Pro Wrestling As Propaganda
To some degree, all forms of art are delivery systems for propaganda. Be it work from a government, the views of an artist, or an overlapping of both, this type of messaging is dispensed in all genres. Pro wrestling is no different. In many ways, it can be said the propaganda is as important to pro wrestling as the wrestling itself. Pro wrestling has pushed various ideas and stories to its audiences over the years. While art is a reflection of the artist and its time, pro wrestling is a reflection of the artist, its time, and its audience. As such, pro wrestling has used itself as a medium for propaganda on four main subjects.
AKA Us vs. Them
After the horrors of the World Wars and The Great Depression, pro wrestling's popularity had plummeted. The widespread adoption of television brought wrestling a new audience, and American wrestling would see an influx of evil foreign wrestlers, usually Germans and Japanese still fighting for the Axis Powers. Among the most famous of the evil Germans were the Von Erich brothers, Waldo and Fritz. The implication being that they were both former Nazis, the two would terrorize various promotions in the 1950s and 1960s, using such moves as the Iron Claw and Blitzkrieg Dive. They were followed by Baron Von Raschke, who also used the Iron Claw, and goosestepped his way around WWF, NWA, and AWA rings in the 1970s and 1980s. Japanese characters like Mr. Fuji and Professor Tanaka would wreak havoc in the WWF, portraying the Japanese as a sneaky and untrustworthy lot, frequently throwing salt in the eyes of their opponents, characterizations that would last for decades in the WWF. In Memphis Tojo Yamamoto became the most hated man in the territory, apologizing for Pearl Harbor before wishing Japan had bombed the city he was performing in. In the 1980s and 1990s, Japanese wrestlers in America often took on more mystical characters, with wrestlers such as the Great Muta and Hakushi using kabuki style theatrics with their characters instead of the post-WWII yellow peril style characters.
This general hatred for and distrust of former war opponents was an easy way to get instant heat for a talent. The cut and dry nature of good vs. bad in this scenario made for great box offices for years, especially in the immediate aftermath of WWII when the wounds were still fresh.
As the Cold War grew warmer, evil Russians began filling the role of the Germans in pro wrestling. While there had been evil Russian gimmicks dating back to the 1950s, only a handful were successful before the 1980s. The biggest star of the first evil Russian wave was Ivan Koloff, the man who broke Bruno Sammartino’s legendary 7 ½ year WWWF Championship reign in 1971. 13 years later, Ivan would bring in his nephew Nikita to JCP. Nikita Koloff was a new breed of Russian wrestler, a man to match the steroid era of Soviet athletes. His incredible size and ferocity matched the worries over the arms race and Mutually Assured Destruction. And indeed it seemed like Nikita and Magnum TA may destroy each other and the NWA itself in their feud over the US Championship. Nikita was billed as the Russian Nightmare (in direct contrast to The American Dream, Dusty Rhodes), and along with his uncle and turncoat Krusher Kruschev, the Russians would be a dominant force in the NWA, feuding with both faces and heels in an effort to show Soviet superiority. The thaw in relations between the USA and USSR was reflected in Nikita Koloff’s change of heart in late 1986, which saw him begin teaming with Dusty Rhodes as The Superpowers, while other Russian gimmicks became mid card fodder for the rest of the decade. At the peak of the Cold War, nearly ever wrestling territory had their own evil Russian character or group. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the evil Russian gimmick had run its course, which saw most drop the gimmick or turn face. The concept was revived in 2008 with Vladimir Kozlov, after 8 years of strained US-Russian relations during the Bush administration. While the gimmick flopped and he was soon made a comedy character, the concept was again used in 2014 for Rusev, who switched his allegiance from his homeland of Bulgaria to Russia due to his manager and future wife, Lana. Together, the two would openly praise and pledge loyalty to Vladimir Putin, while waving Russian flags in American arenas.
