Wrestling audiences are ready for a nuanced, sexually ambiguous character like NXT superstar The Velveteen Dream. Is WWE?
Screen capture via WWE
Patrick Clarke Jr. is only 22 but he has come a long way since 2015, when he finished 9th in the WWE reality series Tough Enough. These days you probably know him better as the Velveteen Dream, sexually ambiguous, gender-fluid ascendant NXT superstar. On Saturday night, he participated in one of the marquee matchups at NXT Takeover: War Games, an extremely entertaining affair that ended in a close loss to the unbeaten Aleister Black and served as the culmination to what has been one of the most interesting feuds on NXT television for weeks.
For as athletically gifted as Velveteen Dream is, it’s his innate, unteachable ability to truly inhabit a character that puts him lengths ahead of where most wrestlers are at the same age and experience level.
There was certainly no guarantee that Clarke was going to be able to make this kind of character work, but he has completely thrown himself into the role, and wrestling fans—not stereotypically known as a particularly progressive or tolerant audience—have responded in kind. The course of his career going forward will say a lot about how WWE, which has a long history of reducing these types of characters to lazy and offensive stereotypes, has evolved—or hasn’t.
To really understand the type of character The Velveteen Dream is, you have to take a look back at professional wrestling history. As long as it has existed, it’s been a medium that plays on its audiences most basic fears and desires. Up until the 1940’s it was mostly an endless cycle of the same generic story—clean-cut hometown hero vs. evil foreign or ethnic stereotype—but it didn’t really begin to resemble what we recognize as pro wrestling until generic Nebraska boy George Raymond Wagner grew his hair out, bleached it platinum blonde, donned an extravagant cape and became Gorgeous George. Coinciding perfectly with the rise of television, he quickly became one of the most famous and highly paid athletes/performers in the country, single handedly dragging both the wrestling industry and American culture itself into a bold, modern direction. He did this not by appealing to a sense of nationalism, but by challenging and mutating what were then very rigid gender norms, and causing the massive audiences he would draw both on television and in person to simultaneously fear and revere him.
Since then, this eagerness to challenge traditional views of gender has become one of pro wrestling’s most recognizable tropes, from Gorgeous George to the Exoticos of lucha libre to Adrian Street. In a way, it’s one of the most progressive things about the sport—there have been gender non-conforming or queer-adjacent characters in pro wrestling for a lot longer than most other mainstream storytelling mediums—but at the same time it’s reactionary; a way to play on the basic prejudices of its audiences in order to sell tickets to a violent spectacle. Although wrestlers like Ric Flair, Rick Rude, and Shawn Michaels have incorporated various elements of this particular trope into their personas to tremendous success, it was always in service of their portrayal as heterosexual lothario figures. Any time in the modern WWF/E era that a character has attempted to really lean into the inherent homoeroticism of the business, it’s almost always ended up as a negative, reactive exercise in shock value and, in wrestling terms, cheap heat. A tool that a villain uses to gain the upper hand by turning his good guy opponent’s traditional masculinity against him.
From “Adorable” Adrian Adonis, who began his career as a generic bruiser and was re-branded in the early 80’s as a walking collection of every negative homosexual stereotype imaginable, to late 90’s tag team Billy & Chuck, who started as a comedy act in the vein of SNL’s ambiguously gay duo but eventually led to a now-infamous “wedding” segment that was denounced by GLAAD, WWE has repeatedly botched any efforts at portraying these kinds of characters with anything resembling subtlety or nuance. When Darren Young came out and was subsequently supported publically by the company, many believed it was a sign that WWE had turned a corner in this regard and were serious about presiding over a more inclusive modern era, but it’s hard to square that with the reality that Young was unceremoniously released a few weeks ago after a few minor pushes never went anywhere. Goldust was the closest WWE came to a genuinely subversive, androgynous character, and his appearance in the still squeaky clean era of mid-90’s wrestling essentially kickstarted a more adult-oriented focus that would lead to the biggest boom period in the company’s history; but this may have had more to do with Dustin Runnels’ skill as a performer, as Goldust’s initial storylines with Razor Ramon and Roddy Piper veered into ugly homophobia and the character’s ambiguous elements were eventually toned down.
“I think the evidence is pretty clear that Vince McMahon and the WWE treated queerness as a device for generating heel heat and had zero interest in channeling gender-fluidity into a positive "face" trait,” said Josh Howard, sports historian, wrestling fan, and co-author of A Secret Fascination, a study of gender non-conformity and masculinity in pro wrestling.
His co-author, writer and queer theorist Elizabeth Catte, was inclined to agree.
“I think many of the wrestlers who did gender non-conforming gimmicks were reactive, in the sense that they were reacting to exaggerated stereotypes of masculinity that are native to wrestling, but also to our culture itself (a bit like camp),” she told VICE Sports.
Yet despite the company’s negative track record, The Velveteen Dream feels like an opportunity to do something that rises above the outdated and inherently-conservative form of storytelling they’ve always relied on and present a gender-fluid character that actually feels progressive and subversive. The feud with Aleister Black has served as a tremendous opportunity to show that the character works under a bigger spotlight, and at the same time has really challenged Black, himself one of the company’s top prospects, to transcend the limitations inherent to his own persona—a stoic Satanist who kicks people in the face—and prove he is capable of backing up his significant in-ring ability with equally compelling character work.
NXT audiences have indicated that they’re happy to be along for the ride. During their match at War Games, Dream—ostensibly still a heel—was just as popular with the crowd as his opponent. And when Black pointedly said his name in a brief post-match promo and later glanced back at Dream while making his way up the ramp, finally giving him the precious acknowledgment he had been demanding, fans cheered hysterically.
In 2017 and beyond, wrestling audiences are ready for boundary-pushing characters and storylines that aren’t simply vehicles for gay panic and subsequent homophobic rage. The question now is whether or not WWE is ready as well. If they can take advantage of Velveteen Dream’s significant gifts as both an athlete and performer and truly embrace the unapologetically non-conforming elements of his character, it will go a long way to proving that their talk of being a more modern, progressive company that has moved beyond its reactionary conservative roots is more than just empty corporate jargon.