|Wrestling with stereotypes:
Depictions of the mentally ill/disabled in the World Wrestling Federation
Marie Hardin, Florida Southern College, USA
Brent Hardin, Florida State University, USA
Professional wrestling, sporting a veneer of athleticism over scripts that read much like a 'male soap opera,' has surged to tremendous popularity in the United States. The use of stereotypes is an integral part of wrestling's appeal, with few other rituals in American culture equaling its range and exaggeration of symbols . A prevalent stereotype used is that of the mentally ill or mentally retarded wrestler, and although relatively new in this context, its prototype has been around for decades . Indeed, earlier research on images of the mentally ill and disabled in television programming, such as soap operas and dramas, has revealed a consistent pattern of negative and false depictions .
This study examines the images of mental illness and disability in World Wrestling Federation (WWF) pay-per-view specials, to see how professional wrestling frames these same issues. Ethnographic qualitative analysis revealed that negative images continue to saturate presentations of mentally ill/disabled characters. In fact, the WWF presentation of such images was highly exaggerated – easy for young, impressionable viewers to understand and perhaps internalise.
The reasons for the degree of this negative stereotyping are speculated upon, while it is hoped that the study will provide a springboard for more comprehensive examination of other stereotypes and images presented in this wildly popular form of television entertainment
With apologies to Elton John, millions of television viewers across the United States are finding that Sunday and Monday nights - and any night of the week for that matter - work perfectly all right for fighting . Professional wrestling, often called the 'male soap opera' and sporting only a veneer of athleticism, has surged to tremendous popularity during the last several years. Tickets for wrestling shows across the country often sell out faster than rock concerts, and of the current 15 top shows on cable, 8 are of wrestling. Cable's two most popular wrestling programme, World Championship Wrestling's (WCW) 'Nitro' and World Wrestling Federation's 'Smack Down' (formerly 'Raw is War'), capture almost 10 million viewers each Monday night, a 36 percent increase since 1997.
Wrestling draws vast audiences - ones advertisers want: mostly males, ages 12 to 60 years old, along with increasing numbers of children and college-aged viewers. The WCW estimates that its core business is about $200 million; the WWF claims gross earnings of $500 million ('Stone Cold', 1999), including revenues from sales of videos, music and other promotional items.
The WWF, which "would cease to exist without children" (Ley, 1999) in its audience, consistently outdoes WCW in Monday night ratings. The WWF has mastered the lucrative pay-per-view domain, using its weekly cable shows as infomercials for its Sunday night extravaganzas held almost every month . These latter events drew more than $150 million in revenue last year.
One reason the WWF has dominated the wrestling war with WCW is its willingness to go to wretched excess; indeed, the WWF is considered a much 'richer' programme, in terms of its 'in-your-face' use of stereotypes and graphic content than its rival in this regard.
No matter what network, stereotypes are an integral part of wrestling's appeal; indeed, few other rituals in American culture equal wrestling in its range of symbols and stereotypes. In this context, wrestling has often been characterized as an explicitly dramatic form of entertainment - comparable to the soap opera . It has also been compared to a carnival, because it insists on relying on the exaggeration of physical sensations and an emphasis on the body .
The physical build of a wrestler is an important part of that wrestler's stereotype; the flabby, lumbering and ugly wrestlers represent the evil side of human nature, while the virile, muscular, agile wrestlers represent the good . Other physical signifiers, such as mannerisms and wrestling tactics, are also used to reinforce wrestler stereotypes, which have traditionally included the 'villain', the 'sonofabitch', the 'ladies man', the 'working-class hero' and the 'foreign menace' .
The mentally disabled wrestler
The stereotypical mentally ill professional wrestler is a relatively recent one, although in many ways, its prototype has been part of the spectacle for decades . Wrestling, which has ancient roots, and has cycled in and out of popularity since the early 1900s, has traditionally embraced the 'freak show' element to attract fans. Said one promoter, in 1938: "Freaks I love and they're my specialty. I am very proud of my monstrosities. You can't get a dollar with a normal looking guy, no matter how good he can wrestle".
