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All Of Us Stardust: What Cody Rhodes’ departure says about the current era

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Sunday, May 22, 2016, Cody Rhodes was released from the WWE after ten years with the company. The son of a legend, “the American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, requested the release, and swiftly gave a statement via images to his Twitter to avoid any speculation and, presumably, to speak his peace.

“My goal in pro-wrestling has always been to win the WWE Championship (the one accolade in the game my Father never obtained), and for a decade I tried to convince both Vince and HHH that I could be their star player, their varsity quarterback if you will, but it seems we have reached the point where neither saw that in me.”

“In the past 6-months I had pleaded with WWE Creative and both of my bosses to let me roll­-the­dice and once again be Cody Rhodes. I had pitched to every writer on staff like a door­-to­-door salesman[…]”

“What’s that expression? Don’t take no for an answer… what do you do when you don’t get an answer at all? So there I was… having done everything I could possibly do for ten years to make the most out of both large opportunities and even the half-­cocked one like “paint up like your Brother”.”

It is unlikely that anything in his statement came as a complete surprise to any adult wrestling fan, the peak of the Stardust gimmick being a near year ago at SummerSlam, when he faced Stephen Amell, the actor who portrays the superhero Green Arrow on the CW. Every potential feud after was ill-­fated to never leave the ground, due to injuries, suspensions, etc, on the part of others, and the general fizzing out of any bare minimum effort by WWE Creative. It was a surprise that the gimmick flourished at all.

Cody Rhodes is an immense talent and clearly has a mind for the business. He committed fully to the Stardust gimmick, running a separate Twitter, and emphasizing that they weren’t the same individual, delivering some of the most creative promos in the last few years, always captivating, never breaking character, even when Stardust didn’t seem to really have a place in the programming. Any promotion would be happy to have him and allow him to wield the name Rhodes, trusting that he’ll live up to his father’s legacy of greatness, and it’s not impossible that he might someday return, not just as a performer, but as a great boon to the various creative or training programs in the WWE. That being said, I, like many of my peers, still find myself heart broken. There was an unstated moment of silence amongst those of us gathered for Extreme Rules. Since Legacy, Cody Rhodes had captivated us and, to those of us not looking strictly for a 1980’s Americana Strongman build, always had clear star power. Like his brother before him, he suited up, he painted on, he was forced to settle when he deserved so much more.

The hangover of lost opportunity is not reserved only for the Rhodes brothers. More and more lately the WWE misses the mark, fails to see a good thing when they have it or even when it’s trending on all of the social media they so desperately have Cole and JBL remind us of on the excruciatingly long three hours of Raw each Monday night. Earlier this month Ryback, a superstar who was peddled too quickly and mindlessly as a face for far too long before finally being placed in a moveset and heel slot that made sense for him, left the WWE. Ryback took to his Tumblr to express his frustrations with the company, less from a creative standpoint, but his qualms were just as valid. The WWE still pays their performers more for holding a title in a predetermined, scripted show about a fighting competition, and the pay differences can be staggering. There are rumors that Ryback was also upset about road expenses, medical expenses, and the vast amount of other things that the WWE does not initially help their talent with, as they’re more contractors than employees. Ryback is still not officially released, but there have been no signs in the passing weeks of WWE attempting to rectify the issues, make amends, or concretely that they’re holding onto Ryback out of spite. That being said, it is very likely that Cameron was let go because of her tweets in support of Ryback.

The WWE Universe was first made aware of the depths of talent frustration when CM Punk left in January of 2014 (officially let go in July, though he proclaimed himself retired before that) and aired his grievances on an episode of Colt Cabana’s Art of Wrestling that November. Though the podcast illuminated/confirmed (depending on the kind of fan you are) that Punk exacerbated the situations with a distinct lack of tact and professionalism, it was an important highlight of the ways the WWE fails performers, financially, creatively, and their well being physically and sometimes emotionally.

It is obvious that the WWE is entering a new era and that to keep their fans and talent alike, they cannot simply wait for Vince to step down (something I do not foresee happening willingly) to enact real change. NXT and the brand promotions/charity work in the past few years have proven that the heirs to the throne, Stephanie McMahon and Paul Levesque (Triple H for those of you who do not bother with given names), intend to usher the WWE into a golden age, expanding the business to the likes of the NFL with visibility and partnerships, as well as paving the way for a creative renaissance. This struggle to sow new seeds happens in contrast to the boys club of Vince McMahon’s WWE, all but confirmed by Cody Rhodes’ criticism of head writers, armed with an unwillingness to listen and an inability to treat women like human beings.

(While we cannot know concretely who Cody Rhodes is criticising, more than one writer or associate who has left the WWE in my lifetime has, anonymously or on message boards, no doubt intimidated by the full light of press, criticized Kevin Dunn specifically for squashing wrestlers to suit his needs, reducing women to objects, and keeping stories to black and white rehashes of things we’ve seen time and time again. Without tangible citation, I’m hesitant to speak too much to Dunn’s behavior and choices, but must implore every wrestling fan to dig deep into it themselves, as I feel he’s intrinsically link to the problems in modern WWE.)

