Professional Wrestling has a long history of xenophobic themes and story arcs. “Foreigners should be feared” is as ingrained in the collective psyche of the average wrestling fan as “villains cheat” and “heroes don’t tap out”. Just in the Wrestlemania Era there are countless examples of people portraying evil, dastardly or bizarre characters hailing from different countries and/or minority cultures; The Iron Sheik (Iran), Papa Shango (Haiti), Kamala (Uganda), Giant Gonzalez (Argentina), Mohammed Hassan (Muslim-American), Eddie Guerrero (Mexico), William Regal (England), Rene Dupree (France), Nikoli Volkov/Boris Zubov (Russia) just to name a few. Even the beloved Bret Hart portrayed a heel for a brief time built around his Canadian heritage.
This is no surprise. The business of pro wrestling has always catered to the whims of its largest sociological demographic. Historically, the fan base has been disproportionately caucasian, low to lower-middle income, lower education level laborers and their families. These bombastic tales of foreign masses “invading” the United States and changing the American way of life would have resonated strongly with many in this group. The ethnocentricity of wrestling remained unchanged for several decades.
Yet now, in 2013, a funny thing happened on the way to the ring; the xenophobic storyline was turned inside-out.
After a several month layoff, Jack Swagger resurfaced, but instead of being his former persona (a mean, somewhat generic tough-guy heel) he is now the controversial “Real American” Jack Swagger. Additionally, he is managed by a character named “Zeb Coulter” who is a more over-the-top (if that’s possible) Glenn Beck-type, fiery rhetoric and histrionics in-tow. They are currently feuding with Mexican wrestler Alberto Del Rio, largely built around Del Rio’s Mexican heritage and Swagger/Coulter’s hatred for immigrants. What makes this story special, however, is that the Mexican wrestler, Del Rio is actually playing the face, and the white Americans, Swagger/Coulter are being booked as the heels. Perhaps the most fascinating thing of all is that the audience is embracing it.
A story like this would have been utterly unthinkable 25, 15 or even just 5 years ago. Not only would the idea have been a non-starter at brainstorming level, if it had somehow made it onto the program, the fan base would have fervently rejected it. So what could possibly account for the rapid paradigm shift?
One explanation would be the changing demographic of the wrestling audience and the nation as a whole. As the United States continues to diversify at a unprecedented pace, all aspects of the market will have to adjust. At one point, professional wrestling seemed impervious to this changing dynamic, but as the WWE has rebooted to try and reach a younger population with a “TV-PG” product, they have inevitably drawn a more diverse group of young people. Vince McMahon is, after all, an expert businessman, who has always thrived because of his ability to evolve. So it’s no surprise that he would create a show that capitalizes on this new market.
Another reason the Del Rio/Swagger program has been successful is that it reflects the struggles of the diverse audience. It is not enough just to have minorities portray good guys and carry titles; to truly connect with any person the material must speak to their own existential experience. The Del Rio/Swagger storyline is probably very meaningful to the Latino portion of the audience because it is a retelling of their own challenges. Swagger and Coulter are the consummate bigots; self-righteous, judgmental, and inflexible. They assault Del Rio with stereotypes, leveling their rhetorical dagger at Del Rio’s work ethic, morality, value as a member of society. Del Rio is portrayed as a self-made man who has worked hard, acted responsibly and realized the ever-elusive American Dream.
It goes without saying that many Latinos have experienced prejudice on some level, and could easily identify with Del Rio. Most Mexican immigrants would tell you, wether legal or illegal, that the intention of coming to America is to work hard, receive a fair wage, and be able to fulfill their familial responsibilities. For their “side of the story” to be demonstrated in the traditionally racially intolerant world of professional wrestling is a powerful symbol of the direction of American dialogue.
In the end, xenophobia has not only been named (ideologically speaking) but has been transformed into something wholly different. As the wrestling audience continues to grow more diverse we are bound to see more revolutionary storylines that seek to capture the American narrative from a multitude of other perspectives. The sociological themes that have dominated the storytelling for so many decades appear to be losing their footing. In the very near future, professional wrestling may not only cease to be an endearingly-backward piece of American kitsch, but may develop into a grandiose retelling of the American experience of diverse populations.