Back in 1998, when the popularity of the WWE exploded to previously unseen heights, it was on the back of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Having already caught fire as an antihero early in 1997, what really put him over the top as a mainstream sensation was his feud with WWE owner Vince McMahon. It was the type of stuff ripe for the sociologists who love writing high-minded texts about pro wrestling, featuring a beer-swilling Regular Joe fighting back against his evil boss. McMahon, who had previously been known mainly as a good-guy announcer, thrived in the role, showing that he was a much better heel than he was on the microphone. It was a killer formula, and so, it made sense that WWE and McMahon would go back to it from time to time. After all, wrestling is often at its best when it’s formulaic.
But making proper use of a successful formula is different from doing the same thing over and over. WWE has done the latter — again and again ad nauseam.
It recently reared its head again in the buildup for what looks to be the main event for this April’s WrestleMania 35 — the first time women will headline the biggest show of the year, in the form of a triple-threat match between Raw Women’s Champion Ronda Rousey, breakout superstar Becky Lynch and conniving villain Charlotte Flair. This time, however, the formula has been anything but tried-and-true. For the following reason: WWE has conditioned fans to hate management in the storyline sense at the same time that fans increasingly blame management for what they don’t like about the product. So while McMahon handing over Lynch’s title shot to Flair got the desired reaction in that it whipped up fan anger, it wasn’t necessarily the right type fury.
Because fans aren’t angry at Mr. McMahon, the mustache-twirling villain as much as they believe that the actual Vince McMahon who heads up the creative team has made the call to pull Lynch from the match. Charlotte has long been one of the most protected wrestlers on the roster, rarely losing cleanly and being put on a pedestal. So there’s already a prevailing sentiment that she was a management favorite for being a tall blonde whose father (i.e., Ric Flair) is a wrestling legend. Making matters more delicate and complicated is that if those in power wanted to, they could use the reality-bending aspects of the storyline to bolster a distortion field against criticism: “See, it works! They hate that we did this!”
Besides, the evil boss storyline is way past the point of being overdone. If anything, you can make the argument that it’s been stale as far back as about a year into the original Mr. McMahon run. That was when the McMahon family patriarch had his own daughter, Stephanie, kidnapped and nearly ritually sacrificed/married to The Undertaker to “get Austin” in some unexplained way. From there, Vince’s wife/Stephanie’s mom/WWE executive Linda McMahon intervened and made Austin the company CEO. Although Austin quickly lost control back to Vince, he still expelled Vince from the company a few weeks later, after which Vince came back within weeks as a good guy.
That felt like it should be the conclusion of the storyline, but Stephanie would turn within a few months, marrying the evil Triple H so they could take over the company themselves as, yes, more evil bosses/authority figures. This cycle has repeated itself over and over again for the past 20 years with no end in sight.
In fairness, in wrestling lore at least, Mr. McMahon was long predated by figurehead company presidents — albeit more benevolent ones. Toronto promoter Jack Tunney, who was brought in to run a satellite Canadian WWF office in 1984, held the “president” role from that point through 1995. On TV, however, he was far from a constant, only ever around to make the biggest possible announcements, and he was unabashedly not a good guy or a bad guy. He might be framed as incompetent a good bit of the time, but never corrupt.
He didn’t deny the fans a Hulk Hogan-Ultimate Warrior rematch by way of malevolence, he was just so stupid that he thought that the match was too physically damaging to ever repeat. Tunney gave way to former wrestler/announcer Gorilla Monsoon in 1995, who was more explicitly a good guy (“fan-friendly” being the code word) but was presented as wanting exciting matches as much as he was a force of law and order. When Monsoon’s health went south in 1997, Sgt. Slaughter took over as “commissioner,” but that was really just a stopgap until Mr. McMahon came around.
Still, even with Mr. McMahon as a TV fixture, the evil boss role was never really codified until WWE split its roster in half into two touring “brands,” Raw and SmackDown for the weekly TV shows they centered around, in 2002. In storyline, it was to end squabbling between Vince and new fan favorite co-owner Ric Flair (don’t ask), but Flair was quickly turned into another evil boss and then excommunicated from the role. Next, Mr. McMahon appointed “general managers” for each show: Stephanie was the neutral to good GM of SmackDown with Eric Bischoff, formerly the legit boss of defunct rival company WCW, in charge of Raw. While the rosters were eventually merged after several years, the same basic arrangement took hold after a second brand extension in 2016: Stephanie as the evil commissioner of Raw and various GMs (some heels, some good) beneath her, and her brother Shane as the cool good guy head of SmackDown and a prematurely retired fan favorite (first Daniel Bryan, then Paige) as his GM.
The names would change, and SmackDown especially would go long stretches with a neutral-leaning good GM (usually former referee and manager Teddy Long) in charge. But for better or worse, this was the new normal. And it was fucking annoying. We’ve seen so much happen with the evildoer in charge, up to and including wrestlers marrying them to curry favor, that all creative possibilities have been exhausted.
Just get Becky Lynch where she needs to be and then do away with this lazy-assed storytelling crutch. Not only is it boring, but it’s slowly generated a fanbase that has no trust in management, even among the most die-hard, brand-loyal consumers.