This year’s Hall of Fame was a shameful demonstration of the old preventing the progress of the new, honoring not Charles Wright, but the Godfather, complete with a “ho train” and cheers, jeers, and woops about “women amirite?” and wife jokes worthy of the worst 90s stand up routines, as well as honoring The Freebirds, and allowing Michael Hayes to ramble for approximately a century, without any sensitive to or acknowledgement of the extreme racism that their gimmick and career was built upon. One can only hope that Jacqueline’s induction and the New Day as presenters were subtle middle fingers to this age old “boys will be boys” attitude and not calculated tokens to appease the growing number of wrestling fans who expect social responsibility and progressive storytelling in professional wrestling. The inductions, the choice of characters over men, the approved speeches, all of this was a calculated choice by the company, which is jarring considering that allowing a Rhodes to be called Rhodes after the death of one of the greatest men professional wrestling has even seen in and out of the ring was considered laughable enough to lose the talent over it.

Even those who remain in the company are no doubt in quiet solidarity with Cody Rhodes, the women of the company becoming more and more vocal at conventions and sometimes on commentary (specifically the Bellas) and even after a “revolution” and giving Divas a chance, a want by the talent (including many male performers who have spoken up for their peers) and the fans alike, the company still reduces their women to tropes or abandons them when not met with immediate success. Damien Sandow was recently let go after fans spent years begging for a front and center push for the performer, and Naomi, even before her injury, was reduced to a barely there supporting role, denied the spotlight for everything we’ve already seen at NXT, despite fans taking to Twitter to beg for merchandise. Dean Ambrose has been singularly a fan favorite since before the Shield split and while his matches with Jericho are great physically and the best they’ve ever done with the Lunatic Fringe, it still leaves much to be desired and muzzles his talent on the mic as well as the potential for a volatile antihero, still spiraling downward in reckless abandon after Seth Rollins’ betrayal. Dolph Ziggler gets a pop from every single kind of wrestling fan there is, has never been more comfortable in the ring, or more dynamic in his dot com promos/on twitter/as a media presence in general than he is right now and has escaped being buried alive REPEATEDLY by leaning on his dedicated fanbase and constant merch sales, but the company repeatedly eliminates him from title pictures in the same breath that they use him for a viewership push on Total Divas or as a go to to sell Tap Out and the Network.

Talent capable of evolving, men and women of a great foundation who are ready if given the right story at the right moment are regularly shot in the foot. The Social Outcasts was full of contenders who fans love in tumblr tags and twitter hashtags, but was such an ill conceived idea that many fans thought they’d rather be fired. They pooled together some of their most enthusiastic fringe fan bases and FAILED. Roman Reigns has a huge fan base and before last night’s Extreme Rules murderfest with AJ Styles and a finally earned confrontation between himself and his returning former brother in arms Seth Rollins his appearance had become a symbol of how the WWE never quite gets it (I speak not of the smarks who boo Roman because they hate anyone becoming a face if they didn’t go to Steve Austin’s School of Smack Talk and Unlikely Heroism but to those wrestling fans who see Roman’s potential and improvement and are merely frustrated with the avenues creative has taken). The New Day is an unlikely success story, some of the companies most talented wrestlers shoved into an incredibly racist box, who, luckily, were great enough improv artists and had a high enough Charisma modifier to get themselves so over that their preacher garb and choral titantron has been replaced by rainbows, trombones, and unicorns. In a way, Cody Rhodes isn’t leaving the WWE because the WWE doesn’t want Cody Rhodes. Cody Rhodes is leaving the WWE because the WWE doesn’t want to be the WWE. Media evolves. Stories change. Archetypes shift. My childhood was full of heroes and villains, men and women who I will always cherish, but it was also full of disappointments. It is natural for new blood to seek to improve and stretch the confines of a medium. Those who watched the Attitude era with wide­eyed childish wonder are now the people buying your tickets and your merch, are now the people looking for jobs in writing and production. Those children are walking out of giant boxes of Booty­Os at Wrestlemania. Those children are dreaming, training, and hoping to make an era for themselves. We love our media so much that we create apps to stream specific genres. We love our media so much that it’s only a matter of time before we figure out how to quit you.

I’m not someone invested in fan service. I can dislike a creative choice, but appreciate it if it’s going somewhere interesting or helping put over someone I wasn’t considering. I’m not interested in new wave fanboys who wear non­WWE t shirts and drink their beers in the audience, booing anything and everything, paying $100+ for a ticket so that they can complain and turn a live event into a hatefest because their specific favorite or taste isn’t being served. I’m not interested in the symbols of indie or edgy, I don’t need a constant antihero, an AJ Styles, or a Paige, or a CM Punk, to signal to me that I, the smark, matter. I love professional wrestling, I love the WWE, and I bet you that, at least at one point, CM Punk felt the same, Ryback felt the same, Cody Rhodes felt the same.

If the WWE doesn’t allow creative to experiment, then the company cannot grow. I fear more and more that Vince McMahon takes pride in being a lid on a very old jar. We don’t need holes to breathe, we need more room to grow. Everyone can’t be Daniel Bryan. More of us than the WWE thinks know that. But that doesn’t mean you don’t try. That doesn’t mean you don’t trust your fans and that doesn’t mean you don’t trust your talent (the New Day is what it is because FINALLY someone trusted them, turned them loose). If your fans will hand you money, then give it a try. If it will elevate your art form, then give it a try. It is 2016 and wrestling is cool again. It is 2016 and bringing your friends into your specific nerd culture and donning clothing and various insignia to show off what and who you love is a staple of modern life. If the WWE won’t open up to that, performers and fans will do worse than walk away. They’ll stop showing up to begin with.

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