Race is an extremely tough issue to approach, and one that needs to be treated with the proper amount of respect. Unfortunately, race is also a very easy thing to use in media in order to create a controversy or to easily generate buzz. It can often be used as a crutch when writers are not sure where else to go in a storyline.
Why does it matter that media gets race right? Well, unsurprisingly, our media has a large impact on us. A plethora of studies have argued that racial stereotypes seen in media can actively form our opinion of a certain race or ethnicity.
Thus, an extremely important question as a wrestling fan is: how should professional wrestling handle race? Or, is it be a topic the medium just cannot handle? They have historically done a poor job in the past when it comes to racial plot lines.
There are dozens of examples of racist gimmicks in WWE, from voodoo shaman Papa Shango to the Nation of Islam pastiche, the Nation of Domination. But one of the most remembered and cited example of a plot that utilized race was the Triple H/Booker T feud of 2003. While it’s not the most racist thing WWE has ever done (just look at this insane segment with the Nation of Domination to pick one out of hundreds), it did resonate with audiences for all the wrong reasons. Pro Wrestling Stories even called it “WWE’s most shameful feud“. I also think it’s an excellent example of how wrestling’s medium is different from other mediums, and thus why it needs to be extra careful when discussing race.
The plot consisted of Booker T getting a title shot at WrestleMania XIX. Leading up to the event, Triple H started slinging out racial epithets directed at Booker — things like referencing his “nappy hair”, calling him a thug, a criminal, and saying “people like you don’t get to be champion”. These sorts of racially-charged promos continued for a month or so before the match. Ostensibly setting up for a feel-good story about overcoming hate, the actual end result of the match was Triple H landing a Pedigree on Booker, incapacitating Booker for what seemed like an eternity until Triple H finally got the pin.
The first issue I take with this plot is not necessarily a new take, but Booker should have won the match. By having Triple H win, it essentially validated all the things Triple H said about Booker T. If Booker had won, it would have shown that Triple H was wrong and would have been perfect comeuppance for him. But, instead the storyline only proved Triple H right.
But even if Booker had won, would that have made everything OK? Would that have rectified the plot? Maybe to a certain degree, but we still have the issue of whether it’s OK to be so blatantly racist in wrestling. One could easily argue “Triple H was a heel, and if he had lost it would have been OK. It’s a clear cut and simple enough story. Racism = bad, what’s the problem?”
The problem is that wrestling isn’t like other forms of storytelling. It mixes real life with fiction. The way things are internalized in wrestling are different than if we were to watch a similar story unfold in a completely fictional universe.
We discuss wrestling differently than we do other forms of media. We watch it understanding that while most of it is scripted and fictional, a solid amount of it is based on real life in some form. Whoever gets the title is almost always someone who is seen as being worthy of it by the company. Wrestling takes fiction and allows people to apply it to reality where they wish, because sometimes that’s exactly what a lot of wrestling promotions do themselves.
Another often-cited example is the Matt Hardy/Edge/Lita drama, where reality and story very much played into one another. It would make sense for certain stereotypes depicted on screen to be more impactful in the world of wrestling than simply to see them on say, a comedy skit (comedy skits being used in one of the aforementioned studies of the impact of racist stereotypes in media). So when Triple H says, “you’re just here to entertain me” and “you’re not a real competitor”, even though we know Triple H is the heel, we still internalize that differently than if we were watching some other form of media.
Lastly, a topic like race demands respect, while some people have been able to make comedies that work as commentaries on race, in general it’s better to play it safe. But there’s one particular aspect about wrestling that makes it hard to remain serious (besides the parts with the grown adults in fancy underwear pretending to punch each other).
Often a character is an extension of the wrestler. We can interact with the character by booing them and them yelling back at us the crowd, and we can also see how they are as people outside of their character. It’s much different from how we interact with actors and their characters in a movie. This can lead to a certain fun whimsy that you can’t get anywhere else.
No one was honestly upset at Daniel Bryan during his heel run. We all enjoyed playing our role in booing him and had fun. No one is upset when The IIconics yell at Kayla. This is much different than how we interact with movies. We don’t have that same whimsical fun with, say, the character of Hannibal Lector or Mr. Potter while we are watching their respective movies.
So when a heel character, who we normally happily boo to play our part, starts dropping racial epithets, it starts to turn the issue of race into a more lighthearted jovial thing we simply boo because they’re the heels. It is going to be a lot harder to actually bring the same weight to serious topics, and may even trivialize them for a lot of people.
So should wrestling simply steer clear of race? As a general rule of thumb, I would say yes; however, I do think a plot that incorporates race can be done. Earlier this year I wrote about the racial undertones of Kofi Kingston’s title run. I believe what set this plot apart from the others was it didn’t dwell on the racism. It didn’t turn racism into just another thing to have fun booing. The plot acknowledged it with winks and nods, but never anything more, and instead allowed the crowd to cheer Kofi on through it. The plot wasn’t focused on the racism itself, but instead on Kofi’s struggle against it.
Wrestling is a wonderful medium that I absolutely love, but it’s not the best medium for every type of story. Wrestling is fun, it’s silly, it’s people in fancy underwear pretending to punch each other. And it is surprisingly versatile for the types of stories it can tell. But some issues, like that of race, should be handled with extreme care, if at all.
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