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How MeToo finally came for WWE Powerful men can control their own narrative

The WWE didn't protect women. (MARLIN LEVISON/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

The WWE didn't protect women. (MARLIN LEVISON/Star Tribune via Getty Images)


February 5, 2024   5 mins

The genius of World Wrestling Entertainment is that it lives on the boundary between the real and the fake. What you watch in WWE bouts is “fake”, inasmuch as the storylines are scripted, the wrestlers perform in character, and the matches are choreographed and predetermined. But the stunts are real, with a real physical cost to the wrestlers in the form of concussions and broken bones. Take the classic trick of “blading”: a wrestler hides a razor blade on their person and uses it to cut themselves mid-bout to make themselves look more dramatically injured. Fake fight, real blood.

In the carny argot of the sport, the word for this is kayfabe. Kayfabe is something more artful than a lie and more profound than a fiction. It doesn’t simply substitute a narrative for the truth: it turns the truth into an element of the storyline, and those storylines in turn shape the truth. A kayfabe feud can sour a real professional relationship. Kayfabe romances turn into real romances, and the real romance is written into the kayfabe. The end result is a world where even the most serious possibilities can be inoculated with irony.

The king of sports entertainment until very recently was Vince McMahon, who both ran WWE in real life and kayfabe played a domineering boss character called Mr McMahon. But last week, after four decades in charge, McMahon resigned, following the publication of sexual misconduct allegations against him in the Wall Street Journal. Perhaps coincidentally, just days earlier, he’d signed a major deal to take wrestling to Netflix.

The allegations are extensive and distressing: a former WWE employee name Janel Grant claims he took turns sexually abusing her in a locked room with another executive, trafficked her to other men in the company and defecated on her during a threesome. McMahon denies them all, stating: “Ms Grant’s lawsuit is replete with lies, obscene made-up instances that never occurred, and is a vindictive distortion of the truth.”

But these are not the first allegations to be made against McMahon, or the culture of wrestling he presided over. As far back as 1992, Rita Chatterton, the first female referee in what was then the WWF, gave an interview in which she said McMahon had raped her in 1986 then frozen her out of the company. (He denied this.) By then, though, the statute of limitations had expired. For the mainstream media, which had limited interest in women’s allegations anyway, wrestling was a niche concern. For the specialist wrestling press, pursuing the story would have been suicidal — McMahon controlled access, and would hardly indulge a journalist pursuing an unflattering angle. McMahon dictated the storylines in the ring, but he also had the power to control the stories told beyond it.

A few years later, in 1999, Rena Mero (who wrestled as Sable) sued what was then the WWF: she said she’d been stripped of her championship belt after refusing to do in-ring nudity, and had been pressured to participate in lesbian storylines. The parties had settled, in an agreement that barred Mero from wrestling for three years — and even from using her ring name. As standard, WWE contracts give the organisation copyright over wrestlers’ characters. This meant that if you left McMahon’s kingdom, you’d usually leave your career behind: the “real” you was of considerably less value than the kayfabe version.

So, anyone who valued their wrestling career would be advised to play nice with McMahon. Given that WWE essentially held a monopoly over the sport, your career and reputation were in his gift. It’s understandable, then, that after her three-year ban was up, Mero returned for a storyline where she played the in-ring McMahon’s mistress. At one point, her breasts were exposed on live TV. It was a twist that reduced Mero’s lawsuit to a piece of kayfabe, effectively invalidating her claims and furthermore, those of any other woman in wrestling who might speak out about harassment. Taking your accuser back is, cynically, the quickest way to make her look like an unreliable witness; and as Harvey Weinstein’s victims would later describe, leaving is not a simple thing when the man you’re trying to leave wields absolute control over your profession.

I knew nothing of these allegations when I was watching wrestling in the late Nineties. McMahon was protected by his power, but also by the convention of kayfabe. Wrestling fans pride themselves on their ability to suspend their disbelief in just the right amount — to confuse the ring with real life was to make yourself a dupe, or a “mark” in wrestling slang. The character Vince McMahon played was a womanising monster, but only the most childishly naive viewer would confuse that character with the man.

