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'Friends' lied, The American Dream died, and how the Rhodes taught us to dream in nightmares

Pro Wrestling

‘Friends’ lied, The American Dream died, and how the Rhodes taught us to dream in nightmares

The American Dream is not about gallivanting with your friends in an idealized version of NYC.

Friends has become a sardonic symbol of the American lie. Our Friends in Central Perk promised us that we would be surrounded by a group of friends that would be there for us while pursuing careers, happiness, prosperity, and safety. Phoebe promised us that your friends will accept you despite whatever maladaptive eccentricity you force upon them. Joey and Rachel promised you that your friends will freely give you emotional, and even financial, support as you grow into adulthood. Chandler, Monica, and Ross promised that you could have a healthy social life as your job would only require your effort between the hours of 9-5 pm. And they promised that all this was possible while frolicking in NYC, living in rent-controlled apartments, and having sex with each other with no substantial emotional fallout. This was the dream for all of us who grew up in the ’90s and 2000s, but it didn’t really work out that way, did it?

You lost contact with your Ross and Joey because they tore each other apart because Rachel flirted with Ross but was sleeping with Joey the whole time. Your Monica is kind and caring but she micromanages group outings, insists on talking politics, and needs to be in bed by 10 pm. You last spoke to Phoebe a year ago when she called you at 2 a.m. on Facebook Messenger asking for money to get home because she got stranded in Tulum by the creepy boyfriend you warned her about. And you miss Chandler because he was the smart one that distanced himself from the group pretty early on. You can’t watch Friends anymore because you’re reminded of a life you cannot live, friends you will never meet, and a warm comfort you will never know. Friends is no longer the sum total of your dreams but the graveyard where the corpses of your hopes lie. 

But now that our dreams are dead, what do we dream of now? Just because we will no longer pay for a $8 latte does not mean we will find new hopes, but what are those hopes, and how will we find them? I sought answers in theater, poetry, and movies as art and media will always be society’s greatest specter of the soul. I consulted classic musings as I read Death of a Salesman, watched Forrest Gump, played Red Dead Redemption, and saw Madame Web in a theater because Dakota Johnson’s smoldering contempt is America’s greatest export but, that is not where I found my answers. Instead, I was able to find the American dream in a professional wrestling ring.

Professional wrestling is one of America’s oldest and most enduring art forms. It is theater without rules that seeks to tell parables of good vs. evil within the confines of scripted conflict. Often produced in live, real-time formats, its methods and characters have been forced to evolve in the face of changing societal trends, attitudes, and norms ever since the early 1900s. Thus, professional wrestling is uniquely suited to track the evolution of the American Dream and I had no better guide than “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes and his sons, Dustin and Cody.

“The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes is wrestling’s greatest folk hero. He was professional wrestling’s version of John Wayne. “The son of a plumber” was an underdog everyman who captured the hearts and minds of wrestling fans in the ’70s and ’80s by promising them that he was one of them. With his fiery charisma, his indomitable spirit, and his cowboy boots, Dusty preached that he had to wear the same blue collars that his fans did to win his matches. Dusty was always the first to rebel when injustices were imposed upon his fellow wrestlers by the powers that be and he promised that a better tomorrow could be won if we stuck together, loved our fellow man regardless of our differences, and fought for what was right. 

Fans rallied behind Dusty because he was the archetypal working class hero that fought all of their fears. Dusty challenged for the WWWF title by facing “Superstar” Billy Graham, the brash, statuesque, flamboyant antithesis of the common man. He battled against Nikita Koloff and other Soviet-themed characters who drew a visceral hate from crowds across the country as they invoked real-life foreign tensions abroad. Most notably, he fought against Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen who represented domestic, corporate infrastructures that sought to pillage the workforce to fuel their industries. Dusty’s character was the last line of defense against the anxieties of the times that families worried about while huddled around their televisions and was able to work wrestling fans into a fervor wherever he roamed because when Dusty won, “The American Dream,” won.

Dusty helped to build the foundation upon which the “Golden Era” of professional wrestling rests but sadly, The Dream’s stature in the hearts of wrestling fans waned as their minds began to reshape The American Dream in the 1990s. As the ’80s came to a close, hope and jubilation gave way to despair and melancholy. Uplifting power ballads written by musicians in tight leather pants and blow-dried hair were replaced by the slow pitched musings of anxious degenerates in ripped jeans who hadn’t showered. Swashbuckling superheroes who were once paragons of virtue were asked to become dour, morally complex characters who dabbled in death and depravity. Nuclear families once focused on finding belonging amongst themselves splintered as their members fixated upon the existential banalities of the self. While the ’80s celebrated triumph, the ’90s was enraptured by decay and Dusty Rhodes would have never been allowed to be more than the son of a plumber. So why did his son, Dustin, become an icon when he donned the guise of Goldust?

