MITCHELL'S TAKE MITCHELL FLASHBACK: Feature column on WWE introducing "Silverback" moniker for Mark Henry (June 2007)
Jul 18, 2014 - 10:27:39 AM
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The following is a flashback to PWTorch senior columnist Bruce Mitchell's in-depth column on how Mark Henry was presented on WWE TV in June 2007, when WWE introduced the "Silverback" moniker to market Henry.
Bruce Mitchell Feature Column
Headline: "Mark Henry is a Gorilla"
By Bruce Mitchell, Torch columnist
Originally Published: June 16, 2007
From Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter #972
"...the Silverback of the WWE, Mark Henry!"
-Vince McMahon, CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment introducing WWE Superstar Mark Henry on NBC's Saturday Night's Main Event, June 3rd, 2007.
What does Vince McMahon see when he looks at former Olympic weight-lifter and longtime WWE Superstar Mark Henry, a large, dark-skinned African-American man?
Not just any gorilla, either. McMahon sees Henry as a silverback gorilla, the alpha male of gorillas. Henry has been booked his entire pro wrestling career as a big, mean heel. What's bigger than a gorilla?
Just as the media furor over radio and MSNBC talk show host Don Imus calling members of the Rutgers' women's basketball team "nappy headed hos" finally died down, McMahon, the Chief Executive Officer of World Wrestling Entertainment - the top pro wrestling promotion in the world, and the man who makes the major creative decisions for his corporation, decided to market Henry as not just The Strongest Man In The World but as a "silverback" gorilla, who is "the king of the jungle." McMahon is smart enough to know that it isn't a compliment.
Imus lost his two jobs that paid him millions of dollar and 15 hours of cable network time each week when he and producer Bernard McGurk improvised the now infamous "hos" and "jiggabos vs. wanna-bes" line on their MSNBC morning show. I read and listened to a lot of the debate about what they said and I never got the idea that anyone on any side of it would have thought it appropriate to call a black man a gorilla over and over again on national television.
It's different for WWE. For one, their decades' long descent into vulgarity and racial and ethnic stereotyping means no one except their loyal fan base pays much attention to them. It took just a few hours for someone to post Imus's comments on You Tube and things snowballed from there into a national debate on the appropriateness of different types of racial language.
WWE has been broadcasting this "silverback" slur for weeks now with no consequence even from a national media sensitized by the Imus fiasco. WWE's odious racial slur wasn't the result of an old rich white male speaking without thinking about the consequences like Imus and McGurk did.
It was the result of an old rich man, (much richer than Imus if much less politically powerful) deliberately deciding that one of his African-American contracted employees looked like a gorilla and that was the standout quality his creative and marketing department would use to market him and the company.
Never mind Henry had been hired and marketed to play a World's Strongest Man type. McMahon deliberately decided that Henry looked like a gorilla, then ordered his all-white WWE writing team to script references throughout Henry's segments on WWE Smackdown, which airs Friday night on the CW network, and NBC's Saturday Night's Main Event.
So what was McMahon thinking? According to Wikpedia, gorillas move around by knuckle-walking. Adult males range in height from 165-175 cm. (5-5 to 5-9 inches), and in weight from 140-200 kg. (310-440 lbs.). Adult females are often half the size of a silverback, averaging about 140 cm (4-7) tall and 100 kg. (220 lbs.). Occasionally, a silverback of over 183 cm (6 feet) and 225 kg (500 lbs.) has been recorded in the wild. However, obese gorillas in captivity have reached a weight of 270 kg (600 lbs.).
Mark Henry, on the other hand, walks upright. True, he's an adult male, just not an adult male gorilla. According to his biography on WWE.com, he's too tall, at 6-1, to be a silverback even if at 380 pounds he falls into the adult gorilla weight range. Even though his weight has been a concern for management and perhaps lead to some of his injuries over his decade-long career in WWE, Henry doesn't qualify as "obese" for a gorilla. Maybe that's too much information. Perhaps McMahon was just thinking simply and visually, since his company markets much of their product to children.
