Professional wrestling, especially in the WWE, can be a staunchly black and white product. The baby faces are champions of good meant to be cheered. The heels are nefarious or cowardly and meant to be booed. These visceral crowd reactions are engrained deep within every event-going fan. So, when a character or a storyline comes along that doesn’t automatically satisfy one of these two responses, fans are often left scratching their heads. Sometimes, like in the case of the ongoing Ruby Riott vs. Natalya feud, it’s not about being avant garde but ultimately a question of taste and moral decency.
In the past few weeks, Riott, a character who has become a leading heel in the Raw women’s division, has truly amped up her level of cruelty by callously using the real-life passing of Natalya’s father, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, as lightning rod for colossal heel heat.
Ahead of the two women’s TLC table matches this Sunday, Dec. 16, Riott has destroyed The Anvil’s treasured sun glasses, put Natalya through a table and berated the Hart Dungeon product as a failure to her family, mocking her grief and presenting her with the gift of a table bearing her father’s likeness.
Some have begged the question, is this too much? Is this too personal? Too nasty? When a heel is meant to be booed and all an audience can do is sit in stunned silence, is this a bad way to build heat?
Simply put: no. A boo should not be the only acceptable outcome for a heel’s antics. In a world where kayfabe is all but a thing of the past, most fans operate under the assumption that the participants in any given storyline are made aware of the angles presented and work through them together.
Working with the belief that these personal attacks aren’t too personal for the performers themselves, it gives the promotion more freedom to play with the emotions of the audience. When every reaction to a match is all out anger from a fan, it can be exhausting. So, it’s refreshing to have something that makes you squirm thrown in for good measure. Something that throws off the equilibrium.
Ruby Riott vs. Natalya is not designed to be comfortable. It’s designed to be catharsis. An exorcism of grief for a woman who has given everything to a company she loves. Natalya’s promos opposite Riott’s antics have been moving and downright heroic in the face of true villainy. She elicits raucous cheers as she emotionally declares that she will drive Riott through a table.
When Riott declared that Natalya “needed a counselor”, she may have been right, but this storyline seems to be WWE’s attempt at therapy. What better way to get through the trauma of losing a beloved father and mentor than living out the hero’s fantasy of avenging his loss?
Every hero needs a villain, though, and Ruby Riott may be too good at playing one. When the punk rock villainess unveiled her “present” to Natalya this past Monday, the audience audibly gasped instead of booed. While the audience sat uncomfortably with the attacks, the story simply simmered.
The ending will be the same when Natalya ultimately vanquishes her new-found nemesis. She will be cheered like she has never been cheered before.
Riott toes the line of decency like caged tiger ready to strike. While her antics may not be getting the boos fans are accustomed too, the uniquely personal approach serves to inform the storyline and its characters all the better for it. Plus, it delivers something fans aren’t usually expecting, an intentional reason to squirm. Discomfort usually means something’s gone wrong within WWE storytelling, so to feel it used against them as a tool can feel alien to a fan.
In the end, it will feel all the better for everyone when Riott is driven through a table on Sunday.
For a counterpoint to this argument, check out Phil Lindsey’s article arguing that Ruby Riott shows us the wrong way to get heat.