This past August, the legacy of Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea) was all but wiped-out as a result of a 7-year-old taped conversation, which featured an aggressively racist tirade from sports entertainment’s most recognizable figure. Hogan had effectively killed “Hulkamania” with one private-now-public transgression and it’s a death that is sandwiched between two other deaths in the world of professional wrestling: Dusty Rhodes (Virgil Runnels) and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (Roderick Toombs). Those three wrestlers, along with Ric Flair (who now appears to be pro wrestling’s version of Keith Richards), arguably make up the Mount Rushmore of professional wrestling in the 1980s. It’s been an extremely mournful summer for professional wrestling fans.
Since the recording of Hogan’s vocal bigotry has been made public, he has been fired by the WWE and the fallout has seen Hogan dominate the blogosphere in the last few weeks. Much of what has been written involves comparing the revelation of Hogan’s racism to the serial rapist we now know as Bill Cosby. More often than not, though, the seriously harmful issues and vile behavior that both of these men are responsible for has been reduced to a discourse that involves a lot of crying and moaning over how these stars of the 1980’s have “ruined our childhood.” Facebook newsfeeds and various articles repeatedly offer tangents along the lines of: “These guys were our heroes! Our moral compasses! We were raised on guys like Cosby and Hogan, who taught us how to do right and be good, upstanding citizens of this blessed country! How could they do this to us?” It’s as if the death of people’s nostalgia is more important than the fact that both Cosby and Hogan—the human beings, not their fictional counterparts—are now recognized as dominant participants in society’s rape culture and racist culture.
Nothing that either Hogan or Cosby did in their professional life will ever truly go away. TV Land can stop airing episodes of Cosby and the WWE can fire Hogan and remove all mentions of him from the archives of its web site (including eliminating him from their “Hall of Fame”), but their marks on popular culture will always loom over their respective media representations. The more we take these texts away, the more people will mourn for the days when their heroes were innocent and pure. As consumers of media, there needs to be more separation between the characters we see on television and film and the human beings portraying them: they are not one-in-the-same.
When confronted with the truth of who our heroes are when they away from the vocations, shit can get pretty ugly. Our para-social relationship with the people we see on television or on the movie screen is far more dangerous than we often realize. Idolatry behavior can only breed disappointment, and sometimes disgust, when we find out who some of these people really are. The fact is, they are never our heroes, but rather, their characters—collaborations between the actors portraying them and teams of writers—are the ones from whom we derive our pleasure and life lessons. It’s an incredibly simple concept that is no revelatory secret, yet too many of us can’t seem to move beyond the fact that the portrayers are the same.
This is not to suggest that Cliff Huxtable and the “Hulkster” should still be celebrated, but the fact is that the men behind these characters were never the men legions of fans looked up to. In the case of Cosby, the same goes for his stand-up material. Stand-up comedians’ routines are all an act, no matter how personal or true-to-life they appear to be. Yes, comedians often share their personal lives on stage (Tig Notaro’s recent, brilliant Live being a prime example), but audiences cannot hold them accountable for everything they say on stage. Entertainment is the ultimate goal, which presents a situation where facts are exaggerated and lies feel like the truth. Lena Dunham put it perfectly when she appeared on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast last year. While discussing the re-emergence of Woody Allen’s alleged molestation of his daughter Dylan Farrow, she made it clear that the human being Woody Allen “disgusted” her, however:
So, while it’s easy to balk at the fact that Cosby had a whole routine about Spanish fly in the 1960’s, we can’t look to that routine as evidence. You won’t find the truth in the artist’s art; you find it in the real evidence. Rather than spend time combing through the Cosby’s fictional oeuvre (aforementioned old stand-up comedy routines or episodes of The Cosby Show where Cliff Huxtable dopes up the BBQ sauce with a mysterious aphrodisiac), we should be questioning why such a disturbingly large chunk of society ignored Cosby’s accusers victims’ voices for over 10 years.
The situation involving Hulk Hogan is different though, in that there is/was an opportunity to make amends. Hogan has been and always will be wrestling’s most recognizable figure. Despite his “film career,” he never fully transcended the sports entertainment spotlight and thus, it’s impossible to truly erase him from history. Granted, WWE taking his merchandise off the shelves was the right thing to do (plus, who in their right mind now would want to wear a Hulkamania t-shirt for the foreseeable future? Maybe somebody who still waves a Confederate flag…), but wiping him away from the archives of their web site is pointless. Even the NCAA restored Joe Paterno’s wins after a short period of time. And some will argue that Hogan should not be held accountable for aggressively using racial slurs during a private conversation, but the reality of the situation is that he deserves to be punished for his transgression. It’s disturbing enough to know that he used this language, no matter what state of mind he was in at the time, and his fans and employers should not tolerate that sort of behavior.
For a company that has a long history of bigotry, misogyny and homophobia—both in their storylines and behind the scenes—there was an opportunity to address issues that not only plague the company, but society as a whole. WWE’s biggest mistake in firing Hogan was akin to sweeping dust under the rug: it doesn’t fix the problem, it just hides it. They could have used to incident as a teaching moment and, perhaps, they could have opened up dialogue about racism. Why not do something philanthropic, such as start a scholarship for under privileged students? They could have suspended Hulk Hogan and, assuming he learned something from his punishment, have him issue a true apology (beyond his lazy, shitty tweeted “apology”), reach out to the communities he offended with his stupidity, maybe tour the country and give talks as a form of community service (assuming people would want to hear him talk). Rather, what will likely happen is that all will be forgotten within 5 years time and Hogan will be re-hired by WWE. Nobody will have learned anything and 1980’s nostalgia crybabies can go back to donning the red-and-yellow, forever associating Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea the man with Hulk Hogan the character. It’s a mistake popular culture participants have been making since the dawn of the celebrity. Why stop now?