From Wagner to Wrestling: The Thin Line Between Enjoying a Performer and Condoning Their Real-Life Actions
In early 2016, an audio recording emerged of Terry Bollea, a.k.a. Hulk Hogan, making derogatory comments towards people of colour. A huge public backlash followed in which everyone was rightfully outraged, and Hogan was eventually released from his WWE contract and was now no longer promoted by the company. This was entirely justified by WWE, as a person who makes those remarks needs to be punished by losing his job and having his reputation tarnished. WWE could and should not consciously give any continued platform for Hogan to voice his opinion, as his attitude and his position of power are quite a dangerous combination. But should we never enjoy a Hulk Hogan match ever again?
This issue was raised by Jo Graham on her podcast How2Wrestling with Kefin Mahon, where they did an episode on Hulk Hogan after these comments came to light. While reviewing a match between Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania 19, Jo remarked that she had no one to cheer for in the match, as on one side was the evil heel Mr McMahon, and on the other was the racist Hulk Hogan. But was Hulk Hogan the racist or was Terry Bollea?
Wrestling is, after all, a TV show in which the people are performing a role that may or may not be close to their real-life characters. While wrestling has a very murky past when it comes to drawing the line between fact and fiction, if wrestling wants to take the next step into acceptance in the mainstream then that line needs to be more clearly drawn. The leftover viewpoint that non-fans have from early times when wrestling was very protected was that the fans only watched because they thought it was real. This is worsened by the continued insistence of some fans to treat the performer as if they are their character. It is only through the separation of these two ideas that wrestling can be accepted as another TV show and not seen a fake sport where the audience is being duped.
This is why I think the Hulk Hogan issue is so important, as wrestling, unlike any other form of entertainment, though sometimes by its own actions, is a place where the real-life actions of the performer are muddled in with the wrestler. This is even the case the other way around, where the scripted actions or words of the performer are compounded alongside their real-life personality. It is almost impossible for a ‘heel’ or bad guy to get a genuine negative reaction from the fans as all the animosity is either placed on WWE itself of the actual performer.
No other entertainment form is like this. Nobody started to hate Leonardo DiCaprio or Quentin Tarantino because the character DiCaprio played in Django Unchained was a racist. Instead, they hated Calvin Candie and were delighted when he was killed. Wrestling needs to move as far away as possible from the old-school thinking of trying to pretend that it's real and instead fully embrace the fact that it is a TV show and that their performers are clearly distanced from the characters they perform on screen.
While I’m not saying everyone should enjoy Hulk Hogan matches no matter what, I do think people should at least try to distance the art from the artist, or else most of the greatest moments in wrestling cannot be enjoyed. Hulk Hogan is a racist, Stone Cold is a wife-beater and A.J. Styles is a homophobe; they’re all still great performers.
This problem is, of course, not unique to wrestling; it pervades a great deal of media and entertainment. For example, Adolf Hitler was a keen artist, with many of his collections surviving to this day. While obviously his crimes are on a far greater scale than Hulk Hogan’s, it still raises a vital question. If I enjoy the paintings of Adolf Hitler, does that make me an anti-Semite? Again, I think the answer is no. I am not saying one should entirely divorce the person from his work, but I do feel that a lot of great art is lost when one doesn’t do this. Certainly, if I was an art critic, it would be imperative of me to discuss the real life of Adolf Hitler in order to get a proper understanding of the paintings. However, I do think it is still possible to enjoy the art while not condoning the artist.
I am aware, of course, that I say this as a straight white man, far removed from the bigotry, hatred and genuine violence carried out by Hitler and others like him. This brings up a unique situation in which the great Stephen Fry found himself while listening to the music of Richard Wagner. A German opera composer of the 19th century, Wagner was a fervent anti-Semite, and his composing was of great inspiration to Hitler in his view of the heroic German nation.
A lover of classical music, Stephen Fry is also the grandson of Jewish immigrants. Making a documentary on the subject titled Wagner and Me, Stephen Fry is constantly wracked with confusion, pain and guilt at listening to music that ‘gets part of you that no other musician’ can, while battling the scar Wagner’s opinions had left on his own ancestors. This debate is a slightly different one, in that it is the dilemma of those directly affected still enjoying the art. It is perfectly understandable why a subjugated group or minority group would not be able or want to differentiate the artist and the art.
However, I do not think it’s fair to then say that no one else can enjoy it either, and I also think it is worth a try in attempting to appreciate a piece of art irrespective of the artist. I can enjoy a Hulk Hogan promo and hate the man for being a racist, just as I can enjoy Stone Cold giving a stunner to Mr McMahon or A.J. Styles doing a 450 splash. In summation, Terry Bollea = horrible racist, Hulk Hogan = horrible wrestler but a good entertainer.
© 2018 Paul Barrett