'Uglies', as they were called, became extremely popular after World War II with the advent of television, which led professional wrestling to rely more on the storyline and stereotype for dramatic punch than it had before. Uglies were, with purposeful ironic humor, often referred to as 'angels' by commentators. Maurice Tillet, one of the first uglies, suffered from facial disfigurement that was said to have been caused by some kind of glandular dysfunction; he had been a circus actor in England, where he was billed as "a ferocious monstrosity, not a human being".
The distinction between the mentally ill and the mentally retarded person is often blurred in wrestling. Those wrestlers who are scripted to have mental disabilities are often represented as violent or having schizophrenia or other mental illnesses. One of the oldest mentally retarded stereotypes was George 'The Animal' Steele, who spoke very little and carried a fuzzy stuffed animal doll with him into the ring. He was described as the kind of person who would cuddle a lost animal but turn around and beat another wrestler to a pulp.
Steele was only the first wrestler to carry a doll into the ring. A current WWF wrestler, 'Al Snow', is also attached to a doll. Snow is a 6-foot, 234-pound 'psychologically traumatized' wrestler who carries a mannequin head with him at all times because of his alleged mental state. Snow is one of three wrestlers who are, according to the WWF, mentally ill, retarded, or both. The 'biography' (scripted by the WWF for wrestling actors) of 'Mankind', a new WWF wrestler who wears a mask and is awkward and flabby, claims that he is the most deranged wrestler in the Federation, who feels little, if any, pain (Biography: Mankind, 1999). Similarly, the WWF biography of masked wrestler 'Kane' claims that he was disfigured by a fire set by his older brother when he was a child, and then abandoned by his father. Despite his terrible 'experience' with fire as a youngster however, Kane allegedly enjoys setting people on fire himself. He has also, according to his WWF biography, recently spent time in a mental facility (Biography: Kane, 1999).
The WCW, on the other hand, has no wrestler it claims is mentally ill or disabled in its official biographical data, although it does have a wrestler named 'Psychosis'.
The social influence of wrestling
The spectacle of wrestling has a grip on more than advertising dollars. It also exerts a great deal of social influence through the messages it delivers in its storylines and stereotypes. Wrestling works as a part of television in general to effectively mould viewer attitudes .Thus, it is considered that viewers look to television and other mass media for cues about social reality and for education about dealing with the social situations that they encounter
.No other recent public event better demonstrates the social influence of wrestling than the 1998 election of Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler with little political experience, as Minnesota governor. Indeed, wrestling, like other media sources, is a specific influence on people's ideas about many social phenomena including mental illness and mental disabilities. This was clearly reflected in the findings of a 1991 telephone survey, where most respondents stated that the media were the most influential sources on their knowledge about mental illness.
According to other studies however, the public may be misinformed by the media. In work carried out in the early 1990s, it was found that more than 85 percent of family members to mentally ill individuals blamed the media for the harmful stigma placed on their loved ones. A further study published in 1997 emphasised the role of the media in this regard: "One 13-year-old girl said to researchers, 'I say that mentally ill people are in general quite likely to be violent. I got my ideas from television or newspaper reports as I have not seen any mentally ill people in real life' " ('Role of popular media', 1997, p. 1779).
Since the mass media are powerful in shaping attitudes toward people with mental illness or mental disabilities, research that exposes media messages is necessary and useful if there is to be any progress in attitudes toward these groups. Because professional wrestling is an extremely popular form of entertainment, especially for young, often impressionable viewers, understanding the messages it presents about any group is necessary. The purpose of this study therefore, is to excavate the themes and stereotypes used to depict wrestlers scripted as mentally ill or disabled, and speculate on the outcome of such presentation.
The study conversely does not attempt to discuss the actual mental capacity of any wrestler, but relies on the widely-accepted notion that televised professional wrestling and its characters are completely scripted, as is any fictional televised entertainment.
