We've been talking a lot about gender and sexism in pro wrestling lately. Several Cagesiders have pointed out that racial and ethnic minorities don't fare much, if any, better than women in pro wrestling. And while a case can be made that there's some cause for optimism among feminists in the fandom, African-American or Latino afficionados looking for WWE characters who present as anything other than broad, stereoptypical cliches to identify with don't have much to work with in the current product.
That fact hasn't gone unnoticed by the mainstream media, either. In an article dated July 10th on the website for 157 year old East Coast cultural magazine The Atlantic, Dion Beary dove into how Vince McMahon's company presents and deals with racial issues. "Pro Wrestling is Fake, but Its Race Problem Isn't" looks at how most of the blacks and hispanics on WWE television are cast as thugs, dancers or other caricatures while mostly serving as jobbers (that last bit being a point brought up by this writer several weeks back at the outset of the "Rusev hates hip-hop and cornbread" part of The Bulgarian Brute's push).
Beary also looks at the history of gimmicks like Cryme Tyme and The Godfather, and points out that unless you count the half-Samoan, half African-Canadian Dwayne Johnson, WWE has never given its top prize to a black wrestler.
Similarly to how Cagesider Andi Clare broke down the limited ways that WWE tells stories featuring women in the excellent "Sexism and Suplexes" post yesterday, Beary breaks out a similar trifecta of ways the company presents characters of color:
1. The performer plays or has played a character based on a racial stereotype.
2. The performer does not have any discernible character.
3. The performer is largely absent from television and/or has never played a significant role in WWE's fictional universe.
WWE, a corporate entity that has been trying to depict itself as an entertainment rather than "rasslin" company for more than a decade now, does not want this kind of attention taking away from the deserved praise they get for thier Make-A-Wish and Be a STAR programs. They were quick to send The Atlantic a response:
WWE is a global entertainment company committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide.
Which is all well and good, but doesn't at all address the articles case that it's not a lack of performers or fans of color, but the consistently boring and offensive way that those performers are put forth for fans.
Even more disappointing are the comments in response to Beary's piece. Many are from those who either claim to have outgrown wrestling or who would never give it a chance as anything other than a pastime for the poor and uneducated. "Uh, because wrestling fans are generally white trash?" starts one such comment.
This is exactly the kind of thing Vince McMahon doesn't want to hear, even as significant portions of the product that his company puts on screen each week validates the opinions of the public who would dismiss it.
There's also the debate that accompanies any online discussion of race or gender, with some accusing the author and any who agree with him or her of trying to insert prejudice or discrimination where there is none, and others responding that there's power in even depictions of sexism and racism that those not effected by them see as trivial.
Without delving too deeply down the wormhole that is that discussion, it's important to ask why WWE doesn't make more of an effort to counter these claims of racism before they're raised.
There's nothing they can do about how Triple H's WrestleMania 19 feud with Booker T went down, or to the rumors of how Michael Hayes drove Bobby Lashley from the company. But they can choose to not have Big E sound like an Arsenio Hall skit about black preachers from the mid-90s, or choose to debut real-life doctoral candidate Xavier Woods as something other than a song-and-dance man.
It's a difficult discussion with deep roots in history and everyone involved's conscience. But for fans who are offended by how WWE and pro wrestling depicts women and minorities, who don't want to just give up watching and discussing something they enjoy because the things that bother them don't bother the powers-that-be or a bunch of other fans, who think that sports entertainment can present a wider spectrum of characters who demonstrate the form's strengths rather than highlight its unfortunate history - it's crucial for those fans to continue to discuss these issues.
If for no other reason than to make sure that WWE knows that they are an issue - not just when the mainstream media wakes up and notices, but every time a young girl has to watch a babyface get a crowd to call a Diva a slut, or a black kid has to ask his dad why all the wrestlers who look like him get beat up by the monster heel.