Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Is it Ethical to Watch Pro Wrestling

""You Can’t See Me," or Can You?: Unpacking John Cena’s Performance of Whiteness in World Wrestling Entertainment," was a disturbing article to read. In watching the program you see and recognize the racial hierarchy, but seeing it in print makes it a lot uglier. Also, I had never heard of multicultural whiteness or even considered John Cena's character arc as a "progress narrative equating blackness with troubled youth and adulthood with assimilation to white norms and values" (317). The more the class delves into the problems with the WWE's portrayal of race, gender, and sexuality, the guiltier I feel about implicitly supporting these portrayals as a fan. Though a drop in the bucket, I am supporting not only culturally reductive depictions of different races, but also the forcing a glass ceiling over talented wrestlers like the Usos. I hate their characters. They have no substance to them other than that they are Samoan. Their backstory is never explained (except to reference Rashiki when they do his butt-hitting thing) and it never has any relationship with the matches they are involved in. I knew the WWE controlled whether their characters evolved or not, but I thought surely the Usos were content in their simplicity, or just weren't any good on mic. But looking at the Usos in comparison to other wrestlers discussed in the paper, like Sheamus or Santino Marella (who Joy Taylor argues is even better off than the Usos because they are "EuroAmerican"), there is a similar lack of development over time, and I wonder how much of it is by choice. 
Being put in a gimmick like this leaves no room for growth or improvement of the character, and perpetuates the issue. If a character isn't developed because their Otherness has been capitalized on, the audience can't identify with the characters, and they won't generate enough crowd interest to get a push or a better developed character, keeping them static.
It's disgusting that inequality can exist under a guise of multiculturalism and race-blindness, and the idea of pro wrestling as a reflection of our culture paints our society in a terrible light. Is it ethical to watch the WWE? How can a spectacle that is supposed to champion the underdog function when it perpetuates so many of the values and beliefs of the controlling majority? Has wrestling ever truly embodied its dramaturgical narrative?


Sam Ford said...

The idea of John Cena's character as the embodiment of "multicultural racism" seems a powerful one here, even if some of the examples are troubling/don't work out as well (per Melissa's post). Wrestling has a long history of racism and of playing on race in ways that can occasionally be progressive and is often regressive. Even if race isn't discussed as overtly in wrestling today as it has in some prior times, and even if there aren't perhaps AS MANY overt racial stereotypes in the ring as there once were...race is still very much front and center, as you point out.

On the other hand, I wonder if some of the fan reaction to dislike of John Cena has to do with reading him as white privilege. Here, you have a middle-class turned millionaire white boy pretending he's a thug from the streets and trying to incorporate the history of a repressed people as his own, subtly....while proclaiming that he's had to fight as hard as anyone for everything he's gotten and purporting that he believes the world is fair? WE talked earlier this semester about how fans might hate Cena for being naive...but I wonder if some of that dislike for Cena is implicitly a recognition of that multicultural racism, classism, sexism, etc...a feeling that he represents the privileged white guy who gets to be what he wants to be and then acts as if he's not privileged?

Tony Smith said...

Mikey, I think you raise great questions that I have often struggled with as well. Is it ethical to watch a program that uses non-white performers primarily as stereotypes? Though an argument can be made that there has been progress with characters who are more than just their racial stereotype, overall, WWE has been slow to grow up. The important part of the last sentence is that the “WWE” has been slow to grow up. This may very well be a WWE problem. For years, Mid-South Wrestling used African Americans as their top talent. One big difference between these promotions is who was in charge. Mid-South had at times a black booker (Ernie Ladd) and a head booker/owner (Bill Watts) who was interested in making money in New Orleans with its tens of thousands of African American fans. I don’t think Vince McMahon is that evolved in his ideas about race, sex, or any marginalized or minority groups. What I think would make a difference is to have minorities in positions of power or influence who can speak to how minorities should be portrayed. The WWE’s problem with race reminds me of Saturday Night Live’s (SNL) problem with race. SNL is ran by a rich white guy who has been living in the same multimillion dollar apartment complex, with his best bud/neighbor Paul Simon for years. He needed outside pressure to start hiring more African Americans to perform and write for African Americans. For years, the job of blacks on SNL has been to play stereotypes. I wonder how many people in positions of authority or influence are black or Latino at the WWE?

Sam Ford said...

It's a great question, Tony (and, as a complete aside, I wonder if Paul Simon's more evolved view of international collaboration and roles for people of various ethnical and national backgrounds ever came up in conversations with Lorne). But on the WWE front...I had mentioned that WWE has had multiple people these past few years in public positions of power who were non-white (Vicki Guerrero; Booker T; Teddy Long), but I don't know to what degree that level of diversity has been reflected internally. In addition to the issue with Alberto Del Rio, one of WWE's most politically connected writers--retired wrestler "Freeboard" Michael Hayes--has been suspended for controversial racist comments a few times, etc. These could be dismissed as overt signs of racist behaviors. But that's a much different question that systemic imbalances that can't be blamed on behaviors of individuals. And certainly MOST of wrestling's power elite has traditionally been white men....(and the same can be said of the business world as well, of course...) I wonder how different things look on the "business" side of the business vs. the "creative" side of the business.