Pushing Boundaries: WWE’s Most Controversial Storylines Ever

4 days ago By Jhon Woug

World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is known for its boast of larger-than-life characters, intense rivalries, and dramatic storytelling. However, throughout its history, WWE has been no stranger to controversy. The company has, at various points in its history, pushed the boundaries in the way storylines tackle sensitive subjects or portray seemingly impossible or ridiculous events, and it is now standard practice to do so. This paper will have a close look at some of the most controversial storylines of WWE, and touch on their contexts, impacts, and legacies—lasting narratives that now shape the professional wrestling world.

The Attitude Era: A Bed of Controversy
The Attitude Era is often held during the late 1990s-early 2000s as the most controversial WWE era of all time. Marked by a move towards edgier and more adult-oriented products, storylines were often near the threshold of what could be allowed.

The Montreal Screwjob, 1997
Possibly one of the most infamous incidents in wrestling history, the Montreal Screwjob occurred on November 9, 1997, live at the Survivor Series. The match pitted Bret “Hitman” Hart against Shawn Michaels, and it climaxed in controversy when WWF Chairman Vince McMahon ordered the referee to ring the bell and end the match after Hart wound up in a submission hold, even though Hart had not submitted. This was done to ensure that Michaels won the WWE Championship, as Hart was moving to WCW.

The fallout from the Montreal Screwjob was massive. Hart felt betrayed by McMahon and the WWE; it created a chasm in real life, and the story blurred the lines of reality, giving birth to McMahon’s on-screen villain, Mr. McMahon, further setting the tone for the extraordinary Austin vs. McMahon feud.

The Katie Vick Angle (2002)
The 2002 angle with Kane and Triple H, called the Katie Vick angle, has often been cited as one of the most tasteless storylines the WWE has ever done. In this angle, Triple H made insinuations that Kane had conducted necrophilia and murdered his former girlfriend, Katie Vick.
That angle was hugely criticized by fans and the media, with many going so far as to regard it as tasteless and over the top. Eventually, WWE dismissed the storyline, but many believe it as one of the worst examples of how far WWE will go in presenting shocking content.

The Birth of Mr. Socko (1998)
One anomaly not so twilight-fears, though, was the creation of the Mr. Socko character during the Attitude Era, controversially brought in to associate the “mentally unstable” Mankind character, played by Mick Foley, with the sock puppet. That was during a Mr. Socko segment with Vince McMahon lying in a hospital bed.

This was mainly due to the humor that came with depicting mental illness—an element present throughout Mankind’s character development. Despite the controversy, Mr. Socko would become a crowd favorite in wrestling gimmicks, contributing an altogether weird and eerie layer to Foley’s multifaceted character.

Controversies in the Post-Attitude Era

Even after the end of the Attitude Era, WWE has been notorious for controversial storylines where they again pushed the extremity boundaries and got a lot of extreme reactions from fans and critics alike.

The Invasion Angle (2001)
‘The Invasion’ should have been the biggest angle in wrestling history. / All but had the potential to be the biggest live angle in wrestling history due to WWE’s acquisition of its rivals WCW and ECW in 2001. It told the story of WCW and ECW wrestlers brought in to “invade” WWE and precipitated a series of inter-promotional matches.

While the angle itself was very hyped, the Invasion segment of the storyline was widely panned for its poor execution simply because critical WCW stars such as Hulk Hogan, Goldberg, and Sting were missing in crucial moments. Moreover, many believe that WWE booked the action of the storyline, especially in the fans’ favor, too much towards the company’s wrestlers to make the storyline balanced and incredibly dramatic. The angle would forever be attached to controversy since it was seen as the squandering of so much potential and just a big miss.

The Vince McMahon Limo Explosion (2007)
In 2007, WWE ran an angle where Vince McMahon’s limousine was blown up. It was the clear implication that the WWE Chairman had been killed off-camera. It was a mystery scenario that would be overseen by weeks of investigation, but it ended up being killed a few weeks later due to the real murder-suicide involving wrestler Chris Benoit and his family.
Due to timing and the overall darkness of what happened with Benoit, the storyline was razed with much negative backlash. Ultimately, the company distanced itself from the angle, and it is considered a very controversial spot in the company’s history due to its insensitivity and poor timing.