WWE announcers, specifically the announcers for the Smackdown brand, know the minefield they're walking through with these silverback references. Play-by-play announcer Michael Cole sneaks in his Silverback with no emphasis at the beginning of Henry's segments, usually throwing in the phrase "self-proclaimed" because, hell, if it's okay with the black guy... (more on that later).
The Smackdown color commentator John Bradshaw Layfield also seems nervous. He's a part-time commentator on the Fox News network and has his own syndicated talk show, so he's got a lot to lose in today's broadcast atmosphere. He's usually up for anything, in that it's his job to add life to the sometimes dull Smackdown broadcast. He doesn't shy away from ripping guys on Smackdown he doesn't like in real life, such as former reality TV star The Miz, or from sneaking in some conservative political cheerleading for the president or the late Ronald Reagan, either.
Veteran Raw announcer Jim Ross, given a chance to call a battle royal with Henry, conspicuously avoided the opportunity to call him a silverback.
The silverback stuff clearly makes Layfield jumpy. Layfield has been reduced to impotent damage control, trying to convince viewers somehow that while Henry is "the king of the jungle," he's actually a smart guy. On a recent Smackdown broadcast, Layfield praised Henry for his intelligence in performing the most elemental of bad guy moves - leaving the ring to stall. Layfield never mentioned much before about Henry's smarts. He's clearly trying to lay down some plausible deniability. "Hey, I never said he was a sub-human gorilla. I praised the guy for his intelligence, for God's sakes! What is this, Nazi Germany?"
That is, until he slipped when Henry confronted another large black man, Viscera, on a recent broadcast. "King just met Kong!'
There's no getting around what calling an African-American man a gorilla means, how that deeply that insult resonates in our national history. When Africans were originally brought to the North American continent 400 years ago in chains, when their families were ripped apart, when they were beaten, tortured, raped, and lynched all to ensure their subjection into slavery, their Caucasian captors had to justify these crimes to themselves in terms beyond the geed and avarice involved in economic exploitation.
That justification started as soon as the first boat landed. The slave-masters took one look at their captors' dark skin and decided they were closer to monkeys than human beings and, if that were true, then it was righteous, not murderous, to treat them as beasts of burden. It gave a dirty excuse to their hateful actions and allowed them to delude themselves about the blood on their own hands as they lifted their Bibles in prayer.
That delusion, though, had to be fed. For hundreds of years, even after slavery was legally abolished, black people were portrayed as monkey, and apes and denigrated for their supposed lack of intelligence in stories, pictures, and song.
Because of that history, for a black man there is no more hateful, degrading insult than being called a gorilla.
WWE, whose CEO Vince McMahon pays a yearly on-air tribute to Martin Luther King despite promoting decades worth of degrading ethnic stereotypes (including a pair of bling-wearing, street-talking thieves on his current shows), knows it, too. That's why he and his announcers use a code word the same way segregationists in the middle of the twentieth century used "states rights" as a fig leaf to hide their "No Coloreds Allowed" intentions. McMahon, for all his talk over the years about the size of his grapefruits, doesn't have the balls to have his announcers call Henry a gorilla. It's simply too close to the bone to call Henry a monkey, even though that's exactly what a silverback is.
It's not the only way McMahon and his all-white writing team barely hide their intentions. The team, who write every word Mark Henry recites on-air, has Henry call himself a silverback. It gives WWE the excuse with their more gullible viewers that it must not be an insult if Henry says it himself.
Which begs a very important question: Why does Mark Henry call himself a silverback on national television? Sure, Vince McMahon may get off on it, but Henry can quit, can't he?
The answer to that lies in what Mark Henry has been through during his eleven years in World Wrestling Entertainment.
Henry was originally brought into the company because he was a phenomenon in the sport of power lifting who qualified for the 1992 Olympics. He had even appeared on CBS Sports Sunday dunking a basketball. WWE thought that combination of power and finesse added up to a natural pro wrestler and signed him to an unusual-for-the-business ten year guaranteed $2.5 million contract.
It didn't work out for Henry the way WWE hoped. First, he flamed out in the 1996 Olympics under their sponsorship. Second, