The rise of the Attitude Era and the nWo in the mid to late-90s coincided with the ever-growing popularity of reality television in the United States. Though the genre hit a major stride with MTV’s “The Real World” in the early 90s, later years saw the realty television model expand to other areas. We weren’t just watching a group of roommates live and party together on one channel, but we were seeing athletes train for major sporting events and lonely hearts finding millionaire spouses on major network television, for example.
The effects of reality television on American culture hit professional wrestling as well, and strongly affected the way we thought of, and connected with, the characters within. As you’ve likely read many times, guys like Steve Austin, Triple H, and The Rock became amplified versions of their real life personalities, connecting with audiences on a deeper level. Interestingly, these stars were simultaneously more “down to Earth” AND “larger than life”.
Fans felt that they could live vicariously through these characters. They felt that they wanted to be them, and the WWE’s main event storylines allowed that. You, as a fan, wanted to be (or at least befriend) The Rock because he was the bully who was on your side. You hated Triple H because he was the bully who wasn’t on your side, but you connected with his strong sense of humor and obsession with being “The Best”. You connected most strongly with Steve Austin’s irresistible spirit, because you wanted to beat the living daylights out of your tyrannical boss.
However, I don’t know if we’ve seen as much of this phenomenon in women’s wrestling until now.
I feel that AJ and Kaitlyn’s personalities signal a new direction of characterization in the Divas division.
To be fair, Trish Stratus and a few others did the same to some degree, but I think that Lita was the only wrestler in the women’s division of yore that the crowd felt a really deep, personal connection to. Even so, Lita was quite the enigmatic character, which was a large part of her appeal. Teenagers, especially girls who may have been “closed off” and “angsty”, could relate to the complexity of Lita’s identity, and how she was at once reserved and passionate. However, as beneficial as this tension was to Lita’s character, it prevented her from sharing her personality with audiences.
As such, I’d argue that we hadn’t seen the personal investment that comes with a wrestler being an “amplified version of themselves” in women’s wrestling until AJ and Kaitlyn came along; at least not to this degree.
While reality television initiated the cultural shift in wrestling that allowed wrestlers to incorporate their personalities into their characters in the past, social media like Twitter and Tout make it easier for personalities like AJ and Kaitlyn’s to shine in 2012. They’ve both taken advantage of these methods to the fullest. Indeed, we connect with the two of them on deeper levels because we know from NXT and Twitter that AJ and Kaitlyn are legitimate geeks, ones who can show how magnetic their personalities are.
NXT showed that AJ is a true wrestling “fangirl”, one who is able to dominate wrestling trivia games no matter how obscure the topic. She named entrance theme songs, listed King of the Ring tournament winners, and identified vintage photographs of wrestlers within seconds (in a manner similar to what Derrick Bateman would do the following season).
Kaitlyn’s personality is a goofy one, and she shows it on Twitter as well as onscreen. She is a Simpsons geek who makes obscure references to the show and whose son is also named Bort. She wants to give everyone wedgies, is a mustache aficionado, the “mayor of Quad City”, and would love to go on a date with Santino’s cobra at Chili’s if only he’d send her a text.
These are endearing qualities that rely less on the tropes of sexuality, toughness, or strength that women like Torrie Wilson, Chyna, and Ivory found success in prior. Instead, these are fully fleshed out personalities that straddle the line between real life and onscreen presentation in a way that has proven successful on many occasions.
Even Layla has adopted this method, bringing more of her fun-loving real life personality to her development as a heroine in the Divas division. Eve is a captivating foil to both Layla and Kaitlyn, as she is an extremely developed character who is a total performer in every sense of the word, and ridiculously good at it to boot. Maxine did very well in a similar role on NXT, and her feud with Kaitlyn provided great tension. Though Eve’s success does not support my argument, Maxine’s role does, as she also incorporated her personality into her character development.
Historically in wrestling, we often connect to the character portrayed on TV first, and develop a deeper love and respect for the actual person behind the character as things progress and we learn more about them. With these two, we’re connecting with them as people before committing to their characters. It’s an extremely interesting shift, and something that bodes well for the future of women’s wrestling if given time to further develop.
At this point, I wonder how other Divas and Knockouts will develop moving forward, considering how successful AJ and Kaitlyn have become with their approach.
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