The following is a special essay written and submitted to POST Wrestling
World Waystar Entertainment: Vince McMahon, Hyperobject
Since 2018, HBO’s Succession has served as a staggering indictment of infamous family enterprises that have maintained a chokehold on modern society. The fictional Roys have been compared to numerous real-life counterparts such as the Murdochs (Fox Corporation), the Redstones (ViacomCBS), and the Sulzbergers (The New York Times Company), with the common thread being a corrupt dynasty’s control of mass media and their resulting power and influence over the world. Because of this, perhaps the most apt of surrogates, the McMahons (World Wrestling Entertainment), have flown completely under the radar when it comes to comparative analysis.
When juxtaposing Roy family patriarch, Logan Roy, with his real-life counterparts, we can identify certain parallels: Rupert Murdoch’s unwillingness and total refusal to retire, Sumner Redstone’s legal battles with his children, and A.G. Sulzberger reaping the benefits of nepotism as he became the sixth male member of his family (in a row) to serve as the publisher for The New York Times. All that said, no patriarch quite ticks the idiosyncratic and megalomaniac boxes in the way that Vince McMahon does: a refusal to step down or concede power, readiness to sacrifice familial relationships, gaining power through nepotism, battling the federal government, and even having his own personal cabinet of Uncle Mo’s (here’s to you, Laurinaitis). Having established this Roy-McMahon connection we can now pivot from Waystar Royco to the WWE bringing us to – Then.
By applying Dionysius Exiguus’ Anno Domini (AD) dating system, we can establish Then as the era before Joe Palazzolo and Ted Mann’s industry-shaking Wall Street Journal expose on McMahon’s hush money payments in relation to sexual misconduct allegations. This demarcation of time is not intended to diminish Vince’s prior actions, but rather to illustrate the shift in WWE’s ecosystem that followed. Now, since the BW (Before Wall Street Journal) era of WWE is about 99% of its lifespan, we’re going to perform a greatest hits speed run of McMahon’s tenure thus far.
From 1982 to 2022, Vince McMahon seemingly controlled every aspect of the WWE which, in turn, allowed him to manipulate the mainstream’s perception of the art by adopting the term “sports entertainment.” In this timeframe, McMahon helped create superstars like Hulk Hogan, Undertaker, The Rock, Stone Cold, and John Cena. In addition to these legends, McMahon developed PLE’s such as WrestleMania, SummerSlam, Survivor Series, and the Royal Rumble. Collectively these elements have served as the cornerstones of the WWE monopoly which has given them 92% of the revenue for the US pro wrestling market.
Even with Vince McMahon Sr.’s success in pro wrestling from 1953-1982, revisionist history would have you believe that wrestling truly began with Vince McMahon Jr., which is perhaps the catalyst for the shareholder notion that wrestling will end with him as well. But Vince McMahon is not some prophetic pro wrestling harbinger, he’s just a very cruel and heartless businessman whose practices are rooted in patriarchal masculinity, i.e., superiority and domination through calculated individual, institutional, and ideological actions that, in the end, destroy the very ecosystem they’ve killed to create.
Much like his rebranding of professional wrestling as sports entertainment, McMahon succeeded in mutating patriarchal masculinity into a personalized covert system that would further protect him from the outside world: neokayfabe. A newly coined term by Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America author, Abraham Riesman, neokayfabe is the concept that the off-screen fabrication of reality has become as important as the on-screen. In a recent interview with POST & Wrestlenomics, Riesman delineated McMahon’s ability to justify his transgressive actions through neokayfabe:
“One of the main narratives (Vince) has about himself … ‘I’m the common man, I’m not a rich jerk, that’s not who I really am, what I do I do for the business and out of love for the business, etc.’ He has to kind of reinforce this idea that him as a bad guy is perhaps just a joke. This is the armor that he wears in order to walk through the world … he has this persona of evil that he plays on television, and he lets everyone think – ‘well, we’re not really sure if that’s a portrayal of how he is or whether that’s a character.’ And as long as that ambiguity is there, he can get away with being just like his character in real-life.” (Riesman)
To further explore neokayfabe, we’re going to analyze the psychological crux of the BW times and WWE’s dystopic solution to the COVID-19 pandemic: ThunderDome – a series of bio-secure production bubbles that felt like the actual realization of the Neurological Cartography and Synaptic Transfer System from Tarsem’s The Cell (2000), which is to say, the device that sends us into a living construct of McMahon’s mind to engage with the deepest parts of his fractured and nightmarish psyche. Having sealed himself into the ThunderDome’s untouchable vacuum, McMahon was finally able to establish an autocratic rule as reality was no longer able to push back.
