The second of my back page columns for the student newspaper I used to edit in college, this time about wrestling. This is another article about wrestling I did for this blog.
Professional wrestling is anathema to grown-ups. It’s fake and it’s for kids. It’s probably been half a decade since you were last in a situation where you even had to argue that with a peer. But it hasn’t gone away. WWE’s Raw is the longest running weekly episodic programme in the history of American television and for eighteen years it has aired, mostly live but always at least recorded live, every Monday night. There is no inherent value in longevity obviously, but the fact that Raw has been a constant since January 1993 means that its story arcs, trends and stylistic decisions provide an interesting means of looking at how society changed in that time.
You could watch Reeling In The Years for a more straightforward account, no doubt, but news stories don’t happen in front of a live crowd. Events that do, like ‘real ‘ sports, aren’t scripted, so there’s no way you can find out anything useful about what people want from them. A wrestling crowd will only cheer or boo when they care. It’s the job of the bookers to make the crowd care in real time, live, every single Monday. And no disrespect to wrestling fans, but the average Raw attendee isn’t exactly a modern liberal. They’re not making a political statement with their ticket purchase, but the things they cheer and boo tell us something about societal attitudes and prejudices that we won’t get in the same form anywhere else.
Take, for example, the character of Goldust, portrayed by Dustin Runnels, son of Hall of Famer and lunatic Dusty Rhodes. Goldust entered the WWE (then WWF) in 1995 with the nickname “the bizarre one” and proceeded to develop a gimmick based on “creeping out” opponents by blowing kisses to them, groping them mid-fight and wearing a full-body metallic gold suit. Goldust’s gimmick, effectively, was that he was gay. It worked, too. Dig a little through YouTube archives and you can see the palpable discomfort of the crowd first hand as Goldust ‘accidentally’ bumps his crotch into his opponent from behind or strokes their chest before delivering a punch. You’ll also find an on-air interview with current wildly popular commentator Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler ahead of the 1996 King of the Ring in which the crowd totally erupts when Lawler calls Goldust a “flaming fag”.
It’s uncomfortable viewing, but the WWE is always looking for the path of least resistance to a reaction, and that got one. In 2004, just about far enough from September 11th, 2001 to get away with it, the company introduced a pair of characters, Daivari and Hassan, whose gimmick involved complaining about their mistreatment as Arab-Americans. Despite being Iranian-American and Italian-American (seriously) respectively, they wore Arabic headdress and made what the average university student would probably consider fairly profound points about racism in modern America. Guess what? They were wildly unpopular. Just like the Russian and Arab characters of old, they drew immediate cheap heat and USA chants just for showing up and being “foreign”.
The last few weeks of Hassan’s run in the WWE involved one of the most shameful moments in the company’s history of tastelessness, as a crew of masked men with garrots – with obvious ‘Al Qaeda’ implications – came to the ring to do his bidding on an episode that aired the same day as the London bombings. This was the end of what could probably be described as WWE’s most recent straightforwardly racist angle as the Italian-American whose initial gimmick was to speak out against prejudice ended up losing his job because the WWE’s television network partners demanded that he be kept off air.
It’s not pleasant stuff, and it’s not all like this, but it says something about what the average person on the street in middle America, outside of idealistic discourse and worries about what others will think, wants to see in their live entertainment. Female characters are mocked for being ‘fat’ if they’re not skinny. The most popular wrestlers are always white and American, to the extent that the most important title has never been held by a black wrestler. But the company still fills arenas, sells pay-per-view events and makes money. It’s supply and demand, I suppose. Give the people what they want.