Playing with Stereotypes in Wresling and Animation: An Interview with Nicholas Samond (Part One)

The topic of stereotypes have long been central to work in media literacy. School children are often taught that stereotypes are unambiguously bad and that we should strive for more “realistic” or “authentic” representations. Yet, there are many problems with this formulation, as Richard Dyer pointed out to us years and years ago, starting with the fact that it doesn’t address the reasons why popular art so often relies on stereotypes, it doesn’t really acknowledge the degree to which our pursuit of more respectible images may itself result simply in the construction of new and improved stereotypes, and it doesn’t acknowledge the many ways that artists — high and popular — play with stereotypes to heighten the public’s awareness of their constructed nature.

Today and tomorrow, I will be talking with media historian Nicholas Sammond about the place of stereotypes in popular culture, primarily read through the lens of two of his favorite topics — professional wrestling and American animation. I reached out to Sammond in part because of the interest here in wrestling in the wake of visits from Jim Ross and Mick Foley this term but also because of work that Project nml is doing on animation for its exemplar library. I am also trying to convince Nick that he should take up blogging as an outlet for his itch to do more as a public intellectual.

Here’s a little background on Nick:

Nicholas Sammond is Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto. His book, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (Duke University Press, 2005), received the 2006 Katherine Singer Kovacs award from SCMS. He is also the editor of Steel Chair to the Head: the Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling (Duke University Press, 2005) and articles in such journals as Continuum, Television Quarterly, and Camera Obscura. Babes in Tomorrowland is a history of 20th century American childhood and its relation to popular media about and for children. Sammond’s current work, tentatively titled “Biting the Invisible Hand,” examines the place of blackface minstrelsy in the origins of American commercial animation.

One of the guest speakers who came to Sam Ford’s class, Lee Benaka, said that he faced great skepticism in the publishing world as to whether any market at all would exist for a book looking seriously at pro wrestling, since it was presumed that wrestling fans and academic audiences were incompatible. Did you face any of this skepticism at any point during the process of putting this book together?

Yes and no. My publisher, Duke University Press, was very supportive of the book, even though they knew it would be tough to create a book that is both academically rigorous and accessible to a general audience. Wrestling fans are looking for smart work done on the topic, but I think they rightly mistrust material that seems pedantic or unnecessarily complicated. At the same time, academic power structures expect material that is complicated and pedantic (in the sense of teaching its readers about a topic).

So, it’s hard to meet both goals. As the editor, I tried to address this by having some articles that would appeal to academics who wanted a more theoretical or analytical approach, and others for academics and fans who wanted a smart read on wrestling without the theoretical lingo. Reading the reviews of the book, it seems that some readers were satisfied with this approach and some weren’t.

Interestingly, though, reviewers on wrestling web pages who critiqued the book for being too jargony were still sympathetic and supportive of it as a whole project, even if they felt there were parts of it that they felt alienated by. I think it points out an interesting problem in talking about pro wrestling. It has a very smart and engaged community of fans who also value the ethic of straightforward speech and action that are hallmarks of wrestling.

But they (we?) also appreciate the category of the smart mark, the person who doesn’t care whether what they see is “real” as much as they do that it is genuine. The difference is, I think, that a genuine performance is sincere in its appreciation of the audience, even if it is playing with the boundary of what’s performed and what’s actually happening.

I hope that my book, even when it gets academic, is genuine in that sense of the word. Every essay, regardless of who it was addressing, was meant to treat pro wrestling seriously as a complex cultural form, and not to treat it as a symptom of social disorder or as unimportant. Everyone who wrote for the book did so because we appreciate wrestling.

Professional wrestling, as a populist phenomenon, is not easy to pin down in terms of its politics. The WWE in particular seems to rail against socially conservative censors as it also pokes fun at activist liberal detractors as well. At the same time, wrestling plays both with and against cultural stereotypes. How does wrestling’s complicated politics explain its place in American culture?

First off, I have to say something about terms. The terms “liberal” and “conservative” are complicated. A few hundred years ago, they meant pretty much the opposite of what they do today. Liberals believed in free markets and a minimum of government interference (as much as there was a government in many places), while conservatives felt that the government had a vested interest in regulating civic and economic life. Now, those terms have become inverted. But more than that, at their worst, they’ve become meaningless shells, epithets that people use to insult each other without necessarily really thinking through what they are saying.

