Monday, May 27, 2013

Everything I Needed To Know I Learned From Pro Wrestling (Pt. 4--The Anti-American All-American)

If you've followed this blog over the past few years, you would know that professional wrestling is a huge interest of mine.  I've already written about cage matches and about "the original Pearl Harbor job", but this post will focus more sharply on the aspect of professional wrestling characters, specifically those who are identified as "American Heroes".

While professional wrestlers are above all else, outstanding athletes, part of the appeal to "sports entertainment" is that each of the wrestlers portrays an easy to understand character.  Some are good guys, or "faces", while others are the bad guys, also known as "heels".  In rare cases, characters inhabit a middle ground, and thus are known as "tweeners" (bad guys who get cheers, or good guys who get boos).  Sometimes these personae are derived from the actions of the wrestler, such as when Stone Cold Steve Austin represented the blue collar worker against the treacherous, exploitative management of WWE owner Vince McMahon.  But often times, a wrestler's character comes from more primitive-level appeals, such as nationalism. I've previously linked to some articles about national and ethnic stereotypes in wrestling, and how they can serve as a short-hand way to explain a wrestler's motivations and actions.  

Over the years, a reliable way to get a wrestler "over" (popular with the fans) has been to make him appear to be very patriotic.  Perhaps the best example is that of legendary wrestler Hulk Hogan, whose theme song proclaimed that he was "a real American/fighting for the right of every man".

At one point, due to storyline exigencies I won't go into here, Hogan was forced to wrestle in a mask, coming out as "The American Patriot", a star-spangled heavyweight whose moves, voice and theme song were remarkably identical to the then-banned Hulkster.  Naturally the fans were aware of what was going on and cheered lustily whenever the masked hero managed to prevail over the dastardly Vince McMahon and his minions.

Other examples of characters who have gained popularity through their appeal to pro-Americanism include Sgt. Slaughter, a real-life former Marine, Kurt Angle, the only American Olympic gold medalist to wrestle professionally, and "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, who appealed to a very base level of patriotism, usually by putting down other countries and getting fans to chant "U-S-A, U-S-A" in response to his every action.   Duggan gained his appeal early on when, in the midst of Reagan-era Cold War tensions he prevented "Russian" Nikolai Volkoff and the Iranian Iron Sheik from singing the Soviet national anthem prior to a match.  

This video gives a good example of Duggan's shtick, including a "flag match" versus "Russian" Boris Zhukov, in which the winner's national banner will fly proudly in the arena. In the interview prior to the match, Duggan runs down Quebecois heel Dino Bravo as well as the Soviet strongman Zhukov. 

Besides Duggan's antics, listen to the classic commentary between face play-by-play man Vince McMahon (who at the time was not known to be the owner of the company) and heel color commentator Jesse "The Body" Ventura.  Ventura, a real-life former Navy SEAL and future governor of Minnesota is a classic heel, putting down both Duggan and his fans.  For what it's worth, the announcing is a great example of why Jesse "The Body" was my favorite when I was a kid.  Even though his grammar is poor, and he supports the bad guys, he comes off as rational and intelligent, even when making excuses for Zhukov's loss. 

Sometimes, in an effort to freshen up someone's character, good guys do a "heel turn" and become bad guys.  When this happens to someone known for patriotism, it can be confusing. In 1991, Sgt. Slaughter became a pro-Iraqi heel. This turn is still talked about today, and especially to younger viewers, it must have been shocking to see an American hero go against his country like that. 


All of this is mere prologue to discuss a fascinating variation on this classic theme currently being aired on WWE programming.  For the past five or six years, a wrestler known as Jack Swagger  (real name Jake Hager) has hovered around the top echelons of the WWE.  Whether a face or a heel, Swagger has proclaimed himself to be "the All-American American", alluding to twice winning academic all-American awards at the University of Oklahoma.  Swagger has great size and can be intimidating in the ring, though a speech impediment makes him less threatening on the microphone.  He has briefly been the World Heavyweight Champion, and until 2012 was usually seen as a serious main-event wrestler.   For some reason (storyline or falling into disfavor with management due to multiple failed tests for marijuana) Swagger went on a months-long losing streak in 2012, culminating in him "walking out" on WWE for several months. 

Swagger returned out of the blue in February 2013, winning the Elimination Chamber match to become the #1 contender for the Heavyweight title, which at the time was held by Alberto Del Rio.  Del  Rio had been a heel (the "Mexican Aristocrat") who came to the ring in a different luxury car every day but had made a face turn, and was now seen as a plucky Everyman who was living the American dream through his success in the WWE.

Swagger didn't return alone.  He brought with him a manager/mouthpiece named "Zeb Colter".  Colter is portrayed by former wrestler "Dirty Dutch" Mantel.  Colter is billed as Swagger's "Founding Father",  the man who inspires Swagger to new heights by motivating him to "restore America for real Americans".  He even encouraged Swagger to rename his signature ankle lock hold the "Patriot Lock" (it was called the "Patriot Act" for a week or so, but that was a bit too charged, I guess). 

