PROGRESS: Watch Me Burn

So, I finally got to “That Part”.

Knowing that I had already expressed an appreciation for the character of Jimmy Havoc, many of the individuals who’d already experienced all of PROGRESS to date were eagerly anticipating my watching Chapters 9 and 10 over the past week. I don’t think they were disappointed by my live Twitter reactions in the moment as the major story that ends PROGRESS’s 2013 year unfolded before me. I was genuinely surprised, even though everyone had clearly provided me with signs that something big was coming.

Once Chapter 10 was closed, and the corresponding episode of Facelock Feministas was recorded, I had some time to digest what I had seen and how I really felt about it. Unpacking your feelings about wrestling never gets easier, no matter how long you’ve been watching it or how much of it you’ve seen. If anything, it gets more complicated as you become more honest with yourself. Perhaps that’s also a sign of age – a willingness to see even the ugly parts of yourself reflected back at you in your favorite art form, and forcing yourself to confront those things head on.

Before I go any further, I have two requests for you, dear reader. First, make sure you’ve actually WATCHED the first 10 chapters of PROGRESS, or I’m about to ruin the whole thing for you. Second, watch this video. It really helped to put some things in perspective for me, and I can tell you right now, it’s going to color the way I watch the rest of this story unfold in a major way.

Going into this experience of watching all of PROGRESS, I promised myself I would make a concerted effort to watch everything – all of the matches, all of the promos, any content PROGRESS provided via their On Demand service, I would consume. That meant seeing where my limit was when it came to Havoc’s hardcore matches. I was always fascinated by this kind of match, but assumed my own usual physical response to the sight of blood (light-headedness and fainting) meant it wouldn’t be possible to watch all the way through. And yet two hardcore matches have occurred so far, and I’ve watched them both completely. Perhaps a debt is owed to Lucha Underground for desensitizing me to blood, or at least for helping me to understand blood is a tool in the wrestling world, and if used properly it can enhance the telling of a story.

The story in question is not hard to follow. Havoc’s character is a weirdo, an outcast at the start. He’s a hardcore wrestler who wants to get involved at PROGRESS, so he has to prove that he can work the style of the promotion. Even though he doesn’t win his matches, each time he steps into the ring the crowd is fully behind him. Each match is a thing of beauty, each opponent elevated for having worked with him. When a real problem threatens PROGRESS, the existence of the London Riots and the mayhem they bring with them, Havoc is put into a hardcore match with one of their members to teach them a lesson. Let them step into the ring with someone who takes great enjoyment in causing them pain. In the end it’s Jimmy who takes a brunt of the force and ends up losing the match – yet again. So when he finally has had enough and unloads on Jim Smallman in Chapter 9, it’s really not that shocking. What is really amazing, though, is the promo he cuts on Smallman, and everyone in charge at PROGRESS. He goes on to make good on his threat of doing what he wants in Chapter 10, cashing in his contract for a match with an opponent and a stipulation of his choosing against then-champion Mark Andrews, and winning both his first match for the promotion and the PROGRESS title in the process.

While watching the YouTube video that summarizes this story and Havoc’s first two years at PROGRESS, it suddenly occurred to me why I don’t hate this heel version of Jimmy Havoc, but rather adore him. It’s so simple, I’m surprised it required any ‘unpacking’ at all, really: you can’t shame someone for being different and then try to capitalize on the thing that sets them apart from you and not expect to be burned for it.

Any marginalized group of people can tell you this story. There’s so many variations on it, the fact that it took this long to figure out what a wrestling version of it would be is the only thing shocking about it. I deal with it within our wrestling community every day, and I’m sure many other writers who are women, people of color, or LGBTQ can tell you the same thing. Day after day we get passed over or considered less-than because we aren’t white males with a specific perspective on wrestling. We’re mocked, we’re trolled, and then when publications find out they need a more diverse writing team, we’re absolutely bombarded with requests for work. Unpaid of course, but it’ll be good for exposure. The same thing happens from the outside looking into the wrestling world, too. Reputable publications never want to be pitched for pieces even in the vicinity of the professional wrestling world, but the second something “newsworthy” happens involving someone with the last name of McMahon, my inbox is full of requests (again, unpaid) because they know my turnover is quick and I know what I’m talking about.