In Japan, the entire pro wrestling industry was built around pushing the theme of Japanese superiority. In 1940, Rikidozan would make his sumo wrestling debut. Being Korean born, he suffered much racism from the Japanese sumo community. This, along with money issues, would lead to him leaving the sport. He picked up pro wrestling in 1951, and saw an opportunity to give the still reeling Japanese a strong hero to look up to. He quickly began promoting wrestling in Japan, forming the Japanese Pro Wrestling Alliance in 1953, the first of its kind in the country. As the top star, Rikidozan would primarily face off against American stars, which he would routinely defeat with his vaunted karate chop. His matches with Lou Thesz and The Destroyer are still among the top watched television programs in the history of Japan nearly 60 years later. While many of the Americans were faces in their home country, in Japan they would be braggarts and cheaters who would show themselves to be cowards when push came to shove. Rikidozan would pass the tradition and concept on to two of his trainees, Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki, who would continue to use that booking style for their own promotions (All Japan and New Japan) in the 1970s. Due to this, Japan became known as a great area for American stars to learn how to work, and subsequently, American wrestlers in Japan became a key part of most promotions. Years after Rikidozan, many American wrestlers would become some of the biggest and most respected stars in the history of Japanese wrestling.
There are other examples, such as wrestlers from the Polynesian Islands almost invariably being portrayed as uncontrollable savages even as faces, or promotions like Stampede Wrestling having a Pakistani based heel group due to the large Indian population in Calgary. It's a common theme in all parts of the world, serving to connect the audience to the "local" heroes, while also being a mirror to political relationships of the time.
AKA The Wealthy are the Enemy
Pro wrestling has typically appealed to lower income brackets. It is then no surprise that promotions in America have always used wealthy characters as heels. One of the most legendary feuds in all of wrestling was that of Ric Flair vs. Dusty Rhodes. The Rolex wearing, diamond ring wearing, kiss stealing, wheeling dealing, limousine riding, jet flying son of a gun Flair against the jeans wearing son of a plumber who cut promos about the hard times of textile and auto workers seeing their jobs being outsourced and replaced by computers. The feud would span most of the decade of the 1980s (and again 20 years later) as the wealth disparity in America grew. Dusty Rhodes was the common man, with a common man's body, and was the embodiment of the American Dream. Through him, fans were able to live their fantasies of knocking the rich man down a few pegs. This same concept was used in conjunction with a boss/employee dynamic in the 1990s with Steve Austin vs Vince McMahon. The popularity of the beer drinking redneck feuding with his billionaire, straight laced Greenwich boss sent WWF's popularity skyrocketing, making it the most popular show on cable and turning Steve Austin into a household name.
Earlier in the WWF, Ted DiBiase was brought in as the Million Dollar Man, a man so wealthy he could literally buy people to do his bidding. He took great pleasure in forcing people to bend their morals and break their spirits in the name of money, as he claimed that "everybody's got a price". Along with his comically evil laugh, DiBiase was arguably the top heel of the 1980s in the WWF, finding himself in conflict with both Hulk Hogan (who fought for the rights of every man) and Dusty Rhodes, playing up his common man theme even more in the WWF. In 2004, former beer drinking roughneck Bradshaw was catapulted into the main events as John Bradshaw Layfield. JBL had become a stock market expert, and after becoming wealthy, developed a city slicker persona, looking down on the commoners he used to drink with. Less than a decade later, WWE would return to the concept of the evil rich man with Alberto Del Rio, a Mexican aristocrat who made his entrance in expensive cars and had a penchant for luxury scarves. Both men found themselves at odds with John Cena, the ultra patriot who defended the rights of even those who booed him.
In the AWA, Nick Bockwinkel filled the same role as Ric Flair did for the NWA. With his tailored suits and perfectly quaffed hair, Bockwinkel was the top star of the AWA. Bockwinkel was highly educated and would frequently point this out in his promos. His eloquence and vocabulary would infuriate the blue collar fans, adding an extra wrinkle to his cocky man of means persona. In most forms of media, the wealthy are typically portrayed as out of touch, arrogant, and unlikable. Wrestling is no different. In this case, there has always been serious money to be made by having the rich champion chased by the "common man".