Goldust was a gold-laced, androgynous, sexually provocative, mask that Dustin Rhodes wore as he became a fixture in 1990s professional wrestling. Dustin Rhodes entered the family trade in 1988 and called himself “The Natural,” seeking to prove his mettle as an athlete and wrestler. His efforts, however, were met with ambivalence from fans in the ’90s as they had no use for an excellent professional wrestler; they wanted characters who shattered norms, mocked tradition, and touted taboo. They wanted characters to share their defiant, intangible, angst-ridden fascination with perversion. They didn’t want to see a son pay homage to his father, they wanted to see a man blaze his own trail by burning down a legacy bestowed onto him. And so, Dustin covered his face in gold paint, donned feathered robes and long blonde wigs, and rechristened himself, “Goldust.”

Goldust became an overnight sensation in the burgeoning “Attitude Era” of professional wrestling. Learning from his mistakes as “The Natural,” Dustin utilized his character’s mannerisms and theatrics to draw reactions from fans. He defeated Razor Ramon for the WWE Intercontinental Championship not by outmuscling him, but by getting a tattoo of Razor’s name on his chest to throw Razor off-balance psychologically. In lieu of backing down from the imposing ferocity of Ahmed Johnson, he kissed him on the lips. And as darkness fell around him during a feud with The Undertaker, Goldust stood firm and mockingly flirted with The Deadman. No one could unnerve their opponent, nor the fans, the way Dustin could but there was so much more to him, and the ’90s for that matter, than normative subversion.

For as much as the ’90s was a season of decay, it was a time of resilience as people had to accept the undelivered promises of the ’80s. People of the time had begun to realize that while communities and corporations had been built, the fruits of those labors were shared asymmetrically. People began to focus on the self but, this was done in response to decreasing opportunities and resources. People began to ask for moral and psychosocial complexity in their music and their stories, but only because they felt that anything else was a lie. After all, when was any of this shown in Friends? Rachel and Ross were debating what it meant to be “on a break,” they never had to deal with income taxes, rising costs of living, inflation, predatory landlords, violence and/or sexual harassment on the subway, and the trauma that comes from the realization that we are all at the mercy of an insidious socioeconomic infrastructure that is spiraling towards heat death? 

Audiences in the ’90s responded to rebellious, degenerate characters such as Goldust, but they rallied behind those that could withstand the raging storm of the times such as Dustin Rhodes. Fans soon learned for all the success that Goldust brought, it was a means to an end for Dustin as the character was not how he truly wanted to present himself as a wrestler. They learned that Goldust was an albatross that Dustin carried as the character led to him becoming estranged from Dusty, as his marriage fell apart due to trials brought upon their house from the wrestling business, and as he, sadly, fell under the throngs of addiction. Dustin had to bear all this throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s as he fought for his health, his well-being, and his livelihood in the cut-throat business of professional wrestling but thankfully, Dustin was able to conquer his demons. He is currently enjoying a second chapter in his career, wrestling for All Elite Wrestling (AEW) on his terms as “The Natural” once again. He is, and will always be, widely revered for his abilities, his contributions, his kindness, and his perseverance.

The creeping fears and anxieties that sullied our view of the American Dream in the 90’s have become reality in 2024. Socioeconomic policies established during Dusty’s heyday have led to vast wealth disparities, inflation, and unlivable working class conditions. We are trying to stand firm in the storm as Dustin would but the growing scarcity of resources and opportunities are trying even the strongest of us. Far from having a supportive group of friends you can meet for coffee, adaptive fixation on the self has evolved to the point where loneliness is considered a mental health epidemic. How are we to hope the way Dusty did? How are we to persevere the way Dustin did? How can we still dream in this nightmare that we have wrought? We do what Cody Rhodes did; we build ourselves into something better.

Cody is the youngest of the Rhodes wrestling family and saw his dream turn into a nightmare during his first stint in WWE. He idolized his father and brother, romanticized their exploits, and resolved to become a wrestler like them in effort to win the one title neither of them ever held: the WWE Championship. However, despite proving that he had his brother’s charisma and his father’s athleticism, performing well in high-profile storylines with main event stars, and seamlessly evolving his character over the years, the WWE machine never saw him as anything more than “Dusty’s son.” The machine damned him to be a legacy character that was best used to invoke the nostalgia of his lineage, relegated him to mid-level storylines, and forced him to portray a bizarre and aimless character named Stardust; a face-painted persona reminiscent of his brother’s Goldust character but with none of the provocative gravitas. Cody’s efforts were wantonly disregarded and he was trapped in a position where he could not grow or achieve his dreams. His only option, seemingly, was to take the money and accept his fate, kind of like what happened on Friends.

