Wholesomeness, Family, & Entertainment: Holey Foley’s Not Good

It should come as no surprise to anyone who regularly watches either the WWE Network or reality shows in general that Holy Foley is frankly a hot mess.

The exchanges between Mick Foley and his wife and children are clearly scripted, the situations have the stilted, nonsensical plotting so characteristic of WWE writers, and despite and because of all of this, it manages to be completely uninteresting. Seriously. There isn’t even an ironic Jersey Shore pleasure in watching.

The only reason the show is even worth writing about is the relationship between Mick and his only daughter, Noelle. The close relationship between the two of them is established almost from the first minute and is meant to be the focus. There are certainly a number of reasons this makes sense. Mick’s sons are bland in front of the camera, their disinterest in the proceedings obvious, and rarely have anything of note to add to any situation or conversation. Noelle is beautiful, charismatic and clearly comfortable being the center of attention; if the goal is to get a primarily male audience to tune into a reality show, presenting them with a pretty blonde girl who happens to sometimes be a model and is interested in the thing they’re interested in (i.e., professional wrestling, as this airs, as mentioned, on the WWE Network) might be the way to go.

But from the get-go, Mick and Noelle’s relationship veers from a teasing, affectionate parent-child bond into creepy, over-invested territory, and it serves as a way to justify and pursue a frankly misogynistic plot line that revolves around policing Noelle’s body and pursuits. Mick and his wife Collette swing back and forth between praising Noelle for her beauty and grace, and demanding that she behave and look a certain way. They seem to be under the impression that they get to decide who she dates, what career path is appropriate for her, what body type she’s allowed to have, and, in one scene in the series premiere, how she’s allowed to stand or pose during her modeling work. The problematic thing is the fact that on some level, we’re supposed to feel for Mick and Collette, that they’re being protective of their only daughter, guarding her from physical harm and also from a poor reputation (i.e., looking too sexy or slutty). The problem, repeatedly highlighted by their seeming lack of interest in the pursuits of their sons, is that this tendency to overinvest in Noelle’s decision-making highlights a misogynistic attitude about a woman’s ability to run her own life; they constantly infantilize her (literally, through the repeated use of childhood photos of her whenever Mick is dismayed by the choices she’s made) and reject her choices in favor of what they think she should be doing with her time and body

As I mentioned before, the show is pretty obviously scripted. All of the interactions between the Foleys are uncomfortable, as if everyone is missing their cues by a beat. Each episode is orchestrated with plot in mind, complete with a lesson at the end for someone, usually Mick, to learn. So it becomes difficult, sometimes, to parse out what is obviously scripted television from what we are supposed to take as the truth about the Foley family and how Mick and Collette treat their daughter. It leads to the question of whether the Foleys had some input on the show they were to star in or if they just read the scripts that the WWE writers handed to them. How much of the sentiment in these episodes is real and authentic, and how much of the show is WWE pursuing a storyline they think is appropriate and entertaining?

For the most part, I am going to maintain kayfabe while talking about this family. It is a reality show, so on some level, we’re supposed to buy into the idea that this is really what the Foleys’ lives are like. They bear some of the responsibility of the messages of the show, even if they are not the truth of their lives; they are still perpetuating the ideas featured in the storylines, complete with the misogyny directed at Noelle.

We can see from the first episode that Mick has put Noelle on a pedestal. He takes the time to introduce the audience to all of his children but, aside from saying that his son Mickey is on the autism spectrum, he really gives very little information about any of them aside from Noelle. We are privy to childhood photos of Noelle and shots of her modeling, as well as Mick’s gushing about how beautiful and perfect she is. In typical reality show fashion, each of the characters spend time in an interview room, but Mick and Noelle often appear together in theirs; they sit both in conversation with the audience and with each other. Mick does not even share interviews with his wife.

Mick and Noelle take pride in their relationship, in how alike and how close they are. They have had exactly three arguments. They refer to each other as “partners,” which has its own creepiness factor, as one’s spouse is usually one’s partner, not one’s child. So when Noelle tells Mick that she has an announcement, something she needs to tell him and her mother, there is already a sense that it’s going to cause contention in the household.