Populism has the potential to be a very progressive movement for the empowerment of working people to find a common ground on which to build a better society–as in the progressive politics of Fighting Bob LaFollette and the Grange Party–or it can be mixed with what seems more like potentially fascist demagoguery, as in the populism of the Kingfish, Huey Long. But what is good about populism is a belief in economic equality and fairness, and a recognition that working people are just fine as they are, as opposed to being inferiors who will only have social value if they become rich.

This sort of positive populism has been pushed to the margins in favor of a celebration of the privileges of the wealthy and the super-wealthy by the two ruling parties in American politics. George Bush, himself an heir to a tradition of wealth, power and corruption that dates back several generations, has feigned a populist attitude by learning to mispronounce a few words, wear cowboy boots, and swagger. He and the people he works for produce a sham populism that pretends that any of us can become rich and powerful if “the liberals” would only get out of the way and let us–while making sure that the rich don’t actually have to compete on a level playing field with the rest of us, or perhaps more appropriately, while making sure that we feel more inclined to compete with each other over the scraps they leave than to work together for our mutual benefit.

But it’s not just the Republicans who are engaged in this type of behavior. In the last election, the Democrats regained control of congress because of the popularity of people like Jim Webb, who talks the same sort of populism. John Edwards also plays that game: he’s one of a number of multi-millionaires in politics (and some of the richest are actually Democrats) who claim to care about working people, but whose policies, when you look at them, don’t do that much more than those of the Republicans. So, we get to choose between one empty performance and another.

I guess what I’m saying is that there is actually a vital populist tradition in the United States, one that is deeply invested in issues of equity and of respect for difference, that has gotten watered down in our current political climate. I think that the WWE, and the WCW before it, and many of the territorial operations back in the day, played with that sense of populism. If it sometimes trades in noxious stereotypes, and I think it does from time to time, that may be because the terms of populism that are available to us today have been so watered down.

Or, maybe the way to understand it is to say that because so many of us are being deprived of real politcal and economic partipation today–with more and more wealth and power going to fewer and fewer people–that the sting of what is politically incorrect in WWE performances is greater and more real. If we all have a stake in each other’s well-being, and a respect for our differences, then jokes about those differences are not as damaging as they are when race, gender, class, and sexual identity are used as a means of keeping us apart from and hostile to each other.

What makes the WWE so interesting and important in this regard, I think, is that it is one of the few venues on television where people mention class and economic inequality in significant ways. You have workers rising up and getting in the face of their bosses, expressing not only their hostility to being oppressed, but also a certain solidarity that transcends differences (primarily of race, not so much of gender or sexuality), and I find that really refreshing. It’s certainly not perfect.

At the end of the day, Vince is still on top, and in the offscreen world he’s a billionaire (or almost one), and I honestly don’t know why anyone needs that kind of money in a world where people are starving. (Even in a world where people aren’t starving, I can’t understand why someone would need that kind of money….) The most recent Wrestlemania is a good example of the potentials and problems of the populism of the WWE. Between the Donald raining cash on the audience in the leadup to it, and Battle of the Billionaires being waged by minions (but the resulting shaving being suffered by McMahon), you have a performance of struggles between the powerful, and a literalization of how workers are used by their bosses, which still manages to reinforce a social order with a few at the top and many below. But at least–at least–it allows us to witness the performance of conflicts that remain absolutely taboo in most other forms of popular entertainment in the U.S.

Now, some critics would describe this as nothing more than “bread and circuses,” a distraction in the style of the Roman emperors in which the masses are mollified with spectacles put on by the elites, which keeps those masses from rising up against the powers that be. Paying to see the shaving of Vince’s head (or going into it hoping to see the Donald’s head shaved) takes the place of rising up and laying claim to his fortune (something which has been performed on WWE programming over the years). In this critique, witnessing the seeming debasement of the powerful keeps us from actually seizing their power.

While I think there’s some truth in that critique, I also think it misses a larger point. Wrestlemania, if not the whole WWE franchise, is a facet of that larger debased populism I mentioned. It’s of the same fabric as George Bush’s aw-shucks act, or the Democratic Party’s belief that if they can find a few more Jim Webbs they can lose their elite image. To me, the solution isn’t to ask that the WWE clean up its act, but that we all work toward a more meaningful and useful political populism in our daily lives, and let entertainment be entertainment (while always demanding more of it).

