On the Politics of TNA and the Mystery of TNA Hate

I have to say, the raging TNA hate I sometimes encounter on the internet is pretty chilling. Some of it is such overt hit piece journalism, and by some rather well regarded wrestling journalists! I won’t name names or go into details because I don’t have time to go dig these things up, but I see this pattern playing out repeatedly: somebody calling themselves a wrestling journalist says something derogatory and dismissive about TNA, maybe tells a story about how the company is right on the verge of collapse, and then it turns out to be completely unfounded, and TNA wrestlers start to tweet about how whatever it was is untrue or a wild rumor based on a relatively innocuous set of facts. It’s the wrestlers who tend to point out that “wrestling journalism” is devoid of ethics or standards. TNA and its haters forms a truly unique little corner of politics in the world of wrestling. Perhaps the root of the animosity lies in TNA’s positioning itself as an implicit reaction to the monopolistic corporate tyrannies of the WWE, both in the company and its narrative.

There are certainly reasonable criticisms of TNA, even if I don’t personally agree with them. It has a hexagonal ring, and that’s weird. It’s unapologetically violent, which displeases some people. It wears its metaphors on its sleeve, and that’s not everybody’s cup of tea. Back when I caught something called TNA in the early 2000’s it was a different product, and not a particularly great product — the wrestlers were largely upstarts and has-beens without much of a narrative in a straightforward low-production value indy show — so it’s fair that people have a reluctance to give the brand another chance. And on TNA Impact in 2015, there are certainly promos that go on too long, certain characters that are off-putting, and some matches without much chemistry. Impact is far better booked than RAW and Smackdown, really, but I can see how, if you happen to tune in on some of these weak segments, you might not feel like sticking around to give it more of a chance. Life is short and all. And for all I know Dixie Carter may be a desperate, unscrupulous business woman, as much of “wrestling journalism” tends to cast her, but come on, people — this is professional wrestling! Consider all the underhanded dealings we know of that go on in this industry. Everyone reveres Paul Heyman, and yet he ran his wildly successful company into the ground, was known to con his way out of paying the wrestlers, and it was nothing short of a miracle nobody died a violent death under his watch. Look, I get it, ECW was brilliant but unsustainable. We’ve all forgiven Paul Heyman because we see him as an artist who changed wrestling forever. But tell me again, what exactly are these problems people have with Dixie Carter, and why should I care? Even if TNA Impact gets cancelled next week and it turns out the whole thing was really shady, I will remember it as a compelling product to have added its art to the canon of professional wrestling.

I for one enjoy TNA precisely because it wears its metaphors on its sleeve. Its gimmicks hold their messages up over the characters heads like audience members holding up boldly-worded signs on neon posterboard. There’s a tag team called the Dirty Heels, who are, you guessed it, dirty heels. In a way TNA is avant garde, if you think about it. Professional wrestling in WWE is about larger than life archetypes, carny and corporate character types that carry their meaning in the broad brush strokes of melodrama and morality play. TNA turns professional wrestling’s artistic assumptions inside out. Drew Galloway’s Rising stable is all about wrestlers, that’s right, on the rise. Their motto is “Stand Up For Wrestling”, and that is exactly what they do. They have formed primarily to oppose the Beat Down Clan, their violent, thuggish binary opposites, whose presence devolves wrestling into a street fight, beating down the artistic nobility that is possible in professional wrestling, the element of wrestling the Rising hopes to champion. And then there’s The Revolution, a sport of backwoods prepper militia who mostly lurk in the storyline shadows, waiting for the winds of change to present them with an opportunity to emerge from their compound and revolutionize the narrative. Amidst all this, Ethan Carter ran a literal political campaign for champion, which is essentially what Dean Ambrose is doing right now in WWE. (Dean is masking his political aspirations in the story of the Shield, Seth Rollins’ betrayal, and Ambrose’s own dynamic character). Maybe this blatant storytelling isn’t for you. Perhaps you prefer a different sort of spectacle. But it’s undeniable that the product TNA adds to the market is unique, and is well done for what they’re trying to do.