McMahon now decided who was cheered and booed by the flick of a switch, gleefully removing the human element that had battled him on booking decisions throughout the years – e.g., Daniel Bryan and the “YES” movement – allowing for his fantasies to run amok without opposition. And while the ThunderDome era has been mostly forgotten since its closure, the introduction of Roman Reigns’ Tribal Chief character remains its greatest offering.
Reigns’ Tribal Chief is a brutal patriarch that specializes in emotional, verbal, and physical abuse to gaslight, submit, and destroy anyone that threatens his position (all in the name of family). The storyline evolution of this family man to a delusional patriarch has been the central focus of WWE for a staggering 939+ days. Much like the comparative analysis of the Roys and McMahons, we can draw obvious parallels between Roman and Vince as well, which brings us to – Now.
In the lead-up to WrestleMania 39, WWE’s ecosystem has thrived in unprecedented ways due to Roman’s top positioning in their booking cycle consisting of local jobbers, low card, mid-card, and main event talent. Ideally, this ecological pyramid is a relatively seamless energy flow of wins and losses as stories and lived experiences fluctuate in between. But, it must make sense! Meaning that, while Reigns’ initial push (2014-2019) had the biological grace of the WWE Universe collectively rejecting an organ transplant, the Tribal Chief character has been woven into the fabric of the WWE ecosystem in a coherent manner through the Bloodline story.
When applying the concept of energy flow to Now, we can view the Bloodline narrative’s successful endgame as the crowning of a new champion and face of the company, thus replenishing and revitalizing the environment. However, as time has passed, we’ve created hyperobjects that have fostered ecological crises that threaten these very goals. So, what exactly is a hyperobject? In 2021, The New Yorker published a profile on hyperobject founder, Timothy Morton, while WIRED further explored the concept:
“In 2013, a philosopher and ecologist named Timothy Morton proposed that humanity had entered a new phase. What had changed was our relationship to the nonhuman. For the first time, Morton wrote, we had become aware that ‘nonhuman beings’ were ‘responsible for the next moment of human history and thinking.”’ (Meis)
“Examples of hyperobjects include: black holes, oil spills, all plastic ever manufactured, capitalism, tectonic plates, and the solar system. Hyperobjects are often ancient or destined to be, like the sum total of Styrofoam and plutonium we have littered across the Earth over the past century, which will remain for millennia.” (Hudson)
To better understand Morton’s theory, let’s apply the philosophical concept of hyperobjects to re-identify and re-define the ecological roles within WWE. First, the autotroph aka local talent – a single-use plastic guest spot that exists to put over emerging figures as monstrous threats (Judo Joe Black). Second, the herbivore aka lowcard – reliable contracted talent that insulates the established upper card like Styrofoam by putting them over (Chelsea Green). Third, the secondary consumer aka mid-card – a garden that supplements the ecosystem’s day-to-day by focusing on nurturing talent and promoting growth (Kevin Owens). Finally, the tertiary carnivore aka main event – without balance this role may consume all life; it is the self-appointed light at the center of the universe that illuminates everything, and in turn, becomes the mirror upon which the individual importance and value of all other organisms reflects upon (Roman Reigns).
Now, before moving ahead, I must digress and note that terms like jobber and lowcard are capitalist and antiquated as they insinuate an inherent lack of value and importance by defining roles through function and location, as opposed to their impact and effect. Yes, a jobber performs a job, but the result is making unknown newcomers look like fucking superstars. By stripping away the magic from the art, we’re left with a milquetoast world in which all existence is purely labor. Thus, we shall declare the jobber as the nebulae of professional wrestling; the unsung Pillars of Creation that have served as the inceptions for our favorite stories.
