By the Pound: Racism in the Wrestling Ring

Last night, as I was flipping through the channels, I stopped on the Spike network, which is geared toward a male audience (well, most television is geared toward a male audience, but that’s a different soapbox). Perhaps I should say heavily geared toward a male audience. I mean, between the James Bond marathons, Axe commercials, and ultimate fighting programs, it starts to get a little, uh, over-done. The same way the Lifetime network’s pregnancy test commercials and movies about victimized women start to get ridiculous.*

Anyway, let’s get to the real reason I stopped on this channel. TNA Impact is basically another one of Spike’s wrestling programs, and it was this program that caught my attention. Because there was a woman in a niqab wrestling.

Really!

After digging around online, I found out who she was: her stage name is Raisha Saeed. Saeed’s biography details that she is from Damacus, Syria, and manages another female wrestler, Awesome Kong. Rooting around a little more, I find out that she is not, in fact, Muslim (put on your surprised face!) or Syrian.

Her real name is Melissa Marie Anderson. She usually goes by the stage name of Cheerleader Melissa, and has a very long and impressive wrestling career.

I wasn’t able to figure out why Ms. Anderson, who has two other stage names, would don a niqab, a fakey Arab accent and broken English, and an Arab (-sounding) stage name. Wrestling programs are full of gimmicky personas, and so I’m assuming that’s what this is, too. From the mysterious Arab music that plays when she enters the ring to her MySpace page, it’s one huge (racist) gimmick.

TNA Impact had an “interview” with Saeed and the female wrestler she manages: a black woman whose stage name is Awesome Kong. During the interview, Saeed speaks for herself and as a mouthpiece for Kong, who just sat there and actively looked menacing. And, of course, Saeed’s niqab came up in the interview.

The interviewer asks, “One of the aspects, I think, of your mystery comes from the dress you wear. What is the story behind the burka?”

“My burqa is none of your concern.”

Nevermind that it’s a niqab, not a burqa. Past this, however, no mention of her clothing or of Islam enters into the stage persona. In the admittedly limited clips I’ve seen, there is no mention of jihad or death to infidels–things that usually come up in racist portrayals of Arabs and Muslims. Thankfully, Islam seems to be left alone, aside from her headgear and the fact that, as a gimmicky Arab wrestler, she has committed the played-out conflation of Arab = Muslim.

But the racism doesn’t go away: another interview, Saeed refers to Kong as a “monster” who other wrestlers should not provoke. And then throws in a few garbledy Arabic phrases.

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Despite the fact that Islam is not an overt part of Saeed’s persona, it’s alluded to in a match between Saeed and Taylor Wilde, in which the overtones of “culture-clash” can hardly be ignored. A blonde-blue eyed wrestler with the American flag motif on her wrestling outfit battles a niqab-wearing (and thus Muslim) Arab wrestler? A bit obvious, wouldn’t you say?

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Wrestling history is full of racist imagery, from The Iron Sheik to Sapphire. So neither Kong nor Saeed should come as a huge surprise. But that doesn’t make it any less offensive. Saeed’s character continues the designation of Arabs as Muslims, and Kong’s character stirs up characterizations of blacks as animalistic and savage. It’s just so played that it’s almost funny (aside from the general hilarity of the choreographed ballet known as wrestling).

Readers, what do you think of all this?

*Note: Don’t even start with me on the Lifetime channel. I’m not saying that movies about domestic violence aren’t important or that what happens to these women isn’t a real problem. My point is that Lifetime doesn’t do these women any favors by always portraying women as victims and nothing but.

  • http://www.brokenmystic.wordpress.com brokenmystic

    *blood boiling*

    These kind of things really tick me off. I wasn’t surprised that this wrestler wasn’t actually Muslim or Syrian because a few years back, I remember hearing about a male wrestler named Muhammad Hasan or something, and he was supposedly Palestinian. Then I found out that he was played by a non-Muslim Italian actor. I even caught a match while I was flipping through the channels and it just made me so mad when the entire crowd was booing him and holding up signs that read “7-11″. I don’t care for these wrestlers because the racist insults aren’t directed towards them, they are directed towards *us*.