It’s the same gaslight logic that has sustained Donald Trump — a friend of McMahon’s and, thanks to the 2007 “Battle of the Billionaires”, the only president to also be a member of WWE’s Hall of Fame. We’ve seen it when Trump has faced his own allegations of sexual misconduct. “Grab them by the pussy” was “locker room talk” — essentially, the kind of thing that the character of Donald Trump would say. Yes, he was found by a jury to have sexually assaulted the writer E Jean Carroll, and further ordered to pay her $83.3 million in damages for subsequently continuing to insist that she is lying about it — but in Donald Trump kayfabe, he’s the victim of a leftist conspiracy and this is simply more evidence that his enemies are out to get him.

Kayfabe is a way to talk about the art of wrestling, but really, it’s a term for the ability of the most powerful to impose their version of reality, and confound everyone else’s. And every MeToo story is a story, at bottom, of who is powerful enough to dictate the truth. It’s telling that, for most men, their MeTooing coincides with a decline in their authority. Weinstein was well past his Oscar-minting prime. R Kelly had ceased to be a reliable hit machine, spending more time with his grooming victims than he did in the studio. Jimmy Savile — who was MeTooed before MeToo was a thing — had to be dead first. If Trump seems impervious, it’s because he is, so far, too big to fail.

It’s telling, too, that the men who have paid the highest price for MeToo allegations have often been low in the social pecking order. Stephen Elliott was a minor figure in literary journalism when he was anonymously accused of rape via journalist Moira Donegan’s MeToo-inspired “Shitty Media Men” open-source spreadsheet. The unsubstantiated claims led to his social and professional ruin; when he sued for defamation, that was seen as further proof of his turpitude, regardless of whether he was right. Last year, he reached a settlement with Donegan in which she would pay him damages.

McMahon has already resigned from WWE once, in 2022, when the WSJ initially reported that the company had made millions of dollars in payouts to women alleging sexual misconduct against him. He was replaced by his daughter Stephanie, and reinstated a few months later, leaving it unclear as to whether it was a real defenestration, or a kayfabe one. But this time, the reality of Netflix’s corporate reputation appears to have imposed itself over the preferred reality of Vince McMahon. At 78, it could finally be the end of his reign.

When the reporters who broke the Weinstein allegations for the New York Times wrote a book about it, they called it She Said. It’s a title that explicitly references storytelling: who is listened to, and who is deemed an unreliable narrator. A “she said” story is one you don’t have to pay attention to, until something changes and suddenly you do. Maybe that’s why the entertainment industry is where MeToo started: it takes a storytelling business to shift a storytelling problem. And maybe that’s why it’s taken so long for wrestling to have its MeToo moment: when one man rules the narrative, his word is not only the law, it’s the (kayfabe) truth.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

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Alan Osband
Alan Osband
5 months ago

Yes Trump is the victim of a money making anti Trump conspiracy. A New York Democrat supporting , Trump hating jury found him guilty . But that would not in itself make me think him innocent if the charges weren’t so absurdly implausible in the first place .
Or do you believe all women on principle ?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
5 months ago
Reply to  Alan Osband

It’s interesting that the statute of limitations ran out for Rita Chatterton, but those limitations were temporarily lifted – by New York State legislators – so Carroll could sue Trump. Nothing to see here though.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The newest Kayfabe: “…he was found by a jury…” 

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
5 months ago
Reply to  Alan Osband

Bergdorf Goodman was a very busy department store in the 1990s, and Trump was in the local papers every day.
He would’ve been instantly recognizable, certainly so if he was loitering near the woman’s changing rooms.
The dress Carroll claimed to have worn was two years away from being on the shelves, so she at least had the year wrong. She was also unable to describe the changing rooms where she claimed Trump assaulted her.
She also seems to have tweeted some very questionable statements that others saved, detailing some unusual sexual fantasies, some involving rape, with herself as either the perpetrator or the victim.
And her columns for Esquire and Vogue betray a neurotic, emotionally labile author.
Lots of questions here, to say the least.