The media and mental disability
Hundreds of characters in television and film, from the 1946 movie 'The Best Years Of Our Lives' to the more recent 'The Fugitive' and the popular television series 'ER', have been used to portray a spectrum of disabilities. A number of studies have chronicled the images and treatment of people with disabilities, with discouraging results: few characters with disabilities are portrayed positively. Instead, they are characterized as victims who possess undesirable social skills and personal qualities; they are to be pitied and avoided .
Disability has long been used as a melodramatic device on television, which consistently uses deformity of the body to symbolize deformity of the soul. "Physical handicaps are made the emblems of evil".
Indeed, the screen abounds with portrayals of villainous types possessing an obvious physical limitation - a limp, a hunchback, a facial disfigurement, etc..Oftentimes, a disfigurement of the head or face is used to signify the criminal element of a character's mind. One researcher concluded that by providing villainous characters with physical disabilities, the media reinforce three prejudicial myths: that the disability is a punishment for evil, that disabled people are embittered by their fate, and that they resent the non-disabled. Thus, the mentally disturbed misfits are stigmatized ritual villains whose attempt at victory presents a threat to society.
Of the various types of disabilities depicted by the media, the one that is far and away presented the most often to viewers is that of mental illness. Furthermore, mentally ill characters, especially on soap operas, are portrayed in a particular stereotypical menacing way. Findings from a study by Fruth and Paddurud (1985) support this contention, as they reported that six of eight mentally ill characters on serial television were engaged in some sort of criminal behaviour. Gerbner (1985) revealed similar results: more than two-thirds of mentally ill characters on soaps were depicted as criminal and violent. The association of mental illness with violence is not limited to soaps however, with portrayals throughout the mass media overwhelmingly linking the two. Indeed, a 1989 summary of Gerbner's sampling of television content over almost two decades, indicated that more than 70 percent of all portrayed mentally ill characters were also violent. Besides being perpetrators of violence, those characters portrayed as having a mental illness or mental disability are also usually depicted as being victims of violence.
The media's fixation on mentally ill people as perpetrators and victims of violence however, does not reflect reality. Indeed, the figure of 72 percent of mentally ill characters who commit violent acts on prime time television is enormously divergent from the actual 12 percent who do in reality.
Mentally ill characters on television drama are also the victims of derogatory terms used to describe them. One study found that the correct technical terms used to describe mental disorders are rarely used in such drama; instead, slang terms, such as crazy, sick, nuts, sicko, weirdo, fruitcake, wacko and kook were used to describe these characters .
While the media have learned to avoid slang references because of the offensiveness to ethnicity, sexual reference and gender that they present, they have not seen appropriate to give up such references for those with mental illness or mental disabilities (Wahl, 1995). Therefore, depictions of mental illness remain pervasive and consistent with existing stereotypes. Thus, there is every reason to expect that they will continue to shape the public's views – providing their 'social reality'
Media consumers, on the other hand, will increasingly come to see people with mental illnesses as they are depicted in the media - incapable of leading lives that are not a threat to others.
This study looked at images of the mentally ill and mentally disabled in what has been called the morality play for the 1990s - professional wrestling. The two researchers involved with this study used a qualitative paradigm that allowed for relevant meaning to emerge from collected data.
Due to the popularity of professional wrestling and the abundance of wrestling programming, the selection of which events to study posed a significant obstacle. It was decided to focus on the WWF, because it is consistently the most-watched professional programme, and because WWF matches are considered to be 'richer' than WCW in the use of cultural stereotypes. WWF consistently outdoes its main competitor in the ratings, mostly by capturing viewers through its willingness to go further in excesses of violence, sexual imagery and stereotypes The WWF was also chosen because it clearly identifies, in the biographical data it presents, 'its' wrestlers who are 'mentally deficient'. Three wrestlers discussed earlier - Kane, Mankind and Al Snow - are all considered either mentally ill, mentally disabled, or both by the WWF as written in their official organizational biographies.
Pay-per-view events were selected because these matches are designed to draw a larger audience than weekly cable shows, and are seen as the climactic event to the soap-opera type storyline promulgated in the weekly matches. WWF's weekly cable shows serve as infomercials for the pay-per-view events, which take place at an average of once each six weeks.
