In my youth I was an avid fan of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), or World Wrestling Federation (WWF) as it was known back then. The characters, the action, the storylines, the glitz and the glamour, the shocks and surprises, the backstabbing and betrayal, everything about it was designed to connect with an audience, and it had me hooked. It is no wonder that “Entertainment” was chosen as the new brand once the WWF title had become impossible to continue. (For those that don’t know, this was because of a dispute with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) who legally forced a name change).
It is not until you mature, or actually begin to look beneath the surface though, that you actually see the reality of what WWE does, and how it conducts its business.
I grew up watching the Attitude Era, renowned for its in-your-face culture, and violent, aggressive scripts and matches, for many, Attitude was the pinnacle of wrestling entertainment. It was the glory years of wrestling and fans lapped it up. With the view to expanding their fan base, and appealing to a wider audience, WWE chose to tone down the violence somewhat, and this brought an end to the Attitude Era. Swear words were less likely to be used in interviews, blood was less likely to be seen in matches, and the use of weapons was sometimes prevented from being aired. (This last tactic was a rather pointless one, as even when the camera did not show the impact of the chair on a wrestler’s head, the sound of the steel, and the fact that the wrestler was then seen lying on the floor in the next shot, clearly let the viewer know what had happened).
Despite the violence being toned down, other unethical and immoral aspects of the entertainment remained. Sexual references, the blatant objectification of women, and over the top racist stereotypes to name a few. This last point was one I thought they had grown out of by now, but whilst watching a clip on YouTube of a recent episode of Raw, it is clearly very much a tool the scriptwriters still implement.
In the time that I watched WWE these stereotypes manifested themselves in characters such as Tajiri, a Japanese wrestler who spoke no English and simply muttered seemingly Japanese phrases under his breath in an excited manner from time to time. There was also Kai En Tai, a tag-team of two other Japanese wrestlers, who again spoke no English and intentionally gave bad lip-syncing. For a while there was also a tag-team called La Resistance, who were comprised of two French-Canadians who came to the ring waving French flags and spoke an almost constant stream of anti-American rhetoric. As well as these characters there was William Regal, a posh English gentleman that originally, would only fight by Her Majesty’s rules.
The list could go on for quite some time, and these are probably the least offensive characters who appeared on the WWE roster. The ruling seemed to be that if you were a non-American, your sole character trait was that you were foreign. Your persona, your manner and everything to do with who you were as a wrestler had to reflect the country that you were coming from. Every stereotype that the WWE could squeeze out should be soaked up and implemented. There are a number of articles that have commented on the questionable manner in which characters are created, and stories developed within the wrestling business. Blogsite Ring The Damn Bell has called these stereotypes “unpopular at best, and… racist at worst”. One online commentator has called the WWE “a haven for racist stereotypes”.
Within the WWE, black athletes have been portrayed as anything from slaves to white masters, to members of criminal gangs complete with medallions and bling, and from African voodoo doctors, to pimps. Mexicans have been forced into roles as gardeners or thieves, and almost all foreign stars have been subjected to scripts whereby they are portrayed as anti-American, haters of the country and the flag.
Such acts are cheap and harmful, and not only promote an American patriotism that borders on nationalism, but perpetuates immoral and completely false portrayals of people from other nations. Not all Asian people love Godzilla and Samurai swords and are unable to speak English, not all black athletes are backwards African witch doctors, or pimps and criminals, and not all Russian and Middle Eastern people wish to see the destruction of the United States. If you were to watch WWE however, this is what you would assume.
The latest reinvention of the racist stereotype can be seen in a wrestler named Rusev whose pro-Russian character and anti-American statements immediately make him the perfect man to hate. Rusev, whose real name is Miroslav Barnyashev, is in fact not Russian at all, but Bulgarian and has lived and worked in the United States for almost a decade. He is currently joined at ringside by a female wrestler who goes by the name of Lana. She is also billed as pro-Russian and anti-American, and speaks with a very questionable Russian accent. Lana, real name Catherine Joy Perry, was actually born in Florida and the closest she has got to being Russian is that she spent seven years living in Latvia as a child.
Facts though, should not get in the way of a good story, and the WWE know this. At a time when international relations between the US and Russia are at their lowest in decades, the WWE has decided to introduce two heel characters – the bad guys – that are intentionally inflammatory. Whilst a proxy war is being fought in Ukraine between the two superpowers, with the US backing one side, and Russia the other, international politics and US propaganda has seeped into the WWE storyline.
The Washington Post reported on a promo that Lana had made following the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. In the promo Lana alluded to the disaster, questioning why the US was blaming Russia for the loss of life. Though Lana did not explicitly state that she was talking about that specific incident, it had occurred just three days previously, and Lana asked the crowd; “You blame Russia for the recent current events?” Following intense criticism WWE issued an apology. Two months later WWE were having to apologise once again as a wrestler named Big Show was seen tearing down a Russian flag after knocking Rusev out of the ring. The most recent event, and one that will no doubt receive criticism from many in Russia, is another promo from Lana and Rusev where they go down to the ring to celebrate the birthday of “the most powerful man in the world”, Vladimir Putin. It is a completely insincere act, and unsurprisingly gets a very negative reaction from the crowd, especially when Putin’s face appears on the big screen.
Quite obviously WWE is to be taken with a pinch of salt, but storylines and characters such as Rusev and Lana should be of concern to fans and WWE staff alike. Such representations should have no place on mainstream, let alone worldwide, media platforms. Racist stereotyping of non-Americans is precisely the reason that large swathes of the population associate Islam with terrorism, and yet because the target here is the old Cold War enemy the stereotyping is allowed to continue. Through his multi-million dollar wrestling empire Vince McMahon is disseminating his own propaganda, black people are backwards Africans or gang members, Mexicans are criminals, women are sex objects, and Russia is still the enemy.
For further reading I highly recommend you read a piece by Dion Beary entitled “Pro Wrestling is Fake, but its Race Problem isn’t”. An insightful and shocking article that looks at how WWE script their black athletes. “In its 62 year history, WWE has never chosen a black wrestler to hold its world championship.”
As well as the links already mentioned here’s some more recommended further reading:
The Pawns in WWE’s Propaganda Game
10 Most Offensive Moments in Wrestling (links to videos of JBL preaching his anti-immigrant beliefs, Mexicans coming to the ring on a lawnmower)
A (very) Concise History of Racism in Wrestling
WWE: 10 Shockingly Racist Gimmicks that Made the Fans Jaws Drop
The history of racism in wrestling goes deeper than you might think
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