WrestleMania, the biggest pro wrestling event of the year, is right around the corner. And as someone who was literally weaned on Hulk Hogan and Bret Hart … well, not literally, I suppose … I think it is safe to say that there is no long running pop cultural construct out there as unabashedly racist as ‘rasslin.
It’s not just that pro wrestling is inherently insensitive and offensive, it’s the fact that it essentially revels in just how bigoted and prejudiced the whole charade is. The world of pro wrestling is one where Asians are reduced to kung-fu-fighting imperialists who spit komodo dragon spray in their opponent’s faces and Pacific Islanders are either represented as a bunch of barefoot, morbidly obese ruffians more animal than man or nothing at all. This is an entertainment complex that has given us – and this is the abridged list – lawnmower-riding Mexican luchadors, an African-American tag team actually named “Cryme Tyme” and a faux Al Qaeda operative who once tried to strangle The Undertaker to death with piano wire.
And not once has Vince McMahon and Eric Bischoff and all those other long-gone pro wrestling executives apologized for it – primarily, because it’s just too stupid for anyone to take even halfway seriously.
To give you an idea just how out of touch the wacky world of pro wrestling is from the rest of modernity, take the subject of blackface performances. In the year 2016, I think just about EVERYONE on the planet who isn’t Mel Gibson can agree that it’s a downright unfathomably atrocious notion. White people, slathering black makeup on their faces and pretending to portray African-Americans like it was a 1920s minstrel show? It’s just about as close to an unthinkable prospect as you can get.
Well, apparently, it’s not an idea off-limits in ‘rasslin. From the heyday of Soul Man up until right around Tropic Thunder was released, the wooly world of steroid-fueled thespians pretending to fight each other has relied heavily on the, ahem, “art” of blackface to entertain the masses. As in, all the way up until Obama was running for his first presidential term.
Today, let us … reflect … on the wrestling world’s long, ignoble history of exploiting black people for the amusement of grappling fans the world over. And yeah, you will probably want to hit something before it’s all over and done with, for sure.
Pro Wrestling Racism: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper: A Sensitive Exploration of the Racial Binary (1990)
Recently deceased wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper is one of the few pre-Rock wrestling stars to achieve a modicum of success outside the ring as an actor, having starred in a series of cult classic films like They Live and Hell Comes to Frog Town in the late 1980s. In 1990, Piper began a rivalry with “Bad News” Brown, a Mr. T-like angry, urban black man sterotype whose gimmick included threatening Arsenio Hall for not giving him chitlins backstage.
In anticipation of their meeting at WrestleMania VI, Roddy delicately addressed his foe in a series of pre-bout promos by hilariously painting one side of his face midnight black and dedicating the contest to Nelson Mandela. No, really.
Sure, all of this sounds bad enough already, but it gets worse; at WrestleMania VI – the biggest wrestling show of the year, you must remember – Piper actually went into the match with his body coated head-to-toe in tar-black paint, which is pretty much the equivalent of Tom Brady showing up at the Super Bowl in a Klan robe or Steph Curry breaking out an S.S. uniform for game one of the NBA finals. And did I mention that, throughout all of this wholly lamentable idiocy, Piper was playing the alleged “good guy?”
Pro Wrestling Racism: Goldust: Or, Just How Many Minority Groups Can We Offend with One Character? (1998)
Oh goodness, where to begin on this one. Smackdab in the middle of the Attitude Era – when the WWF decided to abandon its kid-friendly image for trashier, more Jerry Springer Show – inspired antics – one of the zaniest characters was a wrestler named Goldust (who, 20 years later, is still on the roster.) Now, the man who portrayed the character, Dustin Rhodes, actually had quite the ‘rasslin pedigree, being the son of legendary grappler Dusty Rhodes and all. Alas, while he was a mild-mannered (if not wholly unremarkable) cowboy in WCW, as soon as he jumped ship to Vince McMahon’s company he was transformed into one of the strangest – and most brilliant – gimmicks of all-time: a bisexual, movie-obsessed weirdo who painted himself up like an Oscar statue and freaked his opponents out by trying to tongue kiss them in the middle of matches.
By 1998, though, the Goldust character had grown a bit predictable, so they repackaged him as “The Artist Formerly Known as Goldust,” an S&M gimp with a different persona each week. Well, on one particuarly memorable Monday Night Raw excursion – which was memorable for all the wrong reasons – Goldust decided to pay homage to the heritage of his adversary Flash Funk by wearing a giant afro, rocking some disco-era bell bottoms and painting his face the same hue as a Dungeons and Dragons dark elf.
So we have an offensive caricature of a homosexual – doubling as an offensive caricature of someone with a mental illness – portraying an offensive caricature of an African-American; anybody else have the urge to scream “bingo” all of a sudden?
