Something that feels all too regular these days is older wrestlers making sweeping statements about the state of modern wrestling. It seems every other week someone is in the news telling us that the current generation of wrestlers are “soft” and “too nice”. I take exception to these statements.
Let’s use one of the most recent examples. On his latest stop on his tour of character self-destruction, The Undertaker appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience. One of the more notable things to come from that interview would be Undertaker’s comments on the modern wrestling locker room. He talked about how in his youth he would be in locker rooms with gruff men who had guns and knives in their bags. He lamented how these days, the locker room is full of men playing video games and making themselves pretty. He misses the old days, when “men were men”.
Now, to each to their own. I take issue with the “when men were men” comment, but otherwise Undertaker is entitled to prefer the company of heavily armed lunatics if he so chooses. Personally, I think the change in the WWE locker room (and in wrestling overall) is indicative of a change in generation; in my opinion one for the better. Where older men see tradition, toughness and being a “real man”, I see toxic masculinity, fragile egos, and bullying.
There are endless accounts of what it was like to work for the WWF/E throughout the years. Decades of backstage politics gave way to accepted bullying and hazing of the new kids, a hierarchy built on respect, and built on ego. I don’t really see many of those involved as culpable; so much as surviving in a hostile environment. However, from the antics of the Clique to the ribbing (read: assault) carried out by some prominent figures (read: bullies) it’s hard not to point fingers and call bullshit. These systems of separating the worthy from the unworthy, “the men from the boys”, are nothing more than small men playing in their big boy pants. It’s no more than the schoolyard nonsense many of us dealt with growing up, only now perpetrated by grown ass men. It’s a mentality I am happy to see is finally dying out.
I am a cis, straight, white, millennial man. I’m young enough to be part of a new generation, but old enough to remember the tail end of the old. I grew up with men telling me to act tough; having to prove my worth through nonsensical “trials of manliness”. I’ve been hazed. In my adult life I’ve worked with men from previous generations, and have seen those old toxic mentalities alive and well. Luckily, I have surrounded myself with friends who see things differently. I have a strong group of male friends, who will as soon hug me in public and tell me they love me, as they will leap into a fight and throw hands with me. Not that that comes up often, thankfully, but our “toughness” isn’t defined by facile demonstrations of how super straight and manly we are.
Today’s wrestling locker rooms may be full of grown men talking about video games and comic books, but so what? How does that diminish them in any way? It doesn’t, and more importantly they know it doesn’t. We have all seen first hand what unchecked toxic masculinity can do. That mentality leads to poor mental health and often worse actions. Today’s men need to reject the awful ideas of manliness of the past, and thankfully in wrestling this seems to be happening. I believe wrestling will be all the better for it.
One of the most toxic aspects of performative manliness is competition. Healthy competition is a great thing, but ego often takes over and people can get resentful and nasty. So many times we have heard about wrestlers trying to advance their careers at the expense of others. For a long time this was commonplace; everyone fighting for the spot of the person above them.
I’m not a wrestler, and I’m not in these situations. I can only comment as a fan, and these days, wrestling feels different. For the most part, it seems like the wrestlers of this generation try to support each other. Hell, these days wrestlers from different promotions hype each other up. Twenty years ago, that was unheard of. A wrestling locker room is not unlike a team, though when they compete in the ring, they are all on the same side. When wrestlers work together, the show is better and everyone benefits. This seems to be the thing older wrestlers point to when they call the current generation soft, as though they lack ambition. It’s possible to strive for success without striving for the failure of others. A rising tide raises all boats, unless someone goes out of their way to hold one down.
Toxic masculinity is not gone. Like a lot of human problems it’s something you manage, not get rid of. We’re all capable of it, and there’s still plenty of it going on in wrestling. We’ve gotten better with it, and a lot of shitty behaviours that were once accepted are now being called out and stamped down. As we saw with Speaking Out, we’re not where we should be and there’s work to be done. My point is we are making progress. The more old heads lament times passed, the better we must be doing. Wrestling isn’t what it was, wrestlers aren’t like they were, and for the most part, that’s a good thing.