April 14, 2010

Professional Wrestling Demographics

Some commenters were struck by the fact that fans of professional wrestling (at least, the ones who admit it on a survey) voted heavily Democratic. I recall that Pat Buchanan's Reform Party campaign in 2000 spent some money on campaign spots on professional wrestling broadcasts, but didn't get much from them.

That reminded me that I've never posted an article I wrote about professional wrestling in 2001, at the apogee of its popularity: I took my sons to a sold out Staples Center in LA with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the front row to bless The Rock / Duane Johnson's launch into a movie career.
Then a bunch of setbacks came along to slow it down (the World Wildlife Fund's lawsuit that made it change its acronym from WWF to WWE, the distraction of Vince McMahon's ill-fated XFL professional football league, the rise of UFC, the defection of The Rock to the movies, and general ennui).
It's old, old stuff, but I'll put it up anyway:

LOS ANGELES, Calif. Aug. 10, 2001 (UPI) -- Los Angeles is a city so divided by complex ethnic suspicions that in June white Republicans allied with black Democrats to prevent the election of a Mexican-American mayor. Yet, this week sixteen thousand Southern Californians of all races and languages gathered peacefully in a multicultural celebration of an institution that finally unites rather than divides this most diverse of American cities: namely, the World Wrestling Federation's "Smackdown!"

The Smackdown! audience in the gleaming Staples Center offered almost a scale model of LA's ethnic composition: about half Hispanic, but with large numbers of whites, blacks, and Southeast Asians. The only groups not well represented were other Asians and Jews.

LA's most celebrated philosopher, Rodney King, once asked, "Why can't we all just get along?" At Smackdown!, everybody got along famously (except the wrestlers). The WWF fans were far better behaved than, say, the notoriously drunken and hostile mob at the 1999 Ryder Cup golf tournament at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

After the headlining match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and Kurt Angle had ended in chaos, I became frustrated with how slowly we were all filing out up the stairs. "Hey, can we get a move on up there?" I shouted. Only then did I notice that we were moving haltingly because the people in line ahead of me were politely waiting for a man with a crippled leg to haul himself along with his arms.

Interestingly, race and ethnicity have become less blatant aspects of pro wrestling storylines. In the old days, the bad guys (known as "heels") were often evil foreigners, such as The Sheik or that godless Russian Boris Malenko.

This promoting ploy has almost died out due to the decline in world tensions. Also, universal immigration to America makes it risky to pick on any foreign country for fear of offending its immigrants in the audience. Only white foreigners are fair game these days. At this week's show, the one bad guy (or "heel") who was booed for his nationality was Lance Storm of Canada. (By the way, one has to admit that as preposterous as the name "Lance Storm" sounds, it's still far more plausible than the name of America's real-life cycling hero: "Lance Armstrong.")

Old time promoters liked to match representatives of rival white ethnic groups, such as Bruno Sammartino and Ivan Putski. Today, America's increasingly multiracial population has largely lost interest in these old battles for bragging rights among white nationalities.

Even in the past, however, promoters tended to prudently shy away from hyping matches that could be construed as a battle of the races. Big city arenas attracted a combustible mix of blue-collar types from all races. No impresario wanted a race war to break out in his stands.

Indeed, by the 1960s, nonwhites frequently played heroes ("babyfaces") defending America in struggles with Foreign Menaces. African-American pioneer Bobo Brazil's long running war with the anti-American and racially prejudiced Sheik was a famous example. Further, American Indian wrestlers were always noble and true.

Race, of course, remains a potential danger spot in any American enterprise. Fortunately for the WWF, it has found the perfect post-racial man in its biggest star, "The Rock," the wrestler who bills himself as "the most electrifying man in sports entertainment."

A third generation pro wrestler, The Rock (born Duane Johnson) is a hybrid offspring of America's two most muscular racial groups. His maternal grandfather, Chief Peter Maivia, was the first Samoan star, while his father Rocky Johnson was the WWF's first African-American Tag Team champion.

Yet, The Rock looks neither Samoan nor black. Instead, he gives the impression of being some sort of future human, a superbly handsome specimen from a race that will someday evolve from all that is most formidable in existing humanity.

The popularity of the WWF among minorities raises intriguing questions about assimilation into American culture.

