On Sunday, WWE presents its Night of Champions pay-per-view, the first in the post-SummerSlam glut that somehow crams five big shows into four months. The catch with this one — as its name promises — is that all the title belts are defended on one night. I know what you casual fans are thinking: Don't they usually do that? Nope. A quick review of the last year of pay-per-view events demonstrates how little regard is given to the Intercontinental or U.S. or tag-team titles. Thus, we have an everybody-in-the-pool tag-team match to pick the challengers for the Shield's belts — story lines in that quarter being so nonexistent that they have to stage the championship match and its buildup on the same night. We also have CM Punk semi-slumming it against IC champion Curtis Axel — only the dangling carrot of Punk finally getting his hands on Axel's manager Paul Heyman elevates that showdown to a PPV-worthy level. (I can hardly make a joke about the U.S. title match between Dean Ambrose and Dolph Ziggler — it's going to be great — but they haven't exactly built it up to be the Mega Powers colliding.)
But even the intermittent indignities of those belts pale in comparison to the contempt usually afforded the Divas championship, that little bastard stepdaughter of WWE divisions, a department rivaled in WWE historical insignificance only by the Cruiserweight strap. Sunday, AJ Lee will defend that title, but this year, for a change, the match actually has some intrigue. AJ is facing off against three opponents — Natalya Neidhart, Brie Bella, and Naomi of the Funkadactyls — in a match that has at stake not just lady-wrestling supremacy but the very soul of the women's division. Well, OK, not really, but that's the story.
The backstory to the feud isn't a past brawl or a misunderstood facial expression or a friendship gone awry, but rather the participation of AJ's challengers in an E! network reality show called Total Divas. A couple weeks ago, AJ came out after a match between Natalya and Brie (the rest of the Total Divas cast was also ringside) and dropped a minor-key pipe bomb just like her old flame Punk once did, lighting into them for their lack of seriousness.
"Do you want to know what I see when I look in that ring? A bunch of cheap, interchangeable, expendable, useless women. Women who turned to reality television because they just weren't gifted enough to be actresses, and they just weren't talented enough to be champion. I have saved your Divas division,1 I have shattered glass ceilings, I have broken down doors. Why? So a bunch of ungrateful, stiff, plastic mannequins can waltz on through without even as much as a thank you? … I didn't get here because I was cute, or because I came from some famous wrestling family, or because I sucked up to the right people. I got here because I am good. I earned this championship."
The other Divas were livid, and the feud was set for Night of Champions. It was a nice collision of both Reality Era storytelling and boldface cross-promotion the likes of which probably hasn't been seen since Tiny "Zeus" Lister sprang whole cloth from the director's cut of No Holds Barred and went after Hulk Hogan back in 1989. Back then, of course, they were trying to convince us that Zeus was an honest threat in the real wrestling world, separate from the fakery of Hollywood. Now they're trying to make us think AJ is a shining ray of honesty in a fake world, and that her opponents are just incidental Zeusettes.
Total Divas is a look into the backstage and offscreen lives of some of the WWE femmes in typical reality show style. (The show is produced by Bunim/Murray, the same company responsible for the Kardashian monolith.) It's every bit as mindlessly entertaining as the other reality shows, but in the context of pro wrestling, Total Divas is absolutely fascinating.
The show follows a handful of WWE's female stars — the Bella Twins, Ariane and Trinity (also known as Cameron and Naomi, the Funkadactyls), Natalya, and newcomers Eva Marie and JoJo — as they party, train, and go on dates with beaus both famous (Nikki and Brie Bella are dating John Cena and Daniel Bryan, respectively) and not so much (Natalya is engaged to Tyson Kidd). There's lots of yawning on couches in stretch pants. What intrigues is the blurring of the lines between reality television and wrestling unreality.
Yes, the lives depicted are nominally the lives of pro wrestlers. Yes, the Divas react to things that actually happen on the WWE television product — they're several months behind the real world, so viewers watch them interact with past events in a bizarre kabuki dance of irrelevance. Yes, the relationships are real — some of them, at least. JoJo's momentary infatuation with Justin Gabriel felt like a total put-on, but Ariane's non-wrestler boyfriend is either totally legit or this generation's greatest character actor.
Yes, they're using their real names, more or less, which is the show's most emblematic violation of old-school wrestling kayfabe. It's one thing to reveal that, say, Fandango is not a real name (though oddly they refer to him as Fandango), but it's another to casually blur Ariane and Trin with their Funkadactyl names Cameron and Naomi. It's even weirder when Trin's boyfriend, wrestler Jimmy Uso, appears on the show and uses his real name, Jon;2 or when Natalya's fiancé, Tyson, goes by TJ. It's remarkable how easily the wrestlers' names are abandoned and how unnecessary the aliases feel. How is it that reality television — arguably a faker context than Raw — makes wrestling's unreality seem so silly? Is WWE permitting the Divas cast to sacrifice kayfabe at the altar of pop culture relevance, or is kayfabe too dead to even bother knifing?
Every wrestling fan grew up hearing the same refrain: "You know that stuff's fake, right?"3 Nowadays, the same derision is often aimed at reality television. And the question is no less ridiculous than when I heard it as a kid. The lie is inherent to the craft. When The Hills ended all those years ago with the camera panning back to reveal the set, it wasn't a confession, it was a bow. In both wrestling and reality television, reality exists only as a façade to enhance entertainment value.
