13 May 2015

The New N-Word

Two weeks ago, in an interview with Esquire, the newly appointed Senior Producer of TNA's creative team, Billy Corgan, set out a mission statement for how he would like to affect change within the company's flagship television show.  To paraphrase, his goal is to tell the Great American Story and to stop the masses looking down their noses at wrestling by transforming it into a form of entertainment that addresses serious issues that transcend cultural divides.

This past Friday, during an uncomfortable in-ring promo from MVP, we may have caught our first glimpse of Corgan's vision.

In recent months, the issue of race has been somewhat of a talking point in wrestling media.  There have been numerous articles, such as this piece by Sherron Watson, addressing the unfair representation and lack of success enjoyed by wrestlers from minority ethnic groups(1).  Whilst wrestling reporters and pundits have been only too happy to debate the issue of race in mainstream wrestling, the promotions themselves have been very tight-lipped about the matter and seldom seek to explore it in any meaningful way on their television shows.

Sure we have an annual token Women's History Month and Black History Month, tantamount to frantically scrambling to find a black face on your Facebook friends list as though that is somehow proof that you are not a racist, but when the television specials have finished airing and the month ends it is back to business as usual for the remaining 11 months of the year.

Unfortunately, the history books have shown us that business as usual when it comes to race in the wrestling industry tends to involve lurching violently between the extreme ends of a hideously outdated stereotypical spectrum.  At one end of the spectrum you have an extremist, pro-black, militant group (lets call them the Nation of Domination), and at the other end you have a bunch of dancing, fun-loving black faces that appear to be perpetually competing with one another for the female lead in Sister Act The Musical (lets call them The New Day).

Ethnicity aside, even racism along lines of nationality are historically dealt with in a completely ham-fisted and antiquated fashion.  John Cena versus Rusev.  America versus Russia.  Fantastic!... except the Cold War ended 25 years ago and it was 1985 when Rocky Balboa was battling Ivan Drago.

Wrestling has a dark tradition of dealing with issues of race by simply reinforcing stereotypes.  Is it any wonder that so many people mock wrestling when the industry standard for dealing with serious issues is to dumb them down into a pantomime?

Until last Friday, I used to think that TNA was quite progressive when it came to race, particularly with the way that Bobby Lashley was being used.  Here we have a great wrestler and athlete that was given the World Heavyweight Championship as a result of his abilities.  Yes he is black, but the colour of his skin was purely coincidental to his title win - not incidental - and there wasn't a big fanfare marking this momentous occasion of a black man becoming champion.

However, upon hearing MVP's promo this week, it dawned on me that whilst TNA's equal opportunities treatment of Lashley was deserving of solemn praise, it was not exactly progressive.  The fact is that the World is full of social injustice and racial divides, and although ignoring them is nowhere near as harmful as turning them into stereotypical parodies, pretending these issues do not exist and that they will go away on their own does very little to progress the discussion of a very real issue.

Now don't get me wrong, I am not accusing TNA of willfully ignoring the issue of race in their programming, or that they did so with any malicious intent, but I can understand why it would be easier to simply not address some subjects for fear of stumbling into the pitfalls of the past.

It is for the above reasons that I would consider MVP's promo on Friday to be nothing short of ground-breaking.  Not because he dropped an N-bomb on live television, but because for the first time that I can remember in wrestling he broke a wall of silence and brought the issue of race and social inequality hurtling into the 21st Century, prompting us to take a cold, uncomfortable look at the World around us.

Anyone that follows MVP on Twitter knows that he is not shy about sharing his World views on social media. He is constantly retweeting news stories about black people that have suffered injustice at the hands of the police or the Government, and although at times I have found some of the stories stretched his point a bit too thinly, I realise that I say this from the comfort of being a white man living an ocean away in the UK. Although I do not belong to the same demographic (and I don't mean to belittle the issues at hand with this comparison), as a TNA fan I can certainly empathise with minority groups feeling unfairly represented by the media.

Wherever you are in the World, there is a good chance that you have experienced or at least heard of incidents of social unrest and rioting.  From the London Riots of 2011, the Greek Austerity Riots of 2011-2012, to a whole host of riots breaking out across America in recent years; Oakland, Brooklyn, Anaheim, Ferguson, Baltimore.  One thing that unifies all of these outbreaks of "civil disobedience" is the way in which they are covered by the media.  Rather than seeking to analyse the long chain of events that have culminated in violence, media coverage instead chooses to focus on those they brand as opportunists, people that are using protests as an excuse to commit criminal damage.  The root cause of the protests soon becomes only a footnote as the issue is deflected in favour of sensationalising the damage and the looting, and portraying the protesters as a bunch of thugs.

This was the crux of MVP's promo on Friday.

Why is it that when black people (or any other social underclass in any country) are forced to protest to get what they want they get labelled as a bunch of thugs, yet every Government in the World can take what they want with impunity because they are wearing a suit, or a uniform or are hiding behind a shield?

Why is it that we hate the Beat Down Clan for doing what they want, yet cheer for The Rising for doing exactly the same?

Is it somehow acceptable that Drew Galloway came to TNA swinging a pipe and splitting people open because he was doing so on behalf of a predominantly white wrestling fanbase?

Are the Beat Down Clan only doing the things that they do because they have no other choice?  To enjoy the wealth and prestige usually reserved for whatever white poster boy is chosen as champion to represent the company by a white board of directors?

These are tough questions, and not the kind of things we are used to being asked by a wrestling show. They transcend wrestling gimmicks and storylines, and give us reason to pause and reflect on what is happening around us.  Is the wrestling World ready to have their views challenged on such a deep and introspective level?  I honestly couldn't say, because up until this point I don't believe any mainstream wrestling promotion has had the mettle to tackle such serious issues head-on.

There is no way of knowing for certain whether MVP's promo was prompted by Billy Corgan and his vision for TNA (it would certainly fit the creative plans he set out in numerous interviews), or whether MVP himself chose to incorporate some of his beliefs into his speech on Friday.  Either way, the uncomfortable truths that MVP chose to get off his chest on Impact have broken the barrier of what is and what isn't acceptable to talk about in wrestling.  I would go so far as to say that he did more good for the discussion of race in wrestling in the space of 2 minutes, than the decades worth of ill-conceived gimmicks and racial stereotypes that have preceded him.

(1) The fact that I feel uncomfortable enough to have to talk about it in these euphemistic terms is probably indicative of what a taboo subject it is for me within the World of wrestling.

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