Professional wrestling remains largely a white institution. Typical wrestlers, such as Chris Jericho or Triple H, resemble a young construction worker's dream of how he'd want to look. As heavy metal power chords crash through the arena, longhaired men with massive muscles crammed into tight leather jeans stomp down the runway, looking like Aerosmith on steroids.

Yet, judging by who visits wrestling websites, nonwhites are even more fascinated with pro wrestling than whites. According to Chicago-based marketing research firm comScore's panel of 1.5 million computers that use the Web, Hispanics were about 40 percent more likely to visit WWF.com than Anglos in July. Asian-Americans' interest levels were similar to Hispanics. And, African-Americans were the most enthusiastic group of all.

TheRock.com skews even more heavily toward minorities than WWF.com. In contrast, the website of the number two star, beer-guzzling redneck Steve Austin's StoneCold.com, attracts a somewhat whiter audience..

Wrestling's strongest appeal is to the least educated, with high school dropouts viewing WWF.com 60 percent more than the average web surfer. (Still, pro wrestling is reasonably popular even with holders of graduate degrees: they visit wrestling sites half as often as the typical Internet user.)

In California, a state where 26 percent of the population speaks Spanish at home, many Anglos worry that Latin American immigrants have attained the critical mass that makes it convenient for them to avoid learning English. Still, they may be underestimating the gravitational pull of American pop culture institutions such as Smackdown! Those concerned that minorities will choose not to assimilate into American mainstream mores might be pleased to learn of the multicultural popularity of the WWF.

Although Mexico's flamboyant professional wrestling style called "lucha libre" (or "free fight") - which features wrestlers in masks and capes risking quadriplegia with flips from the top rope - is popular among LA's Mexican immigrants, it can't match the WWF's big budget entertainment firepower. 

Pro wrestling has evolved significantly over the last decade. WWF owner Vince McMahon's decision to finally admit in interviews that pro wrestling was bogus liberated it from its reputation as a "sport" only fit to be watched by morons too dim to notice that the wrestlers were pulling their punches.

The WWF now puts on "sports entertainment." At the Staples Center, it seemed perfectly appropriate that Arnold Schwarzenegger was sitting ringside so he could admire the remarkable showmanship of The Rock, his fellow entertainment conglomerate. In fact, just as Schwarzenegger made the transition from the freak show sport of bodybuilding to action movies, The Rock recently wrapped up starring in "The Scorpion King," a prequel to "The Mummy" movie franchise.

McMahon has pointed out, "There's no other place you can go where you can see a soap opera, action-adventure, rock show, talk show, comedy, all that stuff rolled into one. Every format that is successful in television, we dabble in that." In a particularly post-modern note, on his TV broadcasts, McMahon (number 260 on the "Forbes 400" list with $1.1 billion) himself plays a scheming billionaire character named "Vince McMahon."

Nineteen percent of California's population admitted to the Census Bureau in 2000 that they speak English "less than very well." Luckily, the WWF foments an urge to learn English. After all, one needs to know the language of America to understand such verbal gems of The Rock as his enormously popular catchphrase, "Do ya smell what The Rock is cooking?" Lacking all the rigidity and pretensions of classical art forms, McMahon's wrestling shows can try practically anything in their search for the lowest common denominator entertainment.

Yet, while we might well be pleased that Smackdown! encourages immigrants to learn English, something seems amiss. Developing a taste for Smackdown! isn't exactly what most Americans mean when they say they want immigrants to assimilate. Further, the growth of the WWF vulgarizes American culture as a whole.

This leads to a difficult question about the value of diversity.

It was widely assumed by intellectuals that since ethnic diversity is a good thing, more diversity would automatically do great things for American culture, such as make it more artistic, refined, and sensitive. With the representatives of all societies here to instruct us, we would create a new cultural synthesis that drew from the best the world had to offer.

In the field of restaurant cuisine, immigration-driven diversity has indeed largely proven to be a great cultural boon, exactly as advertised. Yet, in much else, increased diversity seems to have mostly encouraged lowest common denominator entertainment. While there are worse things we could do with their time, diversity was never supposed to be about people of all ethnic groups getting together to watch Smackdown!

Nor was multiculturalism supposed to have helped usher in movies that are simply previews for theme park thrill rides, and television shows that, in the tradition of "Baywatch," are cast primarily on the basis of who has had the most plastic surgery.

There are exceptions to this pattern. For example, East Asian immigrants, such as Korean cellist Yo-Yo Ma, now comprise a large proportion of America's classical instrumentalists.

