The Legacy of WWE's 'PG Era' and What Comes Next 12 Years Later

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistJuly 22, 2020

The Legacy of WWE's 'PG Era' and What Comes Next 12 Years Later

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    WWE implemented its PG Era 12 years ago, introducing a more family-friendly product that emphasized heroic babyfaces that sold merchandise and vanilla villains to oppose them. It was a simpler time, creatively, and one that split the audience.

    But it never killed the audience's passion.

    From packing arenas to boo John Cena or standing behind CM Punk as he raged against the machine, fans were still invested despite the creative restraints placed on WWE shows and pay-per-view at the time.

    Oh, and the PG Era also gave way to the Women's Revolution that still grips the company today.

    While the letters "PG" once incurred the wrath of keyboard warriors pining for the days of beer-drinking badasses, both in hindsight and given the current state of WWE's less-than-inspiring product, it wasn't so bad.

    Over a decade after it launched, relive these defining characteristics of the time, its contributions to the modern show, and what is next for a WWE still trying to transition to the next era.

WWE's Resident Superhero

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    Perhaps the most distinguishable characteristic of WWE's PG Era was its reliance on superhero-esque babyfaces. 

    The greatest offender, through no real fault of his own, was John Cena.

    The face of an entire generation of WWE Superstars, Cena became the modern equivalent to Superman. No matter how often he was beaten down or had odds stacked against him as tall as the Eiffel Tower, he would overcome the deficit and win for his millions of young fans around the globe.

    In that regard, he was much like Hulk Hogan, and the WWE product closely resembled the kid-friendly presentation of the mid-to-late-1980s. Minus the over-the-top caricatures that dominated that era.

    Cena was a wholesome, square-jawed, good-looking hero that adults could feel comfortable letting their kids idolize, and the more they pumped money into merch stands, the longer management could force-feed him to the masses.

    No matter how loud the boos became from the older audience who demanded more out of their pro wrestling personas, Cena remained at the top because he had won over the demographic WWE was gearing its product to.

    While splitting the audience may seem like a bad thing, it actually created some extraordinarily dramatic matches and moments. Cena would defend the WWE Championship against someone like Daniel Bryan, CM Punk or even Randy Orton and one-half of the crowd would be rabidly behind him, cheering him on with their high-pitch screams, while the other would counter with the booming bass of their jeers.

    Every near-fall, every sudden finisher meant something because it would spark a reaction.

    Love him or hate him, despise the PG Era as you wish, but that may be both Cena and that era's greatest achievement: it made the audience care.

    At a time when general apathy hangs over the WWE product like a dark cloud ready to burst, the days of passionate fan reaction both in arenas and across the internet are sorely missed.

An Antihero Rises

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    Without the glossy presentation of a child-friendly product that WWE produced during the so-called PG Era, the Summer of Punk 2.0 may never have happened.

    Things had become so watered down, so vanilla, that Punk's June 27, 2011, Pipebomb Promo provided the spark the company needed.

    Here was this counter-culture antihero, this loud-mouthed voice of the masses who sat atop the Raw stage and expressed himself in a real and frustrated manner the way others simply were not doing. He was relatable because he was pissed off. He was tired of being held down by the like of Cena, who fans already resented for his constant and never-ending push as the face of the company.

    That promo, which even featured a dig at fans, ignited a flame and made Punk the hottest commodity in pro wrestling.

    He was edgy, genuine, and the older fans disenfranchised by the product that had left them behind found their savior in the Chicago native.

    He earned comparisons to "Stone Cold" Steve Austin for his bashing of the company's authority figures, but in reality, he was just Punk, and in hindsight, that is all he needed to be.

    While other, white-bread babyfaces may define the era of WWE programming, Punk turned the company on its head for a few short years and gave fans a taste of what an alternative to the advertiser-obsessed promotion could look like.

One-Dimensional Villains

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    A hero is only as effective as his greatest villain.

    It is a philosophy that defines comic books and most epic storytelling, but it's not a motto WWE Creative lived by during the height of the PG Era. 

    The company's writing team was so obsessed with presenting John Cena, Batista, Rey Mysterio, Jeff Hardy and even Triple H as these larger-than-life good guys that it almost completely disregarded the heels that would wage war with them.

    Alberto Del Rio, Big Show, Mark Henry, Jack Swagger...all were one-dimensional bad guys whose only real character trait to speak of was their willingness to do bad things to the babyface. Some did it better than others, sure (I'm looking at you, Mark), but that did not change the fact that so many of the villains throughout that particular era were underwritten and undefined shells of what a compelling heel should be.

    And no, that was not an issue directly attributed to the PG Era.

    WWE has a long, painfully one-dimensional history when it comes to its heels. They have always been heated up to be fed to the heroes, but the PG Era barely even got that right. It simply had a heel win a couple matches, gave them a sidekick manager or let them destroy some stuff, and expected fans to suddenly care about them enough when it came time for the showdown.

