This will be the second time I re-publish this essay. Requested in this discussion about Randy Savage's death but ended up being mostly about wrestling.
Preface from first republishing on May 31, 2008:
Okay, confession time. [Not Confesión time, unfortunately.] I've actively been trying to avoid watching wrestling for the past month and a half. That ish is super addictive for the same reasons I like football, Fight Club, and dumb hip-hop: Extremism + talent = allure. It doesn't really matter that it's ham-handed, misogynistic, and occasionally racist; if anything, that makes it more entrancing as a weird subcultural construct that gets to ignore a lot of now-established rules. I don't think you can portray Samoans [exclusively] like this on Law and Order: SVU, which precedes the show the below fellow, Umaga, stars on.
Um, about that.
Thankfully, one of my hip professors let me write a senioritis-curing essay, well, about that - how and why WWE can have straight-up ethnicized savages on their primetime shows, and what that means for audiences. The last true essay I posted on here was the love one, which everyone but my sister dug, so get your scroll button ready if you're not interested. But it's a good read. Hyperlinked for your pleasure, too.
“At its worst, professional wrestling is an oversimplistic display of male bravado and vulgar social cliches. But at its best, wrestling is a sophisticated, theatricalized representation of the violent urges repressed by the social code, of the transgressive impulses present in the most civilized of people.”
-Edward Fatu as ‘savage’ Samoan wrestler Umaga
Professional wrestling is an enigmatic enterprise. Often disregarded as a culture, its dominant company, World Wrestling Entertainment, stealthily airs three shows a week and one pay-per-view a month, raking in a surprising amount of money and expanding an impressive fan base. Yet the company, despite its relative prominence, relies on some outdated clichés and gimmicks to make its characters popular. Many “superstars”, the WWE’s term for its wrestlers, pronounce a race or ethnicity to get “over” – popular or unpopular – with the audience (PWTorch.com). Sometimes, this race does not coincide with that of the superstar playing the race. This belies the deeply rooted traditions of wrestling as theater, pitting brother against brother, virtue against sin, and, often, man against savage. But in a time where other television dramas are scrutinized for their representations of race, the WWE’s simplistic stereotypes pass without judgment. This essay unpacks the ramifications of one of wrestling’s oldest stereotypes: the savage. The two most prominent savages currently working for the WWE play fierce, angry men from distant lands: Umaga, ‘the Samoan Bulldozer’, who is announced from “the Isle of Samoa”, and The Great Khali, ‘the Punjabi Nightmare’, billed from “the jungles of Punjab, India”. Khali and Umaga represent two of the most unrealistic portrayals of any ethnicity on television. Through a thorough exploration of both characters, we will witness the methods, motives, and results of these portrayals.
WWE stages roughly 300 events a year in arenas around the world, with about 90% of the shows in the United States of America or Canada (WWE.com). In the first quarter of 2008, the incorporated company made a record $162.6 million dollars in total revenue (multichannel.com). Between its three weekly shows, RAW, SmackDown!, and ECW, WWE (commonly and hereafter referred to as ‘the WWE’) reaches roughly 15 million viewers each week (Schiesel). It’s clear to the observant viewer that WWE affects a large percentage of young males, its target demographic. The WWE’s viewers are not watching revolutionary depictions; wrestling now is merely a variation on the original theme of wrestling ‘federations’: Greek theater with suplexes. With very little exception, wrestlers have always been “babyfaces”, “faces” for short, and “heels”. Faces curry favor with the crowd as good guys (or girls); heels are uncaring, ignoble, and villainous, attempting to offend the crowd’s sensibilities.
Umaga and Khali fit into a long lineage of savages-as-heels that includes Fatu’s uncles, WWE Hall of Famers Arthur and Leati Ano’ai, who performed as Afa and Sika, The Wild Samoans. Umaga, real name Edward Fatu, and Khali, real name Dalip Singh Rana, are effective “monster heels”, large, imposing figures who win matches with dominating strength (PWTorch.com). Monster heels are by definition flat characters, and, indeed, the WWE is mostly comprised of 'superstars' working within limited stereotypes. But most are allowed to talk. Umaga and Khali have spoken less than 10 English words each in their combined four-plus years on WWE programming. This silence of articulation is key to the vilifying and marginalization of the two non-white Others. Essentially, as the only representatives of Samoans and Indians on the show, the depiction of the two as unable to learn English or act in a civilized manner is far more damaging than it would be if one of the company’s ethnically unidentified Caucasian wrestlers worked a savage gimmick.