Noelle breaks her news
Noelle breaks her news

You’d think, considering both of her parents assume she’s going to announce a pregnancy, the revelation that she wants to be a WWE superstar would be a relief. But they have a whole other set of issues with that option. Mick is horrified by the idea of her doing the same sorts of things that he did in the ring and potentially getting hurt. Collette is horrified by the idea of Noelle potentially permanently messing up her face and therefore ending her modeling career. The reason for one of those reactions is clearly better than the other; the response of both parents is outrageous: they forbid her from doing it.

This problem becomes apparent repeatedly in the show and is driven by what her parents consider good or appropriate uses of her body. Both parents seem to approve of her career as a model, but neither approve of her taking up wrestling as a profession. They don’t seem to have a problem with her using her body in order to make money, as long as she does so under their watch and in ways they deem appropriate. But the show’s overarching obsession with policing Noelle’s body is also shown in smaller, more insidious ways as well.

The first interaction we see between Noelle and Collette is during a modeling shoot for handbags of some kind, where Collette, who seems to be acting as Noelle’s manager, is observing Noelle as she poses for the camera. Collette, a former model, has comments and suggestions for how she poses, including an instruction to not lift her butt so much, since this isn’t a sex shoot. Being sexy and attractive is the goal of the shoot, as long as she isn’t doing so in a way that her mother deems too provocative. Later, after Noelle’s announcement that she wants to wrestle, Collette, horrified, says that if Noelle takes a hit that messes up her face, that will be the end of her modeling career. Collette sets up a double-bind for Noelle; she must not be too sexy, because that is inappropriate and unattractive (shall I say slutty?) but she must also keep in mind that her looks are her most important attribute, and she shouldn’t do anything that may negatively affect them.

While Mick’s reaction about her wrestling comes from a place of legitimate concern based on his own experiences in the ring, and an understanding of the physical toll and real risks taken by those performers, his decision to forbid her from wrestling outright, without discussion or concern for the fact that she is an adult capable of making her own decisions, is infantilizing and misogynistic. The irony here, of course, is that Mick is not the norm in wrestling. He’s built a career on being a wrestler willing to do moves and pull stunts that will almost certainly hurt him, but most wrestlers don’t wrestle that way. All of them put their bodies at risk for the sake of the show, but none quite like Mick Foley, and in recent years, one could make the argument that wrestling is downright tame by comparison to the wrestling Foley was doing. Claiming to be worried for Noelle’s safety in the ring, while valid as it would be with any sport, is moot if the worry is based on Mick’s own experiences.
Each show of anguish from Mick about her decision is underlined by images of her as a little girl, reminding us that this is Mick’s daughter, who he watched grow up, reminding us that he does not see her as her own person, but just who she is in relation to him. On top of outright telling her she isn’t allowed to wrestle, he goes as far as to tell her that he will call every trainer in the state, because he of course knows them all, to instruct them not to train her. Interestingly, and tellingly, her trainer Dan Barry is the only one who seems to respect Noelle as a grown-up, as he lets her decide whether to tell Mick about the training and also refuses to stop training her despite Mick’s orders to do so. As far as Mick is concerned, she is still a little girl, incapable of deciding for herself what to do with her life or her body.

Mick does eventually come around to Noelle wanting to work for the WWE, mostly because he finally takes the time to find out why she wants to do this and to see her determination to do it regardless of his blessing. The irony is that she has chosen this path in order to be closer to him and to follow in the footsteps of the father she admires and looks up to; instead, he spends the first steps of that journey rejecting and alienating her.

The major frustration with the show is the sense that, despite the fact that her father tries to control her every move, and actively stands in the way of any pursuit he hasn’t personally given his approval for, we’re supposed to see Noelle’s determination to pursue her goals as empowered. She somehow manages to insist on doing whatever she wants while also constantly submitting to her father’s authority. At no point does Mick just trust her judgment and allow her to make her own choices; she has to jump through hoops in order to show him that she is capable and ready to take on the challenges of a career in professional wrestling and with WWE.