Katie Lea and Paul Burchill incest scandal – 2008
In 2008, WWE came up with the storyline of two characters, Katie Lea and Paul Burchill, being a brother-sister duo. Incest was inferred between them, and before one blinking of an eye’s time, the premise came to face fans and media pungency.

It ultimately was scrapped. The Final storyline developed from backlash, yet served as another controversial example of how WWE is willing to look towards taboo subjects in the way of attention-grabbing content. So much so, the quick demise of the angle even served to underline the fine line WWE often walks between merely pushing boundaries and crossing them.

Modern Day Controversy
More recent years include WWE having this controversy by getting involved in current social behaviors and the changing entertainment landscape.

Lana, Rusev and Bobby Lashley Love Triangle 2019
Indeed, one of the most controversial WWE storylines in recent memory involved a love triangle that featured Lana, Rusev, and Bobby Lashley. The angle saw Lana, married to Rusev on-screen and off, dump her husband for former lover Lashley—which was followed up by several not-so-comfortable segments.

Much criticism was sparked by the explicit content and what some thought was a lack of creativity in the storyline. Many fans felt that it centered too much on shock value and didn’t develop characters or storylines. All this controversy would nonetheless give significant buzz, coupled with high ratings, to show that WWE still banked on highly provocative material to capture an audience.

The Jeff Hardy Substance Abuse Angle (2020)
WWE ran an angle around Jeff Hardy’s substance abuse fight in real life in 2020. According to the storyline, Hardy was framed in a hit-and-run accident, and that was an insinuation of his getting on top of the wagon about alcoholism.

This storyline has been very controversial in exploiting Hardy’s problems for entertainment value. Then again, it was said to be distasteful by critics and could even have the potential of being unhealthy concerning Hardy’s trying to get back on the right track of stability. Hardy claimed he was actually okay with the storyline in that it gave him a chance to talk about the problems publicly. Some consider this the most significant issue yet with WWE’s blase approach at some issues being sensitivity factors and otherwise, and indeed, the bare public airing by the WWE of such a sensitive subject remains a sore point.

The Retribution Angle, 2020
One more controversial moment for WWE came in 2020 with the introduction of the Retribution faction. This group of anarchists aimed at destroying WWE from within and, quite predictably, was compared with social and political groups of that time, such as Black Lives Matter and Antifa.

The angle was criticized for perceived insensitivity and, quite clearly, an overall lack of direction. Many fans and critics believed it trivialized the severe issues and did not furnish a cutting commentary either. So, this storyline lost momentum quickly after some initial interest and soon became branded as a wretched failure. But, more importantly, it also exposed the precipitous risks WWE runs with its use of current themes in its fictional world.

The Impact and Legacy of Controversial Storylines
Over the years since its inception, controversial storylines have created a profound impact on the WWE, transforming the business and the manner narratives are showcased in it.

Blurring the Lines Between Reality and Fiction
Key among these controversial WWE legacies is the blurred line between reality and fiction. From the Montreal Screwjob to Jeff Hardy’s substance abuse angle, these instances have further muddled the thinking of a fan trying to separate what is real from what is merely scripted drama. Such blurred lines between reality and fiction have mainly enticed a sense of rig dominated by WWE storytelling, sparking interest among its fans.

Pushing Societal Boundaries
So often, WWE has been the first to engage with taboo subjects—deliberately so. While taking such a route has undoubtedly stirred up much heat for the company, it has also precipitated conversations around essential issues—mental health, substance abuse, and racial stereotyping, to be specific. Staying controversial has kept WWE relevant and influential in the bigger picture of culture.

Shaping Audience Expectations
The controversial storylines jaded audience expectations towards WWE programming. The fans now expect the unexpected, pushing the envelope-type content which has influenced WWE’s creative direction. Relying so heavily on controversy opens one to a double-edged sword, creating a splash that can sometimes turn people off while providing negative publicity for the company. Balancing shock value with compelling storytelling remains a constant tightrope walk for WWE.

