What if I told you that World Wrestling Entertainment had partnered with the National Education Association to do an anti-bullying campaign?
Would you think it was a bad joke?
It's no joke.
The WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment, recently announced the "Be A Star" bullying prevention program in partnership with the National Education Association's (NEA) Health Information Network (HIN) and the Creative Coalition; an association of well-respected advocacy organizations who focus on youth, racism, homophobia, education, and violence prevention. According to their joint press release, "Be a STAR will promote positive methods of social interaction and encourage people to treat others as equals and with respect because everyone is a star in their own right."
This is how the WWE role-models positive social interaction:
CEO of The Creative Coalition, Robin Bronk was clear in her support. "We're proud to be an architect with WWE of "Be A STAR."
Ms. Bronk must be confused about WWE. According to Jackson Katz Ph.D, author of The Macho Paradox and creator of the video Tough Guise, "WWE is one of the most culturally destructive and blatantly misogynistic businesses in the history of popular entertainment."
When I asked Nora Howley, manager of NEA's HIN programs why they decided to work with WWE, her response was, "WWE wrestling is silly, scripted matches. And there's no body of evidence that proves wrestling causes violence."
Ms. Howley is right; you can't prove wrestling causes violence. Unfortunately, that fact entirely misses the point (
It's precisely these "silly" scripts that are the problem. Storytelling teaches us the values, attitudes, and beliefs of our culture. This concept is fundamental to effective education and media literacy and has been amply described in this very context in works such as "Packaging Boyhood." The late George Gerbner, professor of communications and Dean Emeritus of the Annenberg School of Communication defined the impact of this kind of violence, not on behavior but on attitudes. Here's a partial list of the effects he describes:
- It desensitizes viewers to victimization and suffering; they lose the ability to understand the consequence of violence, to empathize, to resist, and to protest
- It's swift, it's thrilling, it's cool, it's effective, it's painless, and it always leads to a happy ending because you have to deliver the audience to the next commercial in a receptive mood
- One comes to believe that the violence portrayed in media is normal and it's a good way of solving problems
- All of this leads to a pervasive sense of insecurity and vulnerability
That the NEA and Creative Coalition appear not to know this is deeply troubling. Not only are they influential leaders in education and public policy and as such have the responsibility to make informed decisions, but their ignorance makes them vulnerable to being manipulated by people who are more media savvy. Make no mistake, WWE is media savvy.
As I have written on other occasions, bullying is stripping a person of their dignity based on a characteristic such as race, religion, gender and or sexual orientation. Watch how WWE does exactly this:
Depiction of Women:
As explained in this video clip, explicit homophobia is a cornerstone of the model of masculinity portrayed by WWE. Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, there are countless YouTube clips of WWE viewers either gay bashing or making fun of the homoerotic undertones going on between the wrestlers.
So why did the NEA and Creative Coalition agree to do this?
Members of the Creative Coalition include the American Library Association, the Girl Scouts, National Black Justice Coalition, National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, and the Mathew Sheppard Foundation among many others. I count many of them as colleagues and respect their work immensely, and I don't believe for one second that these people support the mission of WWE.
Here's what I think may have happened.
The people at the NEA and the Creative Coalition haven't watched a WWE event or visualize the cartoonish Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant from the 1980s.
The people at all these organizations took WWE on face value when they said, "We are committed to this issue and we are taking it seriously," even though WWE states in its own communication materials: "[WWE] does not represent socially responsible methods for resolving conflict."
They got stars in their eyes when they thought about reaching WWE's large fan base. According to WWE's own statistics, they have average online viewership of 8.9 million video streams per month. These organizations believe that WWE will enable the "Be A Star" program to be seen by many more people than if they didn't work with WWE. This is true and makes sense, as long as the messenger and the environment where the message is delivered are credible to the target audience.
Here's what I do know:
The WWE paid for an anti-bullying movie; "That's What I Am" starring Ed Harris, Chase Ellison, WWE Superstar Randy Orton® and Amy Madigan. It comes with curricula and will be made available to teachers throughout the country. I saw the movie and I'm having a hard time understanding why the NEA likes it so much. Plus, the DVD begins with an ad for a WWE video game.
The question is, can one movie, even if it was the best anti-bullying movie ever made, counteract everything else WWE puts out? Can Stephanie McMahon's "Be a Star" PSA be credible when so young people have seen her humiliated and mock beaten by her real life husband Triple H on the WWE mat?
Ms. Howley believes it can: "The video and accompanying materials are an amazing opportunity to speak to children and families. Our staff gave it great thought and we believe the video can live independently from wrestling." Sut Jhally, Professor of Communications at the University of Massachusetts disagrees, "We know that individual messages don't work on their own. They only work in a context and the WWE's general context is opposite of an anti-bullying message. It's like the pornography industry making a video about abstinence."