10 of the most recent WWF pay-per-view events (approximately 30 hours of tape) were selected to view and code for detection of themes relating to mental illness or mental disabilities.
Pay-per-view events chosen started with 'Over The Edge', a match in early 1998 in Milwaukee, Wis., and continued through all pay-per-view events in 1998 (including the popular 'Wrestlemania', 'Summer Slam', and 'King of the Ring') and one in 1999, 'Royal Rumble'.
The videotapes were reviewed independently by 2 researchers, each writing notes concerning the dialogue and camera shots of wrestlers depicted as having disabilities. The researchers also noted emerging themes regarding these wrestlers. Ethnographic content analysis , a media studies variation of the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), aided in the identification of themes and categories that emerged from the data. The aim of ethnographic content analysis is to be systematic and analytic, but not rigid. Categories and themes were documented throughout the study, providing for an orientation toward constant discovery of relevant situations, settings, images, meanings and nuances. These categories and themes were then compared to the findings of other research on media images of persons with disabilities.
The researchers independently made notes concerning the video observations and then later developed a system of classification by comparing notes and discovering regularities within the data (Goetz & LeCompte, 1984). The constant comparative method was used to assist in the assessment and grouping of themes and categories (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Through this process, categories were derived by constantly comparing one incident or unit of information with another. Agreement between researchers had to be 100 percent for a theme to be included in the researched findings. The researchers also agreed that themes had to be reinforced by both verbal and visual indicators in the programme, and that to be considered valid, a theme had to be strongly associated with at least two wrestlers depicted in the programme as mentally ill. Also, the characteristic or theme associated with the mentally deficient wrestlers had to be unique to those wrestlers, as opposed to being a theme that could be generalized for all WWF wrestlers.
The official industry magazine, 'WWF Raw is War' and the WWF website were used as secondary data sources. These data provided information beyond the video observations and clarified or corroborated data collected from the findings. This supplementary information base provided a clearer understanding of the images of persons with mental illness or disabilities presented by the WWF.
Four principle themes emerged from the data in relation to wrestlers featured as mentally ill or incompetent.
1. Stigmatized and stereotyped
In general, each character examined (Kane, Al Snow and Mankind) exhibited stigmatized appearance and behaviour that reinforces false stereotypes of individuals with mental illness. This theme is consistent with the findings from other studies involving prime time drama, sitcoms and movies that is, the mentally ill constantly act 'crazy', their behaviour is never 'quite right'. For instance, all three wrestlers in question have an indicator of mental disability manifested on their heads: Mankind and Kane each wear a mask, and Al Snow always appears with the words 'HELP ME' scrawled backwards in marker across his forehead (so does the doll he carries). While a few other wrestlers also wear masks, their masks are only temporary (as in when one wrestler had to don a mask after Kane apparently disfigured his face in a match) or are designed to be decorative, sequined or covering only the eye area. For the 'mentally incompetent' wrestlers however, the mask is central;
commentators speculate about the 'hideous face' hiding behind it. While Kane's mask is at least nominally decorative and hides his alleged 'bad eye', Mankind, considered the 'most deranged' of all the wrestlers, wears a plain, brown leather mask that wraps around his head to hide the 'fact' that he only has one ear.
Mankind, Snow and Kane also all have wild, woolly long hair. Mankind, as could be expected, dresses the part more than the other two; he wears a torn, stained dress shirt and old tie over brown tights in the ring. He is also flabby; he is neither fit nor tanned, which is the norm for most of the other wrestlers (including even Snow and Kane). The three wrestlers also exhibit behaviour that cannot be characterised as anything less than stigmatizing. For example, Mankind walks clumsily, leaning to one side, and tilts his head while he speaks. When he gets 'nervous', he frequently pulls his hair out in large clumps with both hands and throws it in the air. Sometimes, before a big fight, he enters the ring and sits in the corner, rocking back and forth. He also likes to shove a dirty sock in his opponents' mouth when fighting. Similarly, Kane exhibits behaviour often falsely associated with individuals who may have developmental disabilities. He is mostly silent, and on the two occasions he spoke, his speech was slow, stilted and monosyllabic; his voice was manipulated to sound inhuman.
