On July 1st, the pro wrestling world was focused on that night’s edition of WWE’s flagship Monday Night Raw, as it was the dawning of a new era. As part of the company’s very public plan to hire new showrunners for both Raw and its sister show SmackDown, WWE creative team member and longtime on-screen personality Paul Heyman would get control of the former starting that night. (At least as much control as someone can have under Vince McMahon.) The show noticeably had Heyman’s fingerprints all over it, with numerous disruptions of the very patterned WWE television format and a fresher feeling than it had given off in quite a long time. But toward the end, it also got really fucking weird in a way that Raw has continued to be in the subsequent three months.
Initially, this was primarily centered around real-life married couple Mike and Maria Kanellis, who moved to Raw’s roster under Heyman. Their whole run in WWE had been very stop-and-start for various reasons, including Maria’s maternity leaves, but it’s been a constant since the start that Mike was, at a minimum, being framed as something of a henpecked husband. In fact, instead of using their real married names, Mike Bennett and Maria Kanellis-Bennett, which were far from secret, Mike’s gimmick was that he had taken Maria’s last name. The inconsistent nature of their time in WWE kept that part from going very far, though. And so, in July, rather than being super lovey-dovey like they’d been previously, they were reframed as, basically, a dysfunctional couple with Mike being too weak to stand up to Maria’s verbal abuse.
That’s odd in and of itself, but Maria’s specific verbiage raised a lot of eyebrows, referring to Mike as, among other things, her “bitch” before eventually revealing that she was pregnant, taunting him by saying he couldn’t be the father because he’s not man enough.
Twitter quickly erupted with jokes about how WWE had, for some reason, unveiled a storyline that was, depending on your point of view, either implicitly or explicitly about cuckoldry. That night, while it was amusing joke fodder, it felt as if it could be a bit of an overreach. After all, there was no actual reason to think that storyline Maria was cheating on storyline Mike as much as she was verbally abusive in a very particular way. That, however, would soon change.
If you’re like many of the very online people in America, you’ve probably become unexpectedly acquainted with the ins and outs of cuckold fetish porn while keeping up with politics in the last few years. If that floats your boat, more power to you — I’m not here to kink shame — but “cuck” had also become central to one of many pet alt-right insults for “emasculated” males. As the Kanellis family storyline escalated, it became much more obvious that something in this realm was the idea, with villainous color commentator Corey Graves eventually outright saying in September that Mike was a “beta cuck.”
Even before that, the imagery had gotten a lot more obvious, like during SummerSlam weekend, when Mike and Maria gladly engaged in the above photo op with a fan named Brandon Nova who had asked if they were all “going to laugh at Mike’s vagina?” Mike grabbing his crotch like he’s embarrassed while his (actual) wife and a fan point and laugh at it sure isn’t something you’d expect as part of a normally family-friendly WWE meet and greet.
So while it started a little murkier, within several weeks, it was clear that nobody was reading too much into the storyline. The issues with this go deeper than the surface, especially in light of the specific use of the term “cuck.” As has been noted everywhere from a fully-annotated Wikipedia entry to The Root to The Guardian to the Southern Poverty Law Center to The New Republic to Salon to BuzzFeed to the Washington Post, “cuck” as an insult is — much more so than just “cuckold” — widely considered racist in origin. The reasons are twofold: Not only are its origins as a more generalized, policitized insult largely in forums that served as breeding grounds for white supremacists, but the porn genre plays a role as well since there’s often an additional racial component to it.
“The interracial cuckolding genre breathes life into the truism that some kind of sexual attraction, openly acknowledged or not, is often a component of racial contempt,” Zoe Samudzi wrote in VICE last year. “And the genre’s black thug-filled storylines make clear that this attraction is not simply sexual desire, but an evocation and fetishism of historically racist tropes that allow for a contained witnessing of black male sexual prowess that white men simultaneously loathe, fear and envy.”