This is to say, all roles are equally important and, as history has proven, impermanent through organic fluctuation, e.g., Sami Zayn’s meteoric rise over the past year. Again, these ecological achievements are the result of a healthy energy flow, which is to say, that without the success of Reigns and the Bloodline, there is no Sami Zayn redemption arc. And because of this arc, the WWE is objectively the hottest it has been in ages. However, even with this momentum there is still a violent hyperobject that maintains a vice grip on the universe, threatening its recent goodwill and growth.
We can trace the histories of hyperobjects such as climate change from its beginning – fossil fuels, deforestation, the industrial revolution – to the ending we now live in (global warming, environmental degradation). Essentially, inescapable phenomena that began somewhere escapable. We can trace the history of McMahon all the same, and like other timelines, there exists a plethora of greed, propaganda, and corruption. Hyperobjects exist because we allow(ed) them to. Another example, post-Columbine gun violence in America became a never-ending debate. Rather than reflecting on the situation, writing legislation, or doing anything to prevent this from happening again, we argued about video games, metal music, and moved on. In the end, we were told it was an abnormality, but now have Wikipedia pages to delineate the difference between US mass shootings and school shootings.
The way in which the message gets lost among the chaos is through the fervent politicization of tragedies and cultural moments. Going back to Riesman’s concept of neokayfabe, she directly connected the theory to the inner machinations of the GOP in a recent interview with Politico’s Michael Kruse:
“Wrestling has metastasized into the broader world, especially since the inauguration of the 45th president. There’s little difference between Trumpism and Vince’s neokayfabe, each with their infinite and indistinguishable layers of irony and sincerity. Each philosophy approaches life with one goal: to remake reality in such a way as to defeat one’s enemies and sate one’s insecurities.” (Riesman)
This leads to another quote from the POST & Wrestlenomics interview:
“I would argue that wrestling in 1999 is where we’re at now in a political sense. In a global sense mentally, America is at a point that wrestling fandom was at in 1999 in this sense of unreality and scandal and depravity, and I think where wrestling is at now is in many ways kind of a vision of our dark future if we don’t avert it in our own time as a society.” (Riesman)
Vince McMahon is a hyperobject within the ecosystem of professional wrestling that will ensure this dark future and, unfortunately, never go away. This is because, through neokayfabe, McMahon has painted pro wrestling and himself as inseparable, much like Donald Trump and the MAGA movement, i.e., the idea that America can only be great with Trump. Thus, without McMahon, there is no WWE, and vice versa. Well, we’ve already seen what Vince can do without the WWE, and the former has already been proven false – WWE has thrived without Vince McMahon who, by all accounts, seems like the worst fucking boss you’ve ever had. So how was this illusion of worth and character upheld for so long? In this moment, I am reminded of the opening narration in Paul Thomas Anderson’s, Magnolia (1999):
“There are stories of coincidence and chance, of intersections and strange things told, and which is which and who only knows? And we generally say, ‘Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it.’ Someone’s so-and-so met someone else’s so-and-so and so on. And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that strange things happen all the time. And so it goes, and so it goes. And the book says, ‘We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”’ (Anderson)
If there’s one thing WWE in 2023 has taught us following McMahon’s corporate insurrection (classic January 6th move at this point) – the past sure as hell isn’t done with us.
Welcome to Forever.
By the end of McMahon’s tenure with the WWE in July 2022, his booking tendencies had taken on the form of the GOP’s climate strategy: coal and oil burning at both ends until we all perish. Having to creatively retreat to Brock Lesnar over and over isn’t the business safeguard McMahon has led us to believe and it isn’t a case of ignorance with old age or being out of touch, it’s an inability and unwillingness to produce anything other than his needs and wants. Because of this, Vince-ism’s have become commonplace within professional wrestling creating an upside-down world in which logical storytelling breaks cliché.
