Zeb Colter, Xenophobia in Wrestling and WWE's WrestleMania 29 Media Play

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Zeb Colter, Xenophobia in Wrestling and WWE's WrestleMania 29 Media Play
via WWE.com

Zeb Colter is on television every week saying absolutely nothing you haven't heard before. A self-proclaimed patriot, Colter has staked out a position on the far right of the immigration debate and he's not budging. He looks like the leader of a militia movement, sporting a sleeveless tan vest and Yosemite Sam-style facial hair, and sounds like Rush Limbaugh, mixing standard talk radio talking points with Ronald Reagan aphorisms about the "shining city on the hill." 

None of that is remarkable, not even his sparse YouTube videos that appear to have been shot in a bunker. In another life he'd be just another talking head on a cable television, spouting the things that officials and politicians might want to, but could never actually say.

The catch?

Colter's political missives aren't aired on Fox News, they aren't on Glenn Beck's The Blaze and they certainly aren't on CNN. Instead his proselytizing reaches millions every week on WWE wrestling's flagship program, Monday Night Rawthe most popular cable television show in the country many weeks.

Here's an example of what Colter, standing side by side with WWE title challenger Jack Swagger, has to say about the rise of America's Hispanic population:

Colter: Do you see the same thing we're seeing? Do you see that with every passing day there's fewer and fewer people that look like us? You know, as I walk the streets of this once-great nation, it looks to me like a quinceañera run amok than it does the red, white and blue. See, this is no accident. It's not an accident at all. What it is is an organized, systematic, calculated approach to marginalize a once-great people. See, Jack's daddy and I fought together in war. My daddy fought one before me and his daddy fought one before him. And we didn't fight, and we didn't sacrifice just so we could get shoved over in a corner and silenced.

Swagger: This diversity thing happening is not progress.

Colter: No, it's not progress. I'll tell you exactly what it is and I'm going to use the word that a lot of people run from. What it is, pure and simple, is racism against the very people who built and founded this country. It's bigotry wrapped in fancy words and a feel-good slogan. I'm going to tell you something and I want you to think about it. In just a few years, Jack and me and our brothers and our sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins, kids, wives, we will be the minority in our own country. Does that seem fair to you? Does that seem right after all that we have done? After all that we have accomplished? After all that we have fought for and we end up a minority...

Swagger: It makes me sick

Colter: ...in our own country? It makes me sick too. My daddy told me one time, 'when life ain't fair, fight like hell to make it so.' And life ain't fair. And we know who's to blame. We have a big fight coming up. Jack Swagger, me,

Swagger: and we the people.

For Swagger, who six months ago was flailing on the undercard and seemingly on the way out of WWE, this new direction has been a rebirth. He'll be competing at WrestleMania 29 against Alberto Del Rio, the Mexican world champion who has only recently become a storyline good guy. WWE needed a way to bring the fans, who have seemed on the fence about Del Rio as a hero, over to his side. Swagger, and especially Colter, his manager and talking head, has been custom-created to fill  that role.

A similar character on the little seen Lucha Libre USA television program garnered plenty of attention from media outlets that don't normally cover wrestling, including ABC's Nightline, and likely influenced WWE's decision to go this direction with Swagger and Colter after staying far away from anything remotely political for years.

With no major celebrity set for WrestleMania this year, the customary method the company has used to garner mainstream attention for their mega-event, they needed another avenue into the culture discourse. Swagger and Colter, they hope, will be a ticket onto cable news.

It's a move not without risk.

For Lucha Libre USA, and unknown and dying product, it was a winning scenario. It was happy just to be noticed. For WWE, the Colter character, played by veteran wrestler Dutch Mantel, is a much more calculated risk. Being noticed is certainly the key, but for a publicly traded company like WWE, not all publicity is truly good publicity. And, so far, it's a character that has created very little dialogue and no small amount of rage. Witness the response at conservative pundit Alex Jones' InfoWars:

This is part of the divide and conquer tactic of cultural subversion to manufacture racial division and to characterize the Tea Party, conservatives, libertarians, opponents of uncontrolled illegal immigration, and constitutionalists as racist, extremist radicals who should be pushed to the fringes of the political discourse. Now the demonization runs so deep that it's even being bolstered by WWE wrestling. The fact that WWE is owned by Vince and Linda McMahon, who are part of the Republican establishment, also tells us a lot about how grass roots conservatives and libertarians are viewed by those near the top of the power structure.