Taking all the lessons of reality television before it, Total Divas fibs and blurs its way into a bold, new honesty in this postmodern era of wrestling. That's not to say it isn't still a silly show. It's a program in which career success takes a perpetual backseat to relationship troubles, in which the cast is obligated to speak of hangnails and tanning accidents as potentially career-ending dilemmas, in which mangled metaphors are treated like great philosophy, and in which the closed-captioning often gives way to reeling descriptions like "[Indistinct yelling]" and "[Women whooping]." There's something patently ridiculous about complaining about your lack of screen time on one television show (Raw) while you're on another television show. Total Divas is full of bad stereotypes — everybody's a catty bitch or a walked-over drip — and the company's one really great female wrestler, Natalya, often presents herself as the most shallow of the bunch. I know she's playing a part, but it still bums me out. There was a recent scene in which the other Divas were practicing moves in the ring and Natalya joined them (in spandex and a designer headscarf) and proceeded to talk not about technique but about her wedding-preparation woes. It was like a sad trombone bleating for anybody who ever truly cared about wrestling.
But in a way, that's the whole point of the show. If it doesn't reveal anything particularly sensational about the real lives of wrestlers, or about the creative process behind the scenes, it at the very least reveals that none of it really matters. Wrestlers are just regular people like you and me — or, at least, like the Kardashians.
That regular-people thing is, perhaps coincidentally, the entire appeal of WWE's current biggest star, Daniel Bryan. And unwittingly, that same quality makes him the star of Total Divas. Even in brief glimpses, set opposite his girlfriend, Brie, a reformed party girl trying to treat her man right, and in stark contrast with the stoic hilarity of John Cena, Bryan is a breath of fresh air. The rest of the show often comes off as a parade of Divas shadowboxing through weird approximations of their onscreen characters. And judging from the opinions of several non-wrestling-fan female viewers of the show, Bryan is the show's oddball dreamboat and moral anchor.
But, David, you know it's fake, right?
Yeah, sure. It's staged and scripted to the hilt. Anyone looking for documentary truth would have to groan when Bryan is filmed casually waking up in a hotel room with Brie, or when he gets into a casual wood-chopping contest with Cena. But unlike the Divas in almost every other scene, Bryan seems totally believable.4 Him shaking a hungover Brie's head to teach her a lesson about drinking might be the funniest moment in the show's brief history. When he is shown coming backstage after a match, with his eyes still pulsing with in-character fervor, and he then drops out of character long enough to give Brie a kiss in front of her Divas costars, it feels like the one real moment in the entire series.
That same eccentric authenticity is what has made Bryan such a potent hero on WWE television. Since he beat Cena for the WWE championship at SummerSlam — and then lost it moments later to the corporate hack Randy Orton — Bryan has been variously mauled and humiliated in some new way each week at the behest of diabolical executive Triple H. Bryan, the undersize hipster wrestling fan, is the new everyman for a post-kayfabe generation. And as such, when Bryan gets his rematch against Orton at Night of Champions, the crowd will be united behind the babyface in a way we haven't seen in years. At the heart of Bryan's appeal is his regular-guyness, the way his dedication to the craft is balanced by a wry, unspoken self-awareness.
What's been most consistently surprising, though, is WWE's commitment to the Daniel Bryan experiment, or, more specifically, the letting-Bryan-be-Bryan experiment.5 They're letting him headline the company even though the entire story line is that Bryan isn't championship material.
In the Divas match, WWE is co-opting reality — the existence of the E! show — discussing it out loud, and making AJ mad about it. In the main event, they're co-opting one real fact — the fans know Bryan is an unlikely champion — discussing it out loud, and making Triple H mad about it. Except that WWE can only be ecstatic about Total Divas, and WWE is fully behind Bryan, and no amount of powermongering by Triple H can change that. In pro wrestling the question isn't whether things are real. Underneath all the theatrics, it's real people going onstage (or in a ring), entertaining us, and hurting themselves. The question is how big the lie on top of the reality is.
When Total Divas debuted, there was widespread fear among wrestling fans that the SummerSlam main event — where the two competitors, Bryan and Cena, were each dating Bella twins — would end up being a commercial for Total Divas. Thankfully, that didn't happen. But now the Divas division is all about Total Divas — and, oddly, that might be a good thing too. Fan interest is higher for the AJ Lee match at Night of Champions than it has been for any Divas match in ages.
There's been some talk that Triple H is overindulging in his wicked role, that he's making Bryan (and other wrestlers) look weakened (by insults or beatdowns or both) along the way. I don't put too much stock in that. He's playing his role with such villainous glee — saying things like "It would be so much easier if everybody learned to get along with me" and "I'm really not a bad guy" — that one half-expects him to twirl his mustache. For her part, AJ spends a lot of time diminishing her opponents — that's been the whole story line — and it works. Total Divas fans shouldn't be too offended. It might be based in reality, but it's all part of the show. Who's being hurt by that?
Think about the contrast at play here. Total Divas isn't treated with much seriousness on Raw, and with all the cattiness and backstage lollygagging, Raw certainly isn't taken too seriously on Total Divas. You'd be forgiven for thinking that none of it really matters at all. Yet for some reason, fans are still screaming their heads off, kayfabe be damned.
Back to that AJ Lee promo from a few weeks back. "You are all worthless excuses for women, and you will never be able to touch me," she said before dropping the mic and skipping offstage. "And that is reality."
Well, no. It's a story line. But it's always fun to pretend.