“Fix our problem, but know that we think your art form is still illegitimate.”

Pink chair shots all around, absolutely.

So it turns out that it’s not Jimmy Havoc’s dark eyeliner or his Doc Martens or his love of AFI that makes me his fan. It’s the story. It’s him taking back control not only of his career in PROGRESS, but who validates him as a performer – who gives what he does meaning. He becomes powerful simply by being undeniable and being true to himself. He reclaims his mean streak and, as a result, takes his rightful place at the top of PROGRESS. Sure, in the world of pro wrestling storytelling, Jimmy Havoc is a bad guy – a heel. He beat up one of the promoters, someone who wasn’t prepared (nor should have to be) to defend himself. He poured lighter fluid on a wrestler who’d just wrestled two matches and won his first championship. But he’s also probably one of the most honest characters you’ll see in the wrestling world’s modern age.

“I’m going to do what I want to do,” he says over Smallman’s beaten form, splayed out on the canvas.

I hope you do, Jimmy. I hope we all do.

The Lady J Says

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Mad As Hell

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” – Howard Beale, Network

I was already wound up about WWE’s Fastlane Pay-Per-View hours before the show actually got started. As a dedicated Dean Ambrose fan, I felt sick at the thought that WWE had worked hard to create doubt – they took Ambrose’s Intercontinental Title on Monday, thus making us believe he had a real chance to win last night’s Number 1 Contender-ship match – but knew they had no intention of actually paying that doubt off. But the show as a whole was largely unappetizing to me, and I ended the night angrier than I have been with the promotion in months.

The last time I was this aggravated, it involved all of the same characters that are giving me a headache now: Ambrose, Roman Reigns, The Wyatt Family, Charlotte. Back then my argument was basically the same – WWE has absolutely no idea how to build an organic story and pay it off. They have no idea how to develop strong characters. They have no idea how to write compelling dialogue, or create parameters where their performers can improve exciting promos. It occurred to me after Fastlane was over and I was snuggled warmly in bed that I only tuned in to see how bad they could screw the whole thing up. The answer was “spectacularly”.

Don’t get me wrong – there were other problems with last night’s show. There were several messy in-ring errors that were terrifying to watch, particularly with all of the recent discussions surrounding concussions and other injuries. It is not just WWE’s responsibility, but the responsibility of the wrestlers to protect not just themselves, but their co-workers as well. If we’re going to openly discuss these things, then you need to be prepared for your audience being sensitive to certain types of moves. Besides that, there is also an atmosphere to PPVs that was seriously lacking last night. Was watching Roman Reigns get booed out of the building in Philadelphia at the 2015 Royal Rumble ideal? No. But it was an incredible sight to behold – and any reaction is better than no reaction, and no reaction is what we got out of Cleveland for most of the night.

Professional wrestling is a unique thing to be a fan of. It’s like sports, but it’s not sports. It’s like scripted weekly television programming, but it’s not. It’s like a lot of things, but the only thing it is, truly, is itself. There are a lot of ways to produce a pro-wrestling show, and no one way is right or wrong. But, like with any good art form, self-awareness is key. What makes Lucha Underground so popular, for example, is that it has hard and fast rules about where the parameters of the world it occupies are. The world of LU includes magic and mysticism, but does not include current events or even an expansive connection to its location (they never, for example, shout out the local sports team.) There are no titan-trons in the same space as the ring, so no one in the Temple should/could be privy to the backstage segments that the television audience gets to see. There is a certain amount of continuity that fans can rely on.

None of this exists in WWE. The issue that I am always going to have with WWE is that I am a writer, a storyteller by nature, and WWE does everything in its power to flagrantly disregard the rules that have been drilled into me. These are rules I’ve learned not just from years of schooling, but from experiencing the work of great authors (playwrights, screen writers, etc.) who created compelling and all-encompassing worlds for us to explore. There are a lot of arguments I’m hearing about letting yourself get worked, or giving in to the story line in front of you and not to think you’re smarter than the people who run the company. That’s a fair argument – one I’ve actually made myself. I know I’ve referenced before that I always think of my late grandparents – my grandmother telling my grandfather, who was voicing his displeasure and confusion at her preferred daytime soap opera program, that he didn’t “know how to watch this.” That could be a valid argument for someone who doesn’t like LU, because it has magic in it. But it’s not a valid argument for WWE because they don’t know how to tell a story at all anymore.

