The Babyface is Dead; Long Live the Babyface
An analysis of the shifting narrative dynamics and character archetypes found in professional wrestling, and how the medium can learn from other TV shows in order to develop more nuanced and focused fictional spaces.
A hero. A villain. Ensuing conflict. These are the three elements classically needed to grow a story in its most basic form.
These are also elements used as the basis for professional wrestling matches, pre-scripted bouts built around rivalries between two or more combatants, vying for physical and/or emotional dominance.
In wrestling, though, these archetypes are given slightly different names. A ‘babyface’ is traditionally a benevolent character who plays fair and respects the fans. Whereas a ‘heel’ utilizes dirt tactics, disrespects the hometown sports team, and displays narcissism, malevolence, cowardice, or a combination of all of the above.
A classic example of this would be ‘The American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes versus ‘The Million Dollar Man’ Ted DiBiase. The former was the epitome of a ‘working stiff’, a portly, blue collar everyman who lived by a clean moral code and encouraged fans to do the same. Whereas the latter was a egomaniacal trickster who believed only in the virtues of money and the power that came with it.
Had professional wrestling’s kayfabe (the suspension of disbelief employed to keep fans believing that the action taking place is ‘real’) curtain not been lifted on February 10th, 1989, and had its fans not been tempted by kayfabe-breaking forum sites almost a decade later, then perhaps wrestling would have stayed that way.
But with a reality check for fans came a shift in tone for both World Wrestling Entertainment and World Championship Wrestling, the two biggest traders of the sport during the 1990s. As the turn of a new millennium drew closer, post-modernism and anti-hero characters became entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist – not just in terms of pro-wrestling, but in comic books, TV and film too.
Where virtuous characters once ruled the roost, these new protagonists often displayed character traits more in-keeping with those associated with a villain. In wrestling, this phenomenon was epitomized by Stone Cold Steve Austin, a once villainous character who chugged beer, swore at anyone and everyone, showed little respect to his elders, and as though kicking ass and raising hell were the only things worth rolling out of bed for.
Stone Cold’s rise to prominence took place during what is known as WWF’s ‘Attitude Era’, a time in which the company pushed controversy, crassness, barbarism and titillation to the foreground of its programming. The everyman still reigned, but he was a more rebellious and rambunctious everyman than The American Dream, and only battled authority figures or censorship-themed factions, not because they were morally flawed, but because they had the gall to try and tell him how to be.
While this late 1990s obsession with increasingly darker, more morally ambiguous characters has cooled off somewhat in the years since, its lasting effects have remained very much intact. As WWF transitioned into WWE and became a publicly traded company, it was forced to reign in its more lewd aspects and go ‘PG’.
‘Babyfaces’ became innocent again, and ‘heels’ went bad, but this eventually led to a skewed perspective of WWE’s unreality, both on the part of WWE and the fans watching at home. These new (read: old) ‘babyfaces’ lacked the edge and intensity of a Stone Cold Steve Austin or The Rock. They didn’t curse or hit people with chairs, and they looked like the kind of guys who would lecture your school assembly, rather than fight your uncle in a bar.
As the 2000s turned into the 2010s, audiences became more restless, and began to cheer nasty ‘heels’ over clean-cut vanilla ‘babyfaces’. This phenomenon can be chalked up to a misunderstanding of wrestling’s target audience, poor writing, or as WWE’s corporate spiel dictates: the intentional creation of polarizing stars.
In a way, it’s all of the above. And none of the above.
The WWE’s ‘New Era’, epitomized by an influx of independent wrestlers, more meta-textual stories and characters with more complex motivations, is a direct response to this fan backlash. It’s WWE’s sharpest thinkers deciding to broaden the scope and complexity of professional wrestling in order to negate negative fan reception.
For proof, look no further than Roman Reigns, a character who is portrayed as a righteous ‘babyface’, but has been regularly and consistently booed out of 50,000+ seater arenas for the past two years. Normally, WWE would have pulled the trigger on a ‘heel turn’, and had Roman turn his back on the fans and embrace the boos. But they stuck to their guns.
As a result, he’s about the most post-modern character in wrestling history, a morally-just yet somewhat arrogant fighter who refuses to sway from his path in spite of fan rejection. In many ways, this shows that WWE is growing up, rather than playing dumb.
Think about the television you watch that isn’t wrestling. In Game of Thrones, we root for morally corrupt or downright evil characters, jeer when white-meat ‘babyfaces’ appear on screen, and regularly operate on emotional and psychological levels anywhere in between. That’s because the characters on Game of Thrones (and real human beings) are more than just Good and Evil, Heel and Babyface – they’re complex and multifaceted entities who don’t simply flip alignments at the drop of a hat.
Pro-wrestling promoters and fans alike are still very much stuck in the culture of 1980s and 1990s wrestling storytelling, even if they tell themselves otherwise. They want to boo the bad guys and cheer the good guys, but their perception of good and bad has been warped into good = cool and bad = not cool. That kind of thinking hampers narrative conception and progression and does a disservice to the potential pro-wrestling has to be an emotionally evocative storytelling medium.
There are glimmers of hope though.
In a recent interview, veteran wrestler Triple H commented on the fan rejection of one Roman Reigns: “Roman Reigns gets one of the loudest reactions every night, whether that reaction is a boo or whether that reaction is a cheer. The fans who say, ‘I don’t understand why they don’t turn Roman Reigns ‘heel’!’ Isn’t he already?”. Perhaps it is the binary face/heel dynamic that is holding wrestling back, rather than any one particular wrestler. The world is not merely Million Dollar Men and American Dreams – it is that and so much more, and there are plenty of stories to be told outside of those traditional narrative shackles.