WWE: USING RACISM AND SEXISM FOR PROFIT

Besides its racism, the WWE also uses flagrant sexism to reassure its predominantly white male audience that their masculinity prevails despite women’s ascension in society.

By: Jasmine Mooloo

The global entertainment company known as World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. (WWE) is a pro-wrestling company that is made up of storylines for the fans to follow about wrestlers. The company started out as “World Wrestling Federation” in 1963 and was owned by Vince McMahon Sr.  In 1983, his son Vince McMahon Jr. took over the business and turned it into a multi million dollar corporation (Taylor, 2014).  One of the major shifts that emerged under the new leadership was the creation of storylines in which people from other countries or other races were depicted as the “enemy” of dominant white men. Since that time, this xenophobic narrative has prevailed and grown, with common stereotypes of racism that define talent and success by skin color.  In addition to racism, the WWE is defined by storylines of males domination and superiority over women. Even when women are shown having the ability to fight in wrestling competitions, the male characters are usually shown defending a female.  What’s more, women are predominantly humiliated as a means of showing their subordinate social status in this male dominated entertainment genre.

The dominate white guy is the classic racist narrative that the WWE uses to tell its story about identity and power.  “When stories of identity are told, individuals and groups are usually reduced to easily identifiable categorizations, or stereotypes, so that audiences can label them, often on the basis of simplistic characteristics like gender, race, class, and/ or sexuality” (Campbell et al., 2014, p. 228). Within the WWE landscape, people from a different country are projected as the “enemy” to a tough and dominant white male wrestler, as well as the audience, who demand American superiority. One of the WWE’s main tropes is for its white male wrestlers to appear as comic book heroes as a way to gain more viewers (Taylor, 2014). Hulk Hogan embodied this trope as a big guy with huge muscles who defends America against the bad guys and waves the American flag around proudly each time he does. Like Hogan, John Cena plays that role today as he swears to protect Americans from bad guys, mostly from the middle east (Taylor, 2014).  In addition to fighitng Middle Eastern “enemies,” he also takes on a Russian man named Rusev.  As Rusev comes out with his wife Lana, they provoke Americans as “foolish” and praise Russia (Beary, 2014).The narrative device is used to encourage the crowd to erupt with booing, with John Cena redeeming and defending American’s honor by swearing to defeat Rusev.

In addition to ethnic and xenophobic tropes, the WWE storylines rely on racists stereotypes.   In one example, a black tag team known as “Cryme Tyme” from Brooklyn, New York were portrayed as thugs that steal things and wear platinum on their teeth (Beary, 2014). In another example, two cousins from Puerto Rican descent were depicted as a tag team known as the Colons.  Although they come from a wrestling family, that does not change the stereotypical treatment they receive on WWE. While every wrestler has a theme song as they emerge onto the wrestling stage, the Colons’ music was clichéd, featuring latin music with a woman salsa dancing with them (Beary, 2014). While the Colons disappeared from WWE for some time, they later reappeared as a team called “Los Matadores.” They were masked bullfighters that came out with a dwarf in a cow costume named “El Torito” (Beary, 2014).

Besides its racism, the WWE also uses flagrant sexism to reassure its predominantly white male audience that their masculinity prevails despite women’s ascension in society.  For many years, women held the spotlight, but for degrading sexist and misogynist reasons. They would either be depicted as valets for the men or as sexualized wrestlers subjected to “bra and panty” matches which entailed of them wrestling in their undergarments for entertainment (Dunn, 2015). Although these “bra and panty” matches are no longer vogue, women still get humiliated on WWE television in different ways.  Take Eve Torres whose character was used to depict her in a classic denagrading storyline where sexual conquest leads to her censure and castigation by other male wrestlers. When Eve denies wrestler Zack Ryder’s sexual advances, she is depicted as insensitive.  Zack’s best friend, Cena, later rescues her from danger by fighting off a bad guy named, Kane. Once she is saved, she kissed Cena, with Ryder witnessing it. Eve is later shown following John Cena to the ring to beg for his forgiveness for kissing him. Cena uses the moment to castigate her in front of the crowd, declaring “Eve  here has  apparently  been sipping  the  skank juice” (Dunn, 2015).  Despite her real life marriage, Eve is mocked and humiliated for entertainment value (Dunn, 2015).

In another example, Nikki Bella and Brie Bella, who are portrayed as beautiful and intimidating twins, chastise a wrestler named Daniel Bryan for his virginity (Barrett, B., & Levin, D., 2014). Depicted as a “dork,” Bryan is made fun of by commentators because he is smaller than most wrestlers and vegan. To test his masculinity, the Bella twins engage in a bet to see who can get him in bed first.  In the end, they are demarcated as the fools when they discover that he is the one deceiving them because he is seen backstage kissing his girlfriend, Gail Kim (Barrett, et al., 2014).  

