The Smackdown on Common Sense: How the Anti-Bullying Movement Is Hurting Itself

06/24/2011 05:14 pm ET | Updated Aug 24, 2011

In my recent article, "The NEA and WWE's New Anti-Bullying Campaign," I questioned the National Education Association and the Creative Coalition for partnering with WWE to create the Be A Star anti-bullying program. Many people, specifically fans of the WWE and Ms. Robin Bronk, Executive Director of the Creative Coalition, disagree with my assessment that the WWE is not a credible partner because its programming is contradictory to any bullying prevention program.

My key point is that because bullying has become the popular social problem for corporations and celebrities to support, advocacy organizations like the National Education Association and the Creative Coalition must be extremely mindful about who they associate with as they develop programs on this issue. Otherwise, they will not only undermine their position and lose their overall credibility but the opportunity for systemic change will be lost in a sea of mixed messages that young people will dismiss.

That is the real issue. But reaction from the article has almost exclusively been on defending the WWE.

That in itself is important. The premises behind the criticisms I received demand close examination because they reflect a misunderstanding of how cultural values are transferred through the media and how media is currently distributed to our children. Ms. Bronk recently posted a rebuttal to my article and since her complaints encapsulate the others, I'm going to use what she wrote to address the issues.

Premise #1. The WWE's brand of entertainment is harmless because it is fake.

"WWE is scripted entertainment -- just like Hollywood movies or television shows -- yet Wiseman's article doesn't hold entertainment companies who produce violent movies, television programs, or reality programming to the same standard. Nor does it suggest athletes from sports like football, MMA, or hockey should be disqualified from promoting anti-bullying messages."

Ms. Bronk is correct: WWE is scripted entertainment. But this means that WWE, unlike professional sports, has complete control over what it does. So even in its current "PG version" the narrative of the WWE fight script includes ridicule before the bell rings and the "winner" is declared. In the words of Lyn Mikel Brown, Professor of Education at Colby College and author of Packaging Boyhood, "This mockery is typically in the service of shame and humiliation about not being tough enough, strong enough, masculine enough--messages that motivate much of the homophobia and bullying found in schools these days. It's going to be very hard for the WWE to give up this script and retain its loyal fans--as evidenced by the recent homophobic tweets by a WWE commentator only a week after the agreement with GLADD was announced." (GLAAD is one of the principal collaborators in this partnership)

Compare this to professional sports. The purpose and script of a football game is to get the ball into the end zone; the goal of a hockey game is to get the puck into the net. While a football or hockey game may include fights or even individuals spontaneously humiliating someone, that dynamic is not intrinsic to the game as it is in WWE. Using the same logic, I don't suggest individuals from sports like hockey, football and MMA should be disqualified from promoting anti-bullying messages; if I did, that wouldn't make sense.

I said in my article that the people at WWE are extremely media savvy about this interplay between fake and real. I take it back. They are geniuses. The most important example of this is how WWE's blurs the line between its real life and fictionalized owner: Mr. McMahon. The overarching fictional narrative of the WWE is that McMahon is in a position of power and as such controls everyone around him. Look at any of the shows with him playing his fictional/real-life characters and you will see a story of a person with authority and control publicly flaunting and abusing his power. He is the leader and sets an example that the rest of the characters emulate. Does that fall into acceptable PG ratings? Absolutely. It is also the foundation of bullying.

Premise #2. The videos I showed are old and therefore of no consequence.

"In criticizing WWE, the article invokes some videos from WWE's bygone TV-14 era, suggesting the company actually contributes to bullying. If anyone is offended by that content, it should be known that several years ago, WWE took the initiative to make its programming more family friendly.