In light of all this, the Kanellis family “cuck” storyline was probably not a good idea for a pro wrestling angle in general, but it got pushed through as part of the Heyman era, and thus, has largely been associated with him. (Throughout the storyline, “I’d love/hate to see Heyman’s browser/search history” jokes have been incredibly common on Twitter.) They kept it up for a few months, too, resulting in the sequence of events that led to Graves using the actual alt-right insult for Kanellis on Monday Night Raw. Maria held a gender reveal party as part of her (both legitimate and in-storyline) pregnancy, announcing that she was having a boy — and that Mike wasn’t the father, Ricochet was. Being that Ricochet’s personality is basically “impressive high flyer who likes superheroes,” this came a bit out-of-nowhere. The only other teased non-Mike father up to that point had been Angelo Dawkins of the Street Profits tag team, who, at a minimum, was carrying a torch for Maria.
It was soon made clear, however, that neither was the father, with Maria claiming that her fetus had been sired by returning Bulgarian wrestler Rusev before the chapter was abruptly closed as Maria lying in order to motivate Mike. Yes, he was really the father of his wife’s unborn child all along. (No reason has been reported publicly for the abrupt ending, at least that I can find, but it came just before the start of Maria’s third trimester, for whatever it’s worth.)
If the “beta cuck” line was never uttered, there may not have been a point in writing this. After all, storylines that could be considered to be in the realm of cuckoldry have been part of wrestling for years, most famously with the Kevin Sullivan/Nancy “Woman” Sullivan/Chris Benoit love triangle. What really brings it all together is the use of the specific alt-right slur that has vaguely racist origins at best and is widely used as “your wife fucks black guys, lol” at worst. That blurs a line that Maria just claiming that Mike didn’t impregnate her does not. The concept of cuckoldry and Maria lording it over Mike’s head is one thing; the wider use of “cuck,” much less “beta cuck,” is another entirely and clouds the entire storyline.
That said, the actual content of WWE programming has been conspicuously apolitical in the Trump era, seemingly to avoid turning off its left-leaning audience, and that’s just one of many ways this thing is incongruous to the rest of the show. (That is unless nobody involved knew about the sociopolitical significance of “cucks” in 2019, which is hard to believe.) The whole thing has been uncomfortable and deeply weird to watch, only elevated by the unflinching commitment to the performance on the part of Mike and Maria. The one aspect that does make sense is how Heyman-led shows have presented relationships in the past. While it’s possible that some of these weren’t his idea, Heyman-run shows have a history of shock relationship storylines, such as:
- Tommy Dreamer and Beulah McGillicutty turning out to be having an affair in 1996 ECW after he repeatedly piledrived her for months. A few months after that, Beulah revealed that she faked a pregnancy to hide her habit of doing Lesbian Stuff with her rival valet, Kimona Wanalaya. (Yes, there was a valet named that.) Dreamer’s response? “I’ll take ‘em both! I’m hardcore!”
- On SmackDown in 2003, ECW alumnus Dawn Marie seduced the aging father of Torrie Wilson, eventually marrying him in the middle of the ring while both were stripped down to their underwear. When Torrie got desperate to stop Dawn Marie’s ill-defined gold-digging scheme, the latter agreed to end the marriage… if Torrie would do Lesbian Stuff with her.
- During WWE’s 2006 ECW revival, Heyman introduced Kelly Kelly, a dancer/model who claimed to be an exhibitionist. Her Evil Controlling Boyfriend, Mike Knox, existed mainly to keep her from stripping for live crowds.
You know, realistic everyday relationship issues.
But back to Mike and Maria, especially because the Kanellis Cucking arc now appears to be over. Mike was left without a storyline, and now he’s publicly requesting a release from his WWE contract, claiming to have had second thoughts about having signed a new contract over the summer once he was in purgatory and not doing anything on TV anymore. In the meantime, Rusev has, improbably taken over his role. Well, not exactly. Once it was established that Rusev wasn’t sleeping with Maria, his wife, Lana — also his real-life spouse — returned to Raw as well… to reveal that she was cheating on him with the warm embrace of the granite statue of masculinity that is Bobby Lashley (who it should be noted is black).
In a vacuum, the Lana/Lashley storyline is pretty nothing. In the context of what it replaced… why the hell do they keep doing this?!?!?!?