Pro Wrestling Racism: White Frat Boys Make a Mockery of the Nation of Islam in a Kooky Komedy Klassic! (1998)
You know, sometimes you have to take a fresh look at something you haven’t thought about in years to really grasp how incredibly ignorant and backwards we were as a culture before 9/11. Can you imagine flipping on WWE Raw today and watching a bunch of Aryan stoners mocking a facsimile of the Black Lives Matter movement while adorning goofy afro wigs and brown crap smeared all over their cheeks? Of course you can’t – but all you have to do is take a trip back to the late 1990s, and you were treated to just such a scenario on live cable television. You see, for years, there was a group of wrestlers in the then-WWF who were basically a replica of the the Black Panthers called the Nation of Domination. As of 1998, their ranks consisted of a pimp, a dude wearing a bulletproof vest named after the main character from New Jack City and some dude named “The Rock” as their ringleader.
As one would expect, they didn’t exactly see eye to eye with Degeneration X, a stable of all-white troublemakers known for weed humor and saying things that were very, VERY un-P.C. Things came to a head when DX decided to imitate the “Nation” on a live edition of Monday Night Raw, complete with – you guessed it – comedians Triple H, X-Pac and the Road Dogg donning their dandiest dark brown pancake makeup.
Such a scenario, while completely unthinkable today, was actually quite the hit way back when; in fact, the infamous episode remained a heavily replayed “greatest hit” on show retrospectives and DVDs for years afterwards.
Pro Wrestling Racism: WCW: Anything the WWF Can Do (Racist), We Can Do Better (Or Worse, in Terms of General Racism) (1999)
By 1999, the WWF’s number one competitor World Championship Wrestling (WCW) – doing so well just a few years earlier they came *this close* to putting Vince McMahon out of business – was quickly spiraling towards bankruptcy. A lot of the company’s failure had to do with terrible creative decisions, which ultimately meant WCW was just copying everything the WWF did, except way more incompetently. Hence, this rather lamentable affair from the late, late ’90s, in which grappler Marcus “Buff” Bagwell elected to show rival Ernest “The Cat” Miller – imagine, one-hit-wonder “Thong Song” maven Sisqo if he was loaded up on TRT – who’s boss by ambling out to his matches in a skullcap and a face slathered in black shoe polish. This, I might add, at a time when the company was also featuring the tag team of Harlem Heat – who were initially introduced as honest-to-goodness slaves managed by a plantation owner – doing battle with a gang of all-honky grapplers called “The Jersey Triad” while yet another all-white stable called the West Texas Rednecks waged war against the No Limit Soldiers … a gang of black and Hispanic wrestlers led by, of all people, flash-in-the-pan rapper Master P. And no, all of that shameless race baiting – surprisingly – didn’t translate to higher ratings, either.
Pro Wrestling Racism: TNA … Somehow Doing a Worse Job of Emulating WCW’s Mistakes Than WCW! (2006)
Following the demise of WCW in 2001, the closest thing the WWE has had to a legitimate pro wrestling business competitor was TNA Wrestling – a notoriously ill-managed promotion plagued by idiotic booking despite a surfeit of talented wrestlers on their roster – including, at various points in time, eventual WWE transplants C.M. Punk, A.J. Styles and Samoa Joe. Probably the biggest sin committed by TNA was their unfortunate tendency to ape tried-and-true WWE storylines and gimmicks, including ones from decades earlier. Case in point? In 2006, the James Gang – the really, really stupid, trademark-averting moniker for the former New Age Outlaws – were in a bitter rivalry with Team 3D – the really, really stupid, trademark-averting moniker for the former Dudley Boys. Perfectly demonstrating just how out-of-touch TNA was/still is, the James Gang decided to intimidate Team 3D by – as DX did to the Nation of Domination eight years earlier – by dressing up in their ring attire and mocking them. Unfortunately, this routine included Billy Gunn – I mean, Kip James – covering himself in a shade of black paint so dark, he might as well have been cosplaying as an oil spill – and poorly miming the lexicon and mannerisms of Afro-American grappler Devon not Dudley.
Looking back on it, I’m not quite sure what’s worse; that the TNA upper brass thought this was a good idea just a year after Crash came out, or the fact that TEN years later, the video is still on their official YouTube channel.
Of course, ours is a very different world today. At this year’s WrestleMania, it’s probably safe to assume that nobody’s going to come out pretending to be a minstrel show character, and the racial insensitivity on the whole will probably be kept to a minimum.
Well, except for when “The Corn-Fed Meathead” does battle against “The Lucha Dragon.”
Or when the face-painted, grass-skirted Samoans clash with the mixed-race rednecks.
And when the four flamboyant, trombone-playing African-American gospel singers take on a team consisting of evil English, Irish and Mexican wrestlers. That part’s going to be racist as hell, I can promise you.
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