WWE may have its most diverse roster ever, but the promotion's approach to that diversity is still very, very flawed. Look no further than Sunday's Backlash pay-per-view. The show ended with the sight of Jinder Mahal, standing on a turnbuckle and roaring, holding aloft the WWE title belt, with a dazed Randy Orton lying prone behind him. He stood alone, the first man of Indian descent to win the WWE championship, and the crowd was either lustily booing him or too stunned to make any noise at all.
Why? Until two months ago, Mahal had spent his WWE career as a lower-card jobber, alternating between comedy guy and faceless filler for years. Now, in a matter of weeks, he's champion, and his push has coincided with the return of that hoariest of bad wrestling traditions: the evil foreigner gimmick. Mahal, a Canadian-born Sikh, was suddenly the arrogant outsider deigning to tell American audiences that they aren't as virtuous and forthright as they think – and that's what launched him to the title.
Mahal is on record as not being comfortable with his recent transformation. On Chris Jericho's podcast last week, he related that he was set to do a normal heel promo: I cheated, I won, now you're noticing me. According to Mahal, however, Vince McMahon changed the promo shortly before show time, inserting bits like Mahal saying he was more "cultured" than Orton, the American everyman, and that Orton, just like everyone in the crowd, disliked him because he looked different. That the WWE championship was coming back to "his people." Mahal says he balked, but Vince gets what he wants, always, and Mahal rolled with it.
What should give us pause isn't the way McMahon changed Mahal's promo – although that does speak to his complete control over every aspect of his fiefdom – but that it worked. Mahal wasn't just a heel who happened to be a brown man, but a merging and conflating of the role and ethnicity. And the crowds hated him for it.
(It's worth noting that Mahal's turn is making him a babyface in India, where outlets like the India Times and Hindustan Times are gushing over the first Indian WWE champion. And it's probably no coincidence that Jinder Mahal, former jobber, could be on the verge of breaking big in the second most populous country in the world just as WWE is pushing for an expanded presence there.)
There's nothing particularly unique about Mahal's new gimmick. It's been played by a hundred wrestlers of varying nationalities and ethnicities throughout wrestling's history. There have been evil Russians (the Koloffs), Germans (Baron Von Raschke), Canadians (Bret Hart), and Brits (Steven Regal). There have been Indians (the Great Khali), Bulgarians (Rusev), and Iranians (the Iron Sheik).
That the evil foreigner trope has been around for a while makes its undercurrents no less uncomfortable. The darker the heel's skin tone, historically, the more things have veered into portrayals of the foreigner as bloodthirsty savage. Abdullah the Butcher was either never allowed or didn't find it effective to be an Ivan Koloff–style ideologue; he was always the guy with the fork in one hand and the face of an idiot, ready to bite and claw his way to a bloody victory. Kamala was as American as could be, but he portrayed a Ugandan tribesman led around to matches by a caricature of an Arab businessman, and later by a scrawny white guy in a safari outfit.
To trot it all back out now, in a political climate that is especially susceptible to the nativist impulses, seems particularly suspect, or cynical. Men get killed for their turbans now, and there's a video of a white American being needlessly paranoid about a black man or Latino or Arab-American every other day. It's here, we live the cacophony of the booing crowd, diffused over our daily lives.
This is the dirty secret, the thing that jars, thrills, and nauseates: the evil foreigner always works. It may not get a wrestler to the top title as it has for Mahal; in fact, the gimmick has rarely carried wrestlers to the top. But it will always, always garner heel heat for years. You can make a career of it if you're willing, or forced, to bite the nativist apple. That the foreign heel is so enduringly, wildly popular around the world says a lot more about us as humans, or at least what we've been conditioned to think of as being human, than it does about Mahal or even McMahon. We buy the tickets, we enjoy the booing.
For all that, it has to be said that Mahal is working the gimmick with a surprising amount of subtlety – just pay attention to what he's saying. He's not the heel, we are. We are for booing him, not just now as the heel but also when he was a blank slate of a wrestler; we never saw the potential, only the turban, only the skin color.
He owes a debt for his approach to another Canadian, Bret Hart, who worked the "babyface in his home country, heel in America" angle to perfection. Hart, too, traded on the idea of America as fallen, a place which treats people poorly on a fundamental level; he famously went on about Canada's healthcare system during his stellar heel run of 1996-97.
This is what Mahal says: I'm not the bad guy, you are. You are because look at how you treat people who look and talk like me (given that he sounds like just about any Canadian who's graced WWE's doors, the perception that he speaks differently is fascinating and terrifying). You cheer people like Randy Orton. Why am I the villain here?
It's still crude stuff, and its popularity draws on some of the uglier forces and impulses within our culture. We keep going to this well and it seems like we will never stop, despite the occasional Jinder Mahal trying his level best to add a little more to the portrayal.
An alternative vision of WWE, without its expedient reliance on the lowest common denominator, might be presented in the form of Shinsuke Nakamura, a global superstar who came over from Japan, spent a year in NXT, and made his in-ring debut for WWE's main roster in the pay-per-view's opening match.
If this were the WWE of 10 years ago, there's not much doubt that Nakamura, as a Japanese guy whose English isn't great, would have had to leave his gimmick as a hard-hitting, sinewy badass behind him. He would have been a ninja or a comedy act. At best, he might have been a monk.
So the fact that so far Nakamura has been allowed to simply do his thing is a really big deal. He is, basically, just another guy. A very talented guy, working a distinctly Japanese style of wrestling, but he's a guy. What's more, there's every indication that he's set to become Smackdown Live's flagship star. We could very well see Nakamura and Mahal, the embodiment of WWE's two approaches to "exotic" wrestlers, physically collide, with Mahal as a transitional champion to get the title onto Nakamura's waist. There are also rumors of an AJ Styles–Nakamura match in planning stages for next year's WrestleMania, which could potentially be one of the greatest matches in the event's history. The two men wrestled several times in New Japan and have electric chemistry with one another.
There's a sense, however, that Nakamura's simmering push to superstar status in WWE may be tenuous. For all his deserved reputation as arguably the best big-match wrestler of his generation, his WWE run has been decidedly lackluster. He's only had one really good match since arriving in the U.S., his NXT debut match against Sami Zayn. Everything else has felt half-speed and slightly soft, including his main-roster debut against Dolph Ziggler at Backlash on Sunday. The bloom may be off the Ziggler rose, but he'll bump hard for anyone's offense, and if you don't look like a killer in tights against him, alarm bells may ring, both for the McMahons and for audiences anticipating a career for Nakamura as good as he had in Japan.
If they do, Vince McMahon will be sorely tempted, as he always seems to be, to lean on the oldest trick in the book: putting the Japanese Nakamura into the "evil foreigner" box, one where his ethnicity is his totality. That would be disastrous for Nakamura, and for us. Because if perhaps the greatest overseas import to the most diverse roster in WWE's history,ends up as just another foreign stereotype, it's tough to imagine anyone who can break the seemingly inescapable gravity of wrestling's oldest gimmick.
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