The high point of Daniel Bryan’s still-young heel turn came a couple weeks ago. More specifically, it came when he delivered a blistering rant about climate change, capitalism, consumerism, and the ethical failure inherent in eating meat. He did this right there on television where everyone could see him. The audience in Wichita seemed torn between booing him for his arrogance and cautiously cheering him because he was right: The planet is dying at the hand of capitalism and our species is, if not precisely into it, seemingly at least very content to see if we can ride it out. Wrestling fans know this as well as everyone else.
Bryan’s target in this monologue was Vince McMahon. That in itself was not new, but Bryan used WWE’s capo as a stand-in for Baby Boomers, a class that Bryan held up as enemy number one in the battle for the future. They are “parasites,” in Bryan’s telling, and the still swaggering McMahon is the biggest parasite of all, the grand illusionist of American society and a tacky, selfish goon.
McMahon stood and stoically took it, seemingly secure in the knowledge that his billions insulate him from just this sort of critique. And it was all for show, of course: Daniel Bryan is McMahon’s employee and playing a part, just as McMahon plays his.
The complicating factor is that pro wrestling only sort of works the way that normal television does. Pro wrestlers are not primarily actors, not any more than it’s the case that they are primarily stuntpeople or shoot fighters or acrobats. They’re all those things at once, and both a mirror and an amplifier for the psyche of the crowds that react to them. It’s less theater than mass ritual, and as with any such ritual it involves a tacit agreement to act as if it’s all real despite the parts of it that beggar belief or demand faith.
But there is some truth in all this. Daniel Bryan is a more or less lifelong vegan and his politics are squarely left. He is not “playing” a new version of himself when he rants about carbon footprints and rising sea levels so much as expanding on what’s already there. The same things that put him over as one of the best-loved underdogs in the sport’s history—his scruffy looks, small stature, and obvious sensitivity—can be leveraged just as readily to get fans to boo him now. That’s the idea behind making him a heel, but the combination of his magnetism and the fact that he’s actually right about a lot of what he’s saying have complicated things; he’s as over as ever, and getting boos where he’s supposed to get them, but he’s also getting cheers where heels typically don’t. It’s probably too much to say that Bryan really thinks McMahon is a feckless Boomer piece of shit, but it’s surely not too much to say that Bryan thinks there very much are Boomer pieces of shit out there, and that he is happy to assign them blame for their role in the state of the world.
McMahon is also just being some version of himself, a billionaire who is more aloof and much more culpable than he thinks he is. Again, this is a character, and some perspective on McMahon’s real-life view of generational politics and worker relations reveals that there’s more there than lines of dialogue on a page. Back in 2014, WWE briefly hosted “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s podcast on the WWE Network, before everyone realized that Austin had a disturbing penchant for going off-message. During a fairly candid interview between the promotion’s two biggest figures, McMahon told Austin exactly what he thought of the younger generation which made up the bulk of the WWE roster.
“This is a different group of guys. And gals,” McMahon says. “It’s Millennials. You know, they’re not as ambitious, quite frankly. And they’re not trepidatious, at all, I just don’t think they necessarily want to reach for that brass ring.”
McMahon doubles down on the Millennial thing a minute later, saying that “nobody wants to fail.” Insecurity, failure, not ambitious, more resources—McMahon’s choice of words in describing his young employees is both revealing in its frankness and completely off-the-rack. WWE brass, as embodied by the very real Vince McMahon saying very real words, just doesn’t think very much of its workers. Nearly five years later, there’s not much to indicate that mindset has changed.
Two things can be true simultaneously. The first is that we are all marks, because Bryan and McMahon have what is apparently a good relationship in real life; the second is that the antagonism between the symbolic roles they’re playing is very real. Why else would this particular clip go viral? How else could it feel so vital and of this moment while simultaneously working so well as a bellowing wrestling promo?
What Bryan said—and has gone on saying—feels very real because it’s both on the streets and in the crowds. Contra McMahon, pro wrestling isn’t about individuals. Bryan’s cohort is easy enough to pick out: they’re other wrestlers, maybe a few activists, all around his age and all grumbling because there is no security and everyone under the age of 45 or so will be around to watch the planet die. The people who can’t see an ending at all, only the end, all know this on some elemental level. The sheer weirdness of the news reveals every day how humanity’s shared safety response to that knowledge is to greet the bizarrerie and horror with morbid irony.
But Vince McMahon has a cohort, too. Billionaires, despite all of society’s attempts to peg them as rugged individualists, also have friends. McMahon’s friends are other billionaires. They are, quite literally, Melania and Donald Trump. They’re also the people who run television networks and industrial conglomerates.
Bryan speaks for his cohort. McMahon speaks for his, and his cohort hates you, or at least isn’t especially concerned with whether or how you live or die. It isn’t just McMahon saying that his Millennials are pampered losers; he’s saying that all Millennials are pampered losers, including the ones he owns to use as he pleases. Bryan is more forthright about what he’s saying, but that message bears repeating: he’s saying that McMahon may be particularly parasitic, but also that the nature of his parasitism can be found throughout his demographic and class. Whether generational politics are bullshit or a distraction or whatever else is irrelevant, here. Bryan and McMahon are both riding the raw energy of a very real antagonism. They’re doing their jobs, in that regard, but not just that.
The antagonism being real is the reason why this works. It’s the only way this works. It’s the only way any of pro wrestling works. Just as the American wrestling hero isn’t beating up the Evil Foreigner heel, but all Evil Foreigners everywhere, the stand-ins here represent a real and meaningful fissure in America’s generational relations. It’s a struggle between good and evil in which evil can be conquered if it’s just slapped down hard enough. That’s the wrestling part. But the question, where Daniel Bryan vs. Vince McMahon is concerned, is just who the heel actually is. It’s not just a wrestling question.
Ian Williams is a freelance writer who covers pro wrestling, culture, and labor politics. His work has been featured in Jacobin, Vice, and The Guardian. He lives in Raleigh, NC.