Tuesday, September 14, 2021

On Representation in Modern Booking

Sky has been a missed opportunity for AEW so far

Brian Cage is not happy in All Elite Wrestling. He hasn't said anything, but his wife, former Lucha Underground ring announcer Melissa Santos, has been vocal on social media about how he's been "misused." As an interested observer, I was baffled by the notion that Cage, who has been a fixture on AEW television since his debut at the Double or Nothing 2020 Casino Battle Royale, was misused. He has been in a feud with Sting and Darby Allin, including a payoff in a memorable cinematic match where Sting wrestled for the first time since his infamous Seth Rollins match in WWE years ago. He got to have a mini title program with Jon Moxley when he was Champion. He was the centerpiece of the Team Taz story, both as a member at first and now as the babyface fighting them. What else more could you want than having all that exposure in a hot company where fans react to everything (except for.... you).

Then I saw what the complaints entailed. Santos let everyone know that her husband is misused because he's not wrecking everyone like Brock Lesnar does in WWE. She wants him to have a title belt and win all the time, which, to me, represents a short-sighted vision of what wrestling should be. Especially in a company where title belts are in shorter supply than in the other, bloated American company, currency can't be measured in what combination of leather and metal you wear around your waist or throw over your shoulder. I can't hate on a worker vocally demanding a better lot than what they have in a company owned by a billionaire. I can, however, note that a vocal Trump-supporting guy who pals around with noted scumbags like Drake Wuertz and Joey Ryan using his wife to demand he never loses in a company where him with a Lesnar push would be incredibly not entertaining in the least is probably not anything anyone should pay more than a token note to.

Cage and Santos view wrestling through the lens of the mark. Perceptive wrestlers know being seen and being presented as someone formidable, whether you win or lose, is the play. The imperceptive ones only see wins as currency, and title belts are the things that measure your worth, not just in kayfabe, but in real life. Still, a lot of people use title belts as a measuring stick in real life, because it's a lot easier to go to Wikipedia and tabulate Championship reigns than it is to have a stopwatch and clock how much time someone gets and then qualitatively measure that time against an arbitrary standard. That's why the debate on minority representation in wrestling almost always boils down to "how many titles have Black wrestlers won?"

AEW shouldn't take fire from Cage's camp on how they've booked him, but the fire should come from them pushing someone like Cage, who by all metrics hasn't connected with the crowd in ways that even his Team Taz cohorts like Ricky Starks or Powerhose Hobbs have, instead of going with literally anyone else whom crowds have latched onto. The main critique of AEW has been that the company has not made a good faith effort to push Black wrestlers, but people go to the well of "uhhh TITLE BELTS?" far too quickly to make it. Twenty wrestlers have held titles in AEW if you don't include the FTW Championship, a vanity title used for storyline purposes only. Two of them, Scorpio Sky and Nyla Rose, have been Black so far, a rate of ten percent in history. You can't really tell anything from that number because it's not contextual. It's a raw statistic that probably lines up historically with WWE or World Championship Wrestling. But it's meaningless.

As much as it's harder to do, as are most exercises performed in the abstract, one has to look at the perception to figure out what AEW's relationship with Black wrestlers is. I'm not talking about POC wrestlers, because you can make a case that they've treated Mexican and Japanese/Asian wrestlers with respect unprecedented in the 21st Century (and not seen since World Championship Wrestling was open). Black wrestling fans don't feel represented by seeing Hikaru Shida as Women's Champion or Minoru Suzuki treated as a conquering marauder. I can't speak for how they feel, but judging by what I've seen Black folks say on social media, it should probably start with pushing wrestlers in that demographic even more.

A cursory examination would show that AEW's track record in this department is lacking. The Black wrestler they've pushed the hardest, Sky, is an interesting case, because he was at times primed to be a breakout singles star. He was pushed as the star portion of SCU when they won the Tag Team Champions, but as their reign lost momentum, it felt like the company's desire to push him diminished. They lost the titles to Kenny Omega and Hangman Page, and Sky fell back into Dark territory. The second push he appeared to receive included him grabbing a literal brass ring that he could exchange for a shot at the TNT Championship. That match was used only as a launching point into a heel turn where he'd play second fiddle to Ethan Page. Now, that tag team plays second fiddle to Dan Lambert doing his best Jim Cornette-mixed-with-Charlie Kirk impersonation at every major show. If Sky is the most prominent Black man in the company, who could blame fans that look like him for feeling a bit cold?

