Family Affair: Nuanced Storylines Demand Vince and Stephanie McMahon
Vickie Guerrero is a fraud.
Booker T is a fraud, too.
You guessed it—a fraud.
When he was on television, John Laurinaitis was a fraud as well. So was "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.
Every WWE authority figure since the heyday of the Attitude Era has been a huge failure, artistically and commercially. Some of that lies in poor performance, actors unsuited for the role they are playing. But others have fit the role to perfection and still failed.
In the quasi-make-believe world of the WWE, everything exists in a state halfway between a work and a shoot. Yes, the storylines are predetermined and scripted, and everyone knows it. But they, conversely, have to feel real to be truly successful.
You can put a man in a $5,000 suit, but that doesn't automatically give him an air of authority. Because we've lurked behind the looking glass for far too long to buy into the idea that Teddy Long would be trusted to run a merchandise stand unsupervised, let alone SmackDown.
There are two believable authority figures in the WWE. Two people with the storyline and real-life juice to make realistic television bosses. They both have the last name "McMahon," and, God, is it good to see Vince and Stephanie back on WWE television.
Vince McMahon's rise to the top of the wrestling business is the stuff of legend. Wrestling promoters in the 1980s were the most ruthless of sharks—and McMahon beat them at their own game. Like the inevitable tide, his WWF spread from its home in the Northeast across the entire continent and then the globe.
Today, with Mexico and Japan remaining the lone holdouts, when anyone across the planet thinks about professional wrestling, they think about McMahon's WWE. That's a pretty remarkable achievement.
But being the best promoter and businessman in the wrestling industry was never McMahon's dream. No kid dreams of putting on a suit and supervising mergers and acquisitions. If they do, someone needs to put them on a federal watch list, because that's some seriously aberrant behavior.
No, McMahon dreamed of being a wrestler, just like his hero Dr. Jerry Graham, a bleached blond and flamboyant lady's man who breathed life into any room he entered. Vince's father, then owner of the company, forbade it.
Vince became, instead, the lead voice on WWE television, an iconic announcer who, despite decades of experience, had the remarkable ability to believe any and every near fall would be the end of a match. He set the tone for the light-hearted and fun-loving ethos that made the WWF so successful in the 1980's, performing in the campiest of skits and taking a pie in the face on his faux talk show Tuesday Night Titans. If the boss would humiliate himself on television, over and over again at that, everyone else had to follow suit.
Even if he had done nothing else in front of the camera, McMahon would have still been a pivotal and legendary figure in the business. Not just as a promoter—as a performer.
But the desire to get into the ring never quite faded. At the age of 51, he took the plunge.
Many credit the Montreal Screwjob with the creation of the "Mr. McMahon" character. Real-life events, in this case a contract squabble and fistfight with wrestler Bret Hart, forced his hand. Vince had to become his company's top villain because the fans wouldn't have it any other way. Or so the story goes.
Real life is a little more complicated. In truth, the groundwork for the "Mr. McMahon" character had been laid years before. In 1993, he had gone down to Memphis for a test run, playing a villain for the first time in a feud with Jerry Lawler. While the two never broke kayfabe on WWE programming, where they announced Superstars side by side every week, in Memphis, they engaged in a bitter struggle for supremacy.
McMahon was brilliant in the role, combining a seemingly natural arrogance with just enough physical prowess to make him a believable foil for a fit and muscular wrestler. It was lightning in a bottle, and in 1996, the WWE began preparing its audience for a very different version of Vince McMahon. Jim Ross and Austin revealed McMahon's true role to the WWE audience for the first time, outing him as the owner, and not just the lead announcer, of the entire promotion.
By the time "Bret screwed Bret," McMahon was well on his way to being a television character. What the incident did, however, was force the promotion, and McMahon himself, to go all in. WWE didn't have the luxury of rolling the character out slowly and possibly changing its mind. McMahon was propelled down a steep hill with no brakes—he would either crash and burn in glorious style or he would build up speed and momentum unlike any WWE character before or since.
McMahon was built for speed.
For a decade, he was a central part of WWE television. He's won the Royal Rumble, become WWE champion and feuded with everyone from Austin to Donald Trump.
Vince is unarguably one of the most important characters in modern wrestling history. And McMahon is no solo act. He's made his family an integral part of the business, both behind and in front of the camera.
Daddy's Little Girl
There was a time when four McMahons once roamed WWE Raw. Vince was Vince, the patriarch and the greatest communicator in wrestling history. His wife, Linda, was a wooden actress, lifelessly sucking the air out of any segment she was in. Shane was a natural, the swaggering image of his father and a daredevil showman who would take any risk for the ultimate high—the roar of the crowd.
But it was Stephanie who was truly her father's daughter.
Stephanie McMahon is the most polarizing figure in the entire wrestling industry. In some ways, that should come as no surprise. She's a strong female leader, both in life and on television, in what is still very much a boy's club.
As Vince's second-in-command, she makes seven-figure decisions on a regular basis. She hires and fires talent. Her opinions and preferences help decide in what direction the company goes. She's strong and assertive. Those are generally positive traits in a man, signs of a being a leader. A woman with the same demeanor, depending on the eye of the beholder, is often given a different, more derogatory title.
It's that backwards mindset that makes Stephanie such compelling television. She's Vince in a dress. And whether in a love triangle with real-life husband Triple H and Kurt Angle (one of my all-time favorite angles), or interacting with A.J. Lee on Raw, McMahon commands the camera like few others.
Part of that is her storyline portrayal, her last name and a decade-plus on television. And some of it is inherent charisma. Love her or hate her, and there are plenty in both camps, make no mistake about the fact that McMahon oozes star power.
It's not clear yet where this current angle is going. Stephanie is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, which is significantly different, in WWE terms, than being between the Rock and a hard place.
Most WWE stars are asked to either show anger or deliver scripted one-liners. No one, in short, is channeling Robert DeNiro in The Godfather II. They are channeling, instead, Robert DeNiro in Meet the Parents or Cape Fear. Over the top, broad comedy and even more over-the-top violence and fury. More "enraged hillbilly" than Iago.
What Stephanie is attempting is acting on a different level than we typically see in the WWE. And, while she hasn't quite delivered yet, the degree of difficulty is fairly astounding. It's a storyline with many layers, mixing topical drama like head-injury treatment with family dynamics that are vaguely Shakespearean.
Her husband is a proud and temperamental man. Her father is a proud and temperamental man. Neither is likely to back down. It's her job to prevent chaos.
It's a role that requires significant nuance and subtlety. It's grown-up storytelling for an increasingly grown-up audience. And it's a story that demands the WWE's top talent. It's a role that demands the McMahons.
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