This may be somewhat true about their current broadcast programming, but unfortunately that fact is irrelevant. We live in a post-broadcast world. The majority of young people don't sit down and watch a TV show at its scheduled time anymore. As I said in my article, WWE cites an average online viewership of 8.9 million video streams per month. Children and tweens know they can see anything WWE has ever broadcast on YouTube; through the WWE channel or in clips posted by individuals. WWE knows this and as a business strategy it makes perfect sense; i.e. look harmless while keeping the more degrading programming away from people who don't understand how viewers find the content. At any rate, you may not agree with WWE's and Ms. Bronk's definition of "family friendly" after you watch this compilation from their 2010 Smackdown Bikini Contest:

Throughout the years, these bikini contests have always been one of WWE's most common scripts. They follow the same plot, the same script and the same lesson imparted: women are judged by a group of men, one is chosen as the most sexy, and another woman attacks her. This script role-models not only proven negative female stereotyped images and behavior but specifically shows an expectation that women should turn against each other as they fight for mens' validation. Unfortunately, in terms of this article, "be a STAR" Advisory Council member Girl Scouts USA, is one of the principal leaders of the recently launched Healthy Commission for Positive Images of Women and Girls. As a result, Girl Scouts is now connected with the video above; which is obviously contradictory to everything they work so hard for and damages their credibility.

Back to the accusation that the videos I showed in the last article were old and therefore inconsequential. Actually the dates of the videos are irrelevant because everything that WWE has ever created is always available for viewing.

Imagine this: You are a 12-year old boy who knows that WWE has gotten cleaned up. You know that WWE used to be way more intense: You've heard that WWE used to have people pee on each other, hit each over the head with chairs, and girl wrestlers kissed each other. You are a 12 year-old boy, so what are you going to do? You go to YouTube and type in the search "WWE girls kissing." Is this something educational organizations should be partnering with?

Or if you did a search on the popular wrestler, Eddie Guerrero, who died in 2005, you'd get this:

So that there are no misunderstandings of what WWE is teaching here with this fictional, "meaningless" script, I'm going to break it down. A man has a nurse bending over him in a scenario typical of many pornographic films. Without him knowing, she's replaced with a hyper-masculine, oiled-up, nearly naked male wrestler. For a second there is a moment of sexual attraction, which is quickly replaced with revulsion, demonstrating their heterosexuality. Lastly a "stereotypical" gay, lustful doctor arrives, eager to sexually assault Guerrero during the examination. What the script is telling the viewer is that 1. women should service men, 2. if there is sexual attraction between men, that is shameful and must be ridiculed and 3. openly gay men (i.e. the doctor) are sexual predators who will sexually assault a heterosexual man if given the opportunity.

Will watching this clip make the 12-year-old viewer a homophobic exploiter of women? Probably not. But what research has proven over and over again is that scripts like these profoundly influence people's attitudes about what is normalized acceptable social behavior.

What I don't understand is that some of the research and public policy positions against this form of media entertainment come from the very advocacy organizations that are members of the Creative Coalition and The National Education Association itself. In its own 2010-2011 Resolutions Document, the NEA stated, "children are an especially vulnerable and easily exploited audience who must be protected from exposure to violence, prejudice, sexual content, and stereotyping by mass media, the Internet, and products that are accessible to children."

Now if the WWE was really serious about ending its programming that includes humiliation, homophobia, and the degradation of women it would be easy for them to do. Remove that programming from their on-line content and report the individuals to YouTube who upload clips over which they have property rights. With very little effort WWE could do its part to stop the dissemination of this content. But that would mean putting its stated values of and contribution to the Be A Star program over its profits.

Premise #3: I am being unfair to WWE.

"[Wiseman] unfairly suggests that because of WWE's brand of entertainment, the company has no moral authority to promote non-violence and tolerance among kids."

The definition of fair is to be "just or appropriate in the circumstances." Given the circumstances, I think my assessment is a fair one.

Ms. Bronk states in her closing remarks that "The bottom line is that the NEA, The Creative Coalition and GLAAD are harnessing the power of the WWE brand to promote tolerance and raise public awareness about bullying."

I think the real bottom line is that while WWE has the right to do whatever it wants as does the people who watch it, the Be A Star message will be lost in the much more powerful imagery and messages in WWE's normal programming.

In the wise words of 10 year old Dylan and 12-year old Max,

"It makes no sense for the WWE to get involved with bullying prevention, because they fight & they influence kids to become bullies."

"It does not make any sense because these guys in the WWE are fighting all the time until their opponent gets knocked out and i dont think a 12 year old would be allowed to watch WWE anyway. (what were they thinking?)"

If anyone in the NEA or the Creative Coalition would like to continue the debate about this partnership, I am more than willing to do so. What isn't debatable is that the WWE has already won the fight; an association of well-respected social justice non-profits is leaping to their defense.

I am telling you these WWE people are smart.