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
5 months ago

Yes, lots of questions. I don’t believe her, either.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago
Reply to  Alan Osband

So you disparage a group of ordinary Americans, of whom you know absolutely nothing, because they dared to come to a conclusion (having heard, you know, EVIDENCE!) which you disapprove of!. Trump zealots now have essentially zero faith in any US institutions – transactionally so – even up to the US Supreme Court and its Trump appointees!

Isn’t it actually possible to believe Trump – and his administration – had some good points, but personal rectitude isn’t likely to be one of them? Much of the American RW seem to have become a religious cult on this issue, and completely lost its critical faculties. You don’t have to believe Trump is the Messiah because you oppose the march of extreme progressivism through many US and western institutions.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
5 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

I would have no problem believing The Donald was 10 times as promiscuous as Boris Johnson except he hardly seems to have been promiscuous at all .
And the behaviour outlined in the court case would have been crazy for the reasons outlined by the poster above .

She is as believable as the man who said he.was locked up in a room full of bees by Edward Heath and was saved from being castrated by some general at the last moment . But that guy got 10years and this woman over ÂŁ10m dollars

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
5 months ago

Hang on. Stephen Elliott later reached a settlement with Donegan in which she would pay him damages. That rather suggests “she said” baseless accusations, and she did so from a position of power. That is entirely incongruous with and undermines the argument that, “when one *man* rules the narrative, *his* word is not only the law, it’s the truth”.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

What I believe it actually suggests is that the ‘truth’ doesn’t actually matter. It is impossible to determine the truth of a ‘he said/she said’ claim without witnesses or evidence. That’s immaterial though, because if you make a claim, true or otherwise, and that statement causes financial losses to another party, you are responsible for either A.) proving the truth of your claim in court, which is obviously not possible or B.) compensating the other party for said financial losses. This can vary from state to state and quite a bit of latitude is granted to journalists citing anonymous or unknown sources due to freedom of the press. Nobody here is a journalist writing a story so, what’s probably true here is that the accusing party, the guy, suffered greater losses than the accused, the woman, did because she was maybe sexually harassed, and because they settled out of court, it means that it probably would have been worse for her to go to court. Establishing financial losses over slander/libel claims is well established in courts. There’s plenty of precedent for what can and can’t be counted an and there’s not much room to argue about it. I doubt they’d have ever made a determination of who did what in court absent any proof, but they would have added up the damages he suffered and, even balancing for the fact the judges might be moved by sympathy or public opinion, would have awarded substantial damages for the accusing party, and she would have looked like a liar whether she was or not.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Good comment! Aren’t the libel and slander laws much less onerous than in the UK?

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
5 months ago

If the man has committed these vile acts, I hope he is soon convicted.

The broader story that the writer claims is that some powerful men have used their positions of power to harm others, women especially. Well, we know this happens. Some men do wicked things and some of them get away with it.

I don’t really see the point of this article. It might be something to delve deeply into the particular case of Mahon but what’s the benefit of recycling the other stories? Other than it’s less work and can be knocked out in a couple of hours as opposed to months of difficult research and perhaps tedious hours in a courtroom.

Frankly, I could have written this.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago

Could you? Kayfabe? I found it an interesting and well written article on wrestling, power, its abuse, whose narrative prevails etc.

It seems a somewhat odd objection that we shouldn’t refer to past events and weave them as examples into an account. I’d say pretty much any article whatever on any subject would then be ruled out of court on this account!

R Wright
R Wright
5 months ago

This article is nothing but spurious sludge.

Bruce Luffman
Bruce Luffman
5 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

I am sure that there are ghastly men in charge of pseudo sports like WWE but to me, this article is an opportunity to attack Trump from the Progressive Left rather than an expose of McMahon

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago
Reply to  Bruce Luffman

But then almost everything to you guys represents an outrageous attack on Trump! I think you are sometimes trying to convince yourselves. I don’t know whether Trump has ever assaulted any woman, but I do know that it makes very light of it “grabbing her by the p***y”… sounds rather like an unwanted sexual advance to me. Pretty sleazy. Do you “grab” parts of your female partners’ anatomy in that way?

The disconnect is just amazing here, but of course Trump can do no wrong!

