Jeff Hardy drunkenly ran over a co-worker this past Friday on SmackDown, and it’s our fault.
“The Charismatic Enigma” has been a beloved fixture in professional wrestling for over 25 years. His first match on WWE television saw him face the legendary Razor Ramon in 1994 and he has earned many names since then: daredevil, enigma, iconoclast, champion, and the superior Hardy. These are all epithets and monikers that have followed Jeff throughout his career, but the most tragic one bestowed upon him is “victim”.
Jeff Hardy suffers from alcohol and substance abuse addiction, and his private battles with them have been, sadly and unfortunately, well documented within the public realm. Exposé-type interviews from co-workers have hinted at the ferocity of his demons. “Wrestling journalists” make efforts to track his behavior and mental health, anticipating a fall. Dirt sheets are always at the ready to shed light on any dark day he walks through. And we — wrestling’s fan community — always have snide remarks in our holsters to unleash on Reddit, Twitter, or Instagram. WWE knows this and weaponizes it.
Professional wrestling’s main goal has always been to blur reality. The crux of the medium is presenting characters in a simulated competition as a means to present simple stories of good and evil, love and loss, triumph over adversity, and Otis, but the power of the story relies upon that blur. Thus, a real-life story, specifically a scandal or tragedy, that can help muddy the borders between script and reality will always be used. The opening scene on SmackDown this past Friday featured Jeff Hardy in handcuffs on the suspicion of running over a man while intoxicated.
But was it effective? It pissed off many fans and I was tasked with writing an article about it.
These types of storylines work in professional wrestling. Edge was propelled to the main event after the love triangle with Lita and Matt Hardy. Rey Mysterio became world champion after Eddie Guerrero passed away and a litany of heels used his memory to anger him. CM Punk and The Undertaker stole the show at WrestleMania 29 after CM Punk bathed himself in the “ashes” of Paul Bearer. Hell, this isn’t even the first time Jeff Hardy’s struggles with substance abuse was used on television: see Survivor Series 2008, his feud with CM Punk for a whole summer in 2009, and his TNA World Championship win in 2012.
The efficacy of these angles are pyrrhic at best and are never worth the cost. Lita thrived in the new spotlight she was given, but Amy Dumas suffered as she was brandished a “slut” by crowds across the country. She has gone on record several times denoting the mental toll this took on her and likely factored into her decision to retire in 2006. Eddie Guerrero’s family, only three months after his passing, had to watch as Randy Orton was scripted to proclaim that “Eddie Guerrero is down there, in hell.” Jeff Hardy, infamously, was caught high on tape at a restaurant shortly after his storyline with CM Punk was finished in 2009 and a legitimate fear of the Hardy family may hold was played out before their eyes this past Friday.
Make no mistake, Jeff Hardy will enjoy a renewed interest in his character and a great position on the card in future months. Furthermore, it was heavily implied at the outset of the story that Hardy was framed. It was made known during the broadcast that he was sober at the time of the incident, and he appeared at the end of the night to confront a rival, confirming said rival was responsible for what had occurred and exonerating Jeff.
This likely means that this story is meant to advance a “redemption” arc for Jeff as he seeks to reclaim his former glory, which may justify the story in the eyes of some viewers. However, my purpose here is not to question the efficacy or to even criticize the WWE for its use. The question I am asking all of you is “why does this keep happening?”
I want to ask you some questions: Why is this type of storyline such a staple of WWE’s playbook? Why does WWE know that wrestling fans will respond immediately to these types of storylines? But, most importantly I want you to ask you: Isn’t this what you wanted to see?
No one asked for Katie Vick, JBL wandering the Texas/Mexico border, Snitsky, or Muhammad Hassan; they were WWE’s misguided attempts at generating controversy for the sake of recouping waning ratings in the mid-2000s. Mark Henry and Mae Young, Val Venis and Kai-En-Tai, and Al Snow and Pepper were reflections of television trends at the time of broadcast; a critique of the audience of the late-’90s more than anything else. But wrestling’s propensity to present the “Jeff Hardy story” — a story of scandal and vice leading someone to ruin — I fear highlights the vices of the audience itself.
Stories entrenched in a performer’s reality only work if its audience is aware of said reality. These stories would never happen if we could simply refrain from seeking information about a given wrestler’s personal life and appreciate their craft as they choose to present it but, many people pay $9.99 a month to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter to eliminate this possibility. Fans read WON and other wrestling tabloids, referred to as “dirt sheets,” in search of rumors regarding upcoming storylines, interpersonal confrontations within wrestling’s workplace, and, unwittingly, gawk at scandals that happen outside the ring.
Dirt sheets are the nidus from which the toxicity within the wrestling community spreads. Yes, they provide an avenue for active participation in the product as fans can learn about the product and how it is crafted, but it also gives them a means to revel in the unfortunate, unsavory aspects of a notoriously seedy industry, compels them to make uninformed and hurtful critiques about a given wrestler’s performance, and crosses the boundaries into the personal lives of performers. Fans then spread the infection via social media as they shellac the Twitters and Instagrams of performers with intentionally inflammatory and derogatory comments. These fans are never more pleased, more empowered than when something they read on the internet makes its way to broadcast. It’s this concept that the WWE creative team understands all too well that prompted this past Friday’s proceedings.
Jeff Hardy the character intersected with Jeff Hardy the man because the WWE creative team knew we would respond. Anyone who dares to speak positively about Jeff Hardy on social media will be met with hate. Some who venture out with a simple Tweet saying “Jeff had a great match,” will be immediately met with comments like “yeah, he’s great when sober,” “he huffed good paint tonight,” and “#VictoryRoad.” WWE anticipates all of this when it comes to Jeff Hardy and simply catered to the narrative that the fandom bestowed upon him. Why else would this be the third occasion WWE has portrayed Jeff in this way?
Jeff’s present storyline is an example of how WWE has adapted to the fandom’s toxicity to advance their own means. WWE knew that fans would likely hate seeing the story but would accept it and understand it because they expect it. If we as fans could only stay on our side of the barricade, these types of stories would cease to occur. The “Jeff Hardy story”, and others fueled by hate, would never happen if we simply didn’t hate.
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