In assessing a wrestler’s success as a babyface, standard procedure is to point toward his ability to pop a crowd, sell merchandise and bolster ratings. In this way, we look too often at the end result of a wrestler’s relationship with the fans. So this begs the question, from what sorts of engagement do wrestlers incite in the audience these effects? How deep must his personality go to titillate a viewer? What is it that fans are looking for in their heroes? And whatever they’re looking for, what can we tell about the very fact they’re looking?

People often derive their definitions from how it differs from its presumed binary opposite, and I won’t refrain from doing so now. When we think of villains, we think of extreme sociopathic tendencies. These are individuals whose mindsets, whose behaviors, are bent on unsettling societal order. They’re the entropic, frayed edges of a rope threatening to unravel the whole system. Think Heath Ledger’s Joker, who was so thoroughly disillusioned with our culture that he burned a mountain of cash large enough to sled down because “simple things” like gasoline and dynamite don’t necessitate such extravagant wealth.

Heroes, on the other hand, are just the opposite. They follow a moral compass, a central conscience (whether universal or socially-bound is a subject for another debate) around which all their decisions swing. Ideally, they’re the unfettered wardens of morality, protecting peace and order from those villains who’d tear our flags apart.

It’s never really that simple, is it? Or at least it’s not to the modern pop culture audience that demands their heroes grittier and complex, rather than one-dimensional, infallible role-models. We want heroes that struggle with moral decisions just like we do, because realistically, it’s difficult identifying, as I alluded to in parentheses earlier, whether a particular “moral” is a universal human truth or a societal construct that might even be oppressing greater morals the way laws have often wrought greater injustices than the ones they were meant to prevent.

Perhaps the most recurring criticism about John Cena wasn’t that he didn’t get reactions from the crowds, sell merchandise or boosts rating, but that his character wasn’t being challenged enough. Fortunately with his feuds with CM Punk and The Rock, he was finally put into the position where he wasn’t a paragon of virtue, but rather someone juggling his ideals and the convincing points his adversaries were making. And you know what? John Cena really has changed ever since his feud with CM Punk. He, like the whole product, acknowledges Cena’s split reputation and his criticisms, has admitted them into the fiction. Although that hasn’t stopped half the audience from booing him, at least in my usual Web-surfing route of forums, websites and Facebook groups, he seems to have a lot less critical heat on him for being a flat babyface.

For a Daniel Bryan fan like me, the news – and it was “news” in the sense it had come second-hand since I’d missed RAW the night it aired – John Cena had picked him as his SummerSlam challenger was a cause for celebration, especially after incorrectly pegging Bryan for Mr. Money in the Bank. However, when I expressed my elation to one of my friend’s, one whose ear I’d often bent in expounding detail after detail about my Daniel Bryan fandom, he finally took aim, cut to the chase and asked the obvious question, “Why do you like Daniel Bryan?”

That stumped me. I’ve certainly written about reasons why I liked him, yet somehow those fluffed-up analyses didn’t seem to have the personal flare his question – tempered perhaps by his sick-of-me-carrying-on expression – seemed to demand. I didn’t answer him then. Not truthfully. I’m pretty sure I screamed, “BECAUSE HE’S DAAAAANIEL F*CKIIIIIIIN’ BRYAAAAAN” and YES!-chanted out of the room loud enough to be sure all our new neighbors will want to be our friends.

That night when I thought about it, and I mean really thought about it, I came to a few realizations that went deeper than how much I liked his wrestling style or his sick ring attire or his … beard. What I unearthed was that when I look at Daniel Bryan, I see a bit of myself: five-foot-eight, a bit husky, not quite the looks of a movie star. When I look at Daniel Bryan, I project my insecurities and my ambitions (because any insecurity means an ambition to prove it wrong), so that it feels like the hero standing in the ring is fighting alongside me in my battles as well as his.

That’s the reason why I’m drawn so strongly to Daniel Bryan, although you don’t need to have a Napoleon complex (sans a drive for imperial conquest, add poor social skills) to root for him. A lot of people just like his antics, and who can’t relate to a good underdog story? However, I believe that like me, some fans pick their favorites based on how personally they can relate to them, how closely those wrestlers’ identities and all the struggles that test them reflect theirs.

CM Punk might be one of the most accessible stand-ins. Who hasn’t been upset with the status quo? Who hasn’t wanted to act and feel like a badass without giving into the pressure of having some movie star physique? Not only that, but he’s championed an issue specific to our industry after throwing the spotlight on the WWE’s most recurring criticisms, objectively certified or not: disproportionately endorsing wrestlers with large physiques, ceaselessly pushing John Cena and not giving fans enough wrestling.

We don’t just relate to these wrestlers for what they actually do, but what we could imagine them to do. How many debates, hopefully at least half jokingly, have you seen where fans argue over which wrestler has the potential to be the most badass, to beat up other guys in a legitimate fight? Although I’ve never argued Daniel Bryan should jump into a UFC ring, sometimes I like to imagine how well he’d do if he turned into a brutal heel who liked snapping limbs and tearing ligaments. Knowing his style and previous work, it seems like something he could do, but it’s almost as if I like him more for that projected potential despite it not having actually been realized in the WWE.

Maybe that’s another important aspect of our engagement with wrestlers: imagination. We want wrestlers whose characters and styles – which are, after all, interrelated – inspire imaginings that their actual work might not ever live up to, but we enjoy nonetheless in the same way we enjoy our daydreams or our fantasy bookings. When a face doesn’t seem to have more potential than smiling and waving to the fans, it’s harder to book him into these wrestling daydreams, and so we become disinterested, uninspired.

There’s just one last question I mentioned earlier: Why do we look for these qualities in our babyfaces? There are probably a ton of reasons that contribute. A lot of my history major friends remind me we’re a less unquestioningly patriotic and more cynical generation than ones prior, which is why we less often appreciate infallible heroes. And we expect more depth out of everything from film to video games because greater visual and graphical fidelity is possible thanks to the advancement of relevant technologies. When the subtlest emotions can be expressed through minute facial expression on an HD television, there’s a greater emotional range for actors or high-polygon video game characters. You bet we can expect the same out of our wrestlers.

To me, the biggest reason is rooted in the very purpose we watch professional wrestling and entertainment: escapism, but not a complete escape. We don’t break completely from reality with entertainment, but rather view our culture as an isolated sliver that allows us to tackle or engage with issues in ways we can’t when discussing them in the real-world context. When we cheer for a babyface, we’re cheering for someone who crusades through a hyper-reality, we’re cheering for someone who can combat controversy and overcome obstacles we can’t or can’t as spectacularly in the real world. They might not be perfect at it, but neither are we – and perhaps that’s the best part.

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If you haven’t noticed, I’ve missed my last three articles thanks to a combination of camping and moving. Mostly moving. Lots of moving. Now I even have to help my girlfriend move. I freaking hate moving. But yeah, since I’ve been gone so long I really appreciate you reading this article. I look forward to writing for you cool cats and dolls next week. Ciao.

Nicholas LeVack is a junior English creative writing major and media studies minor whose interests include writing, wrestling, video games and occasional outdoorsy things. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at nalevack92@gmail.com.