It was only a matter of time.
Things were definitely headed that way the moment the painfully foreign Alexander Rusev debuted with the painfully incendiary Lana; not at the Royal Rumble, mind you, but that one random, pre-WrestleMania RAW in which they decided to come out and set everything in motion. Foreign manager presents foreign charge, the Denham trotting out her King Kong painted in a shade of Iron Curtain red.
Right, Rusev was Bulgarian back then, but it was inevitable that his true ethnicity would be washed out to fit the purpose of harnessing the surefire heat from geopolitics. No American in the crowd knows what to do when someone mentions Bulgaria, much less where it is on a map of Europe, so it might be easier—and it is—to just bill an Eastern European guy as being from Russia. Or as an honorary Russian. Whatever works.
On the other side of the field, always just close by but kept at a distance, were the xenophobes called the Real Americans. Jack Swagger and Zeb Colter would dabble in both meaningless feuds that they never won (in the tag team division, mostly) and meaningless decisions that would ultimately be taken back (recruiting Cesaro). They were once more fiery and venomous than Rusev and Lana, but their teeth were taken out by various controversies both inside and outside the ring. But the message stayed the same, even if a bit played out by this time: a sense of patriotism warped beyond reason by Tea Party beliefs. They never let up.
So, yes—it was only a matter of time until the U.S. of A clashed with Russia. And why not? Vladimir Putin gets all the bad press nowadays, anyway.
Have Lana call the Americans stupid one more time, but this time, the Real Americans finally take offense. Finally, here's someone who will defend the honor of this glorious country against the evil Russian invaders, (because there are no good Russians, right?). Real Americans, not those wannabes whose ancestors came over in galleys. Nah, they couldn’t even get the job done. Perhaps melanin is an impediment to success against the children of Mother Russia?
Look, listen here, America. Swagger and Zeb are not the heroes you need. Not even the heroes you deserve. The only reason why these two are the good guys is because the other two facing them are presented as the bad guys. That's not a good, stable and logical reason to try and make the bad guys—who spent more than a year hating on foreigners—lovable, or defensible at the very least. They're faces because instead of targeting the good foreigners, now they're on to the bad foreigners.
But the real problem here is that everyone is cheering them on! It's telling of the kind of crowd pro wrestling panders to. It betrays the true sensibilities of the audience, and perhaps that's the sort of thing that gets wrestling fans a less-than-stellar reputation.So now more than ever, there’s a terrible, a horribly wrong type of chill that runs up my spine whenever I hear the crowd chant a thunderous “We the People!” along with Zeb and Swagger. I now fear that there’s something else loaded in it, more than just wanting their voices to be heard and immortalized on a telecast.
It's hard to be a true heel nowadays. I’ve been pushing this theory for quite a while now, as heels who look and play their parts well tend to win adoration from the smart crowd; lately you’d have to be doing something truly dastardly in order to earn the audience’s true ire. But on the other hand, if one of the tried-and-tested ways to draw boos is to just be from abroad and curse the United States, then well, fuck. We've got a big problem as a society. And it's a problem we shouldn't be having in 2014.
Here’s the big picture: Big E is still a much preferable patriotic foil to Rusev's evil Russian character (and don't get me wrong, this is still a caricature that should also no longer be tolerated; it seems as though a requirement of being from Eastern Europe is that you come out to menacing music). While severely underdeveloped, Big E hasn't been tainted by the controversy of being racist or xenophobic. (And why should he be?) Where Swagger and Zeb battle Lana and Rusev because the former happen to hate foreigners and the latter happen to be bad foreigners, Big E was simply trying to defend the integrity of the United States as a citizen of the United States. There’s a real American if we’ve ever seen one.
And no matter what they say, the Real Americans can't sell me their change of heart by using that same schtick—especially when they still use xenophobic speech against the Russians. The underlying issue is that there was no solid writing at all to anchor the face turn. You simply cannot wash out that kind of taint; there has to be a good, believable reason behind major changes like this. A personality does not simply change at the drop of a hat, unless there's something wrong with you mentally. Bruce Wayne did not become Batman after some kids took his lunch money—his parents had to be murdered first.
You can argue that wrestling caters to the lowest common denominator in order to make the most money. But just because the bar is set so close to the ground doesn't mean we do not have the power to raise it higher. Racism and xenophobia, as well as sexism, which Zeb gets into this week, are the things we shouldn't be compromising on in this day and age, especially with the kind of reach and impact the WWE has all over the world.
But the kicker? I doubt Zeb and Swagger even truly believe the things their characters have said any more than Lana and Rusev are actual Russians, and that's an important consideration to make in the Reality Era. This would leave the audience as the only true heels in the story—of course, if they rise, place their hands on their hearts, and chant along with a sickeningly real fervor. If not, carry on.
Meanwhile, even though his writing is no better, I now want Rusev to win this feud if only to shut up all the racist and xenophobic Americans out there, as well as those who still don't buy into how good Rusev is and might be. But I know that’s not happening given today’s political climate, which just got worse. Fine, that’s all right, but the Bulgarussian hoss should not be made to look dumb here either way.
One last thing, an addendum: if you listen closely, Lana's right about America, no matter how (rightfully, because that’s how heels should be) hypocritical her character sounds. Sometimes I'm not sure how clever the Creative team—or whoever is behind Lana and Rusev's material—really is. Perhaps the caricature is actually an outlet for a disgruntled writer's opinions on American society, or perhaps it really isn’t and they just got lucky with it.
Either way, this whole farce couldn’t end any sooner.
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