Daniel Bryan, indie wrestling icon turned WWE insider, carries a “sustainable hemp and naturally fallen oak” version of the WWE Championship Belt. He talks about the dangers of global warming, consumerism, and refusing to embrace a vegetarian diet. He has fans, many of them, but when he works arenas he’s showered in boos by MAGA hat-wearing millennials and their even more conservative parents.
Online, it’s different. My Twitter feed roars with approval when he gives woke-heel interviews, talking about the greediness of baby boomers and the environmental consequences of eating meat — even when Bryan, the sneaky liberal, engages in underhanded tactics in the ring (begging a pumped-up AJ Styles to give him time to recover only to hit his opponent with a low blow when he complies), his lefty fans still shout his simple, signature cheer: “Yes!” In 2019, speaking in tender terms about fatherhood and caring about social justice wins Bryan fewer WWE fans than detractors, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a sound strategy for getting huge.
In the ring and outside of it, Daniel Bryan is teaching a master class in market segmentation by refusing to play to a non-existent political middle. This makes him an unlikely hero, a compelling villain, and a fascinating, maybe even worrying preview of the future of male celebrity. Though he means every progressive thing he says — he’s genuinely a father who wants to be a good steward of the planet for his daughter — the way he says it, the know-it-all lefty bit, is what gives some fans the cue that he should be drowned out with raspberries.
Here’s Daniel Bryan in two quotes:
- “I would like to do something to help people and help the world.”
- “Being a bad guy is fun for me.”
Bryan, a lightweight grappler who cut his teeth by impressing wrestling connoisseurs with his fast-paced work in Japan and smaller US promotions, earned his first main event runs in the WWE through the acclamation of company’s nerdiest, most technique-obsessed fans. Along with fellow indie veteran CM Punk, he represented a major stylistic departure from the hulking, beefy brawlers long favored by WWE owner Vince McMahon. And, also like Punk, Bryan frequently laced his interviews with incisive commentary critical both of the boring WWE product and the fallen state of a culture obsessed with consumerism while willfully ignoring a looming ecological catastrophe.
You’d think that telling the fans to avoid eating meat or damaging the environment would go over fairly well with the largely left-leaning millennials. But no generation is monolithic and in-character scolds like ex-champion Bret “The Hitman” Hart have long been booed by American crowds. When Hart played the part of a Canadian patriot, praising his country for taking care of the poor, the hungry, and the sick, he somehow became a true-blue hero north of the border and a despised villain in the USA — all for reciting some inarguable facts about how Canadian public policy. It was a remarkably forward-thinking storyline for the late 1990s.
Which is all to say that what Daniel Bryan is doing is not entirely new. But he’s doing it in a different way and in a different era. He is not Canadian, but he is identifiably part of a “woke” culture at a time when the WWE’s television viewing audience has a median age of 54. Even though subscribers to WWE’s streaming service skew two decades younger, there are only around two million of them in comparison to the five million or so people who tune in for RAW and Smackdown each week and have listened to Bryan call Vince McMahon and his fellow baby boomers “the great parasites of the world.”
“These people bow down to you,” Bryan told his ostensible boos, “but they don’t realize you take, you take, you take, and you give nothing back, putting profit over the people and the planet every single time!”
Given that the audience skews older, Bryan’s approach might feel like financial self-harm. But he’s bolstering his person brand using a strategy that is working for far larger, impersonal brands in 2019. In 2019, Walmart-owned clothing line Bonobos cut an ad about the many ways to be a man, Nike fired off a Colin Kaepernick-fronted video about inclusion and “dreaming crazy,” and Gillette simultaneously attempted to critique toxic masculinity while selling razor blades. In all cases, reactions we mixed. There are more dislikes than likes on the Gillette and Bonobos videos. But sales went up for Bonobos and way up for Nike, even as reactionaries (and, let’s be real, racists) burned their sneakers in the streets.
Why? Those ads genuinely resonated with a portion of the three brands’ audiences, who shared them on social media and boasted about how life was changing for the better now. The brands were happy to alienate some customers in order to secure a more loyal base. In any case, people were talking about these products, much as WWE fans — Canadians and Americans alike — used to talk about Bret Hart when he was monologuing on the virtue of socialized medicine.
For Bryan, this model of brand building has always made sense. Even when he was an up-and-coming good guy, Bryan used searingly honest promos to criticize his employer and perpetual champions, including Randy Orton and John Cena, for being boring. Bryan was not boring. He isn’t boring. That’s just not him and he couldn’t sell it. In the end, he rode a wave of young fans shouting “Yes!” to a victory over third-generation star Orton and became the WWE champion against the wishes (at least in the storyline, but maybe also in real life) of WWE executives.
But Bryan has now gone far beyond talking about matters of taste and aesthetics in wrestling performance, incorporating his real-life desire to be a role model to his daughter into an act that can be, at time, grating. Bryan behaves like a caricature of a white male Bernie Sanders supporter. He’s histrionic and overly demonstrative. He seems to think he’s better than his audience — and he might be. “One of the things [fatherhood] really inspired me to do is really make… to really look at myself and [figure out] ‘how do I be the best possible father for my baby?’” Bryan told FOX Sports in 2017. “And ‘how do I be the best possible role model?’”
That’s not a weird thing for an athlete or celebrity to say, but it’s an unusual statement from a WWE star.
As was the case of Hart and his villainous patriotism, Bryan’s political performance heightens the natural tensions between the fake and the real that is the core appeal of professional wrestling. How much of Daniel Bryan’s character is genuine? And does it matter that it’s he’s amplifying his performance if he’s also… right?
Judging from Bryan’s outside-the-ring behavior, he seems to means much of what he says. He’s not John Cena, who committed himself to learning Mandarin to help WWE’s international bottom line and has largely left his liberalism in the closet. Bryan, at the very least, is saying what many wrestling fans (and many men) want to hear and speaking with a kind of candor rarely seen from over-cautious celebrities or politicians. He’s selling something, sure, but at least he’s selling it using our language. It’s a start.
Daniel Bryan’s star has steadily risen since he began raising hell about meat eating and consumerist waste and environmental idiocy. He’s built himself a platform inside the squared circle. What he does with it, well, that’s a matter of conscience.