Pro Wrestling, Pride and Prejudice

11 Sep

Today, on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 atrocities, the pro wrestling world has been abuzz with references to the international incident. WWE.com have shown key figures paying respects to those who died, and the various wrestling personalities tweeting on the subject have dominated my Twitter stream.

But what impact did the 9/11 incident have upon pro wrestling?

Well, for one, aside from the tragedy being exploited as political excuse to commit greater atrocities in the Middle East, it was also sadly used by the McMahons to reference in comparison to the steroid scandal and subsequent FBI investigation I’ve already covered. That’s right – Stephanie McMahon actually compared the World Trade Center deaths to the McMahons’ legal problems:

Now, WWE.com and the organisation’s Twitter have conveniently ignored Stephanie’s inappropriate speech, instead opting to repeat her father’s comments at the time. The comfort we can take from this – once we have overcome the feeling of great offence – is that at least the McMahons actually seem to be conceding that Steph’s speech was in poor taste, by removing any references to it (and my sources tell me WWE have been aggressively attempting to pull from sites any video clips such as the one above).

Aside from that faux pas, the then-WWF – at least initially – seemed to keep a politically correct distance from the whole 9/11 situation and the oxymoronic “War on Terror,” perhaps having learned from their 1990/91 Sergeant Slaughter Iraq storyline that, unless executed with exceptional sensitivity and proverbial slight of hand, tapping into raw political issues can be disastrous for the company’s image (and finances).

The WWF/E did finally attempt to provide a cultural mirror to the world with both their unmistakably Bush-like John Bradshaw Layfield persona and also the character of “Arab-American” Muhammad Hassan (actually portrayed by wide-eyed young Italian-American Mark Copani), but it all initially seemed to be delivered fairly well.

JBL was a rich Texan tycoon in a cowboy hat flaunting his wealth in the faces of the generally cash-strapped American public without going so far as constantly saying the wrong thing in offensively-slipped Bushisms (Bush once asked the President of Brazil, “Do you have blacks, too?”).

Meanwhile, Muhammad Hassan was portrayed as a good, honest, hard-working American who appealed with the fans to accept him as such without letting nationalism and zealotry buoy prejudice towards him. All seemed to be going pretty well.

Then, though, someone at Titan Towers decided it would be much better to instead take the easy route and make the darker skinned guy the heel by adopting elements into his character that were similar to American media enemies Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Yes, suddenly Muhammad Hassan was not just concerned with being subjected to stereotyping and racial prejudice, he was downright frustrated with society’s misconceptions – and he was “anti-American.”

From Mr Fuji, Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik to Yokozuna, Sgt Slaughter and Gen Adnan, the WWF has used social and racial stereotypes to pad-out characters. Some personalities – despite being influenced by pop culture – have been a little more complex and layered, such as the Undertaker, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, and Mankind. But often, a wrestler’s identity is conceived from a stereotypical role in society, like the Big Boss Man (lawman), Doink (clown), Irwin R Schyster (tax man), and the Honky Tonk Man (Elvis impersonator), to name but a few.

The problem is not so much that the Americans are constantly the heroes (the predominant audience has usually, after all, been American), it’s that wrestlers of an ethnic minority are given gimmicks based on racial stereotypes. And that goes beyond pride of identity and into something more cynical and unhealthy: prejudice.

Let’s look at those from the Pacific Islands: Jimmy Snuka was the bare-footed, thick-skulled simple “Superfly” who literally barked in the ring; the HeadShrinkers, who also wrestled barefoot, were savages, suspected to have cannibalistic tendencies; Haku didn’t wrestler in footwear either, and was almost always portrayed as tough but easily manipulated as a stooge for others; Umaga was an out-and-out savage, complete with bare feet again, but also tattoos and piercings, and might as well have had a bone through his nose for the way he was portrayed; Sione Vailahi actually wore boots, but was simply not-so-subtly called The Barbarian; Crush and Don Muraco were the only exceptions to this Pacific Island pattern, and that’s likely because they were, I suppose, true Americans (from the official state of Hawaii – not Samoa or Fiji or Tonga, therefore able to represent the American flag).