In another example from 2011, Beth Phoenix (who is 5 foot 7 and weighs 150 pounds) is made to look extremely weak in the trope of the damsel in distress. She says to her boss, Triple H, that “Hunter. Hunter, come on. We’re girls, and on behalf of all the WWE  Divas,  I have  to  say that  the  bedlam around  Monday  Night RAW recently has led us all to fear that something might accidentally happen, or maybe something even intentional” (Dunn, 2015).  In another instance, female wrestler Kelly Kelly gets attacked by her rivals, a team named “Laycool.”  Instead of defending herself, she is rescued by a male wrestler named Edge who stands in front of her until the attackers leave (Barrett, et al.,2014). In another scene, Kelly Kelly,  is depicted as an object of affection and jealous possession for male wrestler, Drew Mcintyre. To prove his conqest, he is shown beating up another wrestler for talking to her, and using violence and intimidation to protect her (Barrett, et al.,2014).

In the end, while the men are revered for their physical agility as wrestlers, women on the WWE are caractured as cheap sexual fodder for hyper-masculine plot lines, or shown in need of patriarchal protection. The limits of this binary are striking, especially with women’s rising leadership roles and economic gains in society.  Although Stephanie Mcmahon (daughter of Vince Mcmahon) serves as the current executive president of WWE creative (Dunn, 2015), her power if diminished through patriarchal tropes that depict her as codependent on the men around her.  Rather than afford her the same respect and admiration as her father as an accomplished business leader, Stephanie is continutally shown as the daughter of the owner, or the wife of another wrestler named, Triple H (Dunn, 2015). As with its other gender confines, WWE women are trained professional wrestlers but end up in storylines in which they are seen as weak and need to ask a male to assist them.

In terms of its influence, WWE hold an international market, extending into countries such as Germany, Australia and of course many others (Shuart & Maresco, 2006). Fans from all over the world enjoy the WWE product and have for years. In a survey conducted for its fans, the answers for its popularity ranged from fun and enjoyment, to a sense of belonging to a group of people, to people just using it as an escape from reality (Deeter, Schmelz, & Sojka, 2006). While the ages of fans range widely and include a young audience, in 2009, the company downgraded its TV-14 rating to PG as a move to shift to a target audience of children. Although the PG rating changed some of the degrading aspects that women went through before, the storylines are not giving a good impression of the world to them (Oestriecher, 2017). To date, there has never been a black WWE champion. Many black wrestlers have tried to prevail and win through their skill,  but they have consistently lost to white males. As Dion Beary explains in an article for The Atlantic, the message is clear that they are delivering to black children: “somebody like you doesn’t get be a world champion”(Beary, 2014). Other dangerious messages delivered to children are that males need to assert their aggression and can only be considered “manly” by defending themselves with physical violence (Soulliere, 2006).  For young girls, the message is that they they aren’t tough enough, even as wrestlers, so they will always need a man by their side. 

In the end, conclusion, the WWE provides a warped view of the world to its viewers by normalizing stereotypes, racism and sexism in their storylines. The only way to significantly change the program’s trajectory is to diversity the company’s leadership, programming, and marketing, all of which are highly unlikely given the WWE’s profitability and popularity. 

Student Author: Jasmine Mooloo, Worcester State University

Faculty Evaluator & Editor: Julie Frechette, Ph.D., Professor & Chair, Department of Communication, Worcester State University

References:

Barrett, B., & Levin, D. (2014). What’s Love Got to Do with It? A Qualitative Grounded

TheoryContent Analysis of Romance Narratives in the PG Era of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Programming. Sexuality & Culture, 18(3), 560-591. doi:10.1007/s12119-013-9211-4

Beary, D. (2014, July 11). Pro Wrestling Is Fake, but Its Race Problem Isn’t. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/07/the-not-so-fictional-bias-in-the-wwe-world-championship/374042/

Campbell, R., Jensen, J., Gomery, D., Fabos, B., & Frechette, J. D. (2014). Media in society. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s

Deeter Schmelz, D. R., & Sojka, J. Z. (2006, July 11). Wrestling with American values: An exploratory investigation of World Wrestling EntertainmentTM as a product based subculture. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/cb.164?r3_referer=wol

Dunn, C. (2015, June 3). ‘Sexy, Smart and Powerful’: Examining Gender and Reality in the WWE Divas’ Division. Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network, 8(3). Retrieved from https://ojs.meccsa.org.uk/index.php/netknow/article/view/378

Oestriecher, B. (2017, June 09). WWE Fans Are Getting Older, But Why? Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/blakeoestriecher/2017/06/09/wwe-fans-are-getting-older-but-why/#599067802059

Shuart, Joshua and Maresco, Peter A., “World Wrestling Entertainment: Achieving Continued Growth and Market Penetration Through International Expansion” (2006). WCOB Faculty Publications. 35. http://digitalcommons.sacredheart.edu/wcob_fac/35

Soulliere, Danielle M. “Wrestling with Masculinity: Messages about Manhood in the WWE.” Sex Roles, vol. 55, no. 1-2, July 2006, pp. 1–11., doi:10.1007/s11199-006-9055-6.

Taylor, J. T. (2014, April 26). “You Can’t See Me,” or Can You?: Unpacking John Cena’sPerformance of Whiteness in World Wrestling Entertainment. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/jpcu.12123?r3_referer=wol

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Pop Culture and Social MovementsRepresentation

Julie Frechette, PhD, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Worcester State University, Worcester, MA. She is the co-editor of the book Media Education for a Digital Generation, as well as the book, Developing Media Literacy in Cyberspace. She serves as co-president of the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME).

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