Those shocked that WWE would attempt to navigate these tricky waters shouldn't be. Race baiting and polarizing characters have been part of the wrestling discourse for more than a century.

 

The Terrible Turk and More

Professional wrestling is many things. It contains, as they say, multitudes. It's both male soap opera and human chess. It's completely ridiculous and breathtakingly beautiful. Often, amazingly, it manages to be both at the very same time.

But for all that it is, and all that fans want it to be, professional wrestling has never been the most subtle of art forms. Like any art that plays to emotions more than intellect, its storytelling is broad, its metaphors astoundingly obvious.

Wrestlers, in a sense, are actors. Very muscular actors, sure, but actors nonetheless. And their characters, like the matches in the ring, are broad portraits of people we see in real life.

Wrestling bad guys in the late 1880's (via Jonathan Snowden's collection)

Many, of course, are American archetypes. From the farmer to the island savage, the beach bum to the football star, wrestling has never strayed too far from the most easily encapsulated characters. And while wrestling fans' familiarity with the nuances American culture allows for slightly subtler character work in some places, it's the last thing you'll see in one of wrestling's most enduring characters—the foreigner.

Invariably cast as the bad guy, the foreigner, the other, is as old as sports entertainment itself.  They are the sneering villain—ethnicity and country of origin depends on the enemy du jour. From Yousouf the "Terrible Turk" in the late 1890s to the Iron Sheik in the 1980s, nothing changed but the name.

There were cartoonishly evil Brits, Germans, Japanese, African and even French Canadian bad guys. And when there weren't foreign wrestlers around to exploit, wrestling promoters did the next best thing—they made their own.


Say it Ain't So Sarge

In 1991, America was on the road to war after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait. Vince McMahon, smelling money, was already on the Road to WrestleMania when he quickly switched gears. Gone was the long-planned rematch between Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. In its place a match between Hogan and the least likely Iraqi sympathizer of all—mega-patriot Sergeant Slaughter.

His claim to fame, on the national wrestling scene at least, was a string of matches with the Iron Sheik, an Iranian wrestler used in the early 1980s to fan the flames of resentment that lingered years after the Iranian hostage crisis. In 1984 Slaughter and the Sheik toured the country, engaging in a series of brutal matches that culminated in Madison Square Garden for a Boot Camp Match.

Less than a decade later, Slaughter, the American, and Sheik, the Iranian, were once again dance partners? The catch? This time they were both singing the praises of Hussein.

"President Saddam Hussein did not invade Kuwait," Slaughter said. "He conquered Kuwait. ...Side by side, two conquering heroes will parade down the streets of Baghdad in celebration. President Saddam Hussein and I, Sergeant Slaughter."

Verbal support wasn't enough. Slaughter soon donned an Arab style headdress and began coming to the ring with General Adnan and the enemy's flag, potent both as a weapon and a symbol.

screen capture

"You should be saluting the Iraqi flag," he told fellow wrestlers and the crowd, often to furious catcalls and thunderous boos.

WWE boss Vince McMahon, confident his wartime opportunism would pay off, expected the match to fill the voluminous Los Angeles Coliseum as the main event of his already legendary WrestleMania. There he hoped a match between Hogan and the turncoat Slaughter would attract more than 100,000 fans, breaking the record Hogan and Andre the Giant set in 1987 for WrestleMania 3.

Instead, as Slaughter's rhetoric increased in intensity, interest seemed to plummet. Fans weren't pleased with his abrupt change in character. McMahon, reportedly, wanted Slaughter to burn the American flag. He refused, offering instead to light Hogan's trademark yellow shirt aflame.

screen capture

"Hulk Hogan, at WrestleMania 7, you and all your Puke-a-Maniacs, and Hulkamania, are going to go up in flames," Slaughter said. By this point his laugh set new standards for maniacal and his mugging for the camera resembled the kind of overacting usually reserved for silent movie villains. The act, in short, was bombing.

America's quick success in Iraq surely didn't help matters. By February the war was over; all the while Slaughter was forced to continue propping up a regime that had been easily defeated on the field of battle. Not willing, or capable, of admitting failure, McMahon claimed security concerns forced the company to move the show to a much smaller arena. The wrestlers, like rising superstar Bret Hart, weren't buying it:

The rumor was that Slaughter had so much heat that there was fear of a bomb threat, but many of us in the dressing room thought it was because ticket sales were slow. With the war over, the Slaughter angle was quickly losing steam.