And beyond the movie's and campaign's merits, are they worth it when they help to protect WWE from scrutiny?
Fact: GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) is also working with WWE. Aaron McQuade, deputy director of GLAAD's News and Field Media explained how it came about. "A few months ago we got a wave of complaints from LGBTQ people who attended a WWE event because of a gay bashing incident. WWE didn't seem to know how offensive and hurtful it was to their LGBTQ viewers. So they asked us to consult with them and we have been doing that. We have worked with their writing teams and talent management and we are running PSA's during their Monday night programming."
I don't believe WWE's claim that they didn't know how homophobic their fights are. Beyond their own common sense, there's a documentary by Media Education Foundation called "Wrestling with Manhood" that clearly lays all of this out. But I understand GLAAD's motivation; they were acting in response to their constituents. GLAAD is an incredible organization. I just don't know how they, or anyone, can hold their own against the WWE.
In situations like this I always check my judgment by seeking the opinions of young people. After all, this program is targeted at them. So I asked boys what they thought about this partnership and this is what they told me:
Q: Based on what WWE does, Does it make sense for the WWE to get involved with bullying prevention? Why or why not?
It does not make any sense because these guys in the WWE are fighting all the time until their opponent gets knocked out. Max, 12
I don't think it makes a lot of sense because of what WWE does. I have watched the show a couple of times and the entire match is beating the other person up, and violence and hurting people is a part of bullying. If I saw a WWE wrestler talk about the bad things of bullying I would be a bit confused. First I see him knock someone out and then next moment I see him talking about how bad bullying is. Nate, 12
The NEA probably finds it a good publicity stunt for their purpose to have an organization that both has popular recognition and influential content to help promote a serious issue, one that may even connect to material in WWE itself. At first thought it seems like a good idea, but then the logical response to that alliance would be, "Isn't kind of backwards to have a fighting organization disapprove?" Marcus, 15
Why would WWE want to work with the NEA and the Creative Coalition?
Companies always want to look good to the public, and benefiting from the association of these organizations is an incredibly smart way to do it. But there's more. WWE is losing money. WWE stocks, attendance and profits are all down. As a result it's re-branding itself to be more family friendly and "Disneyfied".
Why is it in financial trouble? Ironically, it's being out-manned by a more masculine competitor: Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the mixed martial arts promotions company that has grown since 2001 into a billion dollar corporation, is sapping precisely the audience advertisers and WWE depend on: men between 18-34.
It's important to highlight the difference between WWE and UFC and why people are moving over to UFC. While WWE's scripted fights rely on scenarios like wrestlers having to literally kiss WWE CEO Mr. McMahon's butt to have the honor of joining his "ass kissing club," the UFC has come in and delivered the real thing. Unscripted, no costume, brutal fighting conducted with a few strict rules. No stories except the fighter's backgrounds. No plot except who is going to survive in the fighting cage.
In fact, the UFC would have been a very interesting partner for an anti-bullying program because they have so much credibility with kids and teens. If the NEA and Creative Coalition had partnered with them, I'd be writing a very different article. And I'm not alone in this idea.
When I was in elementary school WWE was the hot topic all around. Not so much now. If NEA still finds it imperative to have a fighting-oriented supporter have a production such as UFC, which is way more times appropriate. It'd be a better move. Marcus, 15
Another possible motivation for WWE's participation is the political agenda of its owners. Linda McMahon ran for Connecticut senate in 2010. She lost, but if she has future political aspirations speaking out about bullying has become an easy way to be a family friendly politician.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Of course working with corporations is complicated. There are countless partnerships between corporations with questionable products and/or business practices and advocacy organizations who still manage to do something for the greater good. MTV is the creator of Jersey Shore and Bully Beat Down but they also have public awareness campaigns about teen depression, voter registration, and safe sex to name a few.
What we seem to be missing are articulated standards to help us make better decisions about these partnerships.
Here are a few questions to begin the conversation:
1. What is the mission of the company? Not what it says in their marketing materials but what it looks like in public?
2. Are the people responsible for the program honest with themselves about their knowledge of popular culture? If they aren't, what is their strategy to become more informed?
3. Will the partnership come across to the target audience as hypocritical? Who did you talk to come up with your answer?
4. A public awareness campaign is always going to be second tier to the company's regular programming. Will the day to day activities of that company overshadow or counteract the campaign?
5. How will the corporation use the advocates' brand in their own marketing strategy and have the advocates thoroughly thought through the pros and cons of how the partner brand will come across?
In the near future, conferences are being held around the country on how for-profits and non-profits can work together on this issue in effective ways. I urge all of us to reflect on the choices we make and the assumptions that underlie those choices. Please hear me on this. Kids aren't taking us seriously. If they don't take us seriously we are useless to them. We have an opportunity to do it right -- let's seize the moment.