The Demographic Gimmick: How “The New Day” Works And Doesn’t
In professional wrestling there have been a few well known ethnic stables, but the concept of centering a group around their shared heritage has always been a bit of a rocky road for the WWE creatively. Typically reduced to behavioral stereotypes (The Bushwackers, Cryme-Tyme, Deuce and Domino, The Wild Samoans, The Mexi-Cans, Los Matadores, Billy and Chuck…), when a duo/trio/band of brothers do fall in step with grace and aplomb it resonates with the entire audience. For the new tag team triplets The New Day (Xavier Woods, Kofi Kingston, Big E) however, connecting with the audience has been difficult during their short time on the main stage despite the individual strengths of the three members, and its mostly due to the “walking on eggshells” nature of the WWE’s creativity.
Xavier Woods was the newest of the bunch to join the main roster. A charismatic talent with lots to offer in both comedy and physicality, Woods would be the glue that brought together Kofi Kingston and Big E. As two former champions in their own right Big E and Kofi weren’t missing anything per se, but bringing the three men together with a shared motivation/goal seemed like a slam dunk at first glance.
Woods scouted his two teammates for a little while, and then the three of them more or less vanished from television. During those weeks Woods hinted that their new group had no name other than the Smart Athletic Friends. They were going to use their combined abilities of speed, strength, and smarts to dominate opponents as they could reconfigure the group to form ideal pairings for certain opponents. Kofi and Xavier, Xavier and Big E, Big E and Kofi. He denied claims that they were going to be just another black stable, put together to resemble a former stable or taking advantage of their race for a gimmick. In their promos as a trio prior to debuting together, the three of them were a strangely perfect little ball of tension. Not anger, nothing racial…just focus and suspense.
It was a novel idea to hear about in his commentary and interviews…but that idea evaporated into thin air when the first vignettes for The New Day began to air.
From the looks of it The New Day is an evangelical gospel speaking group. There’s no talk of God or prayers, no proper hymns or bible passages…but there is an all-black choir wearing robes, the wrestlers themselves are wearing vestments reminiscent of clerical garb, they preach about the ideal of the new day, of standing up to oppression around you and seizing the future for yourself. In his first vignette, Xavier Woods was overcome by spirit as he dramatically clutched a classic microphone while his backup singers supported him. There’s clapping along with the beat in all their videos; there’s Big E dramatically wiping his brow as does the southern Baptist minister; there’s “Sunday best” casual gear with suspenders and slacks. All signs are clearly aimed at this trio evoking the spirit of the religious gathering, specifically a stereotypically black religious gathering, but the WWE is deliberately avoiding going the full monty on this concept in favor of a more ambivalent and saccharine approach.
Stereotypes aren’t necessarily a bad thing. They help us quickly frame something before we assess it for ourselves. If I suggest you think of a dive bar, the stereotype of that would be an underground, dingy place with low lighting and cheap booze. If I suggest you think of a taxicab driver, your kneejerk reaction could feel a little tainted by popular culture but you don’t consider that racism. The individual appearance and personality of cabbies doesn’t have a certain definition but it gets your head in the right place for what to expect when popular culture gives you a cabbie. If someone was going to describe The New Day they could call them preachers, or motivational speakers maybe. But because the WWE is going to all lengths to wipe any formal mention of religion from the gimmick, they’re not really evangelical…they’re just…inspired? By happiness and goodness in general?
Yes, that’s really it. That’s where the character of The New Day comes to a screeching halt. Before when it was the Smart Athletic Friends at least, Xavier/Kofi/E all had defined roles in the team, they each covered a facet of the pro wrestler that gave them all added value as teammates. Now, since The New Day debuted, there’ve been zero storylines involving them in a meaningful way. Every match they’re in is just a single space in time, a match for nothing but prestige. They exist in the gimmick bubble, the place the WWE puts teams with strong images and personality. They are tools for fighting matches, not for driving storylines or plots. See 3MB, Los Matadores, The Ascension, The Lucha Dragons…they’ve all just been in matches for the past two years while teams like The Shield and The Wyatt Family all were deeply intertwined with other superstar’s lives. Now that those six men are individuals there’s a big gap missing for strong tag teams to fill. But the WWE creative team is still dancing on eggshells when it comes to getting superstars, especially teams, involved with one another.
Where the WWE could be one great big mess of love triangles, rivalries, stories to tell, comedic bits and more…they’ve get very narrow vision when it comes to being able to invest in a story for anyone but the top of the top draws. The New Day debuted to…nothing. They haven’t really gotten involved in any meaningful way with anyone. Even their message appears to be out of thin air. We remember who these guys were before The New Day, are they just new people now? Did those other personalities hopes and dreams, natural comic timing, and chemistry all sort of explode when mixed into this naturally? From my point of view it’s WWE creative attempting to do something smart/demographic safe with three talented black pro wrestlers…and missing the ball entirely.
When trying to engage the black community, presenting a stereotype might initially endear the younger, less prone to making connections generations of children and surface level fans that watch the product, but step even one level deeper to folks who grew up in baptist churches, who have closely experience what it’s like to be shown what “black” looks like, and it falls apart. “No!” The WWE said, “They’re not the New Nation!” The Nation of Domination was a predominantly (and eventually entirely) black stable whose roots were in oppression and aggression against that invisible wall that holds us all back. Farooq’s ability to incite an audience with his charged promos and salutes were direct allusions to the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers. The Nation was the “angry black man” stereotype. The New Day could not be that in a WWE-PG era, but the company felt they still needed the court the demographic.
According to a survey run by the Sports Business Journal in April of 2003, of 200,000 people aged 18 and older surveyed, About half of people who’d consider themselves avid WWE fans are white. About 26% are black, 20% hispanic and only 2% asian. Interestingly, Cagesideseats.com looked into surveys conducted by The Wrestling Observer and found that the average age of the WWE viewer was going up. Last year the average viewer was most likely to be a white male with no kids in his 40s. This correlates well with the average age of the viewer ten years ago when about 37% of the audience was under 17, and the age of the average viewer was 24. With teams like Los Matadores and The New Day, the WWE is attempting to court demographics it’s losing/doesn’t have a solid grip on (children and minorities) to diversify and expand their appeal…but the delivery of those tag teams is falling flat by not taking advantage of potential drama with short sighted creativity in an attempt to stay family friendly.
The Smart Athletic Friends had the potential to be a race neutral group of really talented pro wrestlers, whose character and charisma got themselves over without trumped up video packages and pointless gimmicks. The same fate befell another talented team, Primo and Epico (now Los Matadores). Maybe the skills learned from debuting The Shield and The Wyatt Family weren’t skill so much as lucky rolls of the writer’s dice. As it stands The New Day is just a slap in the face at subtlety of character and nuance of delivery these wrestlers are capable of, favoring a cartoonish take on the hootin’ and hollerin’ ministry of the south. They’ve missed the boot on being relative and relatable by a long shot. Hopefully this misdirected unit will prevail above the characters they’re being asked to portray, and only time will tell if the company will ever figure out how to properly take advantage of the intertwining fates and innate talents of its superstars.
[images from wwe.com, youtube.com, cagesideseats.com]
*Some excellent, if verbose, further reading http://thesportjournal.org/article/tag/wwe/