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Wednesday, July 20, 2005
Pro Wrestling--- World Wrestling Entertainment's response to the huge backlash over its recent terrorism storyline (which I wrote about here and here) has been predictably pathetic.
(Breaking News Update from the Pro Wrestling Torch web site on Thursday, July 21 at 3:14 PM: "UPN has told WWE it doesn't want the Muhammad Hassan character to be part of the program from this point forward. WWE creative is working on the situation, and the plan right now is to have Undertaker kill him off on Sunday at the pay-per-view. The backlash by sponsors or local UPN affiliates must have been quite strong after the terrorist-themed angle on the July 7 Smackdown.")
Never short on hypocritical hyperbole, WWE's official press release on the matter tried to make it seem as though the people who were offended by the storyline were somehow at fault for having stereotypical beliefs about Arabs, which led these viewers (and networks, and advertisers, and executives...) to mis-interpret a totally non-terrorism-related storyline as something that was terrorism-related. That's an ironic stance to take, given that in my opinion WWE has done more to play into and profit from stereotypical beliefs about Arabs than any other entertainment entity in North America.
A Closer Look at Some of WWE's Questionable Storylines
On the other hand, maybe WWE is right (note the sarcasm). Maybe we're just not fully understanding what the company presented on WWE Smackdown on July 7th, which certainly appeared to be a simulated terrorist attack that aired on the same day that a real terrorist attack killed dozens of people in London. How stupid are we, to think that WWE would actually attempt to exploit terrorism for profit? That's just silly because WWE would never do that.
Come to think of it, there are a lot of things that WWE has done that may just be grossly misunderstood. For example, top babyface (or "good guy") Stone Cold Steve Austin recently said on WWE Raw, "I see sand people!" while looking at Arab-American characters Hassan and Daivari, in a line that was scripted by WWE management and intended to draw cheers from the crowd as if it were a witty insult. While on the surface it might appear to be yet another callous racial slur on WWE television, maybe it was actually meant to be an intriguing glimpse into the effect that racial slurs have had on various societies over the centuries, and how today's racial slurs can still be hurtful and damaging.
Then there's Chavo Guerrero's current gimmick, in which he has denounced his Hispanic heritage and decided to become a white person named "Kerwin White." This new "Kerwin White" character said in an interview that his Hispanic fans probably didn't have enough money to buy a computer to visit his web page, and said he wanted to "thank Real America, which is White America!" before concluding with the line, "Remember, if it's not white, it's not right!" (I wish I were making that up, but that is actually the gimmick that a well-respected Mexican-American wrestler with lots of tenure has been saddled with.) That certainly seems like WWE trying to profit from racism, but perhaps it's really a deep philosophical evaluation of the history of relations between Mexico and the United States and of the many deep cultural differences between the two countries.
How about the Mexicools gimmick? You know, the one where three talented Mexican wrestlers come out to the ring on a big lawn-mower and are saddled with the gimmick that they're tired of mowing the white man's yard and are going to lead a Mexican revolt. Maybe that's actually meant to be a nuanced look at the changing state of labor relations in the United States, and the huge gap between the average salary in Mexico and the average salary in the United States.
Remember when Heidenreich anally raped WWE play-by-play announcer Michael Cole last year on an episode of WWE Smackdown? (Again, I wish I were making that up.) Looking back on it now, I think WWE really intended for that seemingly tasteless segment to serve as an in-depth psychological look at the reasons behind violent crime in the 21st century.
I also think that when Vince McMahon promoted his own daughter Stephanie as a "slut character" when she first turned heel on WWE television (and fans of all ages were encouraged to chant "slut" at her), it was actually meant to be a sophisticated examination of the modern role of feminism and a woman's right to be as outgoing as she wants to be without having it held against her.
And who could ever forget the time that Triple H climbed into a casket on WWE Raw and had simulated sex with a dead body? Turns out that wasn't just a disgusting attempt at Shock TV. On the contrary, it was meant to be a captivating look at the role of death in different civilizations, and how different people perceive death (and life after death) in different ways.
So I guess if you really think about it, WWE's motives for various offensive storylines have always been pure and have definitely not been sleazy in any way... and if you don't understand that, then I guess you're just not as smart as WWE thinks you should be.
More Mainstream Media Backlash
Okay, enough with the sarcasm. In all seriousness, the mainstream media backlash in response to WWE's terrorism storyline has continued, with articles on the scandal appearing in the New York Times, Advertising Age, and ESPN's web site, in addition to the pro wrestling media.
