Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Minority and Class Culture in Wrestling

As we've mentioned several times before, the idea of good versus evil is an omnipresent theme in professional wrestling. We've discussed how good and evil are often ideas defined by capitalism whereby hardworking citizens may often find themselves disillusioned by an incompetent and/or indifferent government and individuals who succeed by using underhanded means.

Race has also been used to define good and evil in the wrestling ring. Historically, it was more often the foreigner who was cast as the evil aggressor. Professional wrestling would play off of xenophobic sentiments of the time to invent new characters. Hence personae like Franz Herman, Fritz von Erich, and the Iron Sheik. These villains were pit against familiar American faces.

At the same time, however, fans have been able to identify with minority wrestling characters. These wrestlers have provided a way for foreign, non-American characters to become babyfaces in the ring. Throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, there were several Mexican-American wrestlers who were able to build a sizable postive following among the general fanbase. More recently, wrestling phenoms like the Rock, Eddie Guerrero, and Rey Misterio, Jr. have been able to command even greater success.

An apparent difference between the two generations of wrestlers has often been noted. While the earlier minority wrestlers were able to be cast in a generally positive light as hardworking, sportsmanlike faces, the more recent generation of minority characters have exploited many existing racial stereotypes. Nevertheless, these wrestlers have been able to enjoy even greater success and appear to be some of the more popular characters of their respective wrestling programs.

While it is easy to align the popularity of minority characters with the minority fan base, there necessarily exists a deeper source of their widespread fame. As veritable symbols of the fruits of hard work and effort, the wrestlers themselves and not simply their characters can be identified as "good" as per the definitions prescribed by the capitalistic view of wrestling. As a result, these wrestlers are able to transcend race and become heroes of the working class.

Just as we've discussed in class, it is social class that has become the ultimate criterion for defining popular wrestlers, especially as wrestling progressed throughout the latter part of the 20th century. Haughtiness and arrogance has rarely if ever been tolerated in the ring. It is the ability of wrestlers to identify with the blue-collar ideals of the fanbase that has become an important determining factor in their success as performers in the squared circle.


Ismael said...

I thought it was interesting how Latino wrestlers were able to appeal to people of all races by playing up the class issue. The blue-collared appeal was very skillful on the writers' part. They were able to downplay racial issues and bring social issue to the forefront. Fans of wrestling look for any way to relate to the wrestlers and their ideals. By asking themselves what the fans would like to see instead of telling the fans what they are going to like, writers and promoters are able to better connect to the fans and contribute to the growth of their fan base.

Sam Ford said...

Omar, you make some key points here. Wrestling and race is such a complicated question, and one only has to look at black wrestlers in the South in the territory era for more on that. The fact that a deeply segregated society would come together, white and black, to cheer on black wrestling faces is a fascinating phenomenon, when you look at stars like the Junkyard Dog, Thunderbolt Patterson, etc. Of course, the same phenomenon played out in other sports as well, but it interests me in wrestling in particular because some of these black wrestlers became cultural institutions as individual heroes.

We've also talked before, I believe, about how the Native American was almost always a face in the wrestling context, while the cowboy was often a heel...I've always found this fascinating as well, considering that it went against the narrative most often played out in Westerns at the time...

But I think you get at a key question here, Omar: "While it is easy to align the popularity of minority characters with the minority fan base, there necessarily exists a deeper source of their widespread fame." Promoters have always had to deal with this, and one finds that there are aspects of heroism that transcend what is often major cultural divides. I think Eddie Guerrero or Rey Misterio being popular in areas where there are strong cultural divides between Mexican immigrants and migrant workers, on the one hand, and families who have been in communities for generations is a stark reminder of this.