THE ART OF SASHA BANKS
A true star in entertainment is very rare.
Much like the celestial bodies they're named for, a star's talent, charisma, ingenuity, or personality burns so brightly and distinctly that they're impossible to ignore. They shine through the impenetrable dark of sameness that defines the vast majority of our existence. Their reach is seemingly infinite, easily comprehend and appreciated upon first glance.
It's possible to be a "star of one's field", as in the "biggest fish" in a very specific arts & entertainment "pond", but a true star is much harder to come by; a person whose appeal spans nearly all media, disciplines, and world-views. This kind of talent is often labelled a "crossover star". Professional wrestling has produced a few true stars over the years: Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Historically, the medium is more successful at creating "big names" within its own specific universe rather than in the broader, cultural sense (despite the pop-culture relevance the WWE continues to enjoy through spectacles like WrestleMania). The WWE itself is a bigger star today than most of the characters it has helped create, especially within the past sixteen years.
But there is one wrestler on the WWE's current RAW roster who possesses everything that defines true stardom; the kind of performer whose charisma has instant cross-over appeal, and whose swagger and charm strikes an aspirational nerve deep in the pop-culture consciousness.
She is modern yet timeless. She is brimming with confidence yet easy to relate to. She can be delightfully cold yet disarmingly vulnerable. She is a remarkable athlete and an even more remarkable actress. She's the kind of performer who makes people think, "I want to be like her!"
Her name is Sasha Banks.
And she is a star.
Armchair critics and entertainment luminaries often discuss the importance of a talent possessing the elusive "It Factor", never putting into words exactly what "It" is. Part of the definition of "It" has always been that "It" can't really be defined. The idea that "It" defies definition is far too convenient. That is a perspective that undermines the skill of great workers, and chalks creative or athletic strength up to some random "gift" delivered from on high.
A true star is in control of their greatness, their pursuit of greatness is not in control of them.
"It" is like gravity, an ever-present force that tethers us to a specific point of origin. Sasha Banks has gravity, and the reason she has gravity is because she's worked hard for it. "It" might not be teachable, but "It" is not as simple as "she's just naturally gifted".
"It" is earned.
There is an art to Sasha Banks, and mastering one's art takes practice. The single trait that all true stars have in common (the Denzels, Beyonces, and Jordans of the world) is that they've put a relentless amount of work into mastering their specific craft. They "make it look effortless" because of how much effort they've already put into "it".
Plenty of artists and athletes work incredibly hard (maybe even as hard as a star), but never manage to attain the status, excellence, or adulation of a true star. Why? What separates a star from a non-star, someone who has "It" from someone who lacks "It"?
A true star is in control of their greatness, their pursuit of greatness is not in control of them. That is what defines "It". Control. Mastery. Consistency. Again, like gravity, "It" is reliable. True stars excel because they've perfected something they're great at rather than strain to be adequate at something they're not good at. No one wants to find out they're not "cut out" for something, but this "everyone gets a gold-star" culture undermines the value of true greatness and it gets in the way of championing blatantly superior talents who earn their "It Factor" over time, and wield their star-power better anyone else ever could.
This is why a performer like Sasha Banks (real-name Mercedes Kaestner-Vernado) is not only deserving of a fitting platform to express herself, but deserving of a more accurate form of praise that directly pinpoints how and why she's an exceptional performer.
If we look at Sasha's work, and take her history into consideration, it becomes clearer why she has gravity, why she connects with modern television viewers, and why she is capable of becoming one of the WWE's biggest box office draws should the main roster booking reflect her potential. Her appeal is deeper than a choice in hair color, body-type, ring attire, or even a cool nickname.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, Sasha Banks believes in professional wrestling.
She approaches the act of a pro-wrestling match as if it is a legitimate athletic competition; not a show for the benefit of the crowd. Although Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado knows that a match's outcome is predetermined, Sasha Banks (the wrestler) does not. Sasha Banks is always fighting to win her match. From the vicious way Sasha locks up at the start of the match to the desperation with which she pins her opponent at the end of the match, her performance is grounded in believable, athletic behavior.
Desire defines Sasha Banks' every action.
That perspective is the art of wrestling personified. It might seem elementary, but it's an essential point of view. It’s obvious to viewers which wrestlers really believe in wrestling and which wrestlers are just putting on a show.
We cannot take for granted, especially in a post-kayfabe world, the most basic purpose of professional wrestling storytelling. The idea that a wrestling match is supposed to be presented as a legitimate fight (even though it obviously isn't legitimate) is the same perspective that informed the performances of great wrestlers like Steve Austin, Bret Hart, Mick Foley, and Eddie Guerrero (Sasha's favorite wrestler). These wrestlers didn’t want the audience to “see through” their work; they were like good magicians rather than good acrobats. It’s no coincidence that those wrestlers also have legions of fans who believed or "bought into" everything they did no matter how unrealistic or outlandish.
