"Therefore, Randy Orton has always been at war with John Cena"
The odds are that if you have ever studied English literature, then you have studied dystopian fiction and, in turn, if you have ever studied dystopian fiction then you have studied 1984. As the WWE World Heavyweight Championship match between John Cena and Randy Orton unfolded at the Royal Rumble last week, I couldn't help but think about a world that I didn't want to live in, much like the one that George Orwell presented in 1984.
Whilst the vocal Pittsburgh audience were certainly worlds apart from the beleaguered Outer Party, the concept of a ruling presence seemingly oblivious to the hopes and wishes of the general public perhaps seems like a rather apt parallel to the state of the WWE today. However, to me a far more pressing issue is more specific strand of Orwell's dystopia; the dystopia of language that is discussed through Newspeak, the thought-restricting version of the English language used in 1984.
To illustrate this point, I'd like for you to have a look at these gifs from Orton v. Cena:
It's been said before, but the way that the match began doesn't make a jot of sense. Randy Orton kicked Cena sr. in the head not two weeks prior, but now Cena has the chance to get his hands on Orton the match begins with them circling and then Orton applying a headlock? It's like they're playing up that this is a boring feud. The only reason that this match starts the way that it does is because that's how a wrestling match starts, the two guys circle one another and everyone is used to that. This leads me on to those other two gifs.
Every action in a wrestling match is a phrase in a physical language. For example, a wrestler sliding out of the ring during a match to avoid their opponent is a message to the audience that they are a coward and the audience should boo. Like any language, the meaning of a phrase can be subverted and changed based on context, but in general every individual action should have its own meaning. With that in mind, what is the meaning of stealing your opponent's finishing move?
Normally, it would be as a thumb in the eye of your opponent, right? A little 'have that', so to speak. However, it seems to me that the meaning of the phrase has been muddied, to the point where its meaning is more that it is simply another big move. However, thinking about it logically, this doesn't make sense. A finishing move isn't just a very powerful move, it's a technique that a particular wrestler has used so often that they have mastered it. It's a sad signal of just how far out the window things like 'narrative' and 'logic' has gone, when the videogame create-a-wrestler logic of a finishing move is just that you choose a move to end the match with and it does double damage. Why would an RKO by Cena be particularly effective? He hasn't practiced it, it doesn't suit his style. This match was like a poem written with words that sound nice but don't have any meaning when put together—you might say, 'they did what they could, the crowd were restless', but a match so devoid of any meaning of this being the semi-main event of a major pay-per-view is a thoroughly damaging abuse of the language of pro wrestling.
Which brings me neatly back round to Orwell. The Newspeak of 1984 can be traced back to an essay that Orwell wrote in 1946 entitled 'Politics and the English Language'. This essay can be read in full here, and I would certainly recommend it if you haven't already come across it. In the essay, Orwell discusses at length what he perceives to be the failings of the English language in its contemporary state, and I think that a great deal of what he says is very applicable to the current state of the physical language of pro wrestling in the WWE.
A good way in to the comparison is Orwell's suggestion that part of the problem is "the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument that we shape for our own purposes." As I said earlier, every action in a wrestling match is imbued with meaning, but that's not to say that such a meaning is intrinsic to that action. My earlier example of a wrestler sliding out of the ring to imply cowardice could quite easily be 're-shaped' to imply that the wrestler was simply being aware of his surroundings and making a clever decision; but it would take a considered effort to undertake such a 're-shaping', a commitment to not going back on this decision and proper support from other means of communication i.e. commentary.
However, increasingly, the language of pro wrestling is not seen as a tool so much as it is seen as a monolith, not to be interfered with. This inevitably has brought us to the landscape of 'bad habits' similar to what Orwell is talking about. The following passage rather capably sums up one of the main thrusts of Orwell's argument but could just as well be applied to pro wrestling (note: above, I have used 'phrase' to describe an action in pro wrestling as I think a 'word' doesn't quite get across the same meaning, but in this passage from Orwell's essay a singular move or action would resemble what he refers to as a 'word' and not a 'phrase'—I realise this may be rather confusing.)
This, to me, is at the core of the reason that Orton v. Cena was so completely underwhelming—it felt more like a series of spots taken from other matches but without any consideration of the narrative work that was undertaken in those matches to 'earn' said spots. Orwell puts a comparable practice in English as a 'worn-out metaphor', that being a phrase that has "lost all evocative power...merely used because they save people the rouble of inventing phrases for themselves...many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning."
It is far beyond me to write off Randy Orton and John Cena as 'bad' wrestlers, and just as Orwell makes sure to state in his essay, the problem is not solely on the shoulders of the examples here, but a wider culture of language abuse. That being said, time after time performers at the highest level use the language of pro wrestling in a way that can't suggest anything other than a lack of knowledge regarding the meaning of their actions.
It's all too easy to write off Orton v. Cena as a bad match and be done with it, but like Orwell I don't think that the attempt to stem the flow of this sort of degradation is 'frivolous'. Orwell states his belief that a reform in language could contribute toward a wider 'political regeneration', and similarly I think that a greater respect and concern for the nuts and bolts of pro wrestling could be the first step to a regeneration of mainstream American pro wrestling from top to bottom. For all the talk of long-term booking and what they higher-ups of the WWE are doing wrong, it seems to me that what really needs to be looked at is the very state of the language of pro wrestling