The “tweener” nature of just about every character on the roster, and the loss of faces and heels is a problem. Tweeners are useful, but not if you have a whole roster of them, because you’re not telegraphing to the audience who you want them to cheer for. (Not that you can guarantee who the audience will cheer for, but it’s hard to turn someone in order to fit the crowd reaction when they have no true affiliation to begin with.) The imaginary world in which what goes on backstage on Monday Night Raw is not projected for the entire arena to hear is a problem, particularly when this is a rule that is regularly broken. How often do we see backstage segments in which people make reference to things announced in the ring that they were not present for? If you can hear in-ring announcements backstage, isn’t it fair to say the wrestlers in the ring can see what happens backstage and is projected onto the titan-tron? Running a website in which you regularly run kayfabe and non-kayfabe stories side-by-side is a problem. The “fake” world of your wrestling program is not something that should be placed over reality, like a painted transparency. I have never once been confused by Ricochet tweeting about something that Prince Puma did on Lucha Underground. And why is that? Because it’s clear he is a performer portraying a character. Insisting that performers where there in-ring personas all of the time creates more problems than it solves in this day and age. The fact that WWE runs programming on the network where kayfabe and reality crash into each other, shows like Breaking Ground that are half shoot and half work, is a testament to their dedication to their 21st century version of kayfabe. What could be sillier than taking something that doesn’t work and doubling down on your efforts?

Of course last night’s main event was just the latest in a long line of scenarios that highlight WWE’s inability to conceptualize the trainwreck they’ve created by continuing the involve the actual owners of the company in the main event (or really any) storyline. The Big Bad Businessmen are always going to be heel characters, whether it’s Triple H or Vince McMahon at the heart of it. Therefore, anyone they’re up against are babyfaces. But if we as fans know how hard those same people are working to create storylines (including involving themselves, like we saw with Vince back in December/January) we have to assume the people they are trying to get over are associate with the higher ups, and thus heels.

“Easy, J. Just separate the Paul Levesque the businessman from Triple H of the Authority.”

I could. But you know what? THAT’S NOT MY JOB. It’s theirs. It is the job of the company to clearly define the characters, to give me a story I can follow. No, all of the stories they are telling don’t have to be geared to me as a fan. But they should be something I can understand. If I wrote a story, a novel, where my characters had (what basically equates to) multiple personalities, the book would be panned for being an analytical mess, impossible to untangle. And that’s what WWE is – a gigantic maze of overlapping stories inside and outside of the product that create more confusion and frustration than excitement. To be considered a successful wrestling promotion, I expect you to be selling seats, yes. But I also expect your product to be interesting and something I (or anyone) can become invested in. There is no reason for a new fan to become invested in the WWE main roster product. Yes, there are great matches, but if you’re just looking for good matches there are plenty of other places you can go. A company that makes as much money as WWE does should be able to pull off something more balanced: high production quality, clear storytelling, interesting characters, AND good matches. And if you think that’s me asking for too much, then you have given up on WWE being a quality product and have settled for the sub-par trash they’ve been spoon-feeding us for years. And that’s not my problem.

For those of you who made it all the way down this far, thank you for reading! I am going to take another break from things like Monday Night RAW and SmackDown (sorry, Mauro. I love you!) and focus my attention on NXT (which I recently haven’t had the time to keep up with) and Lucha Underground. For those of you who follow me on Twitter or read this blog on Thursdays, you’ll know that my girl Sarah and I have been live-tweeting LU on Wednesday nights. We’ve been having such a good time with it, we decided to start podcasting about it. So “Facelock Feministas” is going to debut as a podcast, right here on The Lady J Says blog this Wednesday night/Thursday morning. Hopefully y’all will enjoy it (and so will we) and it can become a regular thing. Keep your eyes peeled for that, while I put my Explicit Ambrose hoodie in a drawer for safe keeping.

