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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wrestling’s Anti-Bully Pulpit

Professional wrestling is a medium in which art frequently imitates life. Its propensity to adapt according to the prevailing “spirit of the times” is what sustains sports entertainment as a cultural phenomenon decade after decade. Through athleticism and high drama, the men and women of the squared circle frequently offer an interesting spin on classic tales of conflict, crises, suffering and redemption.

Recently, North America’s two largest promotions have addressed the real world issues of bullying and hate speech. Through public campaigns and partnerships, as well as on-screen storylines, WWE and TNA are each seeking to spread a new message of tolerance and sensitivity. At first glance, it might seem like an odd fit. Pro wrestling is, after all, a world in which smack-talking frequently leads to protracted violent feuds. But it is, to be sure, a kind of theater. It’s a theater in which valuable lessons can be conveyed to a large audience in short order and promoters are wise to use this forum to its full potential.

Almost two decades ago, the original incarnation of ECW proclaimed itself “politically incorrect and damn proud of it!” Indeed, pushing the proverbial envelope is a time-honored practice of wrestling promotions. But times and attitudes change and as we learn more and grow as a society, and we expect our cultural institutions to evolve as well.

In November 2010, TNA launched its multifaceted “Eliminate The Hate” campaign in an effort to stem the nationwide trend of assaults and suicides associated with teen bullying. In addition to online posts and televised public service announcements, TNA brought its anti-bullying message to wrestling fans through compelling storylines involving the likes of Sarita, Velvet Sky, and Brother Ray.

Brother Ray, recently rechristened as “Bully Ray,” pulls out all the stops to expose bullying in all its ugliness. It’s a violent spectacle, but Bully Ray’s exploits convey the ferocity and cowardice that fuel the fire within every schoolyard punk. In the end, whether it’s at the hands of Brother Devon, AJ Styles, or any of the other titans of the TNA roster, Brother Ray is certain to get his just desserts and fans will undoubtedly get the message that decent folks can only take so much abuse.

WWE also addressed the topic of bullying through backstage and in-ring action, casting Sheamus as a domineering antagonist through his run-ins with Santino Marella, Evan Bourne, and John Morrison. But as well-intentioned as those particular angles were, WWE was compelled to step up its anti-bullying message after controversy erupted regarding the homophobic musings of John Cena on the February 21 and February 28 episodes of Monday Night Raw. Following a storm of public criticism, WWE issued an apology and, shortly thereafter, the company announced a joint initiative with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) to combat bullying and hate speech.

Of course, Cena isn’t the only WWE performer to use homophobic language and double entendre against fellow denizens of the WWE Universe. Triple-H is notorious for peppering his promos with gay jokes and comments that question the masculinity and sexual orientation of his rivals. While he often gets the cheap pop for an off-color comment here and there, it’s clear that “The Game” is going to have to retire a lot of material from his longstanding repertoire if he wants to conform to the new company line.

Old habits die hard, though, and at the moment some folks in the wrestling world still seem a bit confused about a way forward. For example, during a recent opening spot on TNA Impact, Mr. Anderson advanced an unusual angle involving his former math professors who, some years ago, started a rumor that Anderson was gay, ostensibly so that the professor could put the moves on a female classmate of Anderson’s. While recounting the story, Anderson noted that he didn’t have a problem with gay people, adding that he had plenty of “gay friends” and all that … A sort of throwback to the old Seinfeld “not that there’s anything wrong with it” routine. But there was something of a twist at the end, as Anderson’s segment punctuated the conversation by cold-cocking the old professor. The assault was apparently payback for the professor’s attempt to steal Anderson’s gal, but the decision to throw a question of sexual orientation into the mix—especially given the message that TNA is purportedly trying to promote these days—was a confusing one, for sure.