TNA functions as the wrestlers’ response to the political concepts in the world of wrestling, especially WWE’s mainstream assumptions and expectations. If you read it like that, TNA’s overt metaphors like the Beat Down Clan, the Rising, the Revolution, and Ethan Carter’s political campaign become satire of wrestling’s tempestuous political climate. These gimmicks that speak messages about the politics of professional wrestling function as the worker wrestler’s voice in the political conversation, a voice that is so so often drowned out by the voices of companies and superstars. The workers are the working class of wrestling, the proverbial forgotten man in wrestling’s larger political landscape. TNA’s stories are about wrestlers standing up for wrestling and aligning themselves politically with the wrestling audience. Consider that: TNA has no apparent authority booking the matches, the wrestlers come out on their own to answer the call of the narrative. TNA heat is loud and jeering and the cheers are equally as passionate, and it lacks the irony and restlessness you can hear in the chants and often weak responses of the WWE audience. TNA’s audience appreciates good wrestling, and since they get so much of it in TNA, they gratefully gives the wrestlers exactly the response they ask for. None of this conflicted, frustrated Let’s Go Cena/Cena Sucks business.

Even though the metaphors are so overstated, the characters are authentic and original. There are numerous wrestlers who are essentially themselves, which works well in a venue where the messages are more overt, but there’s also a rock and roll luchador of sorts, and a club DJ with a mohawk, how cool is that?  There is a diminutive and comical underdog in a bow tie called “Rock Star” in the term’s secondary meaning: he’s not a musician as far as I can see, he’s simply got a stage presence that fills a venue despite his small size. There’s an urban street thug modeled after a Nordic god in “Low-Ki”, which is a mix of ideas I never would have imagined. The resident cheerleader character isn’t somebody’s sexual fantasy of a cheerleader, she’s a professional athletic cheerleader, and she’s a major babyface, which is wonderful! TNA is also not afraid to feature a big scary black woman who is both a monster and an icon, demanding both fear and respect. She’s an empowering character, not ridiculed for her size or her rage but instead revered for both.

While I’m on the subject of the TNA Knockouts, I must say I think TNA’s women’s division has not been noticed nearly enough while we have been wringing our hands about the sad state of WWE’s divas division. Women’s wrestling is on grand display in TNA! If only Impact was on a more accessible channel, we wouldn’t have to wage hashtag campaigns and run timers on the pitiful divas matches, we could all just plan to watch women’s wrestling on a different night. These TNA women are as sexy as any of the divas but it doesn’t really matter — they’re there to wrestle, in fact they’re there to kick all kinds of ass, and they don’t hesitate to slam each other hard. This hit home for me about a month ago in a match when somebody flung Brittany (if memory serves) with full force into the steel steps in such a way that made a powerful, resonating crash like I’d never heard the steel steps make. It was real, she hit hard and well, and it made me realize how in WWE the wrestlers usually hit the steps in such a way that causes a thump and an awkward tumble. I’m not saying that doesn’t hurt, but it’s a softened blow, nothing like I saw Brittany absorb that night. Brittany hit the steps in such a way that made wrestling real.

And might I say, on the topic of the Knockouts division, that The Dollhouse is a brilliant addition to the political narratives of TNA. It took me a little while to realize it, but this new stable of crazy, catty mean girls is a satirical response to Total Divas as the primary showcase for women in WWE. Why else would TNA add a team of prissy bitches to a roster full of such empowered characters? This is one of those moments Max Landis identified in wrestling, where something sounds really lame but in fact it’s actually awesome. These prissy bitches are awesome, just like those Beat Down Clan thugs are awesome. They are much needed tricksters, antagonists for the amazing and talented women on the TNA roster, and like so much else in TNA, they illuminate the dysfunctional political position of women in the WWE.

TNA wrestler Mr. Anderson has a t-shirt that says “pro wrestling is real, people are fake.” This idea fascinates me, and really makes a statement about TNA’s artistic approach. The TNA narrative works in its own realm of kayfabe, in which the truth of wrestling’s politics is on full display, calling into question how much people are willing to play phony roles, swallow libelous rumors, and ignore the merits of an alternative product that fulfills so many of the demands we make of WWE.

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