There is also a certain irony in Mick and Collette’s determination to police the way Noelle uses her body. This is a couple living comfortable, seemingly wealthy lives, a living earned through Mick Foley using his body and personality to entertain a crowd. While he no longer wrestles, because of his age and the toll his career took on his body, he is still an active participant in WWE; he serves as Performing General Manager for Raw. Deciding that Noelle is not allowed to pursue a career similar to his own, when he continues to make a living in a way associated with it (not to mention the fact that WWE is certainly paying them for this show as well) feels very hypocritical. What’s more, she is allowed to model and is actively encouraged to do so by her mother. The message is clear: You may use your body to earn a living, but you can only do so in the ways that we deem acceptable, a refrain Noelle has no doubt heard again and again, not just from her parents, but from our patriarchal society at large.

It is therefore difficult not to read gender into this. If Dewey, for instance, had decided to become a wrestler instead of pursuing a WWE writing career (a career his parents were over the moon about, by the way), would Mick have forbidden it in the same way? Mick and Collette have four children, but for all the parenting and disciplining is concerned, they just seem to have one daughter, who must pass muster in all aspects of her life in order to get approval. While she and Mick claim a relationship so close that they’re “partners,” she is also under constant scrutiny and is regularly interrogated about various aspects of her life: her career, her eating and fitness habits, her boyfriend. They constantly expect her to prove herself.

The show is scripted. It is an easy point to forget, for me, even as I cringe at the awkwardness of the acting and the convoluted decisions that get the plot from place to place. Just as I want to buy into the kayfabe when I’m watching wrestling, I want to buy into the reality of the Foleys’ lives. But pretending this is reality is almost as uncomfortable as acknowledging that it is not. In one scenario, the Foleys actually decided to treat their daughter this way, to tear down her faith in her own abilities and to infantilize her, creating a space in which she is not to be trusted to make her own decisions about her life and her body.

On the other hand, if this is truly as scripted as it seems, we have a company that decided to write a show centered on the relationship between a retired wrestler and his daughter, who wants to become a wrestler, and instead of focusing on the ways that would change and improve (or damage) their relationship, the writers focused on all the ways her parents could forbid her from doing it and all the infantilizing (and, contrastingly, fetishizing) reasons for that dismissal of her choices.
While the first option is horrifying because of the devastation I would feel for Noelle to be treated that way by her parents, the other is infinitely more harmful because it is perpetuating ideas about female bodies and the ownership of those bodies (that is, not owned by the women in them) that are damaging to viewers, especially young viewers. This is an active choice by WWE, to write a story in which a man exerts control over a beautiful woman, who just so happens to be his daughter. Instead of pursuing a storyline in which Noelle could be empowered, encouraged to pursue her aspirations, the writers decided to diminish her.

Holy Foley is not a sexist exception in WWE but is, in fact, the rule. Despite the “Divas Revolution” and the recent replacement of the Divas Championship with the Women’s Championship, women have a long way to go. This is partially due to the audience’s sensibilities; we are still living in a time when a lot of men view women’s matches as a good time for a bathroom break or as masturbatory fuel, and men still make up most of the audience watching WWE. We have two men running Smackdown Live who have repeatedly shown their disdain for women. (I will never forgive Shane McMahon for losing his cool status by accusing Stephanie of wishing she’d been born with testicles.)
Watching this show and seeing the way a woman is repeatedly demeaned, her opinions and feelings rejected and her body constantly criticized and held under scrutiny stings the more because it is what we see constantly in the wrestling that we try to enjoy. As in most spaces, women are not equally represented in wrestling, and, even if it is scripted, watching someone’s family one of whom is a wrestler actively try to shut a woman out is frustrating and difficult. Their reasons for doing so, based on her own handling of her body, are insulting. As in everything, we deserve better. And so does Noelle.

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