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.
“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.