Putting on the Mask

Image used under a Creative Commons license courtesy of David Seto.

I basically agree with Ta-Nehisi on whether stereotypes in professional wrestling are harmful:

Truthfully, it doesn’t bother me now and I see it as a kind of vaudeville. The key is that pro wrestling made gimmicks and employed stereotypes fairly equally. I’ll leave to others to speak on how they felt. I think smacking Jimmy Snuka with a coconut was pretty ignorant, but the context of having, say, Roddy Piper as a hot-blooded Scottsman, Hillbilly Jim as an Appalachian hick, Nikita Koloff as “The Russian Nightmare,” The Iron Sheik as the tool of Iranian tyrants, Hacksaw Jim Duggan as a redneck, and Brother Love as a Jimmy Swaggart made it hard to be angry. 

I think professional wrestling tends to walk a fine line between using typing to brand individual characters, and to convey messages and to rope in new audiences.  I don’t think, for example, the branding of the wrestler Sheamus as “the Celtic Warrior” is an ethnically meaningful statement.  I don’t know that there’s strong enough ethnic identity in the United States that having a distinctively Irish wrestler would draw in new audiences, much less that such an ethnic enclave is significant enough to worth disapprobation to draw in with a type.  On the other hand, the increasing Central American immigrant population in the United States is big enough that it makes sense to coopt element of lucha libre, rebrand them within a larger context, and draw in an audience that misses a familiar form, but that’s also interested in embracing American popular culture.

I’m not saying the WWE is exceptionally sensitive.  That fine line in ethnic branding doesn’t exactly apply to WWE divas in the same way it does to the male wrestlers.  The plots are, um, broad.  But I think WWE has been smart, commercially.  They’ve used broad ethnic branding without getting in trouble for it.  And they’ve made a lot of money by doing so.