I know that American professional wrestling, or sports entertainment as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) prefer to call these days, is not everyone’s cup of tea but bear with me on this post, the video that you’ll see at the end is well worth watching.
There is a bit of back story that I need to run through first, so you’ll understand how this video came about.
Pro-wrestling works on a very simple premise.
First you take two characters, a good guy (‘babyface’ or simply ‘face’) and a bad guy guy (‘heel’) and create a storyline which brings the two in to conflict (a ‘feud’).
Next, you build your audiences’ interest in the feud, allowing the storyline to unfold over a period of week or months, in some cases even years, with the heel always managing to stay just that little bit ahead of the babyface, almost always by a variety of nefarious means; by ‘cheating’ during matches, by getting other heel characters to interfere in matches or attack the babyface outside the ring, or by getting away just at the point when you think the babyface is going to come out on top etc.
The purpose of all this is, of course, to get the audience rooting for the babyface character and hating the heel ahead of the eventual final showdown between the two characters in the ring at which, more often than, the babyface will win through against the odds and get a final decisive victory over the heel, giving the audience its emotional payoff for having bought into the storyline.
If that seems very familiar, it is. It’s same underlying premise as just every action movie you’ve ever seen, from James Bond and the Die Hard series through to those old black and white Westerns starring Audie Murphy and Randolph Scott and as entertainment its a premise that works and has stood the test of time.
A major part of building an engaging feud in professional wresting is what’s called ‘cutting promos’. Characters stand in the ring with a microphone, or appear on video screen, and address the audience and, usually, their opponent in order to put over their character and sell the storyline. Usually its the wrestlers themselves who do all the talking, but not always. There are always some wrestlers who are good at what they do in the ring but who lack a bit a charisma when they’re handed a microphone, and when that happens the wrestler is often given another character, a manager or associate, who’ll do most of their talking for them.
Right now, WWE is just a few weeks away from what is, by some distance, its biggest and most important pay-per-view event of the year, Wrestlemania and is busily putting together the matches that will appear on that show and the storylines that it hopes will engage it’s audiences interest sufficiently to prompt them to buy the show when it airs.
One of WWE’s two world title belts (don’t ask, long story) is held by a Mexican wrestler, Alberto Del Rio – and remember, these are all characters we’re talking about here. Del Rio used to a be a heel character, an arrogant Mexican aristocrat, but relatively recently he’s done what the industry calls a ‘face turn’ and is now wrestling as a good guy and fan favourite.
Wrestling is an entertainment business and, as with all businesses, the name of the game is making money. Mexico and the Latino population in the US are important markets for WWE and, a general rule of thumb, it’s the fan favourites who generate the biggest revenues, especially in T-shirt sales and other merchandising. So a popular Latino champion is potentially a big money-spinner for the company and, right now, that champion is Del Rio.
Of course, every good hero needs his arch-nemesis and heading into Wrestlemania, Del Rio’s scheduled opponent is a younger white wrestler named Jack Swagger who recently made a comeback, in storyline terms, after being off screen for several months. Swagger earned his title shot at Wrestlemania by coming out as the surprise winner of a number one contenders’ match at the last WWE pay-per-view and in the last couple of weeks he’s been given a mouthpiece character, a grizzled Vietnam veteran named Zeb Colter.
If anyone reading this is a pro-wrestling aficionado, Colter is played by Wayne Keown, a semi-retired pro-wrestler who is best known for working in-ring and backstage, writing storylines, under the name ‘Dutch Mantel’. Keown is, by the way, a genuine Vietnam veteran.
Together, the characters of Swagger and Colter are, in the storyline that’s currently unfolding, ‘Real Americans’ and ‘Patriots’, i.e. rampant Tea Party xenophobes and over the last 2-3 weeks Colter has cut a number of very effective – and borderline racist – promos railing against illegal immigration from Mexico; promos laced with all the usual tropes you might expect, ‘real’ Americans speak English, illegal immigrants are taking our jobs and driving down wages, etc, plus one or two very noticeable Tea Party slogans.
And if you’re already thinking that the name ‘Zeb Colter’ bears a striking resemblance to ‘Ann Coulter’ then you’re very much on the right track as to the overall direction this is going.
Over the last week, this new fictional storyline has attracted the attention of a number of real world American political commentators, if ‘real world’ is not a complete misnomer when referring to the likes of Michelle Malkin and Glenn Beck. Beck, in particular, in not at all happy with these new characters and, a few days ago, used his nationally syndicated talk radio show to mount a characteristically overblown attack on WWE.
“Did George Soros buy the WWE?” said radio host Glenn Beck during his Wednesday broadcast. “Is this a Cass Sunstein presentation?
“I’m sick and tired of being miscast. I am sick and tired of it. It is lazy at best … you’re mocking me for standing up for the Constitution of the United States of America? You’re mocking me for standing up for law and order?”
Others on American political right have weighed in as well, to no better effect than Beck:
Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin mocked the gimmick. On Twitter, users called the characters a “top 5 low point” and asked “WWE … do you still want my money?” A non-bylined article posted on the conservative news site Breitbart.com opined “it’s hard to imagine a bigger [public relations] blunder. Expect a mea culpa any minute now.”
And yet others have speculated that there may be a frisson of genuine political intrigue to go with this storyline, noting that Linda McMahon, a former President and CEO of WWE and the wife of its Chairman and current CEO, Vince McMahon, has twice made unsuccessful bids for election to the US Senate as a Republican candidate in her home state of Connecticut . This has prompted some commentators to suggest that the McMahon’s, as perceived members of the Republican establishment, may be using this storyline to take a deliberate shot at the Tea Party, reflecting ongoing tensions within the Republican Party between it’s wealthy, fiscally conservative, elite and its socially conservative (and in many cases, batshit insane) grass roots activists.
What matters here is that Beck has stepped way out his league in attacking a company that understands, better than most, exactly how to extract the maximum amount of publicity for its product out of the merest hint of a public controversy and that’s exactly what the company has done on this occasion by releasing this video in which ‘Colter’ and ‘Swagger’ break character in order to slap down Beck in no uncertain terms:
Regardless of what you might think of these characters or the storyline that WWE is running to build interest in Swagger’s Wrestlemania ‘match’ with Del Rio, as an exercise in deflating the ego of a loud-mouthed wingnut (Beck) who takes himself altogether too seriously, this really is a beautiful piece of work and one of the best examples of the art of trolling, in its purest form, that I’ve seen for a long time.
Beck, to put it mildly, has been royally pwned!