Monday, February 23, 2015

Root for Roman Reigns

It's in the best interest of everyone if Reigns succeeds
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Roman Reigns' ascendancy to the WWE main event has been a rocky one that has been booed at nearly every turn by a vocal contingent of the audience. This atmosphere has been a reaction wholly to how he's been pushed since The Shield has been dissolved, and he hasn't even come close to performing in accordance with how hard he's been shoved down the audience's collective throat until last week's RAW. Reigns has his limits as a wrestler, but at the same time, he's not entirely a worthless candidate. As a member of The Shield, he was an effective hammer for the group, and even if he didn't have a signature singles match, none of the trios or tag matches he was a part of was darkened by his presence. His performance on the microphone has been forgettable at best, but even though he's not good enough to elevate Vince McMahon's worst material, he still may have worth with a stick in his hand.

Even with his positives, he may not be everyone's cup of tea right now, but whether or not he's ready, he's someone worth getting behind, especially considering WWE's history with racial politics. Reigns stands at an unfamiliar precipice for any person of color within WWE's employ. He's a main event prospect who is being pushed as if he was "a regular wrestler dude" instead of adhering to established racial gimmickry, something that has traditionally only been reserved for white dudes and The Rock. Many writers have tackled WWE's tricky, murky history with wrestlers of color in the past, and all of it has been spot on in tone at least, which is why Reigns is so important.

People tend not to think of Samoans or Pacific Islanders in general as a racial minority, mainly because so few of them live in the United States in comparison with other groups. However, their concentration in the wrestling business has been at a relatively high level for years, and in WWE, their lot has been one of two sorting bins. Either they've been cast as drooling savages with very little civilization in their blood, or they've had to pretend to act like another race, either outright like Yokozuna or as a proxy like Rikishi Fatu, Three Minute Warning, and now the Usos, all of whom have adopted a white dude's imagination of "urban" (read: Black) culture is.

Reigns fits in none of those molds right now. In fact, he's in as uniform and colorblind a role as any POC not named Dwayne Johnson ever has been. He's not the second coming of his father, Sika, and he's not coming to the ring as an erstwhile African-American stereotype. In fact, he was an integral part of a stable where two white guys were his brothers, which is groundbreaking in terms of WWE. So why isn't it being hyped as the awesome, barrier-shattering thing that it is? Well, a lot of it has to do with the way Reigns has been presented.

The silver lining is that Reigns has shown more of a base competency to hang with main event talent, starting with his intimate sitdown interview and subsequent interaction with Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman the snowy night after the Royal Rumble. He's found a niche and has started to burrow into it. Will he be acclimated inside of it enough to carry a WrestleMania main event against Lesnar in six short weeks? I honestly don't know at this point, but I'm hoping like hell that he does. Honestly, if you care about meaningful diversity in WWE, you should too.

If Reigns can carry the biggest event of the year and grow from it to become another main event rock for the company, then maybe the perception of what a Pacific Islander can do outside comfortable gimmicks can be shattered at Titan Towers. Truthfully, race and ethnicity has nothing to do with how well someone can carry a gimmick or a character, but that kind of real life common sense is not present in McMahon's mind, so maybe he has to be shown with empirical results. If Reigns can shatter the mold, then maybe McMahon can be talked into Big E not needing the Feel Good, Happy Time Black Dudes gimmick and can get pushed the way he was while he was in NXT. And maybe Triple H can be able to convince his father-in-law more easily that Hideo Itami can inhabit the same character space that CM Punk used to and that Daniel Bryan currently does if Reigns can hit the jackpot.

Of course, if Reigns fails, it won't be because of his race. And if he fails, he won't deserve your cheers obviously. But the thing is that booing him reflexively can't be an option right now. So what if he's not Bryan or Dean Ambrose or [insert crowd favorite here]? He's getting this shot, and regardless of anything else, it's important that he is. While he hasn't scratched my itch as a solo star until recently, I want him to succeed because then, maybe, WWE can get its shitty ass out of the goddamn Stone Age with its racial politics and start fostering a more inclusive environment where dudes don't need stereotypes to get cheap heat, or that when they do inhabit a gimmick that is a bit more racially charged than most like Sasha Banks in NXT, it doesn't set off a red flag.

I know it can be hard to stomach right now, but Reigns is getting to be on a better path than he was previously. If he succeeds, perhaps everyone can win. Of course, it's possible that Reigns could be an exception like The Rock going forward, which would be disheartening to say the least. But it's a good sign that Reigns is not only on the precipice of something special in WWE, but that he's doing it outside the "accepted" set of gimmicks for someone of his racial makeup. I am hoping to whatever deity that I happen to believe in right now that Reigns is able to turn around and make it big as an entertaining and worthy act with big support. I hope you're doing the same.