Kane is also the butt of jokes. On a WWF Monday night 'Raw is War' episode in January, he walked around the ring unaware of the sign pinned on his back by a manager, while the crowd cheered. Al Snow exhibits stigmatized behaviour through his extraordinary attachment to an inanimate object: his 'head'. Snow carries a female mannequin head into the ring with him, and talks to it frequently, asking it for advice and yelling at it when he gets angry. He also waves it wildly in the air and uses it to beat his opponents.
2. Belittled and marginalized
Descriptions for all three 'mentally ill' wrestlers reinforce common misconceptions and encourage marginalization of the mentally ill and disabled. This theme is consistent with the claim by researchers that the media tends to use belittling slang in referring to mental illnesses or people who suffer from them . The wrestlers are called retards, morons, crazy, deranged, not human, stupid, sick, strange, perverse and idiots. They are insane, run 'a quart low', and they 'hear voices', the commentators tell fans. The commentators also belittle the fans of these wrestlers, incredulous that any spectator would be 'moronic' enough to support them.
WWF commentators Jerry Lawler and Jim Ross, who usually work in a 'good cop/bad cop' routine, can often scarcely believe the stupidity of these three wrestlers, especially Snow. For instance, during 'Judgment Day', a pay-per-view special taped in Chicago, the commentators were discussing Al Snow while he carried his (in)famous head around the ring. Ross wondered out loud if Snow is really as stupid as he appears.
Lawler: I doubt that! ... I've known that guy a long time. Tell me, what kind of moron would talk to something like that?
Ross (good cop): He is a little different, I will admit that.
Lawler: His dentist told me his wisdom teeth were retarded, that's how different he is!
Another favorite target for derogatory slang is Mankind. During the same show the commentators speculated about what Mankind's wife looks like ("She's gotta be horrendous!"), and talk about his "scrambled brains". Ross is sympathetic to Mankind, sometimes suggesting therapy. Lawler jokes about the mind Mankind has apparently lost.
During the popular 'Summer Slam' event at Madison Square Garden, the commentators discussed Mankind as he pulled his hair out, waiting for an opponent to enter the ring.
Ross: You have to wonder if Mankind has all his faculties.
Lawler: You have to wonder if he ever had them all!
Ross (later, as Mankind is pummeled by an opponent): The human anatomy isn't meant to be treated that way!
Lawler: But Mankind, he ain't really human.
These three wrestlers are the only wrestlers for which derogatory slang is used for the stereotype they personify. It appears that only the mentally ill wrestlers are singled out for such belittling references.
3. Obsessed with pain
Mentally ill/disabled wrestlers are depicted as deserving, desiring and enjoying pain. While other wrestlers use pain as a means to an end (a championship), these wrestlers seem to derive their satisfaction not from victory, but from the experience of pain itself. Because they are 'deranged', they are also portrayed as somehow deserving whatever pain is inflicted upon them. This constant theme of suffering is intertwined with the character of Kane, who was apparently disfigured by fire when he was a youngster. His father, 'Paul Bearer', tells wrestling fans during the 'King of the Ring' match in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, about Kane:
"His whole life he's suffered! His whole life he's been ridiculed!" Kane couldn't "go outside, or play in the Little League," because of his scars.
Before a match that night, Kane announces, "If I do not win the title, I will set myself on fire".
There is wild speculation during the match about the prospect of Kane setting himself on fire, but he wins the match.
While this theme is clear with the other wrestlers, it is however, most distinct for Mankind, the disheveled, awkward wrestler who commentators call "the human pincushion". A favorite subject of conversation for the commentators is Mankind's alleged 'threshold for pain' and his 'love for pain', both of which seem to be limitless. Indeed, if he apparently doesn't get enough pain from another fighter, he simply inflicts it on himself. In one fight during the Judgment Day event, Mankind began hitting and biting himself and pulling out his hair, before he knocked himself out with his famous 'mandible claw' move (usually reserved to hurt other wrestlers).