Umaga’s April 2006 debut in the WWE (Fatu had previously worked as a superstar named Jamal) was preceded by the debut of his manager, Armando Alejandro Estrada, a Cuban manager (played by Palestinian Hazem Ali) who instantly identified as a heel by berating injured face Ric Flair, extremely over at the time. Estrada was depicted as the only person who could control Umaga, who charged in at Estrada’s command and “squashed” Flair – dominating him completely and leaving him “kayfabe” (depicted as legitimate when not) unconscious (“Umaga Debut”). Umaga’s appearance was greeted with gasps, then boos from the crowd. His long, unkempt hair, crazed expression, bone necklace, Samoan patterned wrap, and particularly, his warpainted face, identify him as a caricature of ancient Samoan warriors. Over the past two years, Umaga’s persona has become even more savage and unbelievable; Estrada no longer with him, Fatu braided his hair and added an ear piercing, gold teeth, and a back-spanning tattoo. The traditional cultural signifiers of “savage” are all over Fatu-as-Umaga, whose very name means “the end” in the traditional Samoan tattooing process. Yet Fatu is an articulate, soft-spoken man who lives in Houston when not wrestling. To millions of Americans, though, his “ogrelike” misrepresentation, as Seth Schleisel of The New York Times describes it, is their only vision of Samoans, currently close to invisible on American television.
The Great Khali’s debut, a week later, was even more telling of the resonance of the savage with the American audience. During a match between thoroughly over veteran face The Undertaker and mostly defeated heel Mark Henry. Khali, unannounced, strides down the entrance ramp, accompanied by Henry’s manager Daivari. A hush of much-coveted fan reaction hums through the crowd. Commentators notice and immediately “work” – effectively feign – alarm. “What the hell is that?” both announcers say. The Undertaker furrows his brow, as Khali, billed at 7’4”, 420 pounds, reaches the ring. “Oh my god, look at the size of this man!” announcer Michael Cole exclaims. The announcers continue to shriek over Khali’s size as The Undertaker, billed four inches shorter, enters the ring and punches Khali twice, both of which Khali refuses to “sell” – act as if the punch hurt. With one chop to the skull, Khali lays out The Undertaker. The presentation of Khali as a heel is complete; the identification of him as a savage is just beginning. First, he attacks in a ‘primitive’ fashion to continue his destruction: headbutts and kicks. Then, he roars at the crowd, raising his arms above his head, making him even bigger, as animals do in the wild. The WWE is extremist theater, but its performers have mastered presenting illusion as fact. Khali, without saying a word, has identified himself as a savage in a nuanced way. The episode of SmackDown! ends. Khali’s ethnicity will be introduced with a sordid backstory by his manager next episode.
Suddenly, Khali is not just a savage, but the Punjabi Nightmare. In wrestling, as in sport and drama, ethnicities are inseparable from the identities. Wrestling, however, is predicated upon the fantastic – whether it’s staged deaths (The Undertaker’s gimmick is one part resurrected corpse, one part monk, and one part American hero), cultural sketches (rappers, rednecks, and punks currently dot the WWE roster), or kayfabe and reality blurring lines (Muhammad Hussan was a vilified Arab-American heel character who was yanked from the air after the London bombings of July 2005) (McKenna). However, the fantastic often switch sides: all of WWE’s most popular stars have been extremely over as faces and heels. Yet the WWE has shown no signs of substantial “face turns” for Umaga or Khali. It would not be necessary for them to break character and talk (Rana has a limited range of American English regardless) – in the WWE, a turn is as simple as attacking the bad guys and helping the good guys. Yet often, ‘others’ work as heels much more than faces – whether Black, Latino, Arab, or Russian, it seems that Canadian and American identities resonate as “good” with the audiences, and the WWE will not deviate and turn the other end of the spectrum – savages that are difficult to identify with because of their dearth of complexity – into faces. This marginalization should not be underestimated merely because it is symbiotic with the over-ness of Umaga and Khali’s opponents; rather, there should be some call for diversification in good/badness for savages if not a change in characterization.