    This is another way for the media to reinforce stereotypes and to hide behind the guise of “entertainment” and/or “freedom of expression” to cover up the racism and Islamophobia. The producers and so-called “writers” must think, “oh, they can’t say anything us, we’ll just say its wrestling. No one takes wrestling seriously.” Yes, wrestling is a pathetic excuse of a “sport,” but it doesn’t mean that people’s hateful and insulting sentiments towards Muslims are harmless.

    To me, they don’t have to mention Islam because it’s just obvious by the way she is dressed. They’re not mentioning Islam so that they can give organizations like CAIR a comeback like “well, we don’t mention anything about Islam.”

    And the first thing I think of whenever I hear or see these kind of things is: how will it affect the Muslim community? How will it reduce the annually rising hate crimes and discriminatory acts against Muslim Americans? They don’t care about that. They don’t care about our stories of mistreatment and discrimination. In the same way that cigarette companies don’t care about the health of their consumers. It’s all for money. Sell tickets, get ratings, get rich. That’s it.

  • Tara K.

    I’m almost speechless. I’m not sure what bothers me more — the repeated orientalist attitude inherent in the situation, or the fact that the niquab is used to villainize her (she’s clearly the “bad guy” the “good guy,” or super-Anglo, all-American wrestler). Further, I think the “evil Arab” persona is an indisuptable play off of terrorist associative Islamaphobia.

    I’m pretty sure Spike knows that a white person impersonating another race is totally wrong on about a thousand levels –

  • http://hegab-rehab.blogspot.com/ ~*Ange~*

    arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
    are you kidding me?
    this is just too sad / funny…

  • Sobia

    Tara K:

    “I’m pretty sure Spike knows that a white person impersonating another race is totally wrong on about a thousand levels –”

    As much as I wish this were true, given the intense level and acceptance of Islamophobia in the US today, I have serious doubts that they do. This form of prejudice is not only acceptable, it’s the in thing it seems. :(

  • S

    True. And the images of the blond american is just as racist/part of the racist opposites i think.

  • http://www.HeroineContent.net Grace

    This is a fantastic post–when I reviewed the women’s wrestling movie Lipstick & Dynamite over on Heroine Content, I didn’t even think to look into modern wrestling and see how the stories the women who did it in the 40s-70s would play out now. Thank you for bringing this to my attention!

  • emmaculate

    Totally wrong as it is on all levels, this Saaed character (note that the commentators refer to her exclusively by her surname – an extra element of ‘mystification’?) is actually an improvement on recent portrayals of female Arab-Islamic-Orientals (it’s all the same to the 13 year-old boys who are the target market) in wrestling. The worst I’ve come across was a character called Sheba, who wrestled in a short-lived federation called the LPWA around the time of the first Gulf War. Sheba, it emerged, was in reality a white wrestler called Shelly Francis who had previously appeared in the federation, but who had been captured, brainwashed and forced into a submissive role (symbolized by the niqab she donned, of course) by her evil manager, Sheikh Adnan Al-Kaissy, billed as hailing from Baghdad. The Sheikh refused to allow her to speak in interviews, and what’s more he regularly interfered in her matches, enabling her to win (or, if his plan misfired, lose). Finally, Sheba grew frustrated with the Sheikh’s interference and to no-one’s surprise after one defeat too many she tore off her burdensome clothes to reveal a more conventional shiny wrestling two-piece, and recommenced her role as Shelly, the smiling babyface.

    Prior to that, there existed a proto-pornographic wrestling company called Glow, which featured a (villainous) character called Palestina. Played by a white pole-dancer, Palestina dressed in combat fatigues and partnered the ‘Soviet’ wrestler in tag matches. She was particularly vicious and sadistic, defeating her opponents by throwing sand in their eyes (metaphor!) and crushing them into submission.