While previous mainstream media backlash to the terrorism storyline has been damaging to WWE, the article in Advertising Age is particularly damaging because it reaches so many of the advertisers that provide WWE with revenue. At the same time, the New York Times article is particularly damaging because it drastically increases the chances of the controversy being covered in local newspapers all across the country, and I'd imagine that people in England who hear about the WWE terrorism storyline probably aren't thrilled with it, either.
The hope within WWE was actually that all of the mainstream media backlash would create a buzz for the Smackdown product and that the following week's Smackdown would draw a higher rating as a result of the controversy. And no, I'm not just pulling that assertion out of my ass, it was actually reported by the Wrestling Observer's Dave Meltzer, who wrote, "There were those internally [in WWE] expecting that the controversy from the week would lead to a substantial ratings increase." Instead, much to WWE's dismay, the July 14th episode of Smackdown drew roughly the same rating as the controversial July 7th episode.
Also, to reiterate previous reports on Ivan's Blog and elsewhere that WWE and UPN could have changed the July 7th episode of Smackdown and completely removed the terrorist storyline if they really felt it was necessary to do so, the Pro Wrestling Torch reported in its latest newsletter, "Rather than edit the program - a logistical headache to be sure, but possible nonetheless - UPN and WWE decided to air it without changes."
WWE Produces Segment with Hassan Responding to Backlash in Character
Believe it or not, WWE actually had the Mohammad Hassan character (who led the simulated terrorist attack on Smackdown that started this whole controversy) respond to the mainstream media backlash in full character, as he mentioned specific, real-life terrorist attacks and eventually said that Arabs get blamed for everything, so we might as well blame Arabs for property damage caused by Hurricane Dennis. The powers-that-be in WWE, through the scripted words of Hassan, also tried to turn this into a "free speech" issue by having Hassan complain about his First Amendment rights being violated.
WWE put Hassan's response up as the lead item on its (advertising-revenue-generating) web site. As the Pro Wrestling Torch's James Guttman wrote in regards to this particular decision by WWE:
"Now WWE is capitalizing on the bad press they got, and that makes it exploitation... and a blatant attempt to ride the public outrage to the bank. No more coincidence. Now it's on purpose. Every time I think they can't make it worse, they do."
Mike Johnson of PWInsider also spoke out against the "Hassan responds to the media" segment. Excerpts from the article on PWInsider:
"It's completely surreal to watch a worked pro wrestling character responding to a legitimate media article. Beyond that, though, no matter what the reasoning is internally by WWE, it's absolutely completely disgusting to see the company, in any way, shape, or form use references to legitimate past terrorist acts as exposition for 'Hassan's response.' It's deplorable in any case, but especially horrible not even a week removed from the recent London bombing. What's next? Sending Hassan and Daivari to Ground Zero in New York to respond to the Variety article? Or Hassan using footage of WWE visiting New York City firehouses and 'editing it' to suit his storyline means?
WWE was looking to play off of all the media scorn, and since UPN didn't want it on their network, WWE used their own website as the medium. Vince McMahon has always had a history of going after those he feels have wronged WWE and this is no different. However, I sincerely doubt that Hassan would be cutting that promo if it was Stamford, Connecticut that had been bombed. The incident would have been completely raw and personal to WWE management.
I hope that WWE's brain-trust realizes that as a publicly-traded international company, which they love to tout themselves as to the media, there are a multitude of WWE fans out there that have been personally affected by the events of the past several years. None of them want to be reminded of those horrible events while they are watching professional wrestling to be 'entertained,' because those events remain raw and personal to them. I guess nothing should surprise me when it comes to professional wrestling, and this didn't, but it doesn't make the situation any less saddening."
Keller and Mitchell Weigh In on the WWE Terrorism Storyline
I previously went into great detail on this blog with my own thoughts on the WWE terrorism storyline, as well as the thoughts of several people who cover pro wrestling regularly in order to give you a sense of how the pro wrestling media is reacting to this scandal.
In the past week, two of the most respected people in the pro wrestling media, Wade Keller and Bruce Mitchell of the Pro Wrestling Torch, weighed in with their extended thoughts on the WWE terrorism storyline.
The week after the terrorism storyline aired, a condescending disclaimer aired at the beginning of the July 14th Smackdown broadcast on UPN that said, "In light of recent world events, sensitivities have arisen regarding an ongoing storyline."
