by Chris Jarvis
CW: sexual assault, racism, ableism, violence, sexism, suicide, murder, mental health
Professional wrestling is big business, and there’s none bigger than the monolithic World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). In 2015, its revenue totalled over $650 million dollars, whereas the second largest promotion in the world – New Japan Pro Wrestling – saw a comparatively paltry $30 million. WWE is a cultural and economic behemoth, with profound power and influence wrapped into its carefully crafted and tightly managed brand. Its most successful exports go on to become major cultural icons – film stars, stand up comedians, talk show favourites. WWE alumnus Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is the world’s second highest paid actor with a barrage of accolades to boot. Dave Bautista has followed in the footsteps of the ‘People’s Champion’, with a major role in the third highest grossing film in 2014 – Guardians of the Galaxy. In 1999, Mick Foley published the first instalment of his autobiography – Have a Nice Day – which shot to the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list.
Given the sheer scale of WWE’s operation and the wide reaching influence of its product and performers, it comes as little surprise that the company has built an extensive corporate social responsibility marketing operation. John Cena has granted more ‘wishes’ for the Make a Wish Foundation than anyone else. In 2015, WWE heirs apparent Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque and Stephanie McMahon founded Connor’s Cure, a charity dedicated to researching pediatric cancer, after 8 year old WWE fan Connor ‘The Crusher’ Michalek tragically passed away in 2014. Most recently, programming of Raw and Smackdown were interspersed with fundraising vignettes for victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Given the sheer scale of WWE’s operation and the wide reaching influence of its product and performers, it comes as little surprise that the company has built an extensive corporate social responsibility marketing operation.
Beneath the shimmering veneer WWE have created, though, lies a murky and unpleasant history. The image of professional wrestling has not fully recovered, and perhaps never will, from the steroid scandal that rocked the industry in the early 1990s. The scandal, in which WWE owner Vince McMahon was tried and acquitted in a Federal court for accusations of distributing anabolic steroids to the company’s wrestlers and pressuring them to take them, defined public perceptions of the wrestling business and its de facto figurehead WWE. A concurrent and, in some instances, related phenomena has also been a part of that reputation – the impacts of the industry on performers’ health. Professional wrestling is a gruelling, physical and exhausting pursuit, which inevitably, takes its toll in the body, especially when combined with use of prescription drugs, painkillers and alcohol to medicate the pain and fatigue away. There’s a whole Wikipedia entry dedicated to listing the glut of wrestlers who have died prematurely, proving grim reading given the number of instances of ‘heart attack’, ‘drug overdose’ and ‘suicide’ that run throughout. The deaths of iconic wrestlers like Eddie Guerrero have done much to bring this into the public eye. In the aftermath of the 2007 suicide of Chris Benoit following his murder of his wife Nancy and only child Danie Benoit was found to have experienced astronomical levels of brain damage, likely caused by years of untreated, repeated concussions and head trauma through his in-ring work.
But the endemic historical problems with WWE don’t end at the entrance ramp. Much of the nastiness has spilt into the ring, combined with a deeply reactionary political undercurrent. Five time Women’s Champion Micky James, who had faced pressure from WWE management to lose weight was featured in a segment on Smackdown where Michelle McCool and Layla coined the nickname ‘Piggy James’ (2009). Triple H, now Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative for WWE, married Stephanie, now Chief Brand Officer of WWE, against her will, drugging her in Las Vegas to do so (1999). During a feud with Kane, that same Triple H simulated necrophilia as part of an accusation that his opponent had engaged in it in his youth (2002). Debuting a new talent, WWE introduced Eugene, who had undisclosed, but heavily implied and caricatured disabilities which saw him used as a comic act (2004). Drawing on long built racial stereotypes, Papa Shango brought with him a smoking skull, voodoo and an offensive built of curses (1991).
Seven time women’s champion Trish Stratus was booked into a storyline by WWE boss Vince McMahon, in which he, in character, required her to strip in front of him (2001). Mr McMahon would later go on to refer to John Cena, then going through his white rapper phase, as “my N—’ (2005). In the time-honoured wrestling tradition of ‘foreign guy = bad guy’, Muhammad Hassan was booked as an Arab-American with repeated promos berating the USA and ultimately a seemingly terrorist inspired incident, where a group of masked men assaulted The Undertaker which aired the day after the 7/7 bombings in London (2005). During that angle, the second most popular wrestler of all time Stone Cold Steve Austin referred to Hassan and his friends as “sand people”. Cannibalism, ‘tribal’ face paint and loin cloths were portrayed as the culture of Uganda, through the introduction of Idi Amin’s former bodyguard Kamala (1984). And so on, and so on.
Much of the nastiness has spilt into the ring, combined with a deeply reactionary political undercurrent.
While the bikini contests, non-consensual marriages and public humiliations may have been cast to history, and a heavier emphasis on women’s wrestling is being applied to the WWE – both in their regular programming and through the likes of the Mae Young Classic – the company’s attitude towards women is still extremely lacking. From the 1990s onwards, WWE referred to its women competitors as ‘divas’. So strict was this policy, that it was nigh-on never that you would hear mention of the word ‘women’ prior to the rebranding of the women’s division in 2016 at WrestleMania 32. Despite improvements in the representation of women wrestlers since then, the division is still largely portrayed as a ‘tack-on’ novelty act to the main, male, show, with women’s wrestling often being relegated to the pre-show of Pay-Per-Views and given fractional airtime elsewhere. No clearer evidence of this can be found than at the first ever women’s Money in the Bank Ladder match, in which its finale saw James Elsworth ascend the ladder to win the match on behalf of his on-screen comrade Carmella. The symbolism was palpable.
Similarly, it would be unfathomable that WWE would develop a character with the naked racism of the likes of Kamala or Papa Shango, but recent narratives bely any true shift towards acceptable narratives of race or nationality. Playing off renewed Russophobic, cold war-esque sentiments within the American public, WWE debuted Rusev in 2014. Despite being Bulgarian, Rusev was billed as a “hero of the Russian federation”, and proceeded to plough through a series of opponents, while attributing his victories to Vladimir Putin and spouting antagonistic, anti-American rhetoric, with the Russian flag descending from the ceiling above the prostrate bodies of his victims. This culminated at WrestleMania 31 when, faced with the beacon of nationalistic jingoism, John Cena, he descended to the ring on a military tank. Cena responded with an entrance charting American history, featuring audio clips of, among others, Ronald Reagan. Naturally, the plucky American hero overcame the odds to defeat the invading threat.
This tried and tested xenophobic booking has been repeated and extrapolated with the current push of Jinder Mahal. Presently being stylised as ‘The Modern Day Maharaja’, Mahal delivers promos in Punjabi, refers to himself as a representative of Asia, and wins his matches through a range of dastardly means, typically with the help of his ringside allies the Singh Brothers. All of this at a time when he is playing a traditional heel (bad guy) role in the ring and on the microphone. WWE may have done away with being direct, but their dog-whistle can be heard loud and clear with their thinly veiled messaging on race.
WWE’s influence over the wrestling business is pervasive. As by far the largest promotion, broadcasting in over 150 countries, WWE so often shapes the kind of wrestling we see across the globe. A generation of bookers, writers, performers and critics are entering the world today where this kind of product is still deemed acceptable, directed by the world’s most powerful promotion, and permeating through to the independent scene. While still looked down upon by many, often with a class based snobbery, as an infantile and frivolous concept, professional wrestling is an important cultural phenomenon and a major part of the entertainment world. As long as its largest vehicle continues to perpetuate reactionary narratives, it will continue to play a role in shaping a world that comes to accept these narratives as truth.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons
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