At its surface, pro wrestling is the most nonfamily friendly performance art available. When the premise involves performers beating the daylights out of each other to settle rivalries, violence is an inescapable side. Pro wrestling's status as a scripted competition means little when the audience is intended to feel the same primal charge watching that form as when viewing a boxing match.
All of this points to why it appears unusual that World Wrestling Entertainment, the foremost leader in the sports entertainment genre, formally announced on July 23, 2008, that it would now produce TV-PG programming, a downgrade from the TV-14 material that ran amok on WWE television when it last struck its pop cultural apex in the late ‘90s Attitude Era. One of the principal entities affected is “Monday Night Raw,” WWE's flagship show that will stop by the Richmond Coliseum this Monday for a special three-hour “WWE Draft” show. Originally promoted using the slogan “Uncut, Uncensored, Uncooked,” today's presentation is still typically live, but the show hardly needs any outside censoring. Instead, WWE has toned down the content itself.
A few changes are obvious: there's no cursing (not even “ass,” once considered a rather benign word for WWE TV), a moratorium on overt sexual or drug references (likely sending '90s characters the Godfather, a joint-rolling pimp, and Val Venis, a sleazy porn star, to the unemployment line), and fewer appearances of weapons and risky stunts. Other alterations are less overt: for example, when a wrestler is cut open and shedding blood, medics usually appear on the scene immediately to stop the action and seal up the offending wound. In whole, the landscape looks drastically different from a decade — or even 40 years — earlier.
Today's PG rating is exemplified by the character of John Cena, who perpetually occupies a high spot on “Raw.” Compared to top stars Stone Cold Steve Austin (a beer-chugging, hell-raising rebel with a foul mouth) or the Rock (a sarcastic, effortlessly arrogant showman who didn't hold his tongue either), Cena is tame. Using mannerisms vaguely resembling those of a soldier — saluting the crowd, wearing dog tags — the clean-cut figure espouses respect and modesty. He is willing to mock his opponents, but he never humiliates or insults them with the vitriol of his predecessors. Cena once had an edge too, but that's been smoothed with time; his finishing maneuver went from the FU to the Attitude Adjustment, perhaps a subtle jab at how the rating change has shaken up the previous decade's content.
Unsurprisingly, the primary reason behind WWE making the shift in content is to entice families—or, more bluntly, kids—to watch. Pro wrestling's popularity has dipped from its Attitude Era heights, so aiming at a new demographic is the next appropriate move. It's not as if children constitute a new or unusual viewing segment (Hulk Hogan, the most iconic wrestler of all time, made a fortune in the company while encouraging youngsters to “Train, say your prayers and eat your vitamins”), but it is an abrasive move for audiences used to soaking up as much brutality as they can handle.
In another unsurprising turn, fans who were thrilled with the provocative energy of the Attitude Era decry current WWE product as being too sanitary, but that point-of-view is awfully shortsighted. Despite the inherent aggression, pro wrestling is an entertainment ready-made for a young audience. The figures might give the characters complex motivations, but their conflicts end with simple, primal rules. While the same argument can be used to question why boxing or mixed martial arts competitions shouldn't be aimed at the same audience, pro wrestling is a different beast.
Pro wrestling's characters are traditionally charismatic and larger than life in a way only a handful of legitimate fighters are — making the spectacle appealing to youth — and pro wrestling is ultimately a theatrical clash of the clichAcd good and evil. In actuality, heroes aren't always the victors, but the orchestrated world of wrestling traditionally allows longstanding strife to end with a win for the moral. If children are going to learn about conflict, which is inevitable, there are far worse ways to explain it.
Aside from the most necessary combat, pro wrestling doesn't need to be violent to thrive. Quality storytelling and compelling characters are what ultimately propel these programs to success, not the novelty of shock. If WWE wrestlers and writers are able to leverage these two factors into the current era, it's possible to have Attitude Era success on TV-PG terms.
“WWE Monday Night Raw” will be held at the Richmond Coliseum on April 26 at 7:15 p.m. Tickets range from $16 to $61. For information, log onto richmondcoliseum.net or call 780-4970.