It turns out that Swagger and Colter hate undocumented immigrants, and much like Arizona Sherrif Joe Arpaio, assume that all Latinos are in the country illegally.  Swagger's new slogan "We The People" applies to the "us versus them" approach that has him accusing Del Rio of being an illegal immigrant, while Del Rio can present himself as a American success story; as a man who found a land of opportunity in the USA. 

Swagger and Colter may be a great pair, but Mantel and Hager do not seem to be ideal companions.  Swagger has been known to have problems with marijuana, and shortly after the two were brought together, he was arrested for driving under the influence after a show in Mississippi.  That is morally reprehensible enough, but it must have been especially hard for Dutch, considering that only a few months before, his granddaughter was killed by a person driving under the influence. Mantel is an old pro, but Swagger is an accident-prone goof who has more than once injured people in the ring, including broadcaster Jim Ross a few years ago, and current champion Dolph Ziggler a few weeks ago. 

Despite the arrest and injuring the top wrestler in the company, Swagger has continued to get a "push", perhaps because the WWE hope that the politically tinged message will garner them extra publicity.  At the beginning of their pairing, some right-wing media picked up on what seemed to be attacks on the Tea Party movement.  Radio host Glenn Beck got in the act, which led to Swagger and Colter inviting Beck onto Monday Night Raw to debate them (naturally, Beck didn't show up).  

The thing that interests me the most about this character development is that Swagger has NEVER been cheered for his xenophobia.  In fact, in an effort to protect the character, announcers are careful to make sure to speculate that Colter has "brainwashed" Swagger, thus putting the blame on the manager, not the wrestler. The only one to stand up for the duo is heel color commentator John "Bradshaw" Layfield, a brash Texan who praises Colter for being a Vietnam Vet (and thus, an American hero).  At one point, on "Old-School" Raw, WWE legends Dusty "The American Dream" Rhodes and Sgt. Slaughter accompanied "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan as he came out to face Swagger and Colter. 

As you can tell from the video, Swagger gets a huge amount of heel "heat" for beating up three legends known for their patriotism, but he also gets berated by the announcers, saying that they want no part of Swagger's America.

I have found the audience reaction to Swagger and Colter to be very interesting. It is well-known that despite what the writers want, it is up to the "WWE Universe" to decide what will be popular (or not).  Swagger and Colter have been booed from the outset, despite the fact that they would seem to represent the views of many "real" Americans.   The "non-partisan" (not really) Federation for American Immigration Reform has collated the results of numerous surveys that seem to show that the majority of Americans believe that porous borders (mainly to the south) are a serious threat to the United States and that illegal immigrants "harm" American workers.

If the numbers are so convincing, then why do wrestling fans boo Swagger and cheer Del Rio?   I think that it has to do with fairness and familiarity.  When Americans answer pollsters' questions on immigration, they equate "following the rules" with fairness, and so naturally someone who breaks immigration laws is not deserving of approbation.  But when they see and hear the venom coming from Colter and Swagger, it turns them off.  Similarly, the idea of a generic Latino "stealing jobs and draining resources" is unpopular, but the charismatic Del Rio is a fan favorite for his fighting spirit, charm and resiliency.  And then when Swagger and Colter have also run down other fan favorites like heel Englishman Wade Barrett:

and Canadian-American face Chris Jericho:

the fans rebel against such unfair, discriminatory and rude behavior toward people that they think they "know".  I think that this is not unlike the way that homophobes change their minds and support same-sex marriage once they learn that someone they know and like is gay.

I wonder if the powers-that-be in the WWE expected such a negative reaction to Swagger's new persona?   And if they did, what does that say about America?  WWE fans are a cross-section of the population, with a weekly total viewership of 14,000,000.  According to the WWE's corporate website, 58% of the WWE audience has at least some college education, nearly half have household incomes over $60,000 and 36% of viewers are female.  Perhaps most telling is the number of Hispanic viewers.  According to WWE research, Monday Night Raw is the most watched weekly show among Hispanic men (also African Americans) and Friday Night Smackdown is the most watched Friday night show among Hispanic men. By the end of this decade, 12 states and the District of Columbia will have "majority-minority" populations, and California and New Mexico will have a plurality of Latinos.  The WWE is a publicly traded company and they know that to increase shareholder value they must keep viewership high.  By building up characters like Del Rio the WWE is creating strong Hispanic fan favorites who will help the company maintain their grip on minority viewership.  And there is no better way to do that than to have a big, xenophobic bully drawing heat.  I think that the WWE knew exactly what they were doing.  Because anti-immigration bigots can now feel that their views are being freely aired on WWE programming, and more progressive people can feel glad when announcers criticize Swagger and Colter and can cheer when he loses a big match.  This way, more people will tune in, and the company will continue to succeed.

I'd love to know what your thoughts are on this topic.  Please feel free to leave a comment!