To start off this article, I want to make clear that I don’t personally feel that comments made by Jim Cornette about Sonny Kiss came from a malevolent or particularly hateful place.
Having said that, they do represent an outdated mindset. As such, I feel it is holding back the wrestling industry as a whole from implementing the representation of queer characters in the right way on their programming. Cornette’s main gripe with the presentation of Sonny Kiss’ character in AEW is that it was “not explained”. He states his confusion as to whether he was merely a “transvestite” or a “drag performer”.
In short, Cornette’s comments highlight the difficulty of analysing queer representation in wrestling. Whether the characters on-screen are to be viewed as gimmicks or extensions of the wrestlers’ own personalities.
On top of this conundrum lies the question as to whether there are certain gimmicks that are either outdated or should be reserved for certain performers.
Difference between wrestlers and real life
For example, let us view the Sonny Kiss character in alignment with another flamboyant gimmick in the Velveteen Dream. Now, both are wrestlers in the same vein as Prince or Bowie. Both musicians used colourful and flashy costumes and larger than life personalities to stand out from the contemporaries.
The difference between the two is that while Velveteen Dream is a gimmick (a Prince homage). Sonny Kiss is an extension of the performer’s own sexual expression and self-identity.
His portrayal cannot be open to the same kind of old-school scrutiny that Cornette is trying to apply. I must admit that, in this area, I do feel some sympathy for Cornette.
Wrestling is unlike any other form of media. If I was analysing a film for example, it would be easier for me to criticise Patrick Clark’s “casting” as inauthentic and caricature-like.
Yet therein lies the problem: Patrick Clark is a professional wrestler, not an actor. Yes, I know that’s stating the obvious, but it is a fact that muddies the waters of this entire issue.
For decades, the professional wrestling business has been built on larger than life characters. They didn’t necessarily reflect the personal lives of the performers who were playing them.
Today’s product is veering more towards reality. Wrestler’s off-camera life matter just as much to fans as the character they portray on the show.
This is why WWE fans latch on to Becky Lynch as their Lord and Saviour last year. They recognise that the struggling underdog shown on Smackdown Live reflected that performers real life story and journey.
With this evolution in mind, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to accurately assessing the state of queer representation in mainstream wrestling.
To reduce Sonny Kiss’ character to merely a “transvestite” style gimmick (as Cornette has tried to do) is obviously wrong, as it evaluates personal expression and sexual identity with a cheap and overly simplistic rhetoric that belongs in a by-gone era.
However, it would be ignorant not to acknowledge the fact that there are gimmicks like Velveteen Dream and Goldust which incorporate queer elements into their characters for the sake of entertainment and (for the most part) have managed to do so in a way that is neither offensive nor disrespectful. The problem with wrestling is that it is a world that is both real and fake. Fact and fiction. Sport and entertainment.
As such, whilst I do agree that Jim Cornette’s word choice and overall rhetoric regarding Sonny Kiss was in poor taste, I do admit that the multifaceted way in which today’s audience is exposed to professional wrestlers makes it extremely hard to separate the performer from the character, leading to difficulties in evaluating each as a separate entity.
The case of Sonya Deville
Having said this, there are queer wrestlers who navigate this separation of the real and the fictional wonderfully.
I do have to give WWE credit and say that their handling of Sonya Deville is the perfect way to handle queer representation in this era of wrestling.
Sonya portrays a dangerous heel on Smackdown Live, the more ruthless half of her tandem with Mandy Rose. She is presented as a legitimate threat due to her MMA background. Her friendship with Rose exists platonically without any tasteless exploitation of her sexuality (which most definitely would not have been the case even ten years ago).
However, behind the scenes Sonya is a true ambassador for queer representation in the wrestling industry. She attends many LGBTQ+ events as an ambassador for WWE and is very open in interviews about the influence she has on young queer girls. She as a woman is endearing because her openness is refreshing in the world of WWE.
Her character is successful because Deville is intersectional in that her defining characteristic is not just her sexuality. In this sense, sports and entertainment come together perfectly in the package of Sonya Deville.
Overall, I do once again reiterate that Jim Cornette was not right in what he said. However, as a man who evaluates wrestling characters for a living, I do understand to an extent his ignorance.
Today’s world can be difficult to navigate. To respond with anger or indignity is not always the correct course of action.
I think what we as fans have to recognise is that the world of professional wrestling is a unique one. As such, it is difficult to evaluate queer representation in the industry.
For me, the most important thing regarding queer representation is that performers are both comfortable with portraying their true self without being subjected to hate for it (like Sonny Kiss) and that queer performers are allowed to exist outside of pigeon-holed roles that they’d have been forced to play in the past (like Sonya Deville).
If we achieve both these goals, then I personally believe that we will be in a good place.
I also feel that with further education about the LGBTQ+ community as they become a more prominent and vocal part of the wrestling community we love and cherish, then insensitive and heavy-handed comments like those from Cornette will become a thing of the past.