by C LeMar McLean (@MarzMediaUS)
As the fate of Total Nonstop Action’s Impact Wrestling remains uncertain to the public, TNA President Dixie Carter has shown that she will not let her show go quietly. As the lead villain of Impact’s primary storyline, Carter, 49, went well beyond her depth last week by getting powerbombed through a table by fan favorite Bully Ray; the moment was a culminating triumph of the oppressed in the weird world of Impact.
Given the roles that Bully Ray and Dixie play in the show, fans welcomed the moment with fervor. Concurrently, someone who understands the general wrestling audience would expect such a response in spite of its problematic undertones. Admitting the limits of generalization, the perception of typical wrestling fans would be out-of-shape man-children with an unhealthy history of inter-gender relationships. Therefore, the image of the rotund Bully Ray exacting justice against a powerful woman would be especially gratifying to fans who fit that profile.
During this incident, which TNA proudly marketed on Twitter as ‘#ItHappens,’ Bully Ray lived out a fantasy for his fans, whose years of alienation and sexual frustration stem in large part from feelings of ineptitude and powerlessness with regard to women. That Carter, a real-life heiress to an energy company, trusted her creative team’s direction for this story suggests not only that she knows who her fans are, but also that she is willing to sell out her own gender in exchange for better show ratings and more screen time for herself.
In defense of this extreme act of stage violence against a woman, though, if a man had to powerbomb a woman through a table, Bully Ray was the wisest choice. In 2000, Mae Young and Lita went through Bully Ray’s tables in the World Wrestling Federation. And trusting someone with Bully Ray’s experience with this move was critical because although Carter was not the oldest recipient (Young was 80!), she has much less in-ring experience (virtually zero) than the aforementioned women. So on the night that #ItHappened, fans and Impact wrestlers could confidently enjoy the spectacle without an elevated risk of their fun being derailed by the legitimate injury of a middle-aged woman with no business in a wrestling ring.
But professional wrestling is a unique environment wherein scenarios like this go regularly unchecked. In the case of TNA’s latest stunt, the fans’ excitement for the violation of an unwritten social contract (that men should never hit women) rarely occurs or gets sated in major rated-R films. For example, in action movies that feature fighting villainesses, cultural mores often influence retribution, with the hero usually maintaining high character in his refusal to fight a woman the way he would a man. Meanwhile, the niche market that professional wrestling serves apparently does not subscribe to that custom when it can preclude the release of narrative tension.
And only in the context of pro wrestling does this catharsis reflect such subjectivity surrounding violence against women. As it stands, even socially liberal wrestling fans have varying opinions of Carter’s powerbomb incident, ranging from satisfaction to moral outrage. And although the pro wrestling bubble more readily absolves otherwise heinous behavior such as the Bullybomb to Dixie, it may also hinder TNA from ever being taken seriously by television executives, whose bottom line often hinges on a more mainstream set of values.
As part of its overall product, TNA offers an edgy alternative to the highly corporatized WWE by catering to the sensibilities of its fans that value the gritty spirit of the now defunct Extreme Championship Wrestling, where men assaulting women was commonplace by heroes and villains alike. By employing some of ECW’s legends, including Bully Ray, TNA offers the nostalgia of hardcore wrestling that WWE left behind in exchange for its PG-rated content and subsequent public ownership. But clearly, TNA’s niche within a niche has proven expendable to Spike TV under the current terms of their agreement. In other words, Spike may believe that they can get comparable ratings in Impact Wrestling’s time slot with programming that costs less to broadcast.
It is unlikely that treatment of women was a primary factor in Spike’s reevaluation of Impact Wrestling as a worthwhile product (this is Spike, after all). But it is also unlikely that #ItHappened created the momentum that TNA needs for leveraging a deal that doesn’t demand they do more with less. And so a litany of questions looms for TNA as its second-tier status hangs in the balance:
- Was the quest for higher ratings worth sending the message to younger fans that men can give women violent comeuppance if provoked?
- If you are willing to depict male assaults of a woman as a heroic, where do you draw moral lines when it comes to establishing a brand identity that can even remotely compete with WWE?
- How do you expect to grow your audience among people who would question your product’s portrayal of heroes who beat up old ladies?
- Now that #ItHappened, now what?
TNA has more questions to answer (like how can they defend such obvious similarities to WWE storylines within weeks of airing?), but fans hoping for a worthy alternative to WWE’s Raw and Smackdown cannot seriously consider Impact a strong answer even if its future on Spike were secure. Despite TNA’s embarrassing wealth of passionate and talented performers, the creative direction of TNA suggests a disregard for positive cultural priorities, which suggests a disinterest in growing business. WWE’s shift to PG programming leaves a lot to be desired for diehard wrestling fans, but no one can question how wise the move was from a financial perspective.
Given TNA’s track record of emulating WWE on screen, it is surprising that TNA management has not also initiated behind-the-scenes tactics to gain more mainstream viewership. And the good news for TNA is that they would not have to betray their adult demographic to do so. Making their glut of talent the primary focus of Impact would do wonders for paying wrestling fans desperate for an alternative to WWE. And while WWE continues to focus more on storylines than on the sport from which it derives, TNA has an opportunity to dominate the sport aspect of Sports Entertainment. Perhaps now that #ItHappened, TNA will move away from stories that require that the company’s president literally [work] break her back to attract fans. If TNA has any hope of staying on television, it would be best placed on a scenario wherein the wrestlers are in the ring and the president stays out of it, not the other way around. That scenario is one for which all wrestling fans could cheer.