Pro-wrestling has always been about generating heat. For the heroes to be liked, there needs to be a contrasting villain to be despised. A successful heel is someone who can unite the crowd in hatred, saying and doing things that provoke vitriol. The quickest, and laziest, way to do this is through portraying racial stereotypes. Something that the WWE continues to do to this day.
The current WWE champion is Jinder Mahal, an Indo-Canadian, who since winning the title has been playing to the lowest common denominator of American wrestling fans. Using his Punjabi heritage as a stick to bait nationalistic types, Mahal (and his cohorts, the Singh brothers) regularly denounce America as being full of morons who hate other cultures. It’s a typical wrestling trope – here comes the foreigner who hates your country, boo them and wave your American flags in disgust!
But in recent weeks, things have changed. With Mahal set to face Japanese superstar, Shinsuke Nakamura, the focus has shifted. Instead of playing up Mahal’s ethnicity as a thing to hate, they’ve made Mahal unlikable by having him poke fun at Nakamura’s own ethnicity. On SmackDown this week, Mahal compared Nakamura to Mr. Miyagi, and also mocked his accent. Even the WWE fans were shocked and began chanting “that’s too far”.
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) September 21, 2017
This promo has understandably proven controversial. So much so, the WWE have been forced to release this statement:
Just like many other TV shows or movies, WWE creates programming with fictional personalities that cover real world issues and sensitive subjects. As a producer of such TV shows, WWE Corporate is committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide.
But this isn’t new to the WWE, because casual racism has been prevalent in their product since the golden era of wrestling.
The 80’s and 90’s
The WWE characters of old were much more two-dimensional than they are today. These days, they try to sell the product to people who already know the sport is fake. The characters “shoot” and act more like real human beings, far more than they used to. Back in the eighties, these things weren’t taken into consideration, and the wrestlers were essentially cartoon characters. They didn’t have complicated back-stories, or a need to come across as real, they just needed to be instantly recogonisable as either a heel or a face. As such, character development would often rely on old-fashioned racial stereotypes.
We had Kamala, a face-painted savage from Africa; The Iron Shiek, an Iranian villain with pointy shoes (at the height of US/Iran political tensions); and Chief Jay Strongbow, a Native American (played by an Italian-American wrestler) that would wear a headdress and carry a tomahawk.
Looking back on many of these creations, you can’t help but cringe at the audacity of it all. But it was an easy play at the time, as audiences lapped it up. The WWE would even go so far as to using real-life conflicts to fan the cultural flames. At the main event of WrestleMania 7, the American hero, Hulk Hogan, took on the Iraqi sympathiser, Sgt. Slaughter. All of this only a month after the end of the first Gulf War.
— WWE History (@WWEHist) September 11, 2017
The WWE was intended to be over-the-top back then though. The audiences were less politically-correct than today, and so the xenophobia was largely ignored. But it never stopped. By the late nineties, stables like The Nation of Domination (militant African-Americans who were supposed to be heels) played up to bigoted audiences. And as we hit the new millennium, things wouldn’t get any better.
The WWE had cooled themselves on racial stereotypes by the start of the new century. The company was looking to grow more as a global corporation, rather than just an American wrestling promotion. As such, cheap pops at other nationalities were not deemed very productive.
Old habits die hard though, and after 9/11, they just couldn’t help themselves in exploiting the growing trend of Islamophobia in the US. Enter Muhammad Hassan, an Arab-American heel character who praised Allah and hated Americans. And Hassan wasn’t even played by someone from the ethnicity he was supposed to represent. Like Chief Jay Strongbow, he was played by an Italian-American.
The character of Hassan made everyone uncomfortable. At the height of tensions against Islamic communities in the US, to have such a villainous character stirring the political pot was not at all helpful. Things eventually came to a head, as an episode of SmackDown aired the same day of the 7/7 London bombings. In it, Hassan and a group of masked men beat up the Undertaker in a “terrorism” related story. The controversy that followed was too much for the WWE, and the Hassan gimmick was dropped.
The WWE today is a global business. Non-American and ethnic wrestlers dominate the roster. The company relies heavily on international talent and viewership, more than it ever has before. It seemed like the old stereotypes had now been put to bed. But then Jinder Mahal became champion, and we went full-circle to where it’d all started: casual racism. Pointless jabs at entire cultures, for no other reason than them being different. All in a vain attempt to secure cheap heat.
It’s about time wrestling moved on from these tired, xenophobic digs and left them back in the past where they belong. A wrestler with an ethnic background shouldn’t need to sell out their heritage, purely in an attempt to antagonise an audience. And the WWE should stop under-estimating their audience to fall into such traps too. Because when the fans are chanting “that’s too far”, then perhaps the time has come to finally flip the bigoted script.