Wrestling With Racism
It’s no secret that the professional wrestling industry has a sordid past. Themes of sexism, racism, and gender-phobia have permeated the industry since its earliest, documented days. While some early themes may be attributed to the prevailing social norms of the time it does not excuse nor erase the previous, negative portrayals of minorities in the industry. These stereotypes were not only damaging to the national conversation on race but also deprived the industry of equal representation and therefore support – both financial and artistic. Also, because of the lack of representation within the sport one could easily argue that an equal voice was not available to guide the growth of the industry. But first and foremost! News Flash! Professional wrestling is art – more specifically theatre. It contains all the elements of a theatrical performance: lights, scripts, stages, costumes, rehearsal, stage managers, producers, directors, sound design engineers, lighting designers, - you get the idea. Lynne Porter, author of Unmasking Theatre Design, describes art as any work that presents an internal discussion within the viewer. No matter if the response to the art is negative or positive, you are compelled to have a conversation within yourself on how it makes you feel. Why do you like or dislike a work? Does it speak to you? Why or why not? What does it mean to you? When you view art you immediately begin to have an internal dialogue about what you're visually taking in.
Porter further claims that specifically theatre carries with it the unique ability to create ‘empathy and emotion, dialogue, and subsequent change through performance art’ called ‘the miracle of theatre’. Through theatre and performance, the viewer can form moments of self-discovery, self-expression, or clarity about the presented theme or social commentaries. Professional wrestling is a play and plays are constructed so that the viewer is engaged in a character’s struggles (a narrative) while also considering the relation of the fight itself to the space and time in which it is presented (theme). The viewer gets to live vicariously through their favorite performers and their stories. Additionally, I would argue that the demographic of the typical, live-event professional wrestling audience would perceive attending a Broadway musical or Met opera as elitist and outside of their social circle. Introducing them then to new themes or social concepts via theatre arts must be done in an environment that is familiar to them and presented via a medium that appeals to them. The best part about researching professional wrestling theatre and professional sports in general is that it has been televised for several decades so there is a ton of industry material and moments available to reference, study, and discuss. It is my intention to look at the industry’s past issues of racism, sexism, and bigotry and compare it to the more modern themes and productions to showcase the change in attitudes towards typically oppressed or stereotypes communities – whether good or bad. By referencing documentaries and docu-series like Viceland’s Darkside of the Ring or Blaustein’s Beyond The Mat or peer reviewed journal articles and observing actual footage or interviews from professional wrestlers and their shows we will take closer look at the industry’s past and compare it to its modern counterparts.
It is easy to identify the racist and sexist histories of the sports entertainment industry, it’s lack of Black or LGBTQ+ representation, and the exploitation of those communities. But has there been a change? Can professional wrestling be used as a means to prop up these communities instead of using them as (almost literally) punching bags? Can professional wrestling be used as an avenue to introduce new themes to people that may lead to a broader acceptance of other communities? Why does equal representation matter? What lessons can the industry learn from its past mistakes?