AEW: A General Misunderstanding of Code-Switching Wasn’t The Problem With “That” Brandi Rhodes Promo
In case you missed it and the discourse, last week on AEW Dynamite, Brandi Rhodes cut this promo:
Because of the reaction, it’s easy to forget—or simply not know at all—that Brandi’s surprisingly fiery reaction was sparked by AEW newcomer and target of her wrath Jade Cargill’s (understandably, from a technical standpoint) maligned debut promo about Cody Rhodes’—husband of Brandi—penis being small. As that is a whole other can of worms to open—including the fact that, unsurprisingly, the official AEW YouTube page doesn’t include Jade’s name anywhere near the video—I’ll just soldier on to the major issue with the segment that everyone has been discussing.
For longtime followers of Brandi’s wrestling career or even just followers of her career since AEW began, this promo was the first time any of them had heard her talk or sound like that. (Full disclosure: I haven’t seen any of her FCW stuff as Eden Stiles. That’s it. That’s my blindspot when it comes to Brandi’s wrestling career.) While much of the praise for Brandi’s promo has come from the perspective of it proving that Brandi can find another gear, that she can get fired up when the time comes—though there’s a whole other discussion to be had about the fact that she finally got fired up when someone challenged her husband’s literal manhood and not when, for example, her husband got that neck tattoo—it also comes with the idea that this is potentially the “true” Brandi and the result of an onscreen “code-switching” reveal.
For those who didn’t care for the promo, myself included, I’d argue that it wasn’t an example of code-switching at all: It was a performative act that ultimately speaks to the larger problems with AEW and professional wrestling demographics, both in terms of fans and the voices who represent criticism.
In its most literal definition, “code-switching” is “the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation.” In the terms that are being discussed here, it’s the type of cultural, conversational switching that means the difference between how Brandi would, for example, present herself on a conference call for AEW and how she’d present herself at a cookout with her family, growing up in Michigan. (By the way, Brandi Rhodes is not from Detroit, as much as some who praised this promo tried to suggest she was. Because of the implication.) It’s a social situation that people of color—in this case, Black people—understand all too well, especially when working and navigating in predominantly white spaces, such as professional wrestling. It’s something Brandi would also be extremely familiar with, not just as a Black woman—one working in professional wrestling and married into a white family—but having been a competitive figure skater.
For the record, all that audiences really know of Brandi Rhodes in the first place is the version that she has presented herself as over the years. Even with something as intimate as her YouTube cooking show, A Shot of Brandi, they still really don’t know what she’s like at a cookout with her family.
However, they can still acknowledge that in this promo segment, nothing coming out of Brandi’s mouth sounded natural. I know for sure that the same would be the case if I ever tried to say “heifer” or dropped my r’s the way Brandi does in this promo, even though it would also make for a solid game of “I Know Black People” bingo when you throw “ratchet,” “triflin’,” and “send for you” in the mix. “Smackin’ your gums,” of course, wouldn’t count, because what Brandi was looking for in this promo was “Flappin’ your gums.” An easy mistake to make when this is clearly a way you have never spoken before in your entire life, save for those awkward moments you now look back on and realize you were trying really hard to be something you aren’t.
I’m sure for a lot of wrestling fans, after this Brandi promo, the discussion surrounding it is probably the first time they’ve ever even heard the term code-switching. (Or the second, if they remember the “coat-switching” debacle.) But here’s the thing about code-switching, since the term keeps coming up when discussing this promo: Code-switching is typically a tool for survival and safety. It’s a guard that comes up and down, depending on the situation, and it’s one Black people—especially Black professionals—know very well. So while one could say that Brandi changed her language and personality based on it being a “conversation” between two Black women, it actually wasn’t even that: It was a wrestling promo cut by Brandi on behalf of her white husband, to an audience of white male commentators and predominantly white male viewers, set to evoke certain responses that speak to a larger issue. Again, it was a performative act,* not some onscreen example of unexpected realness.
*Funnily enough, WWE’s King Booker gimmick would actually be a pretty good example of code-switching in wrestling, as the entire gimmick was based on Booker deluding himself into a new, white-friendly origin story, only to have unexpected bursts when the “real” Booker that everyone knew would come out.
Brandi “code-switching” isn’t even the main problem with the segment. It’s the fact that even with a slight change—for example, a backstage, more intimate confrontation between Brandi and Jade, instead of out on stage—and the same or similar content, it wouldn’t change that pesky wrestling audience issue.
As is typical for the wrestling community, after the segment aired and faced blowback from some of AEW’s Black audience, plenty of white male wrestling fans made sure to chime in explaining their expertise in code-switching. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because this same expertise has reared its ugly head when it comes to television ratings, women’s biology, and race relations, in general, in the context of professional wrestling. This was also peppered in with them talking about Brandi going “hood” and “street” and getting quite comfortable with calling a Black woman “ratchet”—as Brandi called Jade in the promo, which plenty of Black viewers knew would only make for a ticking timebomb—the same way the Orlando crowd at Full Sail University used to do to Sasha Banks. (It was bad then too, in case you missed that memo.)
“Brandi was full on ratchet here and I loved every single minute of it lol.” “This has Fresh Prince of Bel Air mum rant vibes and I love it.” “Damn Brandi finally went all ghetto.” “Yo Brandi went from Zero to Hood real quick, she definitely has to be from Queens.” “I’m all for Gangsta Brandi Rhodes! That’s the most interesting her character has been in a while 😂 #AEWDynamite”
But it wasn’t just the fans getting too comfortable, which is the problem and was the expectation from those criticizing the promo in the first place. In a since-deleted tweet, AEW wrestler (and Brandi’s brother-in-law) Dustin Rhodes wrote, “Brandi is incredible at all that she does. She is growing each week in the ring and she told that ratchet ass Jade where to go.”
Ultimately, this isn’t about Brandi Rhodes’ work as a talent. I am typically a fan of Brandi’s promo and character work and have been since her second, more known run as Eden Stiles in WWE. But when you factor in AEW’s litany of problems when it comes to its women’s division**, the combination of this atypical Brandi promo and the underwhelming Jade Cargill promo that occurred before it basically makes that issue intersectional. And not in a good way. Because this is how AEW chooses to debut its new, Black woman signee, with Brandi Rhodes calling her “ratchet.” With Brandi Rhodes taking the time to “code-switch” to “go there” against a Black woman, when she has clearly never done a similar thing with any other woman she has ever feuded with.
**No, you can’t blame a pandemic or unfortunate injuries for the fact that since the promotion’s debut, there has clearly been a problem where established women’s wrestlers either didn’t want to work for the company or the company didn’t want to work with them.
For even more context, this segment came a week after Cody Rhodes attempted to do damage control on yet another thin AEW Women’s Championship feud. Cody told Bell to Belles that “AEW will not have a war and peace build to everything,” saying that wrestling fans are conditioned to expect feuds to be done a certain way. To then follow up that excuse for another women’s division “feud” with an Attitude Era-esque segment—really, the unsaid part of all of this—between a Black woman whose promo suggests she’s not quite ready to be on primetime TV yet and a Black woman in both an on and offscreen position of power making sure the predominantly white audience sees the former as less than immediately by “keeping it real,” it sends a message. And that message is yet another one that AEW doesn’t care about its women’s division.
The fact that, on top of all of this, Jade and Brandi are simply accessories to the Shaquille O’Neal/Cody Rhodes feud is just the punctuation to that message.
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