For example, for years we’ve been taught that beating a superstar in their hometown is the most effective booking strategy – beat the local hero = that’s heat, brother. This became such a staple of pro wrestling that there are now op-eds on the concept of wrestlers winning in their hometowns. This isn’t to say never beat someone in their hometown, it’s a plea to give it meaning and have it make sense. This booking practice was taught to McMahon in the late 1970s by Ernie Roth as a territorial tactic for hitting the same city in a close timeframe (you know, meaningful storytelling) making it no longer applicable nowadays. Yet for 40+ years we have watched our hometown heroes get beat simply because we accepted that’s the way it is. Throughout his tenure, McMahon succeeded in re-sculpting the image of pro wrestling by writing revisionist histories that best suit his narrative. Once again, I am reminded of a quote, this time from Maya Angelou’s Even the Stars Look Lonesome:
“If it is true that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, isn’t it also true a society is only as healthy as its sickest citizen and only as wealthy as its most deprived?” (Angelou)
By extrapolating this concept to the WWE, we can ask – would providing the roster with equity and Reigns’ level of creative investment enrich the ecosystem? Unequivocally, yes. Since SummerSlam 2022, we have witnessed the rapid rise and rehabilitation of Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Cody Rhodes, Gunther, Sheamus, Seth Rollins, Rhea Ripley, and Finn Bálor. Hell, even the absolute piece of shit Dominick Mysterio is one of the hottest acts in the company right now. We went from Brock Lesnar being the only WrestleMania option to having multiple choices this year to fantasy book and discuss.
However, even with this fresh optimism and sudden variety in main event offerings, there remains a large portion of the audience who is ready to cheer McMahon the second he walks back through those curtains. The most glaring example of this is McMahon’s July 17th, 2022, SmackDown appearance where he utilized his scandal to generate ratings, buzz, and reinforce the company’s new motto in a relatively obtuse yet, especially when applying what we’ve discussed, remarkably insidious promo:
“I am here to simply remind you of the four words we just saw. And they are what we call the WWE signature. Those four words are then, now, forever, and the most important word, is together.” (McMahon)
McMahon’s final televised appearance serves as a reminder that we are forever linked. That if we love wrestling, in turn, we must love him. McMahon wants people to think of him when they see wrestling, in the same way, people thought of Hitchcock when they saw a shower. It’s a stark reminder that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism begging the question – is this McMahon’s vague way of saying we are all culpable? Riesman speaks about this in her interview with POST & Wrestlenomics:
“The whole system encourages fans who love this art form to have to just swallow the fact that their art form is made by bastards … Vince is somebody who’s demonstrated a lot of traits and has been accused of a lot of things that you’d like to think a healthy society would really reject or at least investigate, and not reject as in deny, but reject as in say – this is terrible we should not have this person around … And yet, because those moments of reckoning that have not led to anything and Vince remains this preeminent guy, preeminent force in wrestling – if you love the art form of wrestling you kind of have to just make your peace with the fact that you’re loving something that enriches somebody who you don’t truly like.”
Following his last on-screen appearance, McMahon sent his final correspondence to the WWE on July 22nd, 2022 in the form of an email. Now, within this email there are two lines to analyze:
1) “You are WWE’s only natural resource.”
This statement indicates that our analysis of WWE as an ecosystem is in line with how McMahon views the roster: crude fucking oil. When applying this mentality to the ecological pyramid, by referring to the WWE roster as “natural resources,” McMahon recognizes them as the producers of the environment, thus making him the consumer. And what happens to an ecosystem once an all-consuming carnivore who gives nothing back leaves? It grows.
2) “One other thing-I won’t be with you, but I’ll be watching.”
The final reinforcement of McMahon’s pseudo-omnipotence in pro wrestling is a supposed goodbye that functions as an open-ended reminder that there is no end to this. A friend once told me – true love is cleaning up a mess even if you didn’t make it. Meaning that, we may not have created this environment, but at consumers it should be our goal to foster the healthiest ecosystem for the art we love, and this extends past the on-screen. This is about social media, tribalism, and other forms of unreality. By focusing on the menial conflicts, we ultimately allow and enable hyperobjects like Vince McMahon to grow in the background. But, life is hard. Around the world we are emotionally, mentally, and physically churned within the throes of globalism and late-stage capitalism daily. Riesman sums these feelings up brilliantly:
“This complete across-the-board cynicism — that is what you have in wrestling when it comes to immoral acts that are alleged or even proven in wrestling. Because everyone is such a cynic about it because it’s so prevalent, and I’m not even blaming the individual fans, I’m blaming the system which of course, is a useless thing to blame, because you don’t know how to actually fight a system.” (Riesman)
Alright, so how the hell do we dismantle a system?