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
5 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Locker room bullshit ! He probably was trying to seem cool with the ‘lads’ . It’s a different culture then and there . All the prudery and me too ism didn’t exist then . It’s like criticising the behaviour of Lord Byron in 1820s Venice from the perspective of Cheltenham in 1860 .

And the woman who was or was not in Bergdorf Goodman is way older than Trump and no hot young thing . Would Trump have been in any way interested . Think how much Democrats must have spent looking for allegations like this against Trump . One crude remark in a locker room does not make him Caligula .

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
5 months ago

But, Sarah, Trump’s enemies really are out to get him.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
5 months ago

Trump will likely lose a judgement upwards of $300 mill for misrepresenting his assets in a loan, even though he fully repaid the loan and the financial institution never filed a complaint. The Financial Times of all publications – as lefty as it gets – could not find a single case similiar to this in New York in 71 years.

Jerry K
Jerry K
5 months ago

Thanks for the kayfabe concept. I came across another similar one recently. It’s online astroturfing. Defined (Sagepub) apparently as “a practice where a centralized source disseminates colluded information on the internet pretending that such information comes from a large number of unconnected individuals. The key thing to note from the definition is that the nature of astroturfing involves a pretense”. Astroturf is fake (kayfabe?) grass pretending to be grass. So the media can create fake grass-roots information… Truth is now surely much stranger than fiction!

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
5 months ago

I used to watch wrestling as a teenager in the nineties. I have to say I always thought the Mr. McMahon persona seemed too convincing to be completely fake, especially from someone who had been nothing more than an announcer (and a bland announcer at that; he was right to fire himself) up to that point. It’s also painfully obvious to anyone with eyes and half a brain that the man used/uses steroids heavily and that probably didn’t whatever bad behavior he had. You could tell though, that some guys really got into their personas and others just went through the motions. Sometimes that meant they were talented. Sometimes it meant they didn’t have to stretch their ordinary personality very far, or at all. The opposite happened from time to time as well, when a persona actually started affecting the person and their real relationships. Life imitates art, and vice versa.
The intersection of pro wrestling and Donald Trump is interesting. As the author pointed out, Donald and Vince were friends. They had a lot in common. They built relatively small businesses into very large ones, but still weren’t quite wealthy enough to get into truly elite circles. The businesses they were in were not well regarded by other elites. Despite their wealth, they seemed to share something of a resentment towards the elites above them who looked down on them. It’s no coincidence the McMahons were among Trump’s only big money corporate donors in 2016. McMahon turned his resentment into entertainment that was popular with the white working class non-collegiate men of middle America. Trump channeled his resentment into politics and became the champion of exactly that same demographic.
A lot of Democrats, elites, and establishment types would probably agree with the above paragraph as a decent pop psychology evaluation of Trump and McMahon. Their error, as in so many other things, is underestimating everyone else, assuming every fool who watches pro wrestling actually believes its real when in reality almost nobody does. The people who watch wrestling know its fake and appreciate the performance anyway. The American public has gotten used to a politics that is as much a performance as pro wrestling, with public opinion and elections seemingly having little to no bearing on anything meaningful. Abortion, taxes, trade, and whatever issue you want to name. For most of my lifetime, the parties differences come down to a few percentage points, a couple hundred million dollars dumped in incinerator A or incinerator B, or a couple of technicalities. That doesn’t stop politicians using them as excuses to shout at one another. People have long since accepted that all politicians are fake. Given that, why shouldn’t they vote for the most entertaining, disruptive fake, the one whose mere appearance on the stage sends the politicians into contortions, the one who sounds like a populist revolutionary. People have no problem rooting for their heroes in the WWE knowing full well it’s all fake. They’re hoping that as sometimes happens the reality will start to imitate the art. Even if that never happens, they might just vote to keep the show going. If none of it matters, why shouldn’t we elect the buffoon and watch the world try and fail, often hilariously, to get rid of him.? Unless they come up with a compelling and interesting alternative, the Democrats and the establishment are doomed to a future of more performers in the vain of Trump, RFK, Ramaswamy, etc. who will embrace the role of the angry man railing against the oppressive tyrants and give the people the fight they want, if not always the results.