Saturday, February 17, 2007

Re: Friday Night in the Coliseum

This'll be a quick one, as it's more of a "huh, I hadn't thought of that" than any particularly new idea, but the depiction of racial politics in Martin's article caught my eye.

We've seen the pageantry concerning the German/Nazi and Russian/Soviet wrestlers, the "sneaky" Japanese who "all know karate," etc. What surprises me is the treatment of the black and "Red Indian" characters: the article describes the latter as capable of enduring "great pain and injustice without flinching or retaliating in kind," which seems to me a rather modern stereotype, more Dances With Wolves than John Wayne. In addition, Martin notes that promoters rarely divided good and evil along racial lines, e.g. Buster Lloyd, who "happened to be black," as we like to say now, but derived his villainous persona from the fact that he was a New Yorker, and ended up being beaten by a black Texan. This itself carries a powerful symbol about race and national identity: if you're from Texas, black or white, you're an American. (New York, the jury's still out in large parts of the country.)

The interview with Dusty Rhodes we saw last night, and Sam's commentary, demonstrate that the economics of racial integration were starting to exert a pull on the industry by this period, so this shouldn't be all that surprising. (For blacks, there any data on American Indian audiences? Were there any such audiences from which to gather data?) I don't recall reading anything about it from the earlier eras, though. Were there popular black heels and babyfaces before this era, and were the races as politicized, for lack of a better term? If I've forgotten and someone could refresh me, what did segregation-era wrestling look like?

1 comment:

Sam Ford said...

Peter, good questions, and ones that I can only answer to a short degree. Wrestling has always played with stereotypes, which has led both to reinforcing dangerous and negative racial, regional, and cultural prejudices but also some interesting challenges, as this points out.

Native Americans were almost always depicted as very ethnic, almost always wearing headdresses, doing war dances, having a "war cry," etc., but they were also almost always faces. In the New York area, it was "Chief" Jay Strongbow. There was Wahoo McDaniel as well, who was one of the most respected wrestlers of this territorial era.

I don't know that there was a strong number of Native American fans, but the Indian was more likely to be the hero and the cowboy just as likely to be the villain in pro wrestling, as plenty of the heels would wear a cowboy hat and take on that "black hat" persona. Really complicates people's arguments about wrestling always playing with stereotypes in negative ways.

I don't know that black wrestlers appeared as often against white wrestlers before some of the most popular black wrestlers arose in the 60s and 70s. Bobo Brazil and "Big Cat" Ernie Ladd are two of the most significant of them, with Bobo coming first and Ladd we've already seen against Andre. Ladd played the heel, but it again wasn't because he was black but because of his arrogance.

Many ethnic stereotypes were booked as the faces because the idea was that they could draw in minority audiences. Black wrestlers in the south (Junk Yard Dog would be one of the best examples in the early 80s), Mexican wrestlers in Texas and California (the popularity of Mil Mascaras, Jose Lothario, Chavo Guerrero, and others), and a variety of ethnicities in major metropolitan areas like New York demonstrate this. In WWE history, the first major drawing card before the WWE title was actually created was South American/Italian Antonino Rocca, who we've seen; the first WWE champion was Bruno Sammartino, an Italian immigrant; and the second major champion was Pedro Morales, a Puerto Rican. You have Ivan Putski, "The Polish Power;" Andre, who we saw talking to the audience in French; and many others, popular because of their ethnicity.

They existed alongside the evil Japanese and Germans, later Russians and Iranians, etc., but, while there's no question wrestling played heavily on stereotypes, trying to "stereotype those stereotypes" is not quite so easy.

The specifics I don't know much more about, as far as demographics and the like, but there has been plenty written about Sputnik Monroe and his influence on integration in the Memphis arena, including a great two-part piece on NPR.