Legacy Products: WWE Economics and Fandom Struggle with Race

Curator's Note

Professional wrestling generally isn't know for nuance or political/social sensitivity, and the release of Hulk Hogan's racist recordings hasn't helped to change this image much with the non-viewing public. To be fair, given the economic and social class associations associated with the viewing of professional wrestling (which, interestingly, do not reflect the demographics of the audience), has in many ways served as a handy excuse for this prevailing attitude.

In short, one gets a sense that specifically because it's professional wrestling and (mis)associated with the working class, we can't and shouldn't expect better, which it itself classist and problematic. WWE is now a publicly traded company, and this status reflects both a desire and a need to appease shareholders. This live-action analog to the original Muppet Show needs to think about dividends, for now.

When the WWE officially made all of its programming PG rated, the company has opted to rely on what they believe works financially and what doesn't create controversy. This is complicated by the fact that Vince McMahon has yet to give up his central role in booking and storyline creation, allowing newer, fresher booking angles to take hold.

As audiences can and have pushed for characters, storylines, and portrayals that better reflect the diversity of ways-of-being in television, film, and other media, this has sometimes created an economic incentive for media producers to listen and adapt. Even WWE has had to deal with fan backlash compromising their long-term booking, as was the case with Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns.

With the WWE, audience demographics and its status as a publicly traded company have resulted in booking decisions that arenperplexing and reflects the unwillingness to break from its history. Fans have supported characters and storylines with non-white characters, as has most recently been the case with the wrestling stable The New Day, but despite their popularity or "overness," they are largely relegated to the Tag Team wrestling division, which has not and will not serve as a central focus of the promotion (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is a complicated but relevant counterpoint to this).

Where does this leave non-white wrestling characters? In most cases, they remain in a supportive rather than central role in booking and storylines, a continuation of the status quo and pre-public days.


The Rock did seem like a gamechanger, but in his absence, your claims ring absolutely true. Also interesting is the diversity of the "Divas" division versus the rest of the roster. I would be interested to see WWE audience demographics and the degree to which they are mirrored in the WWE roster. At the shows I have gone to in Texas and California, the audience is largely Latino, a trend hardly reflected in that roster (although this may not be demographically representative of other regions).

I think it's fair to say they're not mirrored at all. They have a) a lot more women watching than you'd think and b) a lot of 35+ viewers. Their relationship with Latino/a viewers is weird and challenging. On one hand, they know they have a lot of them and if anything, this is an expanding market (their house shows this season in Mexico feature the Undertaker of all people. AT A HOUSE SHOW.) On the other hand, you end up with lower-mid card nods to Lucha Libre in the roster for the most part. Great workers, over as hell in NXT, but limited push on the main roster (Lucha Dragons). Interestingly, the Rock's current present is more of a hindrance to developing new talent and putting them in matches at high-profile PPVs. It's largely part of some of the backlash against all part-timers getting so many high profile spots and not using them to elevate existing full-time talent.

Fans always get defensive when there is the critique that the WWE does not significantly push wrestlers of color. Immediately, fans will point to the Rock or Booker T as if a handful of champs of color level the playing field. One of the things you note that really stuck with me as well is the company's role in regards to racism now that it is publicy traded (i.e. how they dealt with the Zahra Schreiber scandal). I was thinking of the firing of Alberto Del Rio when it was reported widely that he was fired for slapping an employee who made a racist statement. He has also made some comments in relationship to this. Thanks for the insights.

Kristine, great post that draws out a series of continuous (and perhaps unending) tensions that exist between wrestlers and audiences, booking and crowd support, traditional status quo versus corporate (e.g. public) incentive. To quote a phrase often expressed by Doug and Dave, co-hosts of Sirius XM's Busted Open Radio, "WWE is all over the map" here. They want to be PC, but they have a trickle down system with an old-school owner. They want to promote diversity, but they struggle to back unproven non-White characters as an economic gamble. They can't progress forward in time without constantly looking backward upon their own storied history. They seek a homogenized product so as to not excite advertisers and audiences negatively, yet the ratings have flatlined and are now showing signs of corrosion (Raw & Smackdown). This is the ultimate problem with people pleasers, or the Jack of all trades, master of none archetype. You try to please everybody and you ultimately please no one. As much LOVE as Triple H gets for NXT, could we legitimately identify this commoditized conundrum the "Triple H syndrome"? Because the issue is a reflector of his own part-give, part-taker, but always self-aware and self-present career. Or is this simply the tension between old guard/new guard as McMahon finally outstays his welcome as supreme chancellor of final-say booking?

HHH gets a lot of smark love lately, but not long ago, it was LOLHHHWins instead of CENAWINSLOL. I think he's legitimately better at booking than McMahon, but he's still very interested to a fault in self promotion.

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