Preamble: This is gonna be one of those articles that talks about something important in wrestling more than it talks about wrestling itself. Because representation or lack thereof is an issue that applies to wrestling just as much as it applies to every other form of entertainment.
I also don’t fit into any under-represented minority myself and no amount of explanation can replace experiences. But I do think I can illustrate that representation – or the lack thereof – is something that can have a profound effect on anybodies’ life.
And my apologies but this will get a little personal…
I come from, I suppose, a typical Southern family. Which is to say I grew up surrounded by casual racism. I don’t want to indict anybody, they never tried to hurt anyone. In fact I can’t actually recall anything that happened in public and, that’s the thing. A lot said in private that would never be said in public. Which means what it largely affects are those on the inside who become used to that kinda thing.
It wasn’t usually that malicious. Mostly it was just every stereotype being found hilarious for whatever reason. My dad had a phase where he talked derisively about how his white privilege checks never seemed to come, showing wholesale ignorance as to what that means.
I did hear an n-word or two, usually during bouts of being angry about sports stuff.
One of the more striking things in my memory is that in the lead-up to the 2008 election, they bought into a lot of the vitriol against Barack Obama hard. My mother once told me as earnestly as possible that he was the Anti-Christ. This was not meant as an insult, this was meant as a fact. Being dead serious. My older brother went around joking once that his name was Barack Hussein Obama. Then later he found out that it was actually his name and he was baffled. On the day of Obama’s election, that same brother drew an Anarchy symbol on his shoulder because somebody with that name being elected president made him lose faith in democracy.
To be perfectly clear, none of them ever said or did anything to anyone based on race. They never tried to teach me to do that either. But they’d certainly internalized a lot of racism over the years, and even if they didn’t know it, they were trying their hardest to pass that down to me.
I mention all this largely to ask: why didn’t this rub off on me?
Looking back on it now, it kinda scares me to contemplate this. But it would’ve been so easy for me to end up just like them. Just as afraid of people being different as they are. What stopped me, really? What kept me from going down that path?
Maybe I’m giving myself too much credit in saying it’s had no effect on me. But I know I never once agreed with them. They were even kinda aware that I wasn’t really comfortable when they used that language around me. I think on some level the rebellious teen phase was actually healthy for me. After all, this ended up being a lot of what I would roll my eyes at and angstily sigh in protest of.
I knew some kids of different races in school but, I was really quite a loner in my school years. I didn’t much have positive interactions with anybody so that wasn’t gonna change anything. Really, I had no form of real life representation to gleam anything from.
No, I think what most shaped me wasn’t anything to do with real life, actually. I think it’s what I saw on TV.
As a kid, I was glued to the television. Pretty much up until I was a pre-teen where I ended up glued to the computer screen instead, and… I’ve yet to grow out of that but that’s another story. But yeah, I think I ended up being taught quite a bit from representation in cartoons. And that being the case… I’m thankful that I ended up being so lucky with what I became a fan of.
One of my favorite shows growing up was the original Teen Titans cartoon. And one of the episodes that stuck with me the most is one called ‘Troq’. I worry as to how to quickly explain this without sounding trite. But in that episode a great alien hero named Val-Yor comes to Earth and invites the team onto a mission with him. He’s friendly to all of them, except their own resident alien Starfire. He was a lot harder on her and, he took to calling her ‘Troq’. This is, in fact, a slur specific to her species.
The team doesn’t understand this at first, they’d never heard the term before. So for a while Starfire was the only one who knew what was happening. When she did voice it though, the team jumped on her side swiftly. When Val-Yor ended up in danger, he didn’t trust Starfire to try and save him. But she did anyway, because in her words, “I value your life even if you don’t value mine”.
The other team members have to make Val-Yor thank Starfire specifically for this. And even as he comes around on her as an individual, he claims that she’s ‘one of the good ones’ and that didn’t sit well either. There’s no reason to meet him half-way on that. He stormed off, unwilling to accept that he was wrong from the start.
I was 11 when this aired but I understood what it was about just fine.
I think it affected me a lot more than other things like it because Val-Yor’s depiction is different from other racist characters. He’s not a one-dimensional villain really, they don’t go out of their way to make him awful all the time. He not only got along great with everyone else, but was quickly looked up to. He’s a genuinely friendly guy who’d devoted himself to heroism, who also happened to be unrepentantly prejudiced against a particular race.
That made him feel very real to me. That made me kind of, compare him to people I actually knew. It made it clear that racism was not something you only had to fear from people you’d be afraid of anyway. It’s something you could see in totally ordinary and even otherwise good people. People you’d just never suspect had that hate inside them.
Going further down the early 2000s Cartoon Network superhero rabbit hole, there was a show called Static Shock about a titular hero who happened to be black. (Static is one of the more famed heroes made by a black creator incidentally.) Race wasn’t exploited here but it wasn’t erased either. But for the most part he was just like any teenaged superhero and that’s part of why it was important.
