Earlier this week, WWE scrubbed all mentions of Hulk Hogan, perhaps its most transcendent champion ever, from its web site.WWE no longer sells Hogan's iconic red and yellow shirts, and his name is gone from the Hall of Fame roster.The move represents WWE's efforts to distance itself from the recent exposure of Hogan's racist rants.WWE, after all, provides family-friendly entertainment with no place for racial slurs.In its statement on the Hogan matter, WWE affirmed its commitment to "embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide."
But what exactly does it mean to celebrate diversity, WWE-style? Maybe luchadors coming to the ring on riding lawnmowers? Or a Japanese tag team whose promos consisted of lip-synching to dubbed English?
When it comes to spotting and critiquing bigotry in pop culture, pro wrestling is low-hanging fruit. It has a long history of racism, xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia. Not only has it never been ahead of the curve, it often falls embarrassingly behind. Look, here's a headhunter from the jungle. Here's a black pimp and here's another one. Here's the owner of WWE, playing a fictional version of himself, dropping the N-word for laughs. I could pull up embarrassing characters and skits all day.
In light of that problematic history, the removal of Hulk Hogan from WWE's web site and Hall of Fame is more of a public relations gesture than a substantive stand against bigotry. In the more private, insulated realm of the WWE's subscription network, there have been no observable changes beyond the erasure of the 1980s Saturday morning cartoon, Hulk Hogan's Rock n' Wrestling. The cartoon might have been a glaring problem due to Hogan's name in the title, but the cartoon's casual xenophobia and ethnic stereotypes are pretty true to the network's broader content.
While Hulk Hogan's cartoon has been scrubbed away, WWE Network maintains its much more problematic archive of Tuesday Night Titans (TNT)—WWE's late-night talk show that ran from 1984 to 1986. TNT features Vince McMahon, CEO of WWE, as the host behind the desk, attempting conversations with the goofy menagerie of weirdos that he had cultivated, often expressing outrage at their behavior. Many of the characters are weird simply for their points of origin, their exoticized food and garb, native misogynies, and absurd claims of national superiority.
The show offers a fascinating portal into WWE's worldview. Watch any episode of TNT and you can climb into the deep recesses of McMahon's McMahon's racial imaginary, perceiving difference through his eyes. We get the devious Mr. Fuji in his tuxedo and bowler hat, inviting Vince to a sake ceremony at which Fuji verbally abuses the sake girl and raves about the importance of honor in Japanese tradition; the Iron Sheik similarly welcomes Vince into the tents of his traveling caravan, complete with camel and harem of dancing white women. Any given episode was likely to include a cooking segment in which wrestlers such as Tito Santana, the Wild Samoans, or Salvatore Bellomo present their ethnic foods, always provoking disgust from Vince's dignified British co-host, Lord Alfred Hayes. The exoticism applies to both heroes and villains. Sympathetic French Canadian wrestler Rene Goulet is shown drinking wine with a beret-wearing accordian player. Chief Jay Strongbow introduces Vince to Native American war dance in the studio's parking lot; the segment is interrupted in heel style by "Captain Redneck" Dick Murdoch.
In another segment, white heel Paul Orndorff calls Tony Atlas a monkey. White heels often resort to racist insults for heat, but it doesn't always read as a heel move. Much of the outward racism comes from white villains who are not simply "bad guys" but early versions of the wrestling antihero. They're bad guys who retain enough dickish charisma to court a segment of the audience (think Roddy Piper and Jesse Ventura). In his early heel days, Hogan himself resorted to race-baiting, addressing Tony Atlas as "boy" and "brown clown" and suggesting that Atlas should shine his shoes. Of course, the good guys are also bigots, and their bigotry can still be found on the WWE Network. If WWE were to purge all of its racially insensitive material, I'm not sure what we'd have left.
In comparison to later years, in which wrestlers were frequently defined by their second jobs (as in the wrestling prison guard, the wrestling barber, the wrestling Elvis impersonator, the wrestling repo man, the wrestling tax collector, the wrestling monk), wrestlers of the TNT era were more often totalized by racial and ethnic identities. But WWE's excessive racialization did not end with TNT, of course; throughout WWE's history, it's hard to find a wrestler of color whose gimmick is not entirely determined by his not being white. It could also be argued that the WWE's cartoonish exoticism was actually amplified in the early 1990s. Tito Santana graduated from the ethnic-hero era into the occupational-gimmick era by reemerging as "El Matador," wearing full bullfighter's regalia to the ring. Tony Atlas became "proud of his heritage," in Vince's words, and reemerged as Saba Simba. Amidst economic recession and resentment of Japan, the top villain of the early 1990s was a Japanese sumo wrestler whose name, Yokozuna, was simply the designation for highest ranking sumo.
As opposed to the 1970s and 80s, when WWE wrestlers could attain stardom by appealing to the immigrant communities of northeast urban centers, today's superstars are more likely to change their names and perform as white. The greatest women's wrestler of this era, April Mendez, ascended to the top of WWE as AJ Lee; Sika the Wild Samoan's son, Leati Anoa'i, is better known as Roman Reigns; and Colby Lopez, current WWE champion, wrestles as Seth Rollins.
It's not necessary to catalogue each incident of xenophobia or racial othering in WWE history. We know that in every era, WWE has been populated with barefoot savages and freedom-hating foreigners, and that in WWE's 50-plus years, only one of the 46 men to win its highest championship have been African American. Despite the WWE's evolving culture as a publicly traded company, there remains little hope that WWE has grown more sophisticated in its thinking about race. If WWE wants to perform public gestures of caring about racism, it needs to take a serious look at its entire history and work towards creating a better archive.
Thumbnail via Flickr user Simon Q.