Off The Ropes: The WWE PG Era Is Another Win For Vince McMahon

As research for this column, I began binge-watching the Attitude Era episodes of Raw and Smackdown! along with the accompanying pay per views.  I started noticing certain not so PG moments and wondering whether or not WWE would put them on live programming in 2015.  But wait, this is no standard Attitude Era vs PG Era contrast piece. Let’s take into account the fact that in 2015, political correctness is a sheet of thin ice on which many tread and one small mistake can send anyone crashing through.  Vince McMahon pushed the envelope during the Attitude Era, then got ahead of the PC curve with the PG Era. You may worship his brilliance on your own time, but for now let me tell you why he won.  

One thing the WWE has done with their PG programming is conditioned me to not expect shocking live television and/or risque moments. I bemoaned this softer, tamer side of the WWE like scores of other wrestling fans and longed for the days when their programming stimulated my more prurient interests.  Over time, I began to realize that a return to that type of envelope-pushing television wasn’t in the cards and gave up my “Bring Back the Attitude Era” sign.  Now, I’m so PG programmed that whenever I’m watching the Attitude Era replays on the WWE Network, I swear a buzzer goes off every time I see or hear something that would absolutely not fly in 2015.  

The colorful language that the WWE superstars were allowed to use during the Attitude Era is the biggest no-no here in 2015.  Those ‘salt & pepper’ words as “Stone Cold” likes to say, are a large part of what gave the era ‘attitude’ and made Raw and Smackdown! edgy, but in today’s climate, calling another superstar a retard (like so many did Kane) is an absolute no-no.  While we’re at it, let’s add the a-hole chants directed at Vince during his feud with the Texas Rattlesnake, which he was more than willing to clarify for Vince and anyone else hard of hearing. During one particular episode of Raw, in backstage interview, X-Pac used ‘gd’ twice, prompting even the announcers to apologize.  The Internet Wrestling Community doesn’t agree on much, but it’s safe to say with 100% unity that we’d never hear that in 2015.  

How about the superstars?  Let’s start with The Godfather and his infamous hoe train. As much as I loved him during his run, having to listen to Jerry “The King” Lawler go on about the hoes made me kinda glad that The Godfather character is phased out.  Val Venis is another superstar that wouldn’t have a career in WWE in 2015. I will always marvel and respect the creative genius behind coming up with a former pornstar turned wrestler as a character, but Val had better go find The Goodfather, call himself Sean Morley and bring back Right To Censor if he’s gonna work this year.  Mr. Ass would obviously not be called Mr. Ass.  There were a few other Attitude Era superstars that would have to change their gimmicks to work in 2015, but those were the most glaring ones.  

Of the long gone in-ring action that wouldn’t make today’s programming, I think chair shots to the head and bra and panties matches are right at the top of the list of things from which WWE has distanced itself.  Since we’re talking about Divas, include the oversexualization of nearly any and everything female related.  If I took a shot every time Jerry Lawler said “puppies”, my strong drink of choice would be gone in the first hour of the show. Trying to catalog all of Degeneration-X’s violations of PG would probably require me to publish a short novel, right? So, let’s just throw them in with the rest and continue our roundup.  

One particular feud that would get no clearance for flight today was Jeff Jarrett’s feud with Chyna over the Intercontinental Championship.  The way he degraded Chyna and the rest of women involved with the storyline is the stuff of Ray Rice in an elevator.  The Fabulous Moolah, Mae Young and Lilian Garcia also took bruises from Double J and I wondered how was it, at the time, that he wasn’t the most hated man in professional wrestling.  He turned classic male chauvinism on its ear and set gender relations back about fifty years by claiming the only place for a woman was “barefoot and pregnant.”  The women (and Chyna) got their payoff with Chyna winning the IC Title from Jarrett, but that entire storyline, from the language to the physicality towards helpless women, would get a Raw writer thrown out of the production meeting today.  

I won’t decry what I feel is an especially sensitive politically correct climate that infringes on my First Amendment right to freedom of speech, but I will challenge you to just think about how many times a week you see a celebrity, athlete or musician say something slightly insensitive or offensive on social media; didn’t have to think long did you?  Of course not. Somewhere, someone is gonna get offended and as sure as Saturday follows Friday, an apology of some kind is sure to follow.  Why? Because SPONSORS, that’s why! Many Attitude Era matches and segments, if presented today, would have sponsors scurrying away from the WWE faster than roaches when you turn on the light. 

Say what you will about Vince McMahon, but you can’t deny the man’s adaptability.  The three hour Raw shows we bitch and moan about from time to time wouldn’t be possible without sponsors, or advertisers if you must.  And quite frankly, if Vince can increase the number of available companies wanting to purchase ad time during his show simply by doing away with a few risque and violent aspects, it makes good business sense.

Concussions are a hot-button topic in the sports world, so the WWE banned chair shots to the head (and more recently the banning of Seth Rollins’ Curb Stomp) and began their concussion protocol for superstars. And if you don’t think it’s that serious, then ask the NFL about their concussion protocol and concussion lawsuit settlement.  Encouraging today’s superstars to be active on social media and advocating for causes much bigger than themselves is another way the WWE and Vince McMahon have stayed just ahead of the politically correct curve.  It also presents the superstars in a positive light within their communities and around the globe as well. Now, isn’t that better press than drunk driving arrests by superstars like Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle and the late Eddie Guerrero? Of course it is!  As much as Vince loves publicity, I doubt he’d want anything to do with the negative press the WWE would get for airing some ‘hot, lesbian action’ on next week’s episode of Raw.

The in-ring work of today’s superstars and Divas is so good overall that the WWE doesn’t need to rely on so many gimmick matches, sexual innuendo and blue language.  Thirty-six year-old me honestly feels that if you’ve seen one bra and panties match, you’ve basically seen em all.  When I was part of WWE’s targeted demographic back during the Attitude Era, I pretty much wanted to see one every week!  As a more seasoned wrestling fan, I’d rather see two divas put on a series of good, competitive matches for four Mondays a month, than watch them flaunt their sexuality trying to get over and having so-so matches.  

You can’t mention today’s WWE product without talking about the influence of NXT, another way the WWE has stayed ahead of the curve. WCW’s demise can and has been attributed to a number of things, chief amongst them the fact that they didn’t create new superstars. The WWE, with the introduction of NXT, has made a sound investment in the collective futures of their company, and the business of professional wrestling as a whole.  Okay, so maybe NXT is Triple H’s baby, but it falls under the WWE umbrella, held by Vince himself. It’s also another way to preserve and prolong the business; another win for the WWE.  

So listen closely, you don’t want the Attitude Era back, you want the WWE Network. I realize that trying to drop the Jedi Mind Trick reference into this wrestling column pretty much just turned it into a plug, but no!  Being able to relive those classic Attitude Era moments on the network is a really great way to pass time, but I don’t want to see that again in 2015.  With so many ways to give the WWE feedback on their product, sometimes I feel it’s tough for fans to step back and look at the bigger picture.  

We tend to get so caught up in every little detail of a finish or a backstage segment, that we only view things from week-to-week and judge the entire product on what we see weekly. I encourage you to take a bigger step back and examine the WWE’s shows and superstars on a year-to-year scale.  Once you take into account the changes they’ve had to make throughout the last sixteen years (Attitude Era, Ruthless Aggression Era, WWE Universe) just to survive and thrive, you don’t have to make a tick mark in the win column for Vince, but you must, even if begrudgingly, give him props and respect what he’s done.