    At least one wrestler with a Middle Eastern gimmick has played the good (babyface) role: Farah the Persian Princess, whose name and image provide an inextricable link to a bygone age in which Orientals were agreeably exotic and tantalizing, but not yet dangerous and antagonistic (to Americans). Farah’s bio at wowe.com is a treasure of Orientalist cliché.

    It will be interesting (though quite probably depressing) to see how the Saaed character develops, in our more politically correct (and charged) age. As you mention, the organization has so far resisted expliciting most of the implications of the character’s dress and ‘background’ – itself evidence that TNA feels the need to tiptoe around the subject, rather than indulging in the kind of blatant racism incarnated by Sheba.

  • Curious Teenager

    This is what they call “Freedom of Expression”, right?
    But what happens when a group of Muslims decide to speak up against the righteous America? We are simply seen as the enemy

    Sad indeed.

  • forsoothsayer

    i never really thought there was much hope for enlightening the viewers of wrestling anyway :) it is a shame tho. so much impunity!

  • Tara K.

    @ Curious Teenager: No, I don’t think this is the idea of free expression. While freedom of speech is an intense value in America, it never morally is supposed to take priority over the each person’s rights to feel comfortable, equal and safe. In other words, prejudiced or “hate” speech violates basic human rights and therefore is now given the right to free expression. And — of course — there are plenty of idiots, racists and bigots who get this equation backwards. As a righteous American myself (sarcasm), I promise this is by no means the majority opinon. Most Americans would find this offensive on both parts — the American girl wrestler’s horrible too, though less so. Most Americans know wrestling is lowest common denominator stuff.

    I’m kinda agreeing with forsoothsayer — I think you’re right in pointing out that the target audience of wrestling is very traditionally white male misogynists. It’s a culture of admonishing women and minorities, as well as anyone of different culture, icluding the educated (think “elitist” remarks we’ve all heard lately). Nonetheless, the display is no less offensive.

    At first I thought the niqab was probably used to make the character as Muslim-looking to the viewers as possible, but I then I thought it’s probably necessary to disguise the white woman who’s doing this. I’m sure it’s probably doing double-duty as both.

  • soir8

    I’ll start off by saying that I agree with several points made in this article about the character Raisha Saeed. There is a history of muslim villains in wrestling which has always disturbed me, but I satisfied myself with the knowledge that usually the wrestlers portraying these characters were of muslim backgrounds themselves. So, the fact that Melissa, as a white non-muslim woman, is portraying an Arab muslim character really doesn’t seem at all right to me.
    On the other hand, religion doesn’t play a big part in her character, so I don’t view this as being too serious – if anything it’s similar to Kendo Nagasaki, the mysterious masked wrestler from Japan who was really Peter Thornley from Wolverhampton.

    My problem with this article is the assumption it makes about the wrestler known as Awesome Kong.
    There have been many “monster” wrestlers in the business who are depicted as savage, ruthless, unstoppable, almost un-human, and a lot of the time they don’t talk. They’re an integral part of the wrestling industry; used in storylines to make a young hero look tough and brave, as tools of revenge or punishment, or just to get the audience cheering as an unpopular wrestler gets squashed by the monster.
    And most of the time they’re white men.
    Awesome Kong should be viewed not from a racial viewpoint, because race has nothing to do with the character. She should be viewed from a feminist viewpoint; Breaking away from the typical role of women in wrestling as sexually gratifying eyecandy, and allowing a woman to be just as intimidating as the men.
    A could example of this would be the recent story feude between Awesome Kong and the group of female wrestlers called The Beautiful People. The spoilt, tanned, blonde bimbos antagonize and insult the less attractive Awesome Kong, and the crowd cheers as she gets her revenge on them.


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