People "want Sasha" because Sasha wants to win.
The wrestlers who approach the act of wrestling with the goal of delivering a believable depiction of athletic competition inspire a similar degree of conviction in the people who watch them. Such wrestlers are storytellers who (consciously or unconsciously) understand that a story cannot be successful when it breaks its own fiction or when it panders to an audience.
A wrestler who "fights to entertain the crowd" is like an actor breaking character mid-play to flirt with an attractive member of the audience. Not only does it not make any sense, it ruins the joy that comes along with the suspension of disbelief.
Listen to the crowd when Sasha Banks wrestles a match. There is a difference between the way the crowd pops for Sasha and the way the crowd pops for other wrestlers who are clearly just "fighting to entertain" or trying to "steal the show".
Everything about her is designed to convey the idea that she is a winner. That is why people love stars. They're winners.
Her pops are louder, more intense, and, best of all, her pops are sincere. An exclamation of joy or disgust does not reveal itself through a clever chant. Exclamations of sincere emotion only happen when a crowd is lured into believing what they're seeing is real, and that process starts with a wrestler who believes what they're doing is real.
Mercedes' conviction in the art of wrestling informs her performance outside the ring as well. Just as her approach to wrestling-storytelling transforms a match into a believable athletic competition, her approach to portraying a character transforms Sasha Banks into a tangible personality.
Sasha Banks is as real as any popular entertainer or athlete, and it's all due to Mercedes' attention to detail, and the way she incorporated her real-world experience into the creation of the Sasha Banks gimmick.
"For me, when I came in I was a generic babyface…I had no character and it was so frustrating for me. *Snoop* always called himself a boss, all his security, all his people call him a boss - that’s easy material right there - I talked to him on the phone, got a couple liners and it just came from there. I just kept going 'this is going to work'. I just kept working on it and working on it." - Sasha Banks on Sam Roberts Wrestling Podcast
The glasses, the Legit Boss rings, the blinged-out jacket, and even the way she spreads her arms as the refrain of her entrance music hits, “Cuz a girl gonna push it all out the way!” creates a complete, instantly recognizable Sasha-Banks-reality that is an absolute pleasure to behold.
There are no inconsistencies or discrepancies between the character and the presentation of the character. The entrance music doesn't contradict her look and her look doesn't contradict her in-ring-style and her in-ring-style doesn't contradict her moral alignment.
Sasha Banks is the most complete character on the WWE roster.
She understands exactly who she is and she knows exactly what she wants to achieve. Because she knows, viewers will know. Her motivation is always clear; become the best professional wrestler in the world. Outshine everyone. Be more confident, be more charismatic, and be more athletic than anyone on the roster. Where so many wrestlers blend together into a beige entertainment-paste, motivated transparently by a desire to win the favor of the crowd or not ruffle front-office feathers, Sasha is a self-interested, soul-shaking firework of a human being who will stop at nothing to prove that she is the best there is, was, or ever will be.
Everything about her is designed to convey the idea that she is a winner. That is why people love stars. They're winners.
Stars become winners in part because they are unabashedly aware of their own excellence. That doesn't necessarily make them arrogant, it just means they're effective. Excessive humility isn’t helpful in the kind of athletic-based story WWE characters are participating in. A star's success is built upon making a series of good creative choices that play to their established strengths. It’s about looking good as much as it’s about being good, and ensuring that one does not undermine the other. They'll take on new challenges after they've mastered a particular aspect of their craft, but they're always relying upon an unwavering knowledge of their own ability (what they're good at and what they're bad at).
While her consistency in performance is evident whenever she appears on RAW, those unfamiliar with Sasha's work as a heel (villain) in NXT are not fully aware of her capabilities. She simply hasn't been on RAW enough yet for the majority of fans to really understand why she's so exceptional.
Given that stage to express herself, Sasha Banks has the ability to be the best heel in the entire WWE organization; maybe even all of modern professional wrestling. There is an abundance of evidence in support of that claim available on the WWE Network.
Throughout 2014 and into the early months of 2015, Sasha Banks demonstrated a level of commitment to her character that is truly rare to witness in any media let alone modern wrestling.
Even at times when the crowd seemed to want Sasha to break character, she absolutely refused. Her character never asked for permission. Her character never gave the crowd a wink or a nod no matter how loudly they chanted for her. She was remorseless, cunning, and positively captivating because of it.
She even managed to retcon (retroactively change narrative continuity) the forth-wall-breaking “Curtain Call” at the end of the Takeover Brooklyn special where she stood in the center of the ring in celebration with Charlotte, Becky Lynch, and rival Bayley.
In the weeks that followed she took that feel-good moment, and the mounting enthusiasm for women's wrestling, and used it as a means of enhancing her heel personae. Sasha would meet NXT Women's Champion (at the time) Bayley in the ring for a promo on the September 16th, 2015 episode of NXT. As Sasha described how well-received her match with Bayley was, she started to nearly cry. She appeared emotionally affected in legitimate fashion by the praise heaped upon her Brooklyn title match. Her real pride was obvious, and even heartwarming.