Perhaps the most graphic example of Mankind's obsession with pain was seen in the 1999 'Royal Rumble,' which took place during February in Anaheim, California. Mankind agreed to an 'I quit' match with WWF hero 'The Rock'. Mankind, who has a reputation for never saying 'I quit' in a match, fights The Rock for the WWF championship in a match that will only stop when one of the wrestlers says the magic words. In a promotional clip before the fight, Mankind talks about his capacity for pain while footage rolls: Mankind being beaten with objects, wrapped in barbed wire, thrown on beds of nails, and falling from heights of more than 15 feet down to a concrete floor. Still, claims Mankind, he won't quit, as more footage plays, this time of him smiling through a bloody face and pulling his hair out. When the fight begins, the commentators remind spectators that Mankind is "perhaps the most deranged individual in the history of the WWF". As the fight progresses, it is clear who is scripted to win tonight: The Rock. He throws Mankind into tables, steel stairs, and down to the concrete floor from atop a ladder. Mankind lands in a pile of electrical cables, and starts crawling along the floor to get away from The Rock. Still, Mankind refuses to utter "I quit." When commentator Ross complains about the beating Mankind is taking, Lawler quickly reminds him:
"This is what Mankind wanted! He wanted the 'I quit' match!".
The Rock then handcuffs Mankind, who is laying on the floor whimpering, and continues to beat him. When he asks Mankind if he wants to quit, Mankind staggers up and says, "You'll have to kill me!" He eventually falls to the floor, bloody and unconscious, and the fight is over. "Out with the old, in with the new!" exclaims Lawler.
One can only speculate about where this scripted obsession with pain will lead the storyline for these wrestlers. One could argue that the logical place for these storylines to move, for mentally ill or disabled wrestlers, would be to the death. It is arguably the logical conclusion for a wrestler who apparently desires, enjoys, and deserves pain.
4. Must be controlled
The mentally ill/disabled wrestlers observed in this study were depicted as dangerous and unpredictable, and thus needing to be controlled. This is in line with the existing media presented stereotype of the mentally disturbed. Indeed, when someone is depicted with a mental illness in a television show, for instance, it is more likely that the person will be portrayed as criminal and dangerous than not . WWF storylines thus appear no different from those of other media, portraying mentally ill/disabled wrestlers as destructive, virtually
indestructible and out of control.
Although the commentators seem to detest Snow the most, and Mankind is considered so dangerous that he has been called 'Satanic', the danger/control theme seems to focus most on Kane. Commentators completely dehumanise him with their nickname for him: 'the big red machine'. They talk in awe about his 'unearthly' power, and are stunned when Kane, apparently way out of control, attacks guest referee Pete Rose during a bout at 'Wrestlemania' filmed in Boston.
"This monster doesn't know right from wrong," Ross laments in response to Kane's actions. Lawler adds: "He only knows one thing, that is to destroy everything in front of him". Control is a consistent issue with Kane.
The commentators thus fret, "Who can control Kane?" after he wins a match. But Kane is constantly manipulated. Paul Bearer, his stepfather, accompanies him to the ring and tells him, "You are my personal instrument of destruction!" Kane is also controlled by his older brother, a wrestler named 'The Undertaker', who "put his brother in his place," according to commentators, when he set Kane on fire during an earlier 'Unforgiven' pay-per-view match.
However, Kane is mostly controlled by the 'Corporate Boss', who talks in a slow, patronising way to him and asks, "Do you understand me?" The Boss uses the threat of the strait jacket and a trip to a mental institution as a way to keep control over Kane. On 'Capitol Carnage', a pay-per-view event held in London, Kane is put in a strait jacket but manages to escape. However, the 1999 'Royal Rumble' provided the most blatant example of this theme with Kane. After disobeying 'corporate orders' earlier that evening, Kane enters the Royal Rumble, a free-for-all where fighters who leave the ring are disqualified. He enters the ring and promptly throws the other four fighters over the ropes, and is left the only man standing for the moment.