To say Hogan draped himself in the American flag is not to trade in metaphors. He wore it on his head in bandana form. He visited the troops. And he carried with him to the ring a gigantic flag, so enormous even the gaudiest car lot wouldn't fly it.

"It wasn't a laughing matter Sergeant Slaughter, when you torched the Hulk Hogan banner brother. You tried to scorch the hopes and dreams of each and every one of my little HulkaManiacs. And, I solemnly swear, that will never happen again Sarge."

screen capture

The words, at least, were angrier than the match. In front of just over 16,000 fans, a far cry from the 100,000 McMahon had envisioned, the two went through the motions looking, as Hart described "like two elephants tussling over a water hole."

It wasn't awful, but with Hogan now entering his seventh year on top of the promotion, it took a lot of effort to build emotion in the match. There were chair shots, blood, and Hogan using his bare hands to rip the Iraqi flag in half. It ended, as these things always do, with Hogan pointing the finger at Slaughter, wagging it even, before delivering the boot and dropping the leg to claim WWE gold for the third time.

 

Learning Lessons

The era of rampant xenophobia, it seemed, was over. The wrestling industry doesn't always learn lessons quickly—but it does catch on eventually.

''After the war, we pared that back, because it wasn't where we wanted to be,'' Linda McMahon told The New York Times.  ''We're not going to do anything to connect to the attacks. We want to be perceived as conscientious programmers.''

The fact it was distasteful in the extreme isn't what killed using similar angles. It was the box office failure and the string of potentially unhappy partners that did the job. Tasteless is just part of the gig.

Another decade passed between the Gulf War and Sept. 11, 2001. This time, when the Arab terrorists struck, McMahon showed restraint. There was no Osama bin Laden-based character. The only reaction was to have former Olympian Kurt Angle win the title belt in a moment of patriotic glory.

That doesn't mean, of course, that WWE stopped using racially charged gimmicks. Pseudo gangs filled airtime in the late 1990s, including the Nation of Domination, a thinly veiled Nation of Islam parody lampooning powerful African American males. Their competition included a gang of Puerto Ricans and a motley crew of skinhead bikers. Frankly, it was ugly stuff.

That all began to change when Eddie Guerrero started making waves in 2003. A second-generation Mexican star, Guerrero, too, was given a crude stereotype to play. He came to the ring in a low rider to the mantra "We lie, we cheat, we steal." But the only thing Guerrero wanted to steal was the show.

According to the Wrestling Observer, when Guerrero was pushed on top of the card you could see a notable increase in attendance in the Southwest and anywhere with a strong Mexican-American population. Television ratings would grow in those same cities every time Guerrero wrestled, often adding hundreds of thousands of viewers:

By the end of 2003, there were people internally using the phrase 'He has the potential to be the Latino Steve Austin,' particularly after he shined incredibly in a Stacker 2 TV commercial aimed at the Latin market.

Though Guerrero never reached that level of success before his untimely 2005 death, his success did pave the way for future Mexican wrestlers to be more than just foils for their white counterparts. Rey Mysterio, Sin Cara and now Alberto Del Rio have benefited from Guerrero's success—and WWE has benefited from a loyal and significant Hispanic fanbase, one that now accounts for 20 percent of their audience.

 

Flag-Waving Heels?

What do you think of the Zeb Colter gimmick?

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And so it has come to this: Zeb Colter and Jack Swagger are in the ring. They are spouting traditional American values, wrapping themselves in the flag and taking on a Mexican superstar. The twist? They are now the heels.

Announcers Michael Cole and Jerry "The King" Lawler both treat Swagger and Colter like they are completely repugnant. That there are certainly two sides to the immigration debate is a nuance lost in the shuffle here. In wrestling, there is not room for that kind of grey. Things are black and things are white.

Grey? That's out of the question.

In a way, this is progress. WWE is growing up. Instead of fanning the flames of hatred, it is taking a stand for tolerance and acceptance. That it is doing so by painting anyone against immigration reform as disgusting bigots shows you have to walk before you can run. In a perfect world, of course, WWE wouldn't use these kinds of broad stereotypes at all. But they are effective in this kind of morality play and, at least for many, a big part of the fun.

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