The same could really go for any Black wrestler on the roster. Rose, even as Women's Champion, has felt like she's been more backburner than front bench. Big Swole had a big feud with Britt Baker last year, won the blowoff match at All-Out, and then disappeared for almost an entire year. Part of that was injury, but one might think that someone who has a win over the current Women's Champ and biggest homegrown star they've built this side of Hangman Page would have a spot somewhere other than on Dark. Hobbs and Starks have only started their journeys to having more prominence on television, and The Acclaimed suffered punishment for an error that, quite frankly, was more on management and production than on the guy who made the "faux pas" they suspended him for in Max Caster. Sonny Kiss, Shawn Dean, Red Velvet, Anthony Ogogo, "Big Shotty" Lee Johnson, AEW has all these Black names and hasn't really made a good faith effort to try to get them into a main event slot, any new pushes starting now notwithstanding.

The knee-jerk reaction is to compare AEW to WWE, but honestly, you shouldn't. It's great WWE is featuring a robust slate of Black wrestlers, including Big E, whose title win this past Monday was long overdue. That being said, WWE has an undeniable racist history that they have not fully atoned for, and there's always the specter that Big E will lose his title in the same way Bianca Belair and Kofi Kingston lost theirs. But all of that is still immaterial in the fact that representation is not a counting game, a zero-sum affair, or something to post on the goddamn scoreboard. I don't watch WWE regularly (or really, at all), so I can't comment on any improvements made in the last two years. That being said, I do watch AEW, and I have a stake in seeing that company succeed (mainly, so I have something good to continue to watch going forward).

Unfortunately, there's no other answer to this problem except do better at pushing Black wrestlers. How many wrestlers pushed will do? Again, this isn't a counting game. I can't answer it either because I'm not Black. If you ask 100 Black people, it's liable you will get anywhere up to 100 different answers, because no demographic is a monolith either. Some might be happy with one person in the main event. Others may not be satisfied until the entire company is Black on top. But AEW can start by featuring more Black wrestlers on television consistently.

Unlike what Brian Cage things, titles and wins aren't the only thing. They're important, and AEW should maybe consider having Black wrestlers in protected roles in similar ways to members of the Elite, the Inner Circle, and the Pinnacle have been at times. But having a diverse roster up and down in every role doesn't hurt, especially given how many talented and charismatic Black wrestlers are on the roster. They are building up Jade Cargill. She should be ready to be the keystone of the Women's division within a year. They also signed Lee Moriarty, who was until he was signed the best independent wrestler in America. I think Tony Khan, for all his faults, is someone who listens, especially when people turn up the heat on him. 

But like all billionaires, he's not going to listen out of the goodness of his heart. He sees the landscape in dollar signs. While I don't think he's as heartless and greed-oriented as Vince McMahon, I'm not sure he's the kind of person who will change the world for the hell of it. If he was, he'd have given away all the money that was personally entrusted to his name. It sucks that the onus for marginalized or underrepresented people to get their due falls on those people, because in that case, the work is almost never done. That's why it's up to people who say they're allies and try to get all the credit for doing the grunt work just for putting trendy little signs on their lawn to keep punching up as well.

Until then, perhaps Cage's dissatisfaction with the company will lead to him leaving. That will create a vacuum of TV time available for someone else to slide into. Luckily enough, Team Taz has two Black wrestlers, one with a silver tongue and one who is built like a Greek god statue carved out of marble, to slide right over and take his spot. Every departure comes with an opportunity. The question is, will AEW keep the concerns of their Black fans, a demographic that has traditionally watched wrestling with its full support even when the representation wasn't there, at the forefront? If Khan and Cody Runnels and Turner Networks are all smart, they will.