"Kane is cleaning house!" Lawler exclaims. As soon as Kane is done tossing out his opponents however, more men come running toward the ring dressed in white lab coats, and one is carrying a strait jacket. "[The boss] threatened to send Kane back to the insane asylum if he didn't obey his orders!" shouts Lawler. "That's where Kane grew up, in an institution! He should be institutionalized!" Kane disqualifies himself from the brawl by running from the ring and escaping through the crowd.
When discussing reasons for the media's treatment of people with disabilities, Longmore (1987) wrote, "What we fear, we often stigmatize and shun and sometimes seek to destroy" ( p. 66). The emerging themes from the scripts of professional wrestling seem to encourage and perpetuate this type of approach to individuals with mental illnesses or mental disabilities. Those wrestlers who have been labeled 'mentally ill' are viewed and depicted as dangerous and uncontrollable, are mocked and degraded, and seem unnaturally attracted to reckless, pain-seeking behaviour. The mentally ill thus appear the last group of individuals to be treated by the media in a blatantly stereotypical, disrespectful and offensive way.
Why these images persist
While clearly harmful, stereotypical images of the mentally ill and disabled continue to pervade popular media. Scholars have speculated on a number of reasons for this phenomenon; the following three may go some way to explain why unfair and inaccurate portrayals continue to saturate professional wrestling.
WWF ringleader Vince McMahon has often touted money as the driving force behind the 'moves' made in his wrestling arenas. Thus, he and other WWF organizers must see the depictions of mentally ill/disabled wrestlers as profit-making storylines. Consequently, Mankind became one of the WWF's most popular wrestlers after actor Mick Foley added the 'crazy' persona to his wrestling character. Similarly, Al Snow and Kane continue to be integral characters in WWF's weekly productions and pay-per-view specials. One could argue that the reason for the popularity of these characters, and the WWF in general, has to do with the gratuitous use of violence. It is conventional wisdom within certain sections of the media that consumers have always been drawn to violence, especially on the television screen where images must be graphic and emotive to attract viewers.
The "bobbing and weaving of cameras, the slo-mo, the background music, the frantic voiceovers and the blood and guts make for compelling TV … It's here to stay because people are watching".
Simply put, violence sells. Violence, with added elements of unpredictability and 'freaks and monsters' appears to sell even better: "Violence involving mental illness is even more terrifying, more morbidly fascinating to the public, more likely to receive splashy coverage, and, most important, more likely to sell than other kinds of violence". It follows, therefore, that a programme such as the WWF will continue, and perhaps even increase, its use of stereotypes surrounding mental illness and mental disability, because of the power these 'crazy, unpredictable' characters have to draw viewers and advertising dollars.
The images of mental disability that appear in modern popular media simply reflect centuries-old perceptions and prejudices; the producers of televised wrestling are in some ways merely continuing traditional depictions. The Greeks, for example, saw mentally disturbed people as flawed and evil and viewed mental illness as punishment by their gods for some wrongdoing. The Bible also suggests that madness is a godly punishment: " The Lord Shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart" (Deuteronomy 28:28). In the Middle Ages, people who exhibited symptoms of mental illness were seen as possessed by the Devil because they had committed a grievous sin. Early treatment was coloured by the view that mental illness rendered people incompetent and bestial. It was commonly believed that insane people would never recover, but grow steadily worse until they were so mentally incapacitated as to be little more than animals. These ideas contributed to fears that mentally ill patients were dangerous and, without the enforced control of the hospital, likely to run wild and ravage the community.
In the early part of the nineteenth century, scientific theories linked the size and shape of the human head with criminal activity. Bogdan, Biklen, Shapiro and Spelkoman (1990) report that the Italian scientist Lombroso suggested that criminal types could be differentiated by their physical characteristics, including their head shape and configurations of their body parts. He erroneously concluded that criminals have physical characteristics that are present in some persons with mental disabilities. For example, he posited that criminal types had asymmetric skulls, large ears, almond shaped eyes, and large foreheads. He saw people with abnormal features as a different and lower species than so-called "normals". Some scientists continued to embrace his theories even into the 1950s (Bogdan et al., 1990).