Each character on Friends met a happy ending by embracing the status quo. Monica and Chandler start a life together not by helping each other grow past their maladaptive neuroses, but by enabling them. Rachel forgoes a lucrative career opportunity earned through 10 seasons of character development to rekindle a romance with her baby-daddy Ross, patron saint of emotional immaturity, adult adolescence, and failure. Joey matures somewhat during the show, however, he and Phoebe are left at their starting positions with their final acts being acceptance that their compatriots have passed them by. As the final shot fades, the cast goes to get coffee one last time as Chandler quips, “where?” in reference to the fact that they have only gotten coffee at one place in the entire series as the subtext grimly preaches that you too can have a happy ending if you accept the status quo.

Cody faced the same choice that so many of us face in our uncertain world today: why be better, when you can go to the same coffee shop you always go to? Why not surround yourself with people who enable the craven angels of your nature instead of challenging you to be better? Why not embrace a socioeconomic infrastructure that mandates you shoulder financial debt in your twenties to study or train for a job that will enable you to pay off this debt in your thirties and forties, at which time you will be too tired to rage against any sort of machine that did this to you? Why not be satisfied with what you have knowing that using consistent effort to achieve upward social mobility is a bit of a con? Why not paint a giant star on your face and helplessly hiss at people as your dreams die? If The American Dream was defined by promises of success through industry, is it now acceptance of mediocrity and futility? Thankfully, Cody presents a counterpoint.

Cody chose to take damnation and turn it into inspiration when he left WWE and disrupted the professional wrestling industry. Realizing his dream died, he rechristened himself “The American Nightmare” and honed his craft on the independent circuit against the likes of Kurt Angle, Drew Galloway, Jay Lethal, and many others. He eventually found homes in Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro-Wrestling and helped take those companies to new heights. He then leveraged his newfound equity in the industry to promote a wildly successful independent show in 2018, All In, the first domestic non-WWE show to sell more than 11,000 tickets since 2001. All In’s success was proof that wrestling was marketable and prompted an investor, Tony Khan, to build a company around him and several of his compatriots, such as Kenny Omega, The Young Bucks, and “Hangman” Adam Page. This company was AEW, the wrestling company that ended WWE’s 18 year functional monopoly on professional wrestling within the United States. Stardust be damned.

Cody Rhodes is the embodiment of The American Dream in 2024. He found himself a cog in a broken machine that all but assured that he would never grow nor realize his dreams so, he left and built a better one. It took a great deal of courage, belief, and strength for Cody to leave the WWE but he knew he deserved more, worked tirelessly to put himself in a position to demand more, and achieved more when he would eventually return to WWE and realize his dream of becoming the WWE Champion. Cody’s story, however, is about so much more than winning a title in a scripted sport; it is a testament to the power of self-determination and a model of how to conduct yourself in trying times. 

We live in a tumultuous socioeconomic climate rife with political, ethical, and economic division and technological and environmental existential threats. The comfort of clear qualifications for and promises of success and safety enjoyed during Dusty’s time do not exist. The opportunities present in Dustin’s time do not exist. Thus in the cacophony of uncertainty and scarcity, it is important to stay true to oneself and one’s beliefs. It is important to find the means to continue to build yourself as Cody did when he left the WWE. It is important, if able, to find a way to elevate others as Cody did via his exploits on the independent circuit and in AEW. And, above all else, it is important to remember to be kind as he is known to go above and beyond regarding his professional conduct, to help his colleagues in need, and the time he spends interacting with fans. Cody’s legacy isn’t about winning championships, becoming undeniable, or finishing a story; Cody will be remembered for how he kept dreaming in a nightmare.

The American Dream is not about gallivanting with your friends in a carefree, idealized version of New York City, it is about facing adversity in the world with strength, perseverance, and hope. It is knowing that hate, fear, isolation, and poverty are more common than love, safety, community, and wealth but we march on regardless and The saga of The Rhodes family is a living record of to keep the dream alive. So if you find yourself in hard times and your “friends” aren’t there for you, remember The Rhodes boys. Remember Dusty’s hope that these values would lead us to a better tomorrow. Remember Dustin’s grit as he used these values as his sword and shield. And remember, Cody’s courage and how these values gave him a strength he had never known. Yes, your “Friends” lied and The American Dream died but, let The Rhodes’ teach you how to keep dreaming.

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