Here’s the latest arm-twist to the field of professional wrestling: Billy Corgan – yes, that Billy Corgan – wants to use a medium that is decidedly heavy on piledrivers and figure-four leglocks to explore issues of race, ethnicity and gender.
Corgan, leader of the innovative rock group Smashing Pumpkins, has joined TNA Impact Wrestling as senior producer of creative and talent development and, as such, will have a strong hand guiding such luminaries as Kurt Angle, Bobby Roode and Jeff Hardy and their exploits on TNA’s flagship “Impact Wrestling” program that has airs on Discovery Communications’ Destination America cable network. Rather than trotting out the same old “heels” and “babyfaces” — pro-wrestling argot for “bad guys” and good guys” — Corgan thinks fans are ready for new stories.
“There is a tremendous opportunity to go into really fresh, new directions,” Corgan explained in an interview. Having characters who explore race or transgender issues is certainly a possibility, he suggested. “There are ways to explore those themes in ways that are productive, create new stars and show that value-based ‘babyfaces,’ no matter what their background, no matter where they come from, can draw new audiences and inspire people in new ways.”
Corgan’s thinking is necessary to stand out in a crowded field that is largely dominated by World Wrestling Entertainment and is also filled with overseas competitors like Japan’s New Japan Pro Wrestling and Mexico’s AAA Mega Championship, explained Dixie Carter, TNA’s president, in an interview. “We need to make our existing characters have a greater depth to them,” she said. “We want the stories to have a depth and a meaning to someone that is relevant today. Billy can really help that.”
In decades past, wrestling’s portrayal of different cultures has not always been kind, whether it be the headdress-wearing Native Americans known as Jay and Jules Strongbow, the mute behemoths called the Wild Samoans, or the effeminate character “Adorable” Adrian Adonis. TNA is betting that it can bring new fans to the arena by giving a stronger nod to cultures with growing influence in American society. It’s a tactic that big advertisers ranging from Coca-Cola to General Mills have adopted in the last few years, running commercials featuring families from a wider range of backgrounds and using multiple languages. TV networks have also begun to cast more broadly for programs like “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” that try to offer viewpoints from African-American or Asian-American characters.
TNA’s maneuver comes as WWE has also begun efforts to bring a wider crowd to its antics. The Stamford, Conn.-based company recently launched a new campaign with NBCUniversal – which shows WWE programs on its USA cable outlet – that plays up the heroic and charitable works by such wrestlers as John Cena.
For Corgan, the match-up with professional wresting is not as unlikely as it might first seem. The writer of such tunes as “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and “Tonight, Tonight” says he has been a wrestling fan for much of his life, originally getting into the sport by following competitors such as Verne Gagne and Dick the Bruiser. “It was about tough guys in tights, before the really colorful stuff came in more fully into the 1980s,” he said. In recent years, Corgan even ran a small wrestling promotion around Chicago.
TNA’s Carter said she met Corgan several years ago and, familiar with his deep interest in the sport, she convinced him to join her executives for a plotting session. Some of his creative work will begin to show up in TNA programming slated to hit the air in early May, she said.
Corgan believes his ideas will “ break new ground.” In 2015, he said, “Those social and cultural issues that are sort of a ‘don’t go there’ subject” will result in themes that will feel more meaningful to current audiences. “I think there’s an endless supply of things in our culture where people are dealing with race or with gender, etc., and you can get into these things in a way that is both revelatory and enlightening. Treated the right way, ultimately, the good guy wins. The right ideas win.”
TNA bouts have run on Destination America since January. Discovery and TNA struck a multiyear deal in late 2014 that also includes the U.S. premiere of various series and specials from the company and gives Discovery international broadcasting rights for the programs in certain regions.
Correction: A previous version of this post referred to John Cena as Tony Cena.