Ed Hoyle’s recent article on Broad Sport highlighted the need for WWE to ‘adapt’ to the modern day: less racial stereotypes, more diversity, and just a general understanding of political correctness in their product.
As a follower of WWE since 2006, I feel that Ed’s view itself is an outdated and unfair assessment of the biggest sports-entertainment company on the planet. Whilst his examples of racial stereotypes in WWE programming are certainly valid – and certainly still implicate WWE into the future – these have been almost completely extinct for near a decade, and the company no doubt turned over the ‘new leaf’ Ed speaks of some years ago.
The greatest testament to this progression is one Mark Henry. Henry is not only one of the strongest men to ever walk the earth (Henry holds several power-lifting records from 1995 which are still yet to be broken) but is also of African-American descent. His career path in WWE is a perfect example of when, and how, the company is shedding its old-age image.
When entering the WWE, Henry was no doubt a victim of the racial stereotypes mentioned in Ed’s article. Soon after his debut in 1998, he became part of the infamous ‘Nation of Domination’, a black nationalist parody group. Even more despairing is his transition from this character into a man known as ‘Sexual Chocolate’ in 2000.
Henry played a sex-obsessed maniac who claimed he had lost his virginity at eight-years-old, to his sister. One of the many insanely inappropriate story-lines ‘Sexual Chocolate’ was part of saw Henry impregnating Mae Young – a 76-year-old woman – who gave birth to a hand rather than a child.
This no doubt displays the lack of political correctness in WWE around this time; both in the racial slur of naming an African-American ‘Sexual Chocolate’, and the misogynistic nature of Henry’s character, whom essentially romanced women as a lifestyle.
It was around 2005 that Mark Henry started to become a credible force on WWE programming. On his return from injury after several spells away from the screen, Henry debuted a new character which possessed no racial labels and no misogynistic undertones. He was simply the ‘World’s Strongest Man’, represented as an unstoppable force due to his size and power.
Henry was held in such high regard that he was given the esteemed role of facing The Undertaker at Wrestlemania 22: something that only greats such as Ric Flair, Kane, Triple H and Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts had done previously. Whilst he was not successful in this bout, Henry’s character never stopped looking strong and consistently challenged for the World Heavyweight Championship throughout 2006.
Over the next five years, Henry would be given his best run to-date; just losing championship matches to greats like Kurt Angle and The Undertaker, before winning the ECW Championship in 2008 and pursuing the Tag Team Titles up to 2010.
I must make it clear, however, that certain racial undertones did still exist around Henry’s portrayal on-screen at this point. Both tag teams Henry was part of in this period were with another African-American wrestler: Viscera and MVP. Whilst this may seem meaningless, there is a historical trend of African-American wrestlers only teaming with each other; no doubt an example of racial influences in the company (CM Punk and Kofi Kingston come to mind as an exception, but they were few and far between).
Henry was also given an African-American manager whilst ECW Champion, in the form of Tony Atlas. Whilst Atlas and Henry did not exaggerate any racial issues as part of their characters, there is no doubt a link between WWE’s stereotyping of African-Americans and the decision to give Henry a manager of the same descent.
From 2011, this all changed. Henry was given an updated character; still the World’s Strongest Man, but now with the added caveat of his ‘Hall of Pain’; a place you were taken to if you ever crossed him. It became one of the greatest story-lines of the past decade, with Henry running through the entire roster and decimating greats such as Randy Orton, The Big Show and Daniel Bryan. By beating Orton at Night of Champions 2011, he became only the fifth African-American World Heavyweight Champion, a title he held for over three months.
Winning the title displays a certain progression by the WWE in how they present their African-American performers, but in my opinion the important factor here is how powerful Henry was made to look. The racial stereotypes that had lingered with him since 1998 had vanished, as had his ‘Sexual Chocolate’ moniker. Henry was a character to be taken seriously and was a genuine force in the WWE for the next three years.
As we look at the twilight of Henry’s career – from 2013 until the present day – we can see how highly WWE respect him. After numerous unsuccessful championship bouts, and now into his forties, it seemed that his career was drawing to a close. Coming out to the ring on an episode of Monday Night Raw in June 2013, Henry – dressed in a full salmon-coloured suit – made it obvious he would be retiring. Then-WWE Champion John Cena, no doubt the most successful wrestler of the past decade, came out to congratulate Henry and to celebrate his career.
What proceeded was the greatest ‘swerve’ I’ve personally ever seen on WWE programming, with Henry dropping Cena with his ‘World’s Strongest Slam’ finisher and proclaiming he’s ‘still got a lot in the tank’ and is coming after Cena’s title. Whilst Henry was unsuccessful in beating Cena, the fact that he was given such an important storyline at this stage of his career shows just how vital he was to the WWE product. This has culminated this year, with Henry’s genuine retirement and, more importantly, his impending induction into the WWE Hall of Fame on April 7th.
We can use Henry’s progression in WWE as a very good guideline to the company’s portrayal of minority talents. There is no questioning that the 90s and early 2000s were periods of stereotypical and insulting representations of minorities in WWE; but there is also a clear path of progression coming into the 2010s. WWE became a ‘PG’ product in 2008, and since then these stereotypes have almost completely evaporated from their programming. Mark Henry had great success but was not an exception to the overall trend: since his first title reign in 2011, we have seen Mexican Alberto Del Rio win several titles (including the WWE title), and just this year Jinder Mahal became the first man of Indian descent to win the WWE title as well.
Most significantly of all is The New Day, three African-American athletes who have been four-time Tag Team Champions and are no doubt the most successful (and most popular) tag team of this decade.
Whilst I agree that there is still some way to go for WWE to shed their old image of political incorrectness, I feel that this image has been improved over the past ten years much more than others may suggest. Henry’s induction into the Hall of Fame, and the Japanese wrestler Shinsuke Nakamura’s impending WWE title victory at Wrestlemania 34, are perfect examples of how this progression is accelerating into the future.