Listen, WWE. It’s not me – it’s you.

– The Lady J Says

 

 

Vienna

I had a very interesting experience yesterday. I was getting ready to go and meet a friend, and I was listening to a playlist of Billy Joel songs. I’m a Long Island girl by birth so I have heard his entire discography over and over again. And yet, here I was, a New Yorker in her Virginia bedroom, listening to “Vienna” and actually hearing it for the first time ever.

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If someone had asked me to quote lyrics from that song, the first ones that would pop into my head (and, surely, many people’s heads) are “Vienna waits for you.” But, out of the context of the rest of the song, that sounds like Joel is telling us that the whole world is available to us, just waiting to be experienced. Get out there and grab it, kid! But that’s not the purpose of the song at all. “Slow down, you crazy child,” he sings. “You’re so ambitious for a juvenile. But then, if you’re so smart, tell me why are you still so afraid?” This is not a song about running out and experiencing all of life as fast as possible. It’s a song about remembering the slow burn – to savor things, to give them (and yourself) room to breathe. It’s a song about learning how to live with yourself, and how to love yourself in those quiet moments. Everything else can – and will – wait for you, not the other way around.

It’s about patience.

Patience takes hard work to cultivate, and even more hard work to properly exercise. In professional wrestling, we seem to have completely demolished the idea of patience altogether. We don’t want to wait for anything. I suppose this is not unique to pro wrestling as an industry – we exist in an instant society, and we want everything right now. As the days and weeks stretch into months and years, it becomes more and more clear that WWE in particular cannot teach itself patience.

The slow burn of Daniel Bryan going from angry “short” guy to WWE World Heavyweight Champion was the last time in WWE that I can pinpoint as having a successful and satisfying long-term storyline. Granted, the past three months have been injury-plagued for WWE, but their inability to plan or plot anything out in advance makes it impossible for fans to become invested deeply in the stories being told.

Kate, of the Raw Breakdown Project, and I were talking about the Diva’s division on Twitter tonight. She was commenting on the fact that we got roughly four minutes of this division during RAW this evening. I thought this was because there ended up being no match, but thought the four minutes we DID get definitely progressed the Diva’s championship story involving champion Charlotte and Becky Lynch. When Kate suggested we could have benefitted from a match earlier in the night, I mentioned the Sasha Banks/Becky Lynch match from a few weeks back, which wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination but was booed by the Brooklyn crowd. WWE fans don’t want to watch matches just for the sake of seeing wrestling. If you want to watch solid matches with less storylines, you should absolutely support your local indie promotion. If you are watching for the big, intricate storylines, you come to WWE. But they’re currently refusing to deliver even on that. There is no reason why there can’t be two concurrent, though unrelated, women’s feuds happening in WWE. Except to say that doing so would require thoughtful planning, which WWE seems to be allergic to.

As a fan, it becomes hard to get invested in anything, as all storylines are subject to change for no apparent reason. And the other side is that, should fans start to show interest in something, it is likely to be done over and over again with very little change, in an effort to “keep fans happy.” That becomes stale and the fanbase will likely tune out from storylines and matches that grow old. What would make us the most happy are evolving storylines that move and generate slowly over time so that we can naturally deepen our investment in them. Great turning points – things like Seth Rollins’ heel turn on The Shield or Roman Reigns hitting everyone with a chair at the end of TLC last month – are important, and WWE does them well. But a turning point is worthless without a story that eloquently builds to it.

I don’t know if WWE has a real slow-burn story in them right now. I think they’re gun shy of planning ahead with all of the random injuries plaguing them. I think it’s always hard to see past Wrestlemania. But I also think even such a big event can benefit from some long-term storytelling. A pay-off at Wrestlemania, like Daniel Bryan’s, is epic and will never be forgotten. But a pay-off at Summer Slam can be equally as satisfying if we have been denied a moment of glory for long enough, while still telling compelling stories along the way. If WWE can take a step back from what it thinks is best, look at all of the moving pieces they have at their disposal, something glorious might just present itself. It will, however, take patience. And never forgetting what Billy Joel said:

“Vienna waits for you.”

-The Lady J Says