This is hardly the first time pro wrestling has come at the audience with a blatantly racist angle, and WWE has, through the years, perfected the arts of cheap stereotyping and jingoism. So their latest gimmick – the anti-immigration “real American” Jack Swagger and his mentor, thinly veiled Tea Partier Zeb Colter – are hardly news. Except for one thing – this time, the WWE is portraying the All-American white folks as the heels.
Here’s a sample.
At WrestleMania in April, Swagger will challenge for the World Heavyweight Title, currently held by … wait for it … Mexican superstar Alberto Del Rio (Jose Alberto Rodríguez, nephew of wrestling legend Mil Mascaras). The promos cut by Swagger (former U of Oklahoma wrestler and football player Jake Hager) and Colter (portrayed by Dirty Dutch Mantell – real name, Wayne Keown) have relied on a lot of code and dog-whistling (in other words, about what you get at your average Tea Partier campaign appearance). The language isn’t explicitly racist – the official stance is that all foreigners need to go home, including Brit Wade Barrett, who holds the Intercontinental Championship) although a couple of times in recent weeks it felt like they’d gone about as far as you could go without whipping out a “spic” or “wetback.” This comes hot on the heels of a recent “you people”-style promo cut by the Big Show (Paul Wight) against Latino fans supporting Del Rio.
The whole affair has been uncomfortable, even if you know it’s scripted. Since the pro wrestling conceit is that it’s a real, live sporting event, when its characters slip over into this kind of behavior we perhaps feel a little more violated than we might when presented with a racist character in a TV show or film. Credit where due: the WWE creative team, headed by Stephanie McMahon, and all the performers involved, have done a great job of selling the controversial angle.
It gets weird, though. Now the WWE and its bad guy/racist characters find themselves in a shoot (real-life) face-off with Glenn Beck. No, seriously.
On a recent radio show, Glenn Beck blasted the WWE for mocking him and claiming the WWE is entertainment for “stupid people.” Beck continued his rant, accusing the WWE of degrading tea party advocates as racist, unrealistic caricatures.
Keown and Hager broke character and fired back.
“Everything we do with our characters is designed to tell stories,” Keown said. “Right now the story we are telling is that Zeb Colter and Jack Swagger are using the current, relevant, and topical story of immigration to target the WWE World Champion Alberto Del Rio, also a character played by my friend Jose Rodriguez. In our story, we are the antagonist and Alberto is the protagonist…
“Glen Beck, you recently referred to WWE as stupid wrestling people. Really, Glenn? Seriously, really? By implication, you are referring to the 14 million stupid wrestling fans who are watching our shows every week in America and our global audience in over 145 countries. 20 percent of our audience is Hispanic. 22 percent is African American. 35 percent is female. And we equally reach all major age groups including 25 percent over 50.
“We have about 60 characters on our show, a lot more than say NCIS or Glee, but we’re not that much different. Some of our characters are really likable and some are detestable, good guys and bad guys. We don’t use guns and we don’t depict murder or rape, typically seen on prime time dramas. Our program is PG. We look forward to continuing to tell provocative, funny, dramatic, and sometimes controversial stories with characters of all backgrounds and beliefs.
Many of your followers are WWE fans and they understand the difference between reality and entertainment. Are you out of touch with your audience, Glenn? Or are you just a stupid political commentator. Mr. Beck, we cordially invite you to Monday Night Raw in Dallas at the American Airlines Center where you can deliver a five-minute, unedited rebuttal to our global TV audience and a sold out crowd of over 12,000 stupid wrestling fans. So now let’s get back in character…”
You need to watch this. It’s wonderful.
But, but … that isn’t even the weird part. If WWE were run by, say, Rachel Maddow and her family, there wouldn’t be anything remotely odd about a Tea Party bad guy character. But it isn’t. It’s run by the McMahon family. As in Vince and Linda and their daughter, the aforementioned Stephanie. (Shane, their son, left the company in 2010.)
And the McMahons aren’t known for their liberal leanings. Mom Linda has run for office as a Republican and is decidedly conservative (although a member of the country club wing, not the social conservative wing). Viewed from this perspective, then, the Colter/Swagger “We the People” angle is throwing important electoral allies under the bus, and it isn’t hard to see why the likes of Glenn Beck might get his shorts in a twist.
So I find myself wondering, well, what the fuck? Where is this GOP-on-GOP intramural action coming from? A few possibilities:
- The McMahons are providing moral support to Karl Rove in his recently declared war on the Teabaggers.
- Linda is thinking about running again and has decided that a hard tack to the social left will do her campaign good.
- Stephanie is actually a progressive and we’re seeing evidence of internal disagreement in the family.
- Stephanie doesn’t do all the writing. Maybe there are progressive writers on the staff and they’re being given some freedom.
- While it hasn’t been evident before, the McMahons believe that immigration reform is essential to the health of American business.
- There’s nothing to it at all – creative just saw an opportunity for a ratings-grabbing storyline.