Although Lombroso's theories have been discredited by more recent research, his influence clearly provides a basis for current popular media depiction of criminals, while the media continue to focus on the head as a symbol of disability. For example, all three wrestlers observed in this study and depicted as mentally disabled by the WWF have defining marks on their heads or wear masks to cover their deformities. Lack of consumer backlash.
Although the WWF has been highly criticised for the sexual content and graphic nature of its programmes – and has lost some advertising revenue as a result – there has been no public outcry in response to its shameful treatment of people with disabilities. Unless there is such an outcry, televised wrestling programmes have no tangible incentive to change the use of stereotypes that, while false, provide visual appeal and profitability. Consumer backlash and/or pressure from advertisers ultimately may be the only stimulus for change, since it affects the 'bottom line' for such programmes.
The prospect of stirring consumer concern and action about such images is daunting. Political and media scholars lament the increasing passivity of the American public – a public that has become disenfranchised, conditioned by television to view political life (and activism) as a 'spectator sport'. Critics charge that television experience is so passive that it saps moderate-to-heavy viewers of the inclination to think critically about much of what they see.
Beyond this overall factor, two specific aspects contribute to viewers' resistance to speaking out against images portrayed of the mentally ill on programmes such as professional wrestling. First, because wrestling is 'merely (lowbrow) entertainment', viewers resist watching it critically, and thus fail to perceive messages they might well find offensive in another context.
Wahl (1995) writes that this phenomenon – the resistance to cast a critical eye on wrestling, soap operas and comedies – makes their messages about any social group even more powerful.
Second, historical paradigms about mental illness and disability are so deeply embedded in U.S. culture that they are extremely difficult to counter. The tradition of stigmatizing and marginalizing those who suffer from mental illness or disability - and the myths about the 'danger' of these individuals - is so entrenched in media (and social) communication that it would take a great educational effort to convince television viewers that stereotypes used for this group are indeed false and offensive. This will to speak upon behalf of the mentally ill appears lacking at present.
In comparison to other studies, there are no surprises in these findings. Thus, the images of the mentally ill as portrayed through wrestling are compatible with depictions on other television programmes . What perhaps makes the wrestling images more insidious however, are two factors: firstly, the degree to which the stereotypes and symbols for these characters are exaggerated, and thus, easy to read; and secondly, the accessibility to wrestling by young, impressionable viewers who would be hard-pressed to miss or misinterpret the messages professional wrestling is sending them about the value and role of mentally ill/disabled people in society. There is little argument that these messages clearly encourage non-accepting and stigmatizing behaviour toward a large, benign group in society. Perhaps even worse, however, is that such depictions of mental illness discourage society from openly accepting, addressing and treating the reality of mental illness and mental disabilities. As long as these conditions continue to be stigmatized, millions of people who need treatment and acceptance will refuse to seek it principally out of shame.
Perceptions of mental illness perpetuated in televised professional wrestling and in other television programmes also discourage society as a whole from accepting or communicating with this group. Prejudices, "that result in fear of the handicapped, and, ultimately, in their systematic, intentional exclusion from society" (Bogdan, et.al., 1990, p. 138), are reinforced. As much as studies have demonstrated that the media play a negative role in perceptions of the mentally ill and disabled, media producers have also shown that they can play a positive role. In two studies, one in 1979 and one in 1984, the media were able, through non-stereotyping depictions, to change the attitudes of viewers about individuals with disabilities (Byrd & Elliott, 1988).
This is good news for those who want to reverse the media's destructive pattern; attitudes can be changed, and the media can play a key role in facilitating that change. However, the media must be willing to take the 'high road' with regard to the incentive for quick profits and the ease of using age-old but false stereotypes. Consumers must also do their part, demanding fair, truthful treatment for this population – just as they have over the decades for women and other minorities.
It is hoped that this formative study will provide a springboard for more comprehensive research regarding the images of marginalized and disadvantaged groups in professional wrestling. Because wrestling is an entertainment phenomenon that has exploded in popularity among working-class and middle-class Americans, it merits our critical attention.
Further examination of the cultural power of this type of mediated entertainment – and suggestions for ways it could affect marginalized groups in a more positive way - would be purposeful and relevant.