The WWE title run of Jinder Mahal has been underwhelming to say the least. For some, he is a heel champion that does his job competently. For others, picking up the remote and changing the channel has been a common occurrence during his reign (which has shown in the lackluster ratings since he became the WWE Champion on Smackdown Live in May).
However, this is not a piece aimed at poo-poo’ing Mahal’s title run.
I am no fan of his work but he has handled the role respectably. There is a greater issue that has come to the forefront during the championship reign of “The Maharaja.”
In the age of Trump, and a general lacking of social acceptance in our country, the WWE’s style of old-school booking seems even more outdated than a MySpace page. Because I have to ask: Why is India the heel?
American society is in a weird place right now. Following the events at Charlottesville, Virginia, and the subsequent comments from President Donald Trump, acceptance of differing races, and foreign cultures, is currently at a low in our countries history. This is not to say there has not be large leaps forward on social issues. Yet despite the progress, we often take steps back. The WWE seems to mirror that in their own story telling.
A key story from this weekend’s SummerSlam was missed by many news outlets, and that nugget of info was the fact that the WWE title—a championship that has existed for 38 years—was defended by two foreign born performers, with lineage to the far east. Yet the rise of Mahal and Shinsuke Nakamura to that position shows the stark contrast in the ways that WWE handles characters without a North American history.
Nakamura is a perfect example of the social progression of the company’s content. As a character that is very different than popular WWE norms has been accepted. Without a doubt the US and Canada are the companies base markets, so speaking English is a key component for success.
In addition, some western sass and bravado has taken men like Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock to the top of the industry. However, Nakamura has bucked that trend in garnering beloved fan-fare. His English is still a work in-progress, and his flamboyancy–that borders on feminine at times–has only seemed to make fans appreciate his uniqueness, as a bad-ass comfortable in his own skin.
Yet Mahal is the B-side to progress, or the greatest hits if you will, for the folks that love oldies. His entire character is a redo of stuff we have seen ad nauseum during the aforementioned 38-year existence of the company’s world title.
We had the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff playing up the virtues of American enemies Iran and Russia. There was Yokozuna (a man of Samoan descent) acting as the feared sumo monster from Japan. The future Rikishi played the “mysterious” masked Middle-Eastern baddie the Sultan, and let’s not forget the other silent bad-guy from the 90s–with Japanese script written on his body–Hakushi.
This out-dated trend of bad-guy foreigners has continued on to the company’s modern era. There was Muhammad Hassan who roiled American tensions with individuals of the Islamic faith a few years after 9/11. The Great Khali was a redux of what was done with Yokozuna, and instead of being a Japanese monster he was a Punjabi monster. Currently, Rusev is rehashing the same ground Volkoff did as the anti-American villain, from the region once called the USSR.
Mahal has become just another amalgamation of all of these previous characters, just with an Indian label on it. He often prefers to address the audience in his “native” language, he proudly wears his culture on his sleeve, and he is frustrated with American’s disliking him because he is different. Now granted, he did make the typical anti-American statements to galvanize a tired caricature. And he should, he is playing a heel.
But the thing I ask is, in 2017 why does his cultural appreciations have to be a bad thing to WWE decision makers or fans?
Austin flipped people off and poured beer on his enemies. The Rock talked trash and rock-bottomed women. Yet the WWE purposely wants to frame a narrative were being of Indian decent, and loving ones heritage is a bad thing. Are we not the melting pot? Do we not live in a country where George Lopez proudly touted his Mexican culture on a very popular television show? Is Rajesh Koothrappali not a beloved character on the Big Bang Theory, one of the most popular shows in television history? Are we to believe that Jinder Mahal is less acceptable because he is deeply devoted to his culture?
Society, despite the setbacks of the last year, has seen so much growth. So too has the WWE. Finn Balor doesn’t have shamrocks on his trunks and wear green all the time. He is a blend of a appreciating Irish history and James Dean cool, who takes great influence from the likes of Eddie Guerrero—a legend who blended fun and cool with his culture. Even the Usos left behind the Samoan war-song entrance and evolved into fully formed characters that aren’t an advertisement for Ancestry.com.
Why is India the heel? They have a national GDP nine-times less than ours, yet they have a population of 1.2 billion people to our 300 million. They are a country with far more people in poverty, yet have more of a wherewithal to make sweeping changes to deal with climate change than the US, who has a president that left the Paris Accord and wants to roll back environmental regulations. So the country with more homeless, that seems to care more about the planet, is bad because their music isn’t played on American top-20 stations?
Why does a company that has shown a capability to see growing trends like the appreciation of female athletes, continue to advance the idea that it is still okay to dislike foreigners, even in the 2017? This comes during a time when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) department is rounding-up many people (often unfairly) and trying to deport them from the nation they love and contribute to. There is tons of TV time devoted to talk of border walls, and new guidelines narrowing the opportunities for immigrants to take their crack at the American dream. Shouldn’t this be a time to move far away from these stereotypical villains in a fantasy world that mirrors reality?
Shame should also fall on fans for buying into a tired and anti-different storyline. We have come too far as a society to continue to play-up themes that were getting old even in the 80’s. The WWE has had stories in the past about necrophilia, black empowerment, mixed-race couples, domestic abuse, and even an elderly woman giving birth to a hand. Those are examples of progress away from the norms (as weird as some of those stories were).
When does the promotion take a step forward, and instead of the overdone foreign bad guy, the white supremacist and neo-Nazi is the bad guy? Maybe a redo of the Big Boss Man, as a cop who steps over the line and is overly physical with superstars. What about an authority figure who is out of his/her mind and abuses their power? Wait, that’s been done to death too.
On so many occasions, the WWE often takes the pulse of this nation and turns reality into entertaining fiction. Despite the regressions, America has come a long way in social acceptance. Now more than ever this entertainment powerhouse needs to check the pulse again. Jinder Mahal can be a heel by being a great big jerk. The Miz does it expertly every week. Don’t make India the heel, there are enough villainous archetypes born right here to use.