Thus far, we’ve discussed dynastic families, corrupt ecological pyramids, hyperobjects, and neokayfabe. If there was a Four Pillars of WWE, this would be them. These are monolithic constructs that, again, are and feel inescapable. How can we push back against this pro wrestling dark future? As we’ve already noted, reinvestment in the environment is the easiest and most effective way to begin this healing process. There may be finite television time, but through art and lived experience we have acquired the tools to produce substantial meaning in five seconds to sixty-minutes. All it takes is the willingness to want to see a better world and the realization that we – human, animal, object — are all here by the same random luck.
This notion rejects the Kantian theory of anthropocentrism that posits humans above nonhuman beings/objects, which in WWE, can be understood as Reigns above everyone else. Thus, a potential solution to the McMahon hyperobject is applying the philosophy of Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) to professional wrestling. The easiest way to understand OOO is through Morton’s hyperobjects, meaning that, if we valued Styrofoam as much as we did ourselves, perhaps we would not have a pollution problem. It’s the ability to view life outside of our own understandings and projections. Dylan Kerr expanded on this for Artspace:
“Ask yourself: what does your toaster want? How about your dog? Or the bacteria in your gut? What about the pixels on the screen you’re reading off now—how is their day going? In other words, do things, animals, and other non-human entities experience their existence in a way that lies outside our own species-centric definition of consciousness?” (Kerr)
By moving towards an object-oriented ontology, we can begin taking the necessary steps to dismantle the systems that have corrupted and held back the art we all love for so long. What does this look like? First, understanding that while WWE is the centerpiece of pro wrestling, every other company from 2AW to ICW No Holds Barred, from Marvelous to Shimmer, from FREEDOMS to FMW, have all existed for the same purpose – a love for the art of pro wrestling. Second, imparting value on the nebulae so that they aren’t treated as non-recyclable waste. For example, since returning to the WWE, Chelsea Green has never won a match. But because of the investment in her character, we understand why she isn’t winning.
Look at NXT’s current top prospects Bron Breakker and Carmelo Hayes. Their success is the result of cultural longevity and a healthy independent wrestling ecosystem. Which is to say, had the WCW and WWF not turned the Steiner Brothers into absolute freaks, what would’ve been the cultural context to make Breakker relevant to the audience? And if indie promotions like Limitless and Chaotic Wrestling did not exist, would Hayes have reached this new pinnacle?
By acknowledging as a community that WWE, AEW, ROH, Impact, NJPW, AJPW, NOAH, DDT, STARDOM, TJPW, Ice Ribbon, Dragongate, and the hundreds of other promotions all share the same intrinsic value and, hopefully, good intentions then we can begin to move away from the tribalism that poisons the art. The same goes for genre: deathmatch, technical, king’s road, comedy, strong style, lucha libre – these are merely different ways to hold the brush that is pro wrestling.
Deconstructing these systems is not an overnight event, it is an endless process of unlearning McMahon’s social and cultural conditioning. It’s the act of slowly eliminating habits like kneejerk reactions to a certain wrestler or company. From the “Yes Movement” and Becky Lynch’s rise in 2019, these processes of revolution work. Yet at the same time, we’ve witnessed the ways in which the machine pushes back, i.e., the 2014 Rumble and Flair being inserted into Lynch’s title picture.
Following Trump’s election, political comedian and commentator John Oliver would repeatedly state the following phrase: “This is not normal.” This resistance towards a “new normal” or “the way things have been” is essential for an object-oriented ontology. Much like how fictional characters fall for Logan Roy and Roman Reigns’ rare and manipulative, “I love you’s,” audiences have fallen for Vince McMahon’s neokayfabe for decades. If Kendall, Shiv, and Roman can finally come together, there’s no reason we can’t.
Because Vince was then, this is now, and if we don’t want to suffer forever, we need to begin working together.
Follow Nello De Angelis on Twitter: @aniellooooo