WWE is struggling with issues surrounding about hate speech and bullying as well. Hot on the heels of WWE’s new partnership with GLAAD, commentator Michael Cole recently caused a stir via Twitter when he referred to broadcast colleague Josh Mathews with an anti-gay slur. Wrestling fans know all too well of Cole’s propensity to take a mouthful of his own foot now and again, but to the greater public, he’s just proving the point that there’s a longstanding problem in the world of professional wrestling. Given the the controversy regarding Cena’s homophobic promos, the public backlash from Cole’s comments was swift and certain. Although Cole quickly retracted the comment and issued an apology, the uproar served to further underscore the need for a reassessment of pro wrestling’s general attitude towards tolerance and diversity.

GLADD will reportedly offer provide training to Michael Cole following his unfortunate public gaffe. Moreover, in the near future, the organization will team with WWE to shoot some vignettes regarding hate speech and bullying. Hey, let’s hope Maryse gets the memo this time, as she’s now the most recent WWE talent to broadcast anti-gay sentiment via her personal Twitter feed. Could it be that she totally missed the respective brouhahas involving Cena and Cole? Is any one person that oblivious?

To ensure recent and future anti-bullying campaigns of TNA and WWE amount to more than symbolic gestures, the wrestling industry will need to engage in a sustained, collective effort to change longstanding practices and prejudices. In 2009, PWI writer Michael Moore called for an end to xenophobia in pro wrestling through his poignant article “Anti-Americanism Runs Rampant in Wrestling…AND IT’S YOUR FAULT!” In the piece, Moore effectively argued that it’s the responsibility of fans to use their collective power as enthusiasts and consumers to encourage promoters to stop relying on the cheap heat brought about by anti-American and “foreign” bad guys. What’s true for the tired, old plot devices of jingoism and race baiting surely applies to the equally distasteful prevalence of bullying and intolerance. In the ring, on the mike, and behind the curtain, pro wrestling can effectively model the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that will promote lasting and positive change in the real world.

Mike Bessler
PWI Contributing Writer


Nick Ahlhelm said...

If WWE and TNA continue to pander to the speech police they will only hurt their product even more in the long run.

Wrestling is inherently political incorrect. To try to make it otherwise will neuter it.

Steve B said...

How far can you take this though? Wrestlers make a living on insulting each other in promos, why is calling one one thing wrong, but another is OK? If you call someone an "idiot", isn't that insulting to the folks who really are idiots? Same goes for "dumb" & "Fat" or some variant synonyms of such. You could go on and on. Political correctness can run amuck. Imagine the promos without insults! Some insults OK, some not????

Pro Wrestling Illustrated said...

Mike, while stomping out bullying is a noble cause, I'm in no hurry to see wrestling become a vehicle for social change, justice, etc. On the other hand, I do think WWE and TNA, because they attract so many impressionable youngsters, do need to behave responsibly.
For lots of people (myself included), pro wrestling has always been a mindless escape from the daily drudgery. I would prefer to see it remain unencumbered by political correctness or social conscience, considering the way both have infected every aspect of society. Also, I don't feel a few errant tweets or remarks necessarily reflect company-wide insensitivity on WWE's part.
So while I agree that wrestling can be a force for good, I think I just want it to be same form of low-brow entertainment it's always been.
Frank Krewda

Anonymous said...

Unencumbered by social conscience?
So are you saying that you prefer wrestling to oppose values that you conisder important in the rest of your life? That seems very sad to me.

The problem is not that wrestling lacks social conscience, the problem is that it has historically actively supported social intolerance.

I would have no problem if a heel called a face a fag, if say, there had been a homosexual wrestler portrayed postively (as a champion or something).

Or as another example, Vicki Guerero is called fat 15 different ways AND is booked as the heel. This is even worse when one considers that in reality she is average for american women - she is just bigger than the divas who for the most part have to look like models to get jobs.

Wrestling can have just as compeling and interesting stories if at least some of them focused on empowerment of weak groups as opposed to relying on tired old prejudices that only holds back the US in 2011.