It’s not exactly controversial to say that although Chyna may not have been the easiest person to work with, WWE mistreated the late pro wrestler. From the very first moment she was seen on TV, she was the subject of transphobic derision, overt misogyny and fan abuse—and that was just on-camera.
Behind the scenes, she faced even more maltreatment from her coworkers as she fought privately with mental illness and addiction. When the machinations of a Shakespearean romance with stable-mate Triple H (Paul Levesque) didn’t work out, the company kicked her to the curb and offered no support as her struggles spiraled. She spread rumors of both WWE CEO Vince McMahon and Levesque later in life, accusing them of sexual misconduct, physical abuse and pedophilia in some of her more addled moments. When she died of an accidental drug overdose in April 2016, her passing received a two-minute collection of social media tributes on air—and that was it.
Nonetheless, Chyna’s time in WWE was filled with deeply feminist victories and record-breaking triumphs unparalleled by any woman or man in pro wrestling. As WWE rescues its women’s division from the denigrated position that they relegated it to for years, Chyna’s legacy has been notably downplayed. Some guessed it was because her post-wrestling career in the adult entertainment industry had made her name an NSFW search term, thus going against their more recent family-friendly ethos. Others thought her broken relationship with WWE higher-ups had permanently damned her to the footnotes of their brand’s history.
Due to a perfect storm of fan outcry, feminist voices from within the company, changing cultural standards, new branding opportunities and maybe even a renewed sense of morality around her life’s work, in the past year or so WWE has begun including Chyna’s accomplishments in more of their company propaganda: her matches began appearing in “best of” lists and her image was used to promote the women’s division. This culminated in the induction of Chyna into the WWE Hall of Fame—not as a solo performer but as a member of the D-Generation X faction. (There were hints from Triple H that a solo induction seemed inevitable.)
Now, Chyna has been announced as a downloadable playable character in their ongoing series of mediocre video games. The announcement, along with a brief nostalgic trailer of Chyna’s ostentatious, bazooka-shooting entrance, has been met with enthusiasm from audiences who deeply miss their beloved icon.
Not that many of the other women in the game look much better, but there’s something undeniably uncanny about the facial expression-less visage of her digital avatar. Certainly, her musculature has been toned down to make her appear more traditionally feminine, her eyebrows are plucked thin and her in-game ring gear is taken from some of her less BDSM-inflected looks. What’s equally unsettling is hearing contemporary announcer Corey Graves wisecracking about Chyna’s prowess in the present tense, as if she were still with us today. The short teaser almost feels like a communication from another reality, in which things worked out much better for Joanie.
Chyna is far from the only late wrestler to have made her way into WWE video games. Legends like Andre the Giant, Bam Bam Bigelow, Big Boss Man, British Bulldog, Dusty Rhodes, Eddie Guerrero, Jim Neidhart, Lex Luger, Rick Rude, Roddy Piper, Ultimate Warrior and Vader all made appearances in WWE 2K19. Because wrestling as an art form combines elements of reality and fiction, it tends to turn its deceased warriors into semi-mythical beings whose legends extend far beyond their corporeal existence. But few of these wrestlers endured such a tumultuous relationship with WWE and wrestling that Chyna had, and perhaps none were almost purposefully deemphasized from WWE’s history in the same way as her. The extent to which the brutality of wrestling itself is responsible for many of these icons’ deaths makes the whole endeavor even more questionable.
So, how should WWE (or any company making video games based on real people) be dealing with digital reincarnations of people who died tragic deaths? Is exploiting the memory of a character they so thoroughly injured in poor taste, or is this an honor for the superstar who wanted nothing more than to repair her reputation before she died? Surely her estate must have approved her inclusion in the game: “She wanted to do everything in her power to get back into the good graces of the WWF,” Rob Potylo, Chyna’s former roommate who has been at the forefront of a growing social media movement calling for the revitalization of her esteem in the industry, told me previously in an interview with Nylon. “She realized how much her legacy meant… She cared so much about it. She wanted to atone.”
There’s a delicate balance between respecting the dead and wanting to celebrate a person’s career, and WWE sometimes draws hard lines. Kotaku writer Stephen Tolito took a deep dive in 2017 on the phenomenology of playing as fan-created versions Chris Benoit, and the way WWE censored his image in their video games. Benoit, a beloved pro wrestler who murdered his family before taking his own life, has been summarily purged from most WWE history in retellings of their history, although many of his matches are still available to watch on their network. Despite or because of fan speculation around the cause of his bloody demise and its connectedness to his wrestling career (steroids, CTE, untreated emotional problems—how could anyone ever really know in the end?), WWE has been quite swift in removing any and all versions of Benoit from the game and banning players who attempt to replicate the fallen athlete.
“Video games have the potential to make us empathize with the characters we control,” Tolito wrote. “We don’t become them, but we become closer to them. I got a chance to play a video game as Chris Benoit this week, and my feelings about that are no longer ambiguous. Chris Benoit is not someone I want to be closer to … If the game helped me better understand Chris Benoit’s final, vicious days, I’d be more interested. But to play him as a wrestler? Count me out.”
Chyna’s story is obviously different from Benoit’s, but Tolito is right to say that playing as a character increases your empathy toward them, and Chyna might have fared much better had audiences and insiders alike been able to understand the difficult position she occupied in life. It’s hard to feel totally positive about WWE’s flattening of its own complicated relationship to Laurer, but if her inclusion in the game helps people to come to grips with how she might have suffered and reminded them of her accomplishments—which even by today’s standards seem totally unbelievable—then it’s probably a net good.