Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Zeb Colter: A Frank Discussion

Inflammatory? Hell yeah. Acceptable? Not as easy to answer
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Last night, the Jack Swagger "Real American" character was given a new mouthpiece in the form of Zeb Colter (played by Dutch Mantell, a riff or evolution of his Uncle Zebekiah character from the mid-'90s). As soon as Swagger gave him the mic after he dispatched Zack Ryder, Colter started spouting off like he was the infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio. It was a transparent way of sparking a WrestleMania program between Swagger and the decidedly Mexican (and thus enemy of these "patriots") Alberto del Rio, but if that were the only consequence that came from the inflammatory speech given last night, it wouldn't have been as interesting.

Just as soon as the first xenophobic and possibly racist thing came from Colter's mouth, Twitter exploded with polarized reactions. Some were praising it as effective heel characterization. Others were skittish about WWE running with yet ANOTHER potentially racially or ethnically insensitive character, regardless of whether he was a good guy or bad guy. The only thing that could possibly seen as a consensus is that WWE has given the wrestling community something juicy to talk about and dissect, so let's get down to that, alright?

The biggest issue to tackle is the fact that Colter and Swagger are running with such xenophobic characters in the first place. Let's face it; WWE hasn't really had the best tradition with things of this nature. Whether it's their poor history with black wrestlers, or their fast-and-loose use of slurs against Mexicans or other Hispanic wrestlers by babyfaces no less, there's no real reason to believe that they're going to change in regards to having this kind of party line with one huge exception.

Swagger and Colter are bad guys.

They toyed with the idea of having an all-American style wrestler play the villain before in Kurt Angle, and it arguably was the single best idea for a character since the beginning of this century. While the flag and the essence of being American were parts of his character, it could be argued that his persona had little to do with using jingoism to get heel heat and was more an attempt at getting people to laugh at the dork who represented everything that the petering-out Attitude Era was representing.

The fact that Colter and Swagger are using the Tea Party, anti-immigration playbook, and that they're using terminology that was cribbed DIRECTLY from a Republican President (hello, the Patriot Act?) shows several degrees of self-awareness and even self-deprecation. The McMahons have never been shy about wearing their political views on their sleeves through their company, so the fact that they are presenting the Mexican guy as a hero (and let's face it, Alberto del Rio is the ONLY classic babyface on the roster right now who isn't injured) and the "real American" as the villain is such a shock to the traditional narrative that I can't help but give it the "wait and see" treatment myself.

However, it would take someone as blind as we've assumed the McMahons and WWE of being before this point to deny that there is still a lot of work to be done in order for them to be lauded for this kind of character. As a heel, Swagger's gotta get his comeuppance. Hell, Colter probably should get it too, since he's the real controversial element of this tandem. It doesn't have to come next week, but somewhere along they line, they have to be proven as false prophets and bad people. There's no evidence to suggest that will definitely happen, but the excuse of "they're heels" rings somewhat true for some people here.

But what about for others? A good heel gets people to want to see him get his or her ass kicked, but there exists a line to where the bad guy elicits a desire to see comeuppance and where he/she makes people want to turn the TV off in disgust over what is being presented to them. It is not wrong for people who watch wrestling to have the latter reaction. The most classic example is JBL doing the goosestep with the Nazi salute on the apron in Germany. A lot of people were disgusted because even 50+ years later, that country is not ready to deal with the heinous pock mark that the Third Reich left as a historical legacy. It doesn't make someone a chickenshit for not wanting that to be associated with their entertainment. It makes them human.

But the fact that the line isn't so easily drawn here is what makes this discussion a discussion and not a lecture. Everyone's line is different on every potential subject, even the ones that seem unanimous. I don't think that it's fair to tell EVERYONE that they have to do the wait and see and consider this as great heel work and not something offensive. However, I'm in the camp that will give Colter and Swagger a chance to play their narrative on camera. Even though it might not be wise to put trust in WWE to play something as politically sensitive as this with grace and dexterity, I don't think social issues should be off the table in wrestling as long as they're given a degree of self-awareness and lightheartedness. While there are things that I think are impossible to pull off in that manner (like, I don't know, domestic violence), immigration and jingoism isn't one of them.

So yeah, while I don't think anyone who is against this on principle is wrong, I also don't think wanting to see where it goes is a bad idea either. However, I hope we can agree on one thing. At least they're presenting Colter and Swagger as the bad guys here, and not as world-beating, asshole Americans. No matter what you think about immigration and how it should be handled, legal or illegal, there has to be a good and bad way of dealing with it, and the fact that Colter and Swagger are going about it the wrong way and are being presented as such, at least at first, should be at least somewhat acceptable.