A more far reaching counter-argument, however, might be to point out that what’s distinctive in America's cultural heritage seldom grew out of artistic delicacy, but instead is the result of the kind of tawdry energy that Smackdown! exemplifies.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey Steve,

Do you have any comment on the rise of the UFC ?

rob said...

"the World Wildlife Fund's lawsuit that maid it change its acronym"

Nope, made it change. Feel free to delete this and the dozen others you'll get like it.

Anonymous said...

"Korean cellist Yo-Yo Ma"???

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yo-Yo_Ma

Rudy Maneras said...

Well Steve speaking of pro wresting...i.e. kabuki dance...i.e. staged drama...

Here's a link to the infamous Zero Hedge finance blog with commenters discussing the Iran-Israel war plan in the most earthy terms:

Perspectives From The West Bank: "Israel Is Definitely Planning A Strike On Iran, Which I'm Told May Happen This Summer"

Do you realize we can't even get accurate translations in the USA of what the Iranian leadership are saying? That the big networks in the USA are deliberately repeating ad nauseum the mistranslations?

And that interesting little factoid about the Persians never waging wars of expansion/aggression in their very long history keeps popping up. I guess they just don't have enought hegemonic dominance in the blood -yunno the Right Stuff- the stuff that makes all those guys at CIA and Mossad tick.

Anyway I was reading that thread and thinking how Steve could -yeah- maybe offer his komment kontrol services to the untidy folks at Zero Hedge. So many posts over there would never make the grade in iSteve's world. They really need to raise themselves up to a civilized level of discourse.

Anonymous said...

The Return of Wilding?

An Unwelcome Easter Custom in Times Square: Violence
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/06/nyregion/06timessq.html

Don't ignore racial aspect of Plaza mobs
http://voices.kansascity.com/node/8600

(Black) Flash mob victim's untold story
http://www.philly.com/philly/news/homepage/90813449.html

Garland said...

Thanks to this article I have now plunked down an hour reading about McMahon and the WWE. It is the most surreal thing theatre I've ever heard of. It makes Pirandello, Beckett, Artaud, Jarry, Kafka, all look straightforward and guileless. I don't know what I am going to do with the knowledge that I have been missing it for the last twenty years.

Anonymous said...

If you're a white man who still thinks the Democrat party gives a damn about you, your'e clearly dumb enough to enjoy pro wrestling.

Pissed Off Chinaman said...

Well count me as a center-left Democrat who loves pro-wrestling and openly admits it...although only during certain eras....i.e. the 1980s-early 1990s and the Attitude Era of the late 90s early 00s. It sucks these days. I was also suprised pro-wrestling (very southern and rednecky) was not more conservative in its voting patterns. And yes, few people in my left wing professional circles will openly admit to watching the WWE although many of us do.

Anonymous said...

Yo-Yo Ma is actually Chinese.

RWF said...

"Only then did I notice that we were moving haltingly because the people in line ahead of me were politely waiting for a man with a crippled leg to haul himself along with his arms."

Well that's pretty cringe inducing.

Steve Sailer said...

"It makes Pirandello, Beckett, Artaud, Jarry, Kafka, all look straightforward and guileless."

Yeah, that's about the size of it. Enough material for a thousand Modern Language Association seminars.

As for the rise of the UFC, after Americans became exposed to all these foreign fighting styles from Bruce Lee onward, the question of "Who would win in a fight: a _____ fighter or a ______ fighter?" became really interesting.

OneSTDV said...

The apogee of pro wrestling popularity was probably in 1998-1999, not 2001.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of "the return of Wilding," we had one of those flash mobs of black youths here in Chattanooga a month ago. It was in Coolidge Park, the premier gathering spot in an upper-middle-middle class neighborhood in the heart of down town. Four people got shot. There was lots of red and blue.

Is this some kind of national movement? How long before whites start shooting back?

Galactic Overlord said...

Steve,

Rocky Johnson isn't African American, although he is descended from African Americans. He's a Black Canadian, more specifically Black Nova Scotian.

While the vast majority of blacks in Canada today are of Caribbean or recent African origin (IIRC, about a third are of Jamaican origin alone), Nova Scotia and southwestern Ontario still have substantial black communities descended mostly from people who fled the US as slaves or freemen before the Civil War. In fact, the first race riot recorded in North America took place in Nova Scotia.

