Homophobia Is Alive and Well on TV at the WWE

Head of the WWE Vince McMahon doesn’t like to be thought of as a hick. He really doesn’t like it.

Unfortunately for him – and for those fans who desperately want to see wrestling present something worth watching – his every attempt to show that he’s not a classless rube, simply re-enforces just what a classless rube he is.

The WWE is heading into its biggest money-season, with their flagship event Wrestlemania on the horizon (Sunday 3 April). What better way to lead into it than with a string of homophobic slurs, drawing on a long history of homophobia in the WWE’s top headline stars – strong good-guy supermen who are the heroes to countless children?

How does all-round good-guy loved-by-children-everywhere John Cena get back at some verbal sledging by The Rock? He implies The Rock is gay, of course. How does all-round good-guy loved-by-children-everywhere John Cena demonstrate that he’s going to beat his enemy The Miz and his ‘apprentice’ Alex Riley (recently arrested on drunk driving charges, a fact made light of on a recent episode of RAW)? He implies that they’re gay, of course. How did CM Punk take a dig at Cody Rhodes while doing commentary? He compared him to Pat Patterson. For those who aren’t up on their wrestling history… that implies that he’s gay. And what about Vince McMahon’s son-in-law and company executive Triple H, the hugely popular and repulsively huge superstar? Well, it’s a lucky day if he opens his mouth on screen without a homophobic slur dribbling out.

A brief summary of Cena’s recent ‘jokes’ can be found at Cage Side Seats.com. Many of these may seem fairly harmless when viewed in isolation: on their own they may seem to be minor taunts that refer only tangentially to the suggestion that being gay is itself a disreputable thing, but it’s the long history of such instances that make them stand out like a pulsing red pimple on some ‘roid-fueled back acne.

Laughably, the WWE has suddenly aligned with GLAAD (The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), despite a long history of cheap shots at minorities and anyone not conforming to the WWE’s conservative social images and ideals. But it’ll take a lot more than a convenient press release to make that more than merely some cheap PR to counter negative press leading into Wrestlemania. McMahon’s held the reins for long enough that if he wanted such derogatory images and verbiage stamped out, it really would be gone in a heartbeat. After all, McMahon has the power to forbid his announcers from using pronouns during their commentary, and he does so. Getting rid of the hate-filled targeting of minorities should be an easier task than getting rid of fundamental grammatical building blocks.

And what happens less than a week after the WWE’s alliance with GLAAD? Head announcer and high-profile WWE staff member Michael Cole takes a ‘friendly’ shot at a WWE co-announcer on Twitter, calling him, surprise surprise, a ‘faggot’. Shortly after, Cole removed the post and gave the usual non-apology that people give when they’ve conceivably helped fuel a bunch of teen suicides with flippantly derogatory remarks.

With Cole scheduled for a big match at Wrestlemania, it’s unlikely there’ll be any serious repercussions for this. And why would there be? The WWE has tolerated this dismissively and thoughtlessly derogatory attitude towards homosexuality – if not the word itself – for decades. In the smugly defiant business culture of the WWE, the idea that he will receive ‘training’ is a joke.

This overall assessment may seem to be typical of the anti-wrestling bias that wrestling fans frequently have to battle in mainstream culture; but wrestling fans (of which I am one) need to realise that the reluctance of the mainstream media to embrace wrestling may have a lot less to do with inherent bias against the form and a lot more to do with the state of professional wrestling in America.

In fact, I’d argue that it’s vital that professional wrestling is given a much larger place in media analysis, not only in order to point out its numerous problems, but also in order to examine those elements that make it an exciting art-form and that, if properly handled, could make it a great one (I’ve tried to do so previously, discussing an exciting and greatly-loved match between Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker, the long-lived performer Ric Flair, and the potential of relative-newcomer TNA to move away from the WWE’s disgraceful approach – something they’ve more than failed to live up to).

McMahon rails against the cultural image of wrestling as a lesser entertainment, while continually establishing it as exactly that. Before wrestling addresses the enemy without (the mainstream media) they need to deal with the enemy within: the fact that wrestling is a product that touts its own irrelevance and cultural bankruptcy at every conceivable turn.

In fact, McMahon’s approach to his business does a disservice to many wrestling fans and those who work within its strange, underexplored and often intriguing world. The wrestling press itself isn’t necessarily a big fan of the bigotry that bubbles away under the surface of the WWE. Sites like ‘Diva Dirt’ (a great website for those interested in following women’s wrestling – another area decimated by the WWE) made their displeasure clear on Twitter, at ‘Cageside Seats’ Keith Harris argued for serious adherence to the WWE’s anti-bullying campaign within their own offices, and Wade Keller, editor of the wrestling news site ‘PWTorch’, who has criticised the WWE’s indifference to social issues in the past, wrote a clear and concise article suggesting the WWE take action against Cole, also responding directly (and politely) to the usual ‘who cares?’ (or worse) posts that followed.

With Wrestlemania on the horizon, fans might want to consider just how far the WWE remains from acceptable standards in its treatment of homosexuality, women and racial minorities, as well as in its understanding of healthy body image representations – a serious problem that affects boys as well as girls at a disturbingly young age – with its unyielding elevation of steroid-style body images (despite the countless drug problems of its past) as a laudable ideal.

The WWE is a company that, like any company, is mainly concerned with its money; how much of it and how often it comes, rather than how they get it. Mainstream pressure needs to be exerted in order to make WWE’s sponsors – mainstream retail giants like K-Mart (now the ‘official sponsor of WWE’) who believe they are sponsoring a PG-rated show – accountable for their connection with content that would be unacceptable in most other forms of mainstream media entertainment (incidentally, Lady Gaga recently made a stand against Target’s anti-gay political donations).

Enormously popular wrestler and now Hollywood actor The Rock might also want to consider what an ongoing re-association with the WWE will really mean. His extended interaction has involved all kinds of gay-themed insults from the ridiculous children’s hero John Cena: wrestling may not provide the opportunities for long-term script analysis that film and TV allow, but The Rock should be cautious if stepping back into the fold gets him tied up with this kind of bigoted drivel.

As for everyone else, fans who have some sense of social obligation may want to consider avoiding WWE purchases and, importantly, skipping WWE’s flagship event Wrestlemania. Mattch results and episode recaps are freely available online, and there are plenty of other ways to catch up on the action without adding to the WWE’s bigotry bankroll.