series like Breaking Ground and WWE 24. It's well past time to go all in with that aesthetic, and allow it to more directly inform both the look and the narrative structure of Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live.
That is the perspective that will carry professional wrestling into the future, and fix what doesn't need to be a problem.