    It did not work.

    CM Punk, Chris Jericho and Randy Orton were the exceptions, but only because they took certain aspects of their characters in their own hands, rescuing them from the creative abyss and turning them into something special. 

The Women's Revolution

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    The greatest legacy of the PG Era may be the one that happened inauspiciously and accidentally even.

    The use of women during the PG Era was much akin to their usage during the 1970s and '80s. Kelly Kelly, Eve Torres, Natalya, Beth Phoenix, Maryse and The Bella Twins (among others) were utilized as a sideshow to the men, rather than as strong women who could be as integral to the show as their counterparts. 

    They were trotted out, given four minutes (including entrances) to work and never really allowed to get over in any measurable way. They were de-emphasized, a nice little break from the male testosterone, before the show got back to the object at hand.

    Even as AJ Lee rose to stardom and became an integral part of the show, and Paige and Nikki Bella developed as viable in-ring competition, there was still resistance on the part of management to give them equal opportunities at television time, creative attention and stardom.

    It all came to a head on the February 23, 2015, episode of Raw, when The Bella Twins beat Paige and Emma in about 30 seconds. The frustration surrounding the use of its female talent boiled over and sparked a Twitter movement known as #GiveDivasAChance.

    So passionate was it that even Vince McMahon himself chimed in, recognizing the fans' furor over what they saw as unequal and unfair distribution of creative resources and television time.

    A concerted effort by main roster management, as well as a groundswell of support for the incredible matches taking place on a weekly basis in NXT, sparked a revolution that would engulf WWE even as it transitioned into the so-called "Reality Era."

    Paige, Lee and Bella championed it initially until Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks exploded on to the scene and changed the world as women in professional wrestling knew it.

    The first women's pay-per-view, the signing of Ronda Rousey and the subsequent first women's WrestleMania main event are all the direct result of fan reaction to the underwhelming use of women during the PG Era and the efforts taken by those to help lay the groundwork for everything that followed.

What's Next?

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    Unfortunately, what's next is a hell of a lot less clear than the PG Era was when it kicked off 12 years ago.

    We knew WWE was heading for a more family-oriented product at that time, with an emphasis on John Cena as the resident superhero.

    We don't have that clarity now.

    There is no real indication of what WWE is supposed to be, where it is headed, or if there is even a good reason for half of what is happening with the current product.

    Sure, some of that can be attributed to the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, but even before that shut down the country as we knew it, there were signs that WWE had no clear vision for the future of the product. 

    Every time it attempts to create a new star, such as Drew McIntyre, it takes six steps back by focusing more heavily on familiar faces and legends, such as Randy Orton, Big Show and Edge.

    We do know the company has taken the Women's Revolution seriously, positioning its female talent as high on the card, and in as prominent of positions within the product, as ever before. They garner serious television time, and rightly so.

    We also know there is more attention paid to developing characters, at least in some regard. We have seen it play out with "The Monday Night Messiah" persona of Seth Rollins on Raw and Bray Wyatt's complex, multi-personality character that runs wild over on SmackDown.

    The creative freedoms given to those two men to distinguish those characters apart from the rest of the show is encouraging but really needs to be allowed across the board if the product is to rebound from its recent ratings troubles.

    We know this was once labeled the "Reality Era," but that label failed to stick, mostly because it was undefined and never truly represented what was going on with the product. It surely does not now, especially after we just witnessed a Wyatt Swamp Fight and a man get his eye plucked out on live PPV.

    While there is no real indication as to what is next for WWE, what should be next is much easier to define.

    Since John Cena wrapped up his full-time in-ring career in 2015, the company has grasped at straws, looking to find a new star around whom to build its product. The fact of the matter is that the company has as talented a roster as it ever has. The in-ring abilities of those under contract are far and away the best ever under Vince McMahon.

    The problem is not the talent or any of their abilities to be a star.

    The problem is that there is no vision, no forward-thinking movement by the company's creative forces to try to establish any ideas or philosophies. Shows come and go with little or no effect on what you will see six months later, and as a result, fans have absolutely no reason to invest themselves in anything going on.

    It does not matter if they watch Raw this week or tune into the pay-per-view in three weeks because none of it will matter months later. The majority of the storylines are underwritten. With the exception of a few of the aforementioned ones, so are the characters. 

    Every TV production, every pay-per-view feels like a company biding its time until someone goes off on a Twitter rant voicing their frustration and the creative team can build on that momentum for a few weeks. It then dies off and we are back into the monotonous pattern.

    Much like it did in 1997, when the company actively decided it was going to take a more attitudinal approach, Vince McMahon, his advisors and his closest confidants need to take a look at the product around them. They need to ask if they would be proud to be a part of it. When the answer is an inevitable "no," they need to pick a definitive direction to move in.

    It really doesn't matter what that direction is, either, because any direction is better than the nothingness we have now.