In response to the disclaimer message, Wade Keller mockingly wrote in his review of that episode of Smackdown:
"The show opened with an advisory stating that due to world events, 'sensitivities have risen' so viewer discretion was advised. How about this instead: 'Due to world events which we're trying to exploit, but in a tongue-in-cheek way only, since you know, simulating beheadings, suicide bombing themes, martyrs, and such are obviously tongue-in-cheek, and it wasn't our fault the bombers chose the morning of last week's show which we couldn't change... well, we could have [changed it], but chose not to, because any publicity is good publicity, and you people really need to lighten up, it's just wrestling... viewers who are total PC freaks and p-----s may want to not watch.'"
Wade Keller's extended thoughts on the July 7th terrorism storyline are available at PWTorch.com, but here's an excerpt from what he wrote:
"I am against what they aired on Smackdown, even if the London bombings had not taken place. There is a difference between playing off of stereotypes and exploiting a war currently being fought. The simulation of Undertaker being 'beheaded' isn't entertaining, it's disturbing and tasteless, especially when the context was clearly inspired by terrorist tapes of beheadings.
A lot of people defend wrestling by pointing out that other forms of entertainment tackle controversial real-life issues. There is a difference, in part because WWE doesn't make even the slightest attempt to be nuanced and sophisticated in how it exploits current events, especially sensitive issues such as a war on terror. WWE plays to the lowest common denominator and presents gross over-simplifications of complicated issues. And as is the case with the Hassan/Daivari gimmick, they're entirely disingenuous about it.
WWE spokesman Gary Davis should be called out by the media for saying that 'we all feel bad about the timing of the segment.' If feeling bad means not editing the show even though they could have, featuring a clip of the most controversial aspects of the angle on WWE.com Thursday night through Friday morning, and airing extended clips of it on WWE Velocity two days later, then I'd hate to see what they would have done with it if they were proud of it. Vince seems more intent than ever on being defiant whenever he feels he's having to conform to a sense of restraint or decency."
Mitchell Explores Vince McMahon's Possible Motives for the Storyline
Offering fascinating insight into what might have gone into Vince McMahon's decision to green-light such a tasteless segment in the first place, Bruce Mitchell wrote an in-depth column called "Lions in the Winter," which is one of the best articles that I've read all year in any form of journalism. While you'll find a few excerpts from the article below, the full article is several thousand words long, and the excerpts below only scratch the surface.
In the column, Mitchell details how a series of political machinations behind the scenes in recent months by Hulk Hogan (with whom Vince McMahon has had a love-hate relationship for many years) may have gotten under Vince's skin:
"Vince McMahon may well be the most powerful man in the entire business, but Hulk Hogan had once again beaten him at his own game.... For Vince McMahon, while Hogan may be beating him like a gong, there's plenty of other wrestling people to mess with. And he's been in a mood to mess with them, particularly since WWE stockholders dared question why he wasn't buying back stock and why so much money was left in the bank drawing two-and-a-half percent interest. Like any good bully, McMahon knows if you can't get to the people who really piss you off, find some weaklings you can [get to]."
Mitchell then wrote extensively about McMahon releasing over 15 wrestlers in a single 24-hour period (including a female wrestler who was five months' pregnant and was reportedly told very specifically by both Vince and Stephanie McMahon that she would not be released due to getting pregnant)... and hiring and humiliating a former ECW wrestler... and planning a female nipple slip on live television without notifying Spike TV ahead of time. ("Here's a hint: If you see an agent or referee with a towel, those nipples are no accident," Mitchell wrote.)
As Mitchell continued to write about the timeline of Vince McMahon seemingly blowing off a lot of steam, here's an excerpt of what Mitchell wrote about McMahon's role in the terrorism storyline:
"Then at the Smackdown tapings, Vince McMahon finally booked Muhammad Hassan, the 'Arab Terrorist,' the way he wanted to all along... Who cares if this kind of storyline hadn't drawn money in over twenty years, or if low-brow entertainment stopped exploiting jingoism like this after the Vietnam War because, guess what, it doesn't work? The important thing was, Vince McMahon got his way.
Then tragic reality gave the angle a boost that even McMahon couldn't provide. Eighteen hours before Smackdown was to be aired on UPN, terrorists bombed the London subways and murdered dozens of people... McMahon and WWE could have stood with everyone who has fought against these murders, including the U.S. troops that WWE so publicly claims to support. McMahon and UPN could have done the decent thing and pulled the angle off the air, respecting the grief and not exploiting the anger. Instead, again, McMahon did what he wanted.
McMahon and WWE got a bitter lesson for their trouble, if they cared to listen. For a few days, they got away with it. That may have seemed like good news, but it wasn't. It really meant advertisers and media had such little respect for their product that it took four days for them to even take notice of what WWE had done. They expected WWE to act like crass, unfeeling assholes. They had seen it before. It wasn't even a story... until the day came this week that it was."