Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Foreign Menace

In William C. Martin's article "Friday Night in the Coliseum" (The Atlantic, March 1972), the author uses the setting of a Friday night wrestling card in Houston to highlight face and more importantly heel archetypes. Starting with Baron Von Raschke, a Nazi-themed wrestler, Martin highlights two common "Foreign Menace" types: the Japanese and the Russian characters. Like Von Raschke and similar Nazi-themed characters, both the Japanese and Russian characters invoke threats, past or present, to an idealized American image. Both also remain largely one-dimensional (the Japanese as "sneaky" but often technically proficient; the Russians as simple brutes). Why such enemies who disdain America choose to compete in an American sport is largely unexplored by the audience (a point Martin references), but provides an easily identifiable and morally repugnant opponent for the American face.

As international events unfold, similar themed Foreign Menaces are evident, most notably the Iron Sheik after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. But largely left unresolved by Martin or the other readings is what to do with such characters once the Foreign Menace is no longer emotionally salient to the audience. I use the example  in my International Relations course of what to do with Soviet wrestlers, which were a staple for nearly every promotion in the 1980s, when the Cold War ends. The WWF with Nicolai Volkoff and WCW with Nikita Koloff simultaneously repacked both as  Lithuanian, now free from the shackles of the Soviet Union and able to be mentored by Americans well versed in democracy. Many of the others simply retired or faded into obscurity. Even the Iron Sheik was briefly repackaged as the Iraqi Col. Mustafa during the first Gulf War, ignoring that Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war from 1980-88.

Volkoff (actually Croatian)

Koloff (actually from Minnesota)

Which nationalities work as a "Foreign Menace" also requires greater attention. Foreigners from the UK may be heels, but they are rarely portrayed as a menace. Rather, they commonly play the role of what Martin calls "Titled Snobs and Pointy-Headed Intellectuals". Finland's Tony Halme briefly portrayed an evil Finn in the WWF (Ludvig Borga) in the 90s to luke-warm reception at best. Similarly, despite the proliferation of Soviets during the Cold War, portrayals of "evil" Chinese or Vietnamese were virtually non-existent while Cuban bad guys were useful foils sporadically. Portrayals of Middle Eastern characters post 9/11 were rare and comparatively tame compared to previous menaces, perhaps due to changing acceptance of stereotypes but also concern for the wrestlers themselves. Furthermore, while characterizations of "savages" from "deepest, darkest Africa" were common at least through the 1980s (e.g. Kamala, Abdullah the Butcher) and have largely disappeared since, these characters do not seem to fit the role Martin envisioned for the "Foreign Menace".

While the "Foreign Menace" archetype may be less common today, one needs to look no further than the WWE's Alexander Rusev to a modern rendition, where a minor repackaging of a Bulgarian brute to an agent of Russia's President Vladimir Putin appears to have greater resonance with American audiences.



Gary said...

The subject of foreign menaces in wrestling is interesting, and I love how you tie that in with your modern International Relations course. You are right in what you say about the end of the Cold War and the waning emotional relevancy Americans had at that time. When the Cold War dissipated, so did America’s fear and detest of Russia.

For me, I like the Big Mean Sonofabitch archetype, no need for geographical stereotyping, which always seems to wax and wane as the winds of politics shift. This catchall archetype is terrific; the more he goes outside of social norms the better—the thought of this archetype kicking a down and out kid; cheating, not playing by the rules, better yet, having no rules, and just being asocial is what the wrestling doctor ordered. The fans say they must be punished!

Sam Ford said...

To piggyback off this discussion a bit and further extrapolate on something I brought up in class, I think it's also fascinating to see how wrestling deals with making sense of the foreign menace who becomes a legend in his own right. Baron Von Raschke's goose-stepping ways eventually landed him in the hearts and minds of viewers as a legend, to the point he becomes a fan favorite. Now, he's goose-stepping and clawing to cheers, but not as a Neo-Nazi...and they have to tweak his character to a degree to make sure they aren't seen as pushing a white supremacist, I suppose. Fritz Von Erich has to be transformed from evil Nazi sympathizer to patriarch of a bunch of good ol' boys from Texas. Is this ever even explained? How did they ever make that switch, while keeping his name? I don't think he went through a period of "Nazi sympathizer reforms and settles into Denton County." Or look at The Iron Sheik. From Iranian menace to goofy and crazy old wrestling legend that people love...They bring him back to play comedy roles, to win the legends battle royal (largely because he couldn't handle a fall over the top rope), and so forth...even while there still exists major tensions between the U.S. and Russia.

Timothy S. Rich said...

Good points. Regarding the "Big Mean Sonofabitch" archetype, this never goes out of style, even if it may grow old for the individual wrestler (especially as one ages). Von Raschke and Von Erich present an uncomfortable transition, but one that is likely only possible for certain types of the "Foreign Menace". I'm also not sure the Iron Sheik would have been able to transition into this comedy role in an earlier time without the presence of shoot interviews, social media, and the like.