Imperialist Nostalgia and Blackface in the WWE

Curator's Note



While the WWE has been prominent in mainstream news recently due to racist comments in a leaked sex tape featuring Hulk Hogan, the entertainer who helped the WWE survive and attain mainstream success in the 1980s, and because of Nazi imagery in the social media accounts of former NXT diva and partner of WWE champion Seth Rollins, Zahra Schreiber, accusations of racism are nothing new. While the firings of Hogan and Schreiber included scrubbing the WWE website of each individual, accusations of racism in the company persist. For example, stories surfaced last year after the unexpected release of Mexican wrestler Alberto Del Rio that claimed that Del Rio was fired for slapping an employee of the company who made anti-Mexican statements.

While the company has publicly distanced itself and rightfully condemned Hogan and Schreiber, there remains a great deal of blatant and inferential racism in the past and present WWE. Many would argue that the company still relies on racist and sexist stereotypes when creating personas for their performers. For example, are the New Day and R-Truth at times performing a modern day minstrel show?

However, what continues to be more alarming particularly in light of recent controversies is the uncritical celebration of the 1990s Attitude Era, which not only featured performances of blackface, but homophobia, sexism, and misogyny. With the launch of the WWE Network the company introduced new programming including countdown shows celebrating top ten moments thematically. Referenced many times on the network as a touchstone moment is the infamous sketch featuring D-Generation X, fronted by Triple H who remains an on air character and current Executive Vice President of the company in blackface mocking the Nation of Domination headed by the Rock. Members of DX performed caricatures of the Nation including X-Pac mocking former Olympian and Nation member Mark Henry by donning dark face paint, a jheri curl wig, and a shirt that read Mizark. This incident of blackface is not alone, others including superstars, such as Goldust, donned blackface to perform racist stereotypes. While the WWE includes a disclaimer before all of its network content that these are performers and not meant to be representative of the company’s ideological positions, we have to question the company’s shifting “line in the sand” and regarding acts of racism and symbolic scapegoating as well as its continual celebration of its own racist histories.





Steve, this is an excellent example that I came across this summer but completely forgot to include in my discussion points. This really speaks to the role narrative as gimmick, gimmick as narrative plays and the telling history of ethnocentrism as a kind of blind eye toward any sort of cultural sensitivity. Another example I recall is "Roddy's Rowdies" from the Survivor Series the fall before WMVI (1989). Piper's additional three teammates include SuperFly Jimmy Schuka (now in jail on a potential homocide of ex-wife in the early 80s), and the Australian-New Zealand imports The Bushwhackers. Play close attention to how animalistic non-Western characters must be presented, and how Piper exacerbates these performances with his own imperialist reading of and reaction to their primal personas.

That histories contradicting their historical narrative have been literally erased (Benoit, Hogan) is less surprising than their embrace of the Attitude era in light of those erasures. And it's not just that embrace, but what they have chosen to embrace, as the faces of that era were more likely to engage racism and sexism (and homophobia, which even in this enlightened era is still a go to insult for most of their babyfaces), moves that at least now might be portrayed as more heelish. The worst offense to me is still post attitude era, in the run-up to Wrestlemania 19, where Triple H's heelishness against Booker T is pretty explicitly racist. As the WWF/WWE has typically preferred babyface world champions, their decision to put HHH pretty cleanly over Booker T upended the mythic hero narrative that most Wrestlemania championship level feuds had typically followed (prior to Wrestlemania 19, a heel had been victorious in the Wrestlemania main even only a handful of times, and when that was the case, the babyface may have still prevailed over them in a postWrestlemania rematch). A pessimistic reading of this result is that racism works. A pragmatic reading of that result is no better: just as in the real world, racist hegemony abides.

Nick, great comments that extend this conversation into parallel moves and motives of (and extending out of) the Attitude era. Bernadette and you both hit as something tangible when it comes to roles and restorations concerning HHH. The Pedigree isn't just a finishing move, as he has worked with mercurial authority (no pun intended) to ascend the wrestling pantheon through sheer volume. HHH plays the McMahon card well, overtly playing up the do-goodness of the company as an external brand while frequently participating in questionable booking practices internally. Indeed, if anything the Attitude era defiantly upended the heroes journey arc in favor of anti-hero excess. And while they may have changed course again to compensate John Cena's mass marketing appeal to outside demographics (e.g. women and children), I find Bernadette's comparison of New Day to a contemporary minstrel show a telling observation. When I read that, I could not help but recall HHH and Stephanie's recent in-ring dancing and jiving to the pop of the audience and the commentators (despite all 5 being supposed heels). And there again we find HHH visibly inserted into the situation.

To be fair, I'm not sure Cena is targeted at women. Kids, yes. Moms and Dads, yes. Roman Reigns is much more of a play to women, as sad as that sounds. I'd argue too that CM Punk worked that anti-hero card well, despite the revelations that have since come out about how he was booked as champion. Re: Haitch.... this is wonderful:

Yes, interesting comment on Reigns and his marketing. There have been discussions about whether the company has him wear green contacts perhaps as a way to make him more attractive to viewers who are interested in men and as a way to further whiten him while he still remains an Other. Lots of layers here.

I don't know that Cena is targeted at women so much on an intentional level. But based on every in-person mixed gender scenario in which I've been in the same room with females of multiple ages during a point where Cena appears on television, there is almost always an audible (and positive) response to his onscreen presence. And these are observations from non-fans and casual viewers. That said, throughout the last decade of his tenure, particularly during those peek "booing" years from young males in attendance, his applause countered with screams from young children and women in the audience (although I wouldn't be surprised if some of the audio was "produced" by WWE). I would agree that Reigns is the new Casanova babyface, and that's why they aren't turning him. What is so fascinating about your inclusion of Punk here is that he's actually so antiheroic in a kind of anarchic and anti-establishment way that he functions as an alienated figure within WWE's contemporary corporate culture [complete with backdoor politics]. Oh wow, the Haitch video is marvelous.

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