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How Has Pro Wrestling Avoided Its Own Gamergate?

Considering all the ugliness we saw in 2019, maybe the answer is just dumb luck

It’s really quite miraculous.

In the realm of geek culture, starting with Gamergate in 2014, just about every genre has had its own dumb culture war, like Comicsgate and other, less-“formal” spinoffs without “-gate” in the name. One highly popular subsection has somehow avoided it, though: professional wrestling. 

What makes this absolutely puzzling is that pro wrestling has long traded in harmful stereotypes onscreen and systematic, overt racism behind the scenes, often falling way behind mainstream entertainment. Yet in spite of having its own tight-knight, geeky and sometimes closed-off hardcore fandom, followers of the squared circle have, thankfully, not had that kind of moment yet.

For a while, I’ve wondered if, perhaps, this was thanks to ’rasslin’ fans being a significantly more diverse group than the universally white hillbillies that they’ve long been maligned as being, or maybe the increasing numbers of women — or at least vocal woman — in the hardcore fandom. Maybe, just maybe, historically oppressed groups had carved out enough visible space for themselves long-term to hold off large-scale bigoted bullshit, even if the day-to-day bigoted internet bullshit was still there.

Or maybe it was just dumb luck. Take the last several months, which have featured a lot of ugliness, some of which could easily have gotten worse.

Albert Hardie Jr., better known as Jordan Myles in WWE and ACH everywhere else, quit the industry leader after finding himself unable to get satisfactory answers as to the exact origins of a racist T-shirt design that WWE briefly sold for him (as I wrote for Deadspin, it bore an unmistakable resemblance to blackface). Many wrestling fans, especially those of the vocally pro-WWE variety, expressed incredulity toward Hardie’s frustrations, feeling that he should be happy to get a shirt design at all and that he had nothing to complain about because he’d been getting a pretty solid push on WWE’s NXT show until the shirt dispute came up.

When he appeared to be particularly anxious in some social media posts, including the one where he announced that he quit WWE, there was widespread speculation about his mental health, buoyed by rumors behind the scenes and subtweets from wrestlers — inside WWE and out — who had come up with him on the regional scene in Texas. A lot of this wasn’t exactly appropriate discussion, to say the least, and was often conflated with the validity of Hardie’s complaints. (For his part, he made that exact distinction in a Q&A livestream where he acknowledged battling anxiety and depression.)

Meanwhile, on a smaller scale, there was the recent “resignation” of color commentator Jim Cornette from the NWA, the promotion owned and operated by Smashing Pumpkins founder/frontman Billy Corgan. Cornette is a longtime jack-of-all-trades who made his career as a manager, providing the verbal ability for wrestlers who were lacking in that area (usually heels). This meant a wide variety of insults and offensive lines, especially in the 1980s. Some were original, while others were ripped off from joke books and his original wrestling idol, Jerry Lawler, who himself often ripped off old joke books. One such line, which he originally used in 1986 for his “bodyguard,” “Big” Bubba Rogers, describing him as so tough that “he’s the only man I’ve ever known that can strap a bucket of fried chicken on his back and ride a motor scooter across Ethiopia.” 

Back in September when a batch of NWA shows were taped in Atlanta, Cornette inexplicably — he wasn’t a heel in the role — used the same line to put over the toughness of Trevor Murdoch on the episode that premiered on YouTube on November 19th. The issue with the line was obvious: Not just connecting residents of a majority black African country with fried chicken, and thus, the negative stereotypes of black people and that dish, but also portraying them as inherently dangerous if encountering someone with food in the context of the country’s famous mid-1980s famine. Cornette resigned a day later; on his podcast, he’d later say that he didn’t want to be roped into apologizing every time there was a controversy and that he would have acted differently if the NWA took more ownership of its role in the line making air.

Both incidents have been powder kegs that felt as if they were ready to explode at any moment. Not only were there the aforementioned arguments about Hardie complaining, but also the theoretical intentionality of the racist T-shirt design and how that weighed on the situation, as well as some of those ignorant to history saying that too much was being read into the artwork (again, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a nod to blackface). As for Cornette, you can look at the Twitter search results for “starvation joke” from the last few weeks, the vast majority of which are from arguments about Cornette in light of how he’s handled the situation on his podcast. He did, in all fairness, apologize to all who were offended, but he expressed skepticism that much of the response was genuine, as opposed to being brigaded by fans of wrestlers and promotions that he frequently badmouths.

Both of these stories confront racism head-on in a way that isn’t normally done around wrestling, and both deal with how awareness of negative, hurtful stereotypes can easily prevent a lot of problems — the type of things that have been at the center of Gamergate and offshoots, if not always the catalysts. Kyle Wagner of the New York Daily News — he of arguably the definitive Gamergate thinkpiece, from when he was at Deadspin — was able to crystalize why for me. In Gamergate, Comicsgate and the like, the catalysts included a perceived feeling within the movement of overbearing wokeness from a central force: The mainstream video game press, major comic book publishers and movie studios, etc. 

That’s a lot less likely to happen in pro wrestling, and not just because of its long history of racist stereotyping. The wrestling media is a lot less centralized and less prone to editorializing, for starters. Not to mention, the WWE, not the force of encroaching wokeness, was to blame in the Jordan Myles fiasco. Someone could argue that the NWA acted as such with Cornette, but it’s become increasingly clear that their handling of the situation was just PR. NWA VP/producer Dave Lagana had, just a few days earlier, enthusiastically quote-tweeted an explicitly racist anti-diversity thread on Twitter before deleting it, while Corgan himself has gone on Infowars with Alex Jones to rant about how “SJWs” are like the Ku Klux Klan. Throw in how warmly Cornette’s departure was handled on-air, and letting the “fried chicken” line through feels more like a feature than a bug.

 

On the promotion front, the most likely corporate SJW-as-bogeyman catalyst would probably involve All Elite Wrestling, which has positioned itself as, if not the woke alternative to WWE, then at least WWE without the surface awfulness like Saudi propaganda shows and blackface shirts. That “more woke” positioning has included the push of openly trans Nyla Rose as a top star of the AEW women’s division, which has resulted in a small but unfortunate and vocal backlash among some wrestling fans. This is, of course, multiple layers of stupid on top of the transphobic parts since, even if a theoretical advantage existed for Rose — and the NCAA and Olympic standards for trans athletes say it doesn’t — it wouldn’t apply in a predetermined entertainment sport, regardless. 

Rose winning the title at some point, after seeing how much sad fragile rage her inclusion in the company’s first women’s title match worked up, feels like the type of thing that could become a cause for the fan who lacks basic empathy and would have thrown their lot in with the previous Genregate movements.

In the meantime? Let’s just hope that wrestling fandom keeps progressing and, at worse, maintains its status quo. Because if nothing else, the particular set of circumstances that have made a Wrestinggate unlikely today probably aren’t gonna change any time soon.

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