Controversial Storylines

To understand the extent of WWE’s boundary-pushing narratives, let’s delve deeper into some additional controversial storylines that have left an indelible mark on the wrestling world.

The Muhammad Hassan Angle – 2005
In 2005, WWE developed a character in Muhammad Hassan, portrayed by Marc Copani. Hassan was established as an Arab-American wrestler who claimed the treatment of him by other Americans was unjust because he was an Arab and a Muslim. This storyline, purporting to deal with issues of racism and xenophobia, would thus become one of WWE’s most controversial angles.

It reached the peak of controversy in July 2005 during an episode of SmackDown! When Hassan’s friends in ski masks attacked The Undertaker – it also emanated just days after the London bombings and received immense criticism regarding the insensitivity surrounding the timing. WWE took the character off the air in response to the backlash, the terrible reaction effectively killing that angle in place.

The Dawn Marie and Al Wilson Storyline, 2002-2003
One other highly controversial storyline would be the Dawn Marie and Torrie Wilson real-life father, Al Wilson storyline where in the storyline, Dawn Marie began dating Al Wilson to get under the skin of her then-friend Torrie. The angle featured a skit in which Dawn Marie and Al Wilson got on-screen married in their underwear and concluded with Al Wilson dying on-screen from a night of passionate activities.

It was criticized for being tasteless and exploitative, especially in using an old man for shock value. It was a very controversial angle but remains one of the most outrageous storylines ever in WWE history.

Triple H – Stephanie McMahon “Drugging” Angle (1999)
The storyline WWE aired in 1999 had Stephanie McMahon unknowingly drugged before he ended up sort of marrying her by drive-thru somewhere in Vegas. This angle was run to officially establish what a heel Triple H had become and gain momentum for the crowning feud with Vince McMahon going into the fall. The storyline received much criticism for the way it handled non-consensual actions and made light of such a serious issue. However, it was huge in terms of defining Triple H and Stephanie McMahon’s on-screen relationship (and later in real life), which would prove to be an important part of WWE programming moving forward.

The Role of Controversy in WWE’s Success

Controversy has played a significant role in WWE’s success, helping to generate buzz, attract viewers, and create memorable moments. However, it has also posed challenges and sparked debates about the ethical boundaries of entertainment.

Generating Buzz and Ratings
Controversial storylines typically create a buzz and, hence, most of the time lead to more viewership out of interest as fans follow the drama. Additionally, the unpredictability created by the shock value of angles draws fans as they eagerly wait to see what will happen next. This has served as the critical success for WWE, especially during the times the company faced rigid competition from other rival promotions.

Balancing Entertainment and Ethics
While controversy often proves to be a banger for igniting interest, it also brings about ethical issues of the limits of entertainment. Most of the time, WWE has straddled an incredibly thin line between tweaking the envelope and basically stabbing it with scissors, with some storylines recruiters drawing heavy criticism for insensitivity or poor taste. That desire to shock, then, always has to be weighed against a newfound commitment to responsible storytelling.

Adapting to Changing Social Norms
As times and societal norms and attitudes change, WWE has been forced to think anew in terms of how it handles controversial content. Storylines that a little down the road would suffice now may become troubled ones as public awareness—and sensitivity—of particular issues come to the fore. Lately, this has meant WWE rethinking and even dropping angles that are no longer deemed appropriate for our times. It is this ability of the company to cruise through changes and yet show its irrepressibility for continuing to push boundaries that is rewarding.

WWE has been known for hilarious and controversial storylines in its history—edge-pushing, no-holds-barred fixtures placed with the intent of maybe raising a rise out of the universe and even critics. Be it the edgy content of the Attitude Era or modern-day angles that dwell on sensitive topics, these have all made a dent in professional wrestling. While controversy has helped to keep WWE within sight, at the same time, it has also fronted an increasingly thin line that the company must tread between innovation and possible insensitivity. But controversial content is hardly set passively within WWE,326 ensuring that how it proceeds with such interactions between WWF performers will continue very much as a central mechanism of this company in dealing with its audience.

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