Wrestling’s history of offensive storylines doesn’t excuse the distinctly undermining nature of these depictions without counterbalance. Though wrestling tends to be “full of objectionable content”, according to Washington City Paper writer Dave McKenna, it is usually the violence or vulgarity that audiences object to, when in fact, those are staples of what is now an American institution. The truly objectionable institution is the amalgamation of race into villainy: every time Umaga enters to Samoan drums to deliver a Samoan Spike, one of his most feared moves, and bellows while sticking his tongue out, it imbues his underrepresented ethnic group with the term “savage”. Same for Khali when he appears to the sounds of a sitar and locks in the Vise Grip on a helpless face while roaring at the crowd. Fatu and Rana are by most accounts excellent people who are proud of their heritage and active in their ethnic communities (WWE.com). Yet their day job does far more detriment than they or most realize, in part because wrestling is such a highly evolved subculture. Essentially all fans view wrestling as apart from all other forms of entertainment; the average two-hour RAW requires at least forty minutes of suspension of disbelief. The world of the WWE is a glamorized fantasy where laws and expectations do not apply. This may in fact ameliorate the theoretical influence of Umaga and Khali – the audience knows they’re playing roles, and the non-audience doesn’t care. But in practice, they are still monstrous stereotypes that, if extrapolated, imply that Samoans and Indians are subhuman or close to it.
The rationale behind savage portraitures is the rationale behind all wrestling, originally a circus form that rose to iconic status in Western culture through relentless self-promotion: the bottom line. In a 1980 essay about the jargon of professional wrestling, George E. Kerrick clearly identifies wrestling as a “business, not a sport” and writes:
In a good match, with good working and good selling, the wrestlers will get heat. Specifically, heat means intense excitement, anger, or joy…the sport is handled from the inside so as to create a distance between the athletes and those who buy their product…thus, emotional response is reduced to heat…[jargon] helps detach the wrestler from his action, make him feel not that he is catering to a love of violence but that he is performing a ritualized task, entertaining, doing a job. Many wrestlers, like other professional athletes, call themselves whores – they are selling their bodies for the gratification of eager buyers (145).
30 years later, the justification for in-ring actions remains the same; it must be acknowledged that Umaga and Khali are staggeringly effective in their roles, alternately playing the foil or squashing the weak, allowing faces to function against them. Their skill at being savages propels the company’s success. There is no story in wrestling without a good heel.
The story is everything in wrestling, too. “[Wrestling deals] fundamentally with storytelling, or the art of presenting a narrative to a public audience in a way that is understandable and entertaining. I could go on at length about the ways in which elaborately staged and imaginatively costumed morality plays acted out in the wrestling ring are not all that dissimilar from the best living history programs I have seen,” writes Michael J. Devine, then-President of the National Council on Public History. Indeed, the WWE’s ability to manipulate catharsis in live and television audience is underrated and masterful. Many would argue that they present an escapist alternative to reality, where society is distilled to eternal and elemental conflicts. That world, though, is still populated with racialized characters. De-racializing is not an option, but the consistent portrayal of two races as savages – and only savages – taints the excellent storytelling. The surplus visibility for Indians and Samoans is all bad, and has been for two years. Perhaps it doesn’t affect the majority of WWE viewers, because they have a distinct division between reality and programming one defined and refined by years of consumption. But stereotypical representations of any race, presented over long periods of time and accepted as “fact”, cannot contribute to advanced racial thinking, but only make a viewer more likely to react to heelish races the way they react to heels themselves.
The WWE’s three weekly shows are never going to be viewed by the general public as sophisticated entertainment. But they are. With ambitious management and promotion, the WWE’s territory and influence will only increase in the years to come. This essay’s implications are such that the WWE should reassess its incorporation of savage, monster heels as the lone representations of races. In a world where violence is the main mode of communication, the WWE is training a generation to cheer every time a Samoan or Indian man gets hit with a fist, boot, or chair. Whether or not audiences are responsible enough to disassociate on-screen action with real life, the characters of Umaga and Khali are the beginning to a conversation about wrestling’s translation to and effects on its worldwide, multicultural audience. In the future, perhaps, Umaga and Khali will actually be able to participate in that conversation by speaking for themselves.