The NXT crowd chanted things like “Women’s Wrestling!” and “Match of the Year!” during her speech, and just when it appeared as though she was going to embrace that praise, she turned on them.
Like any brilliant villain, she’d lured them into her trap. Like any brilliant performer, she allowed her real-life emotions to affect her performance, but she was strong and focused enough to use that vulnerability to her advantage and manipulate the audience into thinking she'd changed heart and become a good person.
“I didn’t come here to put on great matches or to steal the show, I came here to be the best!” she proclaimed, disregarding the praise and instead focusing on how all that mattered was whether or not she won the match against Bayley. She talked down to Bayley, she insulted Bayley, and she talked about wanting to beat Bayley “again and again” to prove to everyone that “fairytales don’t have happy endings”.
It's not about putting on a good show for Sasha Banks.
It's about beating people and proudly holding championship gold.
That is a wrestler.
That is an entertainer who is genuinely entertaining.
This exchange led to another Bayley/Sasha classic at the special NXT Takeover Respect where they fought in a thirty minute Iron Woman match (wrestler with the most decisions wins). This match showed Sasha Banks at the peak of her villainy, as she targeted “Bayley’s biggest fan”, a little girl and NXT regular named Izzy.
Sasha heckled and mocked Izzy throughout the match.
Sasha continually tossed Bayley into the ring steps right in front of Izzy, savoring the destruction of her nemesis. Izzy watched, helplessly, as her idol suffered just a few feet away, and the viewers watched along, just as helpless, desperate to protect Izzy from the violence inflicted upon her hero.
After tossing Bayley into the staging, Sasha reached into the crowd and snatched Izzy’s headband off, put it on her own head, and paraded around the ring while the referee counted Bayley out. Laughing and mock-crying, Sasha threw the headband back at the tearful Izzy and her family.
This moment inspired genuine shock and disgust from the audience. In this kid-friendly PG-Era, it was hard to believe anyone would purposefully make a little kid cry, or use their environment to create such brilliant drama. As Izzy screamed, Bayley, the resilient hero, crawled and writhed in agony on the floor.
And Sasha just kept gloating.
It was beautiful.
There was no hesitation in Sasha’s performance. Where another wrestler might shy away from that degree of crowd-engagement, she went in with force, attacking the universal symbol of Bayley’s love and strength and making the match even better than expected.
And all of it contributed to the pop that came when Bayley finally won. Izzy’s tears fed that match as much (if not more) than any “high spot”. The inevitable joy was so palpable because the pain had been so palpable. It is one of the best moments in NXT history, and one of the most intense moments in WWE-programing since the days of The Attitude Era. It's a moment made possible thanks to Mercedes' commitment to the Sasha Banks character and the work she's put into mastering that character. She knows how Sasha would behave in any given circumstance because she inhabits Sasha Banks when she's working.
She has the same kind of bravado and control that made Steve Austin and The Rock household names in the late 90s.
Without Sasha Banks being such a fleshed-out, consistent "heel", Bayley couldn’t have become such a fleshed-out, consistent "babyface" (hero). Together, these two performers elevated each other, and they were able to do it because they had such clear targets to work against. It’s no mystery why the NXT Women’s Championship match at Takeover Brooklyn was widely regarded as the best match of 2015. The work went into ensuring there could be no other result, and the performers used the stage they were given to showcase their unmatched excellence.
This is why a talent like Sasha Banks is such an asset to the main roster. There’s nothing unclear about who she is or what she’s striving to accomplish. She has demonstrated (in resounding fashion) that she will not only “make the most out of what she’s given”, but make greatness out of what she's given.
Not only does she connect with a broad audience encompassing all ages, genders, and races, her unwavering focus gives her opponents focus. She has the same kind of bravado and control that made Steve Austin and The Rock household names in the late 90s.
“I knew in my heart that I was really good in the ring and that’s where the Sasha Banks in me comes out…I was getting frustrated and finally I was like 'No! You’re going to see me and I’m going to take off and run with this'. I worked for it since I was ten and when I say I worked for it...I worked for it! I would do everything I could to learn about wrestling. I would leave school early, I would leave sleep-overs, I even missed my grandams funeral. I’ve always wanted it and I knew in my heart that I could never give up." - Sasha Banks on Sam Roberts Wrestling Podcast
The excellence and the appeal of Sasha Banks is revealed in her resume, in the “We Want Sasha!” chant that persists even on shows where she doesn't appear, in the way she carries herself to the ring, in the way she wrestles a match, and in the way she believes, without reservation or qualification, in professional wrestling. She possesses all of the ingredients needed to ascend through the ranks of her chosen medium and then eventually transcend.
There is an art to Sasha Banks, and it's the art of being a star.
She burns brightly.
We are fortunate to bear witness.