World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has come under fire for its recent use of Vladimir Putin on its programming. But unlike many of its critics, WWE is trying to do something about Putin’s horrific crimes inside and outside of Russia. We should be praising the WWE for this effort, not condemning it.Criticizing the WWE is popular and easy. It is seen as a “fake sport” that appeals to the uneducated masses. But as someone who worked in the West Wing of the White House, is pursuing a PhD in international affairs, and has written about foreign policy for CNN, the Jerusalem Post, and others, I see WWE as a lot more than that.
Sure, it has some trashy moments and questionable history (who doesn’t?), but the WWE is entertainment that features some of the most gifted athletes and actors around – and unlike so many forms of entertainment, it is actually interested in having an impact on how we see the world.
The use of Vladimir Putin is more than fodder for a wrestling storyline; it is the WWE’s effort to educate and inform its fan base. Wrestling has a long and storied history of using foreign adversaries in storylines (examples include the Iron Sheikh – who represented an Iranian regime that still plagues the world, and Sergeant Slaughter – who sympathized with Saddam Hussein before the first Gulf War).
It’s also well known that WWE CEO Vince McMahon is a huge supporter of the U.S. military (evident in the yearly trips he has personally taken to active war zones since September 2001), and an advocate of a strong national security policy. His wife has also run for the U.S. Senate as a Republican on two occasions. But McMahon’s use of Putin has nothing to do with politics.
President Obama and Democrats – along with Republicans – have been very vocal in condemning Putin for many of his crimes, including arming Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, stalling progress on dismantling Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and murdering and jailing political opponents at home.
Yet somehow the WWE is worthy of condemnation for trying to bring these actions to the attention of its viewers?
The WWE has been using Putin in its storylines for months, but the controversy really erupted last weekend, when a character made a veiled reference to Putin’s involvement in the downing of a Malaysian Airlines flight.
For the past three months, a character named Lana has been saluting a picture of Vladimir Putin and dedicating her matches to him – for, what she calls, “making fools out of the American people.” She tells audiences that Putin is her hero for constantly defying America on the world stage, and for being a strong, ruthless leader.During last week’s show, she said “You blame Russia for the recent current events? In fact, you Americans should be scolded for your warmongering in Afghanistan and Iraq. You Americans should be insulted and afraid.” Many were outraged, claiming that the WWE had gone “too far” and that Lana was using the MH17 tragedy to gain “heat” (boos) for her character.
First, it’s not even clear she is referring to the MH17 tragedy. Putting the quote in context — with the line about Iraq and Afghanistan — she could easily have been referring to Putin’s support of the Assad regime and other anti-American causes in the Mideast and around the world.
But even if it was a veiled reference to the MH17 crash, this is something that Secretary of State John Kerry has implicitly blamed Russia for on national TV. How is it tasteless for the WWE to simply acknowledge what has already been established by the U.S. government?
I assume many of WWE’s critics want it to end the storyline – and stop using Vladimir Putin on WWE programming. But this would play right into Putin’s hands. Many of Putin’s actions have gone unchallenged precisely because no one has been willing to stand up to him – from President Obama, to European leaders, to the international business community. We are now seeing the result of these failures — and yet the WWE’s response should be to do just that?
And as a professional playwright and actor – I also understand that WWE’s use of Vladimir Putin is just what its name implies – entertainment. Would we demand a theatre be shut down because a play brings attention to Putin’s behavior – and points out that his government likely contributed to the plane crash? Of course not. But the WWE is held to a different standard.