I don’t remember the show near as vividly as Teen Titans. And I also haven’t done recent rewatches, I’m not sure how much it holds up now. But once again, when these shows did make an important statement on these issues, it tended to stick with me. That happened with Static once too. There was an episode that saw him go to Africa. And I’ve always remembered this scene where he was on the phone with his friend from back home talking about how it felt to be there.
“When I’m here, I don’t feel like a black kid. I just feel like a kid. Is that what it’s like for you all the time?”
I can’t stress enough how in my day-to-day life this concept would’ve never struck me. But put on screen like that, it just made so much sense. It seemed so obvious that he’d feel that way. When you’re young and impressionable and don’t know any better, it’s the kind of thing that’s really eye-opening. Because that statement alone touches on what representation can mean, and it can be easy to overlook how important it is.
This doesn’t just affect race either.
To be a young boy in public school, atleast at the time I went, is to be quickly pressured into thinking girls are weird and dumb and don’t understand you or share your interests. For social folks, you actually meet people and come to know them to help grow out of these things. For the introverts who didn’t talk much, I think once again the media you consume in those impressionable years is what you rely on.
Teen Titans helped again here. Lord knows the girls on that team were by far the strongest and also my favorite characters on it. But even earlier than that, Powerpuff Girls was helpful to show that girls could be beating up bad guys like any other hero but also that they could be very diverse in how they act and carry themselves. I think that made it easier to avoid ever trying to put women in a catch-all box.
I read a lot more often when I was young. Scholastic books were among the better ways to pass time at school. And for whatever reason I gravitated towards Nancy Drew books. I only read a few of them once each a long time ago and I remember basically nothing about them specifically these days. But it still showed that women could also be clever and intuitive.
My most bold memory regarding female representation in cartoons concerns a show called As Told By Ginger.
This one feels a bit more obscure than the other things I’ve talked about. I don’t know how accurate this is but I likened this at the time to being a bit like Hey, Arnold but with a girl lead. Anyway this is another case where my memories of the show as a whole are foggy but when it had something to say, I really listened and it stuck with me.
There was an episode where she got seen with a boy and suddenly rumors were being spread around. At some point she saw that in the bathroom mirror, some girls had written in lipstick the message, “Ginger Foutley is fast”. And she was horrified. And while I don’t believe it got too deep into what that really meant, somehow I totally understood. I must’ve been like 8 or 9 at the time, I sure couldn’t have told you what slut-shaming was. But I knew what was happening and I could see it was unfair and hurtful. Just another lesson that real life was never gonna teach me but cartoons were more than happy to.
(As an aside, the other thing about that show that I remember was when it was implied Ginger’s family was in poverty. All while her mother was trying to downplay it. I guess I was really into it when cartoons tackled real shit.)
There is sadly less I can point to in terms of LGBTQ+ representation.
Anything I personally noticed as a gay coding in a cartoon back then was hardly positive. That’s thankfully a different story for today’s generation of kids. For me, I think this is something I actually did learn from people, albeit folks online. I got to know gay people and non-binary people and hear from them. But man, if I was learning from the internet at that point, that sure could’ve gone a totally different direction, huh?
In all this, I haven’t mentioned wrestling once, have I? And well, that’s maybe a sign all it’s own. Granted I didn’t become a wrestling fan until a little bit later than everything on this list, that last example notwithstanding. I’d already learned these lessons.
But there always have been, and hopefully always will be, people who get into wrestling much younger than I did.
For them, it might be the piece of media that influences them more strongly than anything else. It might be as important for their growth as the cartoons I grew up on were. They might need these kinds of stories, they might need these kind of characters. And for them, the evil foreigners, militant minorities and gay panic characters of the past are the last things they need to see.
So yeah, Mustafa Ali getting to be the Muslim-American hero he’s destined to be, that matters. Santana and Ortiz sending their message about being proud of who you are no matter what you are, that matters. The likes of Jake Atlas and Sonny Kiss being open and unapologetic in their sexuality as they become rising stars in wrestling, that matters. Nyla Rose becoming the first-ever trans champion in mainstream American wrestling, that matters. Shows like Black Wrestlers Matter and workers coming to the ring in BLM armbands, and people like Big Swole and ACH standing up to racism, it can’t be overstated how important it is. Representation matters.
Maybe I don’t personally need it anymore, maybe you don’t either. But somebody does. Somebody might be feeling the effects of never seeing anyone that looks like them portrayed as a good guy on TV. Somebody might be impressionable enough to where negative portrayals could teach them hate. Someone always needs it.
We need our media to be this way. And that’s not a bad thing.
Sure, the world around me could’ve done a much better job of explaining these things. But even if it were as positive as it could be, I think it’s still a little limited by itself. It was a small town that I rarely left. It could only really teach me what life was like around there.
The thing about the media we make and consume is that it’s intended to be a lot more broad and paint a wider picture of what’s outside our own bounds. It lets you see experiences and perspectives that you’d never be privy to otherwise. In most cases, it presents to us a reflection of our country or even our world at large. It shows us something bigger than what we’d see in our own day-to-day lives. It makes sense that it’d be so important to our worldview.
And so it’s important that what we see reflects what the world really is, and everyone within it.