AKA Gay = Bad
Pro wrestling has pushed the theme of anything homosexual being automatically bad for decades. As television propelled wrestling to new heights in the 1950s, performers such as Gorgeous George became major attractions. George would quickly become that most hated heel in the United States with his flamboyant and effeminate style, which included flowing robes, bleached and curled hair, and spraying of perfume wherever he went. During his time as a top star, the United States had laws about “sexual perversion”, which would allow the government to fire federal employees if they were found or suspected to be homosexuals. This was the first of many gimmicks that pushed a narrative of effeminate men being weak and deceptive, or more simply, “ gay = bad”. The opulent nature of George shares themes with rich heel narratives, also seen in Flair and Bockwinkel. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, wrestlers such as Adrian Adonis and Adrian Street would wear make up and prance in the ring to garner heat, with fans often chanting "faggot" and other slurs at them. This continued into the 1990s with characters such as Goldust, who intentionally provoked the reactions of fans and wrestlers alike as a form of psychological warfare. WCW would present Lenny and Lodi as the West Hollywood Blondes, which saw them enter arenas with glitter and suckers while giving each other massages. WWE would do a similar gimmick a few years later with Billy and Chuck, who initially started out as the typical ambiguously gay wrestlers, but eventually would become fan favorites after openly declaring their love for each other and planning a wedding. After the wedding went awry in typical wrestling fashion, they revealed that they actually were not gay after all, having done it all as a publicity stunt.
While WWE has not revisited a gay character since, homophobic insults have been a common staple on WWE programming even up to 2016. Although America's attitudes on homosexuality has progressed greatly since the Gorgeous George days, pro wrestling hasn't fully caught up at a writing level. WWE wrestler Darren Young became the first openly gay WWE star in 2013, and ROH introduced Dalton Castle, an extremely flamboyant and glam rock styled man wearing peacock robes who uses "his boys" as human furniture. In an inversion of 60 years of this type of character, Castle has been portrayed as a face. Heels acting "gay" has been a simple shortcut to cheap heat since day one.
AKA Hard Heads
While there is crossover with the foreign heel, pro wrestling has a long history of using racism in general, both for faces and heels. Probably the most commonly used tactic is the cliche of black men and Samoans having extra thick skulls, which prevent them from being injured via headbutts. Phrases frequently used in regards to black wrestlers are "pure athlete", "raw talent", and "dominant". These are often used in actual sports as well, denoting that black athletes are inherently more physically skilled by nature, while white athletes are more intelligent by nature. A very common angle in the territory days was for a touring champion to come in and be challenged by the top black babyface, who the champ would say was not the kind of person who wins the big belt. The champ would nearly always escape by the skin of his teeth, except for when Ron Simmons actually defeated Vader for the WCW Championship to become the first African American world champion in pro wrestling. WWE did a retread of the angle in 2003 with HHH and Booker T, with HHH to defeat Booker cleanly at Wrestlemania 19, making the whole storyline have terrible implications.
Throughout the 1980s, the WWF had characters such as Virgil as the Million Dollar Man's "servant", or taking an established star like Tony Atlas and turning him into Saba Simba, a warrior from a Ugandan tribe. Speaking of Uganda, there was Kamala, the Ugandan Headhunter, another tribal savage from Africa. In WCW, Butch Reed and Ron Simmons were paired up with Woman to form Doom, playing on fears of black men with white women that were still common in the South. When Harlem Heat came to WCW, they were initially to be prisoners won in a card game by Col. Parker (a traditional rich Southern Gentleman character) and would come out in chains and shackles. They followed a similar path as Doom, being paired up with the white Sherri Martel in order to garner heel heat. In the 1990s, the WWF would introduce the Nation of Domination, a Nation of Islam styled black power group that were treated as heels for bringing up racism in the company. After splitting up, one of its members, The Godfather, became a full on pimp character. In the 2000s, WWE would debut Cryme Tyme, a black tag team that were over the top street thugs who frequently stole items from other wrestlers and would sell them to audience members.
Racial turmoil and stereotypes have been a constant source for angles and heat in pro wrestling since the early days. Much like the foreign heel, how and who it is implemented against depends on the area. In the South, it was often used to garner heel heat, as black athletes were pushed as stars more due to a larger percentage of the crowds being black. In the New England based WWF, it was often the opposite, with black men almost always being heels until the 2000s.
As you can see, pro wrestling is in many ways a mirror to its society. When the Russians are the enemy, the Russians become the enemy in the arenas. When the rich get richer, the typically middle to lower class audience needs a working class hero to fight for them. As societal views on race and sexuality change, so too are their characterizations altered in storylines. This has been taken advantage of by writers to inject their own feelings and view points, while trying to write for what they believe their audience agrees with.
As a medium for the dissemination of ideas, fans could sometimes take a closer look at why some angles and characters turn out the way they do.