That means pointing out that much of what our government does today is itself entertainment, not politics. If pro wrestling is “sports entertainment,” then the struggles we witness in Washington are “politics entertainment.” The struggles between the Republicans and Democrats for control of the government are a form of entertainment. The efforts of the “liberal media” to expose the petty indiscretions of individual politicians without really critiquing the larger political system are a form of entertainment. What we need, I think, is to create a populism that allows us to see past that cheap entertainment to what our real interests are.

As WWE increases its international business, and as its international popularity rivals or even surpasses its domestic popularity, how does that change the way the company looks at cultural stereotypes and “ethnic” characters?

I don’t see that big a difference. What international audiences are buying is the “American” version. Just as hardcore fans in the U.S. have appreciated what is great about the Japanese scene, for instance, or fans of high flying have appreciated about lucha libre. The WWE management is smart enough to know that. They know that they have a clearly recognizable brand, one that works well, and they’re sticking to it. What you see is what we’ve always seen with professional wrestling, even before Vince eliminated the competition: stereotypes become a way of condensing the passions that surround national and international events, of reducing those events to emotional emblems. What interests me about this is to see what shape the international fan community takes as we head into a truly global market.

We both share an interest in the roots of wrestling in 19th and early 20th century forms of popular performance.(See “Never Trust a Snake” in The Wow Climax for my take on this topic.) What aspects of this performance tradition do you see shaping contemporary wrestling?

Is it that they shaped contemporary wrestling, or are coming out of a common background? What I mean by that is, we all–and I include myself in this–try to see ourselves as modern by imagining history as quaint and outdated. One of the things that is really interesting about wrestling, to me, is that it represents a living performance tradition that has survived for over a hundred years (depending on what you include in the category “wrestling”). Of course, the technology that wrestling promoters use has changed drastically, and as Larry DeGaris points out in my book, the end of the territory system and the rise of the WWE monopoly have changed some of the fundamental work/performance practices of wrestling.

But there’s also a lot of continuity with the past. Professional wrestling continues a tradition of what scholars and pundits have called “lowbrow” and illegitimate performance. It finds its tensions in inappropriate topics like race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and expresses them without the tidy resolution of the social order that you get on broadcast TV, or in most Hollywood movies. There is a lot that still offends me in WWE products. There are racial, gender, and sexual stereotypes that make me cringe, and I’d feel really sad if there are people out there in the fan community who take those representations to be real or ideal–representing the way the world is or should be.

But honestly, I think it is better than the alternative, which is the tidy middle-class, liberal (and here I mean “liberal” in the social sense, which includes a lot of so-called conservatives who fear ideas that embody conflict, and an idea of social life that suppresses difference) scenario in which you suppress the raw anger and desire that fuels those stereotypes, basically telling people not to think and feel what they think and feel rather than creating a space in which people can express their most fundamental understandings and misunderstandings about the way the world is without fear of being labeled as wholly corrupt.

It’s the difference between being told that your thoughts are wrong and being told that you are wrong for having those thoughts. The first allows you to admit to having made a mistake; the second describes you as a mistake, which leaves you nowhere to go.

To me wrestling is part of a history in which people get to have that space to be messy and wrong, and to perhaps be convinced that their ideas (not their selves) are wrong, but in a spirit of laughter and play that brings us together rather than pulls us apart.

And the great and interesting thing is, a lot of those supposedly past forms aren’t completely gone. There are neo-vaudevillians and neo-burlesque performers. There’s a roller-derby revival. There are neo-circuses with freak and geek shows that find ways to empower their workers. And there are some great local pro wrestling venues that happen in lodge halls and flea market parking lots that are rowdy and messy and all over the place in their politics and their ideas.

The WWE may set the tone for the industry, but it’s not the only game in town.

And what is interesting about this, I think, is that it is both contemporary and historical at the same time. The stereotypes of race, and gender, and sexual difference that marked the end of the 19th century aren’t the ones we have now. We have new stereotypes to deal with.

What I think we need to develop is new ways of thinking about what those stereotypes mean. I think most people assume that stereotypes are bad, and false, and need to be eliminated–that we need to live in a world without stereotypes, where we all see each other exactly as we are. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know exactly what/who I am.

What makes stereotypes harmful is how they are used in systems of social power to oppress people. What is great about the stuff that you and I study is that we get to see instances in history in which people took the same stereotypes that people in power used to harm them and wove them into performances that celebrated difference and expressions of cultural uniqueness, both as what was great and also as what was sometimes quite silly. That’s the history I think we need to see ourselves as still living in.