I am not one who is especially sensitive to ethnic sensibilities. My German father's favorite TV show was Hogan's Heroes, a comedy which never once showed a German character in a positive light. Admittedly, my father might be accused of over-non-reacting. He grew up in a German town in the Midwest, did not learn English till he entered the first grade, and faced plenty of blowback (bricks through windows) for being of 100% German descent in the years following the Great War--and preceding WW2. At age 22, he enlisted in the US Army after the attack on Pearl Harbor and reenlisted in the Air Force after the war. Patriotism, or was it overcompensation? (Both, I think.) I think I was in junior high school before I knew that my last name was German, and the one time my father ever made a decision concerning my education was to positively forbid me from studying German as my foreign language in eighth grade.
I grew up on military bases where young GIs teased each other based on ethnic stereotypes, while evidently feeling nothing but brotherly affection for each other. Among my friends now who grew up in multicultural neighborhoods, there's very little thin skin to be found, and much of their humor derives from playing off the stereotypes of their assigned group. Of them all, I'm probably the least comfortable with ethnic and racial stereotyping, even for the sake of comedy, but I'm Jackie Mason compared to some of my other left-leaning friends. From Hans Schmidt to Berlin (aka Alex Wright), pro wrestling has portrayed Germans as the bad guys--sneaky, cowardly, vain, slightly dim. Obviously, actual history supports the charge of villainy. I know that. I'm never drawn to these heels (though, as you must know by now, I am enamored of heels in general), but they don't make me flinch either.
Over the years pro wrestling has flagrantly stereotyped Native Americans, Asians, Polynesians, French Canadians, Scots, Irish, Italians, and Arabs. Some of the stereotypes are positive (Samoans, for instance), some negative (Germans and Russians). Most stretch out at various points in between, but with a definite disregard for political correctness in costuming or character traits. Amazingly, two of the most ghettoized groups in history (blacks and Jews) have come through without much fanfare or reproach, though recent years have seen growing ethnicentricities (to coin a word) here as well: e.g. "Israeli Icon" Noam Dar (in the UK) and "Barack O'Jamma" Sugar Dunkerton (in the USA). Or, less innocuously, Kurt Angle's publicized opinions of "the black people" in 2005.
What brings the subject up for me is the emergence of sombrero-wearing "Colombian" wrestler Fabiano Rolento at Ohio Valley Wrestling earlier this week (see photos above). The man is stacked, but Fabiano is not Colombian, or even Mexican. Until recently, the wrestler was known as Omar Akbar. As one online commentator described his debut, Rolento
danced around, and then cut a funny promo, using a funny accent. I can't even call it a babyface, or a heel, promo, though he was super cocky, it was more just funny. Rolento is very proud of his sublime buttocks, and has a picture of his face on his trunks. This was a far cry from the dark, angry, and brooding Omar Akbar, and I thought Rolento showed some personality here, though nobody in the arena, including me, and the OVW staff, knew what to make of it. The character is Colombian. I think it's funny that there are fake Mexicans in pro wrestling, since there are so many real Mexicans everywhere.
Not to mention so very many real Mexican wrestlers.
In his now-classic essay "The World of Wrestling," French semiotician Roland Barthes alluded to the importance of politics in American pro wrestling: "a sort of mythological fight between Good and Evil (of a quasi-political nature, the 'bad' wrestler always being supposed to be a Red" [i.e. a communist]. America's sordid history in the treatment of ethnic minorities no doubt has a great impact on how certain minorities get portrayed in pro wrestling--somewhat guiltily in the case of Native Americans and African Americans, I would say. Likewise, the nation's history of foreign policy. It hardly seems accidental that the character "The Iron Sheik" (an Iranian-born wrestler) and his infamous "camel clutch" rose to prominence during the 1970s oil crisis, caused by the OAPEC's Arab Oil Embargo. (On the left side of the political spectrum, the late Reagan-and-Dynasty-era rise of "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase might be seen as a manifestation of the escalating "class war," especially in his run-ins with "American Dream" Dusty Rhodes, purportedly the son of a plumber.)
The ethnic and economic politics of American pro wrestling cannot be simply described--and I don't want to give the impression that I'm offering a thorough (or even orderly) investigation here. On one hand, America's past "enemies"--Germans, Japanese, Arabs--have been treated as "bad guys," unsurprisingly. But blacks were "integrated" into pro wrestling well in advance of their integration into America's public school system--and fans accepted (or came to accept) the equal standing of black and white wrestlers fairly early in the game. However, Arab (and Iranian) heels (expressly identified as Muslim--in the ring and in life) proliferated in regional wrestling shows while America was involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The 2009 documentary short "Team Taliban" depicts a devout Muslim wrestler who plays a "terrorist" in the wrestling ring--the only way (for now) that he can bring together his ethnic identity and his love of wrestling. American-born Persian Shawn Daivari has many American admirers, even though his character still spews anti-American sentiments to build heat. But these gimmicks run in cycles. In time, US fans eventually came to embrace even the Iron Sheik. The emergence of Fabiano Rolento puzzles me. Might it suggest that the post-9/11 paranoid fear that Arabs disguised as Latin American immigrants would cross the borders freely has indeed come "true"? ... at least, as kayfabricated in the squared circle.
I should also point out (again) pro wrestling's response to the LGBT movement and its own history of homophobia. At one point, I was fairly thin-skinned about gay stereotypes in pro wrestling--and the ease with which insults like "faggot" and "fairy" got thrown around even in gay underground wrestling. I'm somewhat less thin-skinned now. Sure, it would be nice for there to be more variety in the ways Hollywood and pro wrestling choose to portray "my people," but the world has more serious matters to deal with than the number of bleach blond wrestlers who sashay about in pink unitards and feather boas. On top of that, fan response has changed wrestlers like OVW's gay-inflected Paredyse from heels to crowd favorites. And in just the past year Mike Bennett and other wrestlers have gone on the line in opposing anti-LGBT hate. I don't feel that I have as much to complain about these days (though, yes, we have a long ways yet to go).
American pro wrestling seems to present a funhouse mirror image of America, its ethnocentrism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, militarism, hype, and class warfare. Distorted and laugh-inducing, and never meant to be taken too seriously, the image is still recognizably US.
(Photos by Charles Parrish)