There are the Japanese: Mr Fuji and Prof Tanaka were cruel sadists who tortured their opponents; when the Orient Express tag team sneak-attacked their opponents, it was called a “Pearl Harbor”; the masked Kwang (masked because underneath he was in fact Puerto Rico’s Savio Vega) spewed mysterious mist into his adversaries’ eyes; Tajiri also spat green goo at his foes, and frequently had to be Westernised by his associates because, apparently, he otherwise seemed stupid; Yokozuna (despite being another Pacific Islander in reality) carried the name of a sumo grand champion but instead of simply using ceremonial salt as custom, utilised it also as another weapon to blind opponents.

“American Hero” Lex Luger declared there was nothing at all wrong with America before calling Yokozuna a “sushi-eating, rice-chomping” “blood-sucking leech” and bodyslamming him into oblivion on the deck of the U.S.S. Intrepid, just in case we weren’t sure.

Then there are the Latinos: whether it be Puerto Ricans Pedro Morales or Carlito, the aptly-named Super Crazy, or “Mexican” Texans Tito Santana or Eddie Guerrero (who in Mexico was considered an American antagonist to their own native wrestlers), they are almost always hot-headed, more than a little “loco,” and often “lie, cheat, and steal” (you know, like bigots tell us about immigrants). Rey Mysterio was popular because he was a Mexican icon, incredibly talented, and actually defied many of the stereotypes (for example, while proudly recognising and honouring his Mexican heritage, replete with masks, he also named an in-ring move after the San Diego zip code from where he actually hails: 619).

There are many others: hulking, intimidating Russians from the “evil empire” like Boris Zhokov and Nikita Koloff (neither of whom were actually Russian), absurdly anti-American Tony “Ludvig Borga” Halme from the usually inoffensive country of Finland, and upper class snobs representing Britain like Steve “William” Regal and “Gentleman” Chris Adams – and again, when “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith retained his working class Lancashire accent, his popularity continued to skyrocket. The same goes for recent example Wade Barrett, another product of the red rose county.

So what the likes of Rey Mysterio and Wade Barrett show us is that, in fact, audiences don’t relish having their intelligence insulted. When writers can even come up with something like Jimmy Wang Yang – the Asian-American “cowboy” – it can get over just as well, if not better, than an ethnic stereotype. The Rock succeeded better than Bad News Brown, D-Lo Brown, or Cryme Tyme, because he was presented as neither “Samoan” nor “black,” he was simply American, mixed heritage, and his character often perhaps even diffused racial and national tensions or conflicts because of that; it became simply about fighting to determine the best.

Pro wrestling can be clever. It works best when it is. It doesn’t have to hide behind the excuse of reflecting the culture because quite often it defines a culture. Stone Cold Steve Austin succeeded because – whether conservative or liberal, John Wayne or James Dean – he represented the working man against the odds, and that was universally appealing, yet he wasn’t copied directly from any one type of character template; it was parts of Steve’s own personality, with the volume turned up. He, too, was defining what it was to be American in the manner Bruce Springsteen had: questioning authority and standing up for the little guy.

The character of Goldust was revealed to be pushing buttons rather than actually gay, which was fine, but the gay-bashing wasn’t, and neither was the ditching of what at one point looked like a promising civil partnership tag team between bleach-blonde Billy and Chuck. GLAAD have been intervening in the WWE creative process lately because Michael Cole tweeted the term “faggot” and top star John Cena – whose audience is, he proclaims, predominantly children – insulted his rivals with the implication they had homosexual tendencies. And this is just as WWE launches an anti-bullying campaign while TV commentators like Jerry Lawler mock Vickie Guerrero for being overweight (just as Mickie James was, being called “Piggie James” for having a relatively healthy looking body instead of an emaciated one).

The best way forward for WWE is to challenge stereotypes, not reinforce them. It may require harder work and better writing, but if their Hollywood creative team is everything it’s supposed to be, it shouldn’t prove too difficult. The excuses are over.

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