Say it ain't so, Connecticut. To many of us who have closely followed Linda McMahon's business career, the very idea of her being elected to the United States Senate sounds more like an outlandish World Wrestling Entertainment story line than it does a realistic political scenario in the Nutmeg State.
According to many observers, the polls in the Murphy-McMahon race have tightened because McMahon has made inroads with women voters after cleverly repositioning herself as an advocate and role model for working women. In a society that desperately needs more women in positions of political leadership, it is understandable that many women have given her a second look.
But let's get real: until Linda McMahon decided to run as a Republican for the Senate, she was one-half of one of the most culturally destructive, and blatantly misogynistic, business partnerships in the history of popular entertainment. Under Linda and her husband Vince McMahon's leadership, over the past twenty years the WWE has featured some of the most brutal, violent and hateful depictions of women in all of media culture.
I have a special vantage point on the Connecticut Senate race. I was a major contributor on and off-screen to an educational documentary about professional wrestling that was released by the Massachusetts-based Media Education Foundation in 2002. Entitled "Wrestling with Manhood: Boys, Bullying and Battering," the film examined in detail the almost-unimaginable sexism, homophobia and racism of the WWE.
When we made the film we knew that many people who disdain professional wrestling had never actually watched the actual product, so we included numerous clips from WWE programs, interspersed with commentary and interviews with wrestlers and fans.
In 2010 when McMahon first ran for the senate, it was clips from our film that circulated online and awakened many voters to the crass exploitation and cultural degradation at the center of McMahon's business "success."
In the current campaign, WWE lawyers have been hard at work bullying countless web sites, including YouTube, to remove these clips, because viewers who watch them come away not only horrified by the sexist abuse, but also much more critical of the McMahons and their eagerness to cater to the culture's lowest common denominator.
Instead of showing her as a "role model for businesswomen," those clips from WWE programs expose the shamelessness of McMahon and her husband Vince's quest for profit and power, a shamelessness that extends to their willingness to glamorize sexual and domestic violence in the name of ratings and ticket sales.
My work has principally been concerned with reducing men's violence against women and children. In the prevention programs I run in schools, the sports culture and the military, and in books, articles and films like Wrestling with Manhood, I have examined how social norms that support sexist abuse are transmitted through entertainment media in particularly insidious ways.
For example, many fans and defenders of the WWE, and supporters of Linda McMahon, like to say that pro wrestling is "only entertainment," and if you don't like it, you can change the channel. This discounts the fact that over the past two decades millions of boys and young men (and some girls and young women) have laughed along and cheered as WWE wrestlers mock-raped, battered and sexually harassed women -- and brutally bullied other men -- in narratives both inside and outside the ring.
Defenders of the WWE claim that the most offensive narratives have been cleaned up since the end of the notorious "attitude era," which curiously came to a close just as Linda McMahon's Senate aspirations went public. But McMahon's current campaign is being funded in part by WWE profits from that era. And anyone who thinks the verbal and physical abuse-fest that is the WWE today is "family-friendly entertainment" has curious ideas about what constitutes healthy families.
Most kids know the difference between the staged narratives of the WWE and real life. But the idea that this sort of entertainment has no discernible effect on young people's psyches and belief systems is at best naïve and disingenuous. Media play a powerful role in establishing and perpetuating social norms. How are we going to bring down our society's intolerably high levels of men's violence against women, and bullying of all kinds, when mainstream cultural forces like the WWE reinforce their normalcy and acceptability on a daily basis?
For decades, mothers and fathers have lamented the ways that gigantic and largely unaccountable media corporations contribute to the normalization and glamorization of abusive attitudes and behaviors. One of the most common topics of conversation among parents today - especially parents of boys -- is how to counteract the desensitization to violence and suffering that accompanies our sons' immersion in music, movies, video games and television programming that so often features casual brutality and violence without consequences. Many parents feel a sense of futility amidst this onslaught on the character development of our kids.
But due to the audacious ambitions of one woman, Connecticut voters are in a unique position to do more than lament. As residents of the state from which the WWE's culture-degrading influence emanates, they can do more than simply exercise their "rights" as consumers and change the channel.
Unlike most people around the country who have little recourse against powerful media companies, they can use their democratic rights as citizens to send a message to the Linda McMahons of the world:
You might have made your fortune through crass commercial exploitation. But your ill-gotten gain will not buy you such an important leadership role in our democracy as a seat in the United States Senate. Not this time. Not in our state. Not in our name.