When current WWE World Heavyweight champion Jinder Mahal cuts a promo on Smackdown about bringing diversity to World Wrestling Entertainment, he’s roundly booed by an audience that’s been conditioned to hate the other.
America’s oftentimes blind patriotism and nationalism is partly responsible for the longevity of heels such as Ivan Koloff, The Iron Sheik and Rusev, and was why the All-American Sgt. Slaughter’s early ‘90s heel turn felt like such a betrayal. When faced with a non-American wrestler WWE is often unsure what to do with them, and defaults to making them an anti-American as a sure-fire way to draw heat.
Much has been made of Mahal’s push as one of Smackdown’s top stars as an effort to appeal to the Indian market, so it’s somewhat baffling as to why they would make him a heel, or at least position his motivations for diversity as those of a heel. With the “normalization,” as Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder showrunner Shonda Rhimes prefers to call it, of television casts a hot button topic, and with the range of people on screen growing increasingly diverse (although with much work left to do), WWE should be pushing Mahal as something other than an evil Indian archetype. It shows that WWE is still locked into the regressive political perspective that dominates the conservative movement.
Though it’s easy to play the racism card when it comes to Mahal, which no doubt factors into the equation, it’s not just non-white wrestlers who can be categorized by a phenomenon I like to call “Progressive Heel.” [And we’re not even talking about “Progressive Liberal” Dan Richards, who we’ll have an interview with soon.—Ed.] When NXT darling Enzo Amore was involved in a workplace sexual harassment storyline with Lana, it did irreparable damage to his previously scorching hot character, while demonizing Rusev for standing up for his wife. It was not the first time Lana was painted as a liability that Rusev should cut loose: this trope also served as the bulk of motivation behind Rusev’s feud with Roman Reigns, and could be seen in Lana’s short-lived and confusing babyface run alongside Dolph Ziggler, who then tried to woo Summer Rae while he was supposedly dating Lana, all the while being cheered. Likewise, Lana has often been the butt of babyface “jokes,” being sexistly targeted by the likes of John Cena and The Rock. The troubling depictions of Rusev, Amore and Mahal converged in a “sensitivity training” segment that was played for laughs, showing WWE’s increasingly diverse audience, who have possibly experienced workplace discrimination at one time or another, that their well-being at work doesn’t matter. Before his heel turn Amore’s former tag team partner Big Cass also fell victim to the Progressive Heel’s counterpoint, the Regressive Babyface, directing fat-shaming and transphobic jibes at Gallows and Anderson.
This Progressive Heel/Regressive Babyface dichotomy applies to the notoriously poorly booked and characterized women’s division, too. Last year, Sasha Banks made fun of Dana Brooke’s sculpted frame by calling her Miss Piggy, when the more obvious and less misogynistic insult would be that she’s a bad wrestler. Over on Smackdown, an encounter between Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss saw Becky seemingly innocuously calling Bliss a bitch, an insult normally delivered by heels because it undercuts a babyface’s apparent righteousness. And isn’t it interesting that in a male-dominated field such as wrestling, the few female authority figures, such as Stephanie McMahon and Vickie Guerrero, are always presented as heels?
On commentary, Cory Graves is constantly the heelish voice of reason, expressing disdain for Amore’s harassment of Lana while the babyface or the supposedly impartial Michael Cole and Byron Saxton defend Amore. Heels Paul Heyman and Triple H have at times given voice to the audience’s dissatisfaction in promos, attempting to paint common complaints about WWE’s product as heelish behavior.
The rise of the anti-hero in pop culture over the past twenty years has changed what it’s traditionally meant to be a “good guy.” This is not news to wrestling—the biggest babyfaces of the late ‘90s effectively acted like heels. Even Hulk Hogan, at his ‘80s peak, was essentially a bully. Let’s not forget the company we’re dealing with here: still largely overseen by Vince McMahon, who’s closely aligned with the racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, abusive President of the United States, Donald Trump, it’s no surprise that WWE would feel like an extension of conservative talk radio, or that the company would prioritize employees whose viewpoints align with McMahon’s but who have arguably outlasted their usefulness to the product as a whole, such as Orton and JBL.
Even less damaging tropes than those mentioned above, such as Seth Rollins’s supposed face turn into some kind of whiny millennial parody, or Apollo Crews and (arguably) Bayley’s bland, just-happy-to-be-here heroes, are throwbacks to a time before much of the rest of pop culture wised up to a more complex form of storytelling. In one way, I suppose the Regressive Babyface/Progressive Heel paradigm is WWE’s attempt to flirt with anti-heroic traits. As with most instances of WWE trying something different in an attempt to keep up with the rest of pop culture, though, it misses the mark by glorifying bad behavior and small-mindedness and vilifying otherness and respect. As the TV audience increasingly fragments, and choices proliferate across the dial, it’s neither good storytelling nor smart business to potentially alienate a good number of current and potential viewers. WWE would do well to heed this warning and not demonize the very people they’re trying to attract.
Scarlett Harris is an Australian writer. You can read her previously published work at her website The Scarlett Woman, and follow her on Twitter at @ScarlettEHarris.