Which of these explanations is accurate? No idea. If WWE officials have addressed this in print I can’t find it. The third one – Stephanie is a liberal – seems the least plausible to me, but she has stated that she has no interest in pursuing politics like her mother. No telling what that means.
In any case, it’s a fascinating angle, and I now find myself wondering if the whole Glenn Beck thing is actually a work. A public controversy pitting him against the WWE might be good for everybody’s ratings, and the pro wrestling industry has a history of loving a good put-up job. Remember the whole Andy Kaufman/Jerry Lawler feud?
I don’t know how long this storyline will run. My gut tells me that the Swagger/Del Rio narrative will work better with Swagger as the evil champion and Del Rio as the white hat in hot pursuit, and if I’m right we can expect Del Rio to drop the strap at Wrestlemania. There are enough foreign stars in the organization at present that the creative team can probably get a lot of mileage out of Swagger and Colter, True American Patriots.
Well played, sir.
It does boggle the mind. At one level it is high art, what is real and what is the play within the play?
I think I would take it at semi-face value.
1. WWE is following Neils Bohr, the opposite of every great truth is another great truth. If over the top patriots make great heroes and foreigners make great heels, then over the top patriots must make great heels and foreigners great heroes.
2. Lots of brown people watch WWE. Doesn’t hurt to let them win one.
3. WWE has decided that the immigration wars, like the Gay Marriage Wars, are temporarily over.
4. Glenn is a buffoon and is one that is rapidly losing relevance. Your own internet channel may be more profitable, but it absolutely takes you off the grid and eliminates the platform that a national TV show has, even on Fox. He is probably trying to gen up ratings and be noticed again and attacking WWE is a good way to do it. See, we noticed. It worked.
5. Then again, Glenn Beck is the Russian Roulette of commentators. No one knows when he’s going to blow. He may just be blowing up randomly.
But I am disappointed with the WWE guys for breaking character. I do think that is intended as a sop to the racist right.
By the way, Zeb Colter? I love that WWE doesn’t do subtle.
I keep re-reading this and trying to figure out what’s going on here. One more thought, think about McMahon’s amazing musculature post-50 and Steph’s forays into the ring, and it’s apparent that the line between “reality and entertainment” McKeown the Coward references is probably a little blurry inside WWE HQ. They themselves appear to get sucked in. So while this may have started as innocent programming, as I posit, there’s no guarantee it won’t evolve into real life politicking, as you posit.
I don’t know what it evolves into, but they’ve played the Colter/Swagger pair as unabashed heels, and while you can turn a wrestler face, you won’t be able to turn this angle face. If they turn, it will have to be after they’ve have a road to Damascus moment.
The fascinating thing to me is that the politics of this are so against type. I don’t think the McMahons identify with the trailer park teabagger set, no, but those folks ARE Republicans. And we have seen the Rove vs Tea party schism already.
Like I say, gonna be fun to watch.
Or Vince McMahon could just be fucking with everyone.
But I suspect the McMahons have just decided that public opinion has turned against the Tea Party and that makes a good storyline.
Ya’ know, I might have to take up watching wrestling just to watch this run its course. Seems like the McKeown and Hager out of character piece might be an effort to “stop being the party of stupid.” And they’re right: the wrestling audience is diverse in a number of ways.
On the other hand. . . .
Perhaps Swagger will defeat Del Rio and become The Great White Hope. ‘Merica will be resurgent. Then Jack Swagger will go on to defeat the Jihadist Terrorist wrestler, the Drug Dealer Latin American Wrestler, the African Boy Soldier General wrestler, etc. etc. After all, Swagger’s first name is “Jack” and ‘Merica has been in sorry shape since Jack Bauer walked off camera. In that vein, maybe everyone, Tea Baggers and all, can gather in front of a flag worthy of Patton and sing “I’m Proud to Be an American.”
You just described the 1980s. WWE played envy jingoistic angle imaginable once upon a time, but for all the reasons there are to hate the Mcmahons, they are not stupid. This approach now would be suicide. They fully understand the diversity of their audience – and perhaps it’s shifting politics, as ll.
Yeah–I thought my reply walked a little too far into Rambo territory. But that’s the problem: the fragmentation on the right is causing them to challenge some nearly sacred notions. I don’t think they have this fully thought out yet–the story may develop along with the national politics. The one thin I’m pretty sure of is that there are NO fat ring girls to sing the last chorus on this one to let us know it’s over.
First off, the fact that tea party people are being referred to as “tea baggers” shows the lack of understanding about the tea party. The tea party is against the expansion of government and over taxation of American citizens. But I’m guessing most people on here are the kind that get their info from John Stewert or Huffington Post so I guess I should expect it. Yes there are some extreme people in the movement. And it’s those the the MSM seek out and try make everyone out to be. But the majority of the tea party are regular people that are just tired of an every growing government infringing on our civil liberties. The Gadston flag, “Don’t tread on me” is a symbol for that, not bigotry. That’s why they are offended. They are being misrepresented. But I’m sure I will get the typical response from the left. But I’m used to it. Even though your wrong.