Anonymous said...

Gee, maybe the point is that overall, people do get along.

Prof. Indiana Jones said...

...the question of "Who would win in a fight: a _____ fighter or a ______ fighter?"...

The correct answer is always "gun fighter."

J said...

Yet, The Rock looks neither Samoan nor black. Instead, he gives the impression of being some sort of future human, a superbly handsome specimen from a race that will someday evolve from all that is most formidable in existing humanity

Steve, It appears you have you been reading about Vasconcelos's "Raza Cosmica". He wrote that the task of America (the continent) was to create the new cosmic - universal race.

Vernunft said...

"I was also suprised pro-wrestling (very southern and rednecky) was not more conservative in its voting patterns."

RTFA, it's not southern and rednecky at all.

Pissed Off Chinaman said...

Ma is a Chinese name Steve, You live in Los Angeles, come on. I am so pissed off right now :)

The Bear said...

I was also suprised pro-wrestling (very southern and rednecky) was not more conservative in its voting patterns.

Like they do with anything that's worth a damn, Yankees consolidated and centralized wrestling in order to turn into a money-making machine and in the process ruined it. From Wikipedia: "In the 1980s, video tape trading and cable television paved the way for the eventual death of the NWA's inter-regional business model, as fans could now see for themselves the plot holes and inconsistencies between the different regional storylines. Also, the presence of stars like Ric Flair on TV every week made their special appearances in each region less of a draw. Vince K. McMahon, who had bought the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) in 1982, used these gathering trends, as well as raids of competing promoters' talent pools, to turn his Northeastern territory into the first truly national promotion."

So now southern, rednecky types who vote conservative are more likely to be college football fans than wrestling fans because it remains a regional sport. (Of course, a southern team always wins the national title but that's anti-climatic compared to winning its conference title.)

Pissed Off Chinaman said...

Bear,

Vinny Mac is no Yankee though. He grew up in a trailer park in NC and went to East Carolina University. The WWWF (soon WWF and now WWE) was a northeastern promotion, but I would hardly lay the death of the inter-regional system at the door of Yankees. It is something that cable television and video tapes would have inevitably brought about.

jody said...

as far as i can tell, pro wrestling comes from real wrestling, which was as popular as a spectator sport as boxing 100 years ago in the US.

the problem with real wrestling was that it was a lot easier to fix than boxing, and the sport became so corrupt that in only a few decades it transformed from real fights into a scripted, pre-arranged show which people watched for fun, instead of for the thrill of open competition.

real wrestling is still a much bigger sport than boxing, but spectator interest never recovered.

boxrec.com lists a mere 15000 professional boxers in the entire world, and the worldwide participation rate in boxing is higher in 2010 than it has ever been. whereas in the US alone, there are 250000 high school wrestlers every single year. and the US gets dominated in international competition by other nations, so i'm estimating that there have to be, easily, 1 million amateur wrestlers.

NCAA wrestlers are highly successful in MMA, but the russians, who dominate NCAA wrestlers in international wrestling, are barely even interested in MMA yet. russia could have, without exaggeration, 3 or 4 guys with the size and speed of brock lesnar, and the same or better wrestling background. at least they could, if they wanted, go pro now, versus the pre 1991 era, when it was illegal for communist athletes to become professionals.

Pissed Off Chinaman said...

Vernunft,

I did read the article and while the industry has broadened its appeal, it does have very rednecky and southern roots. In fact even now I would bet that pro-wrestling is most popular down South.

klaos said...

Steve - Mixed martial arts (UFC) settled the style-vs-style championship years ago (before it achieved the popularity it now enjoys). Brazilian jiu jitsu for grappling and Muay Thai for striking, with traditional wrestling gluing everything together won years ago. There are a few guys that excel using other styles (like Karo Parisyan, a judo-based armenian out of LA), but they are the exception to the rule.

To over-simplify, the UFC is where collegiate wrestlers go to be professional athletes (as well as international Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai champions). I'd guess over half of the UFC fighters were college wrestlers. Most of the other half are foreigners (including immigrants, like Karo).

Anonymous said...

It's hard to tell the difference between Chinese and Koreans sometimes because they share so many names (Lee, Yang, Huang, and more).

David said...

>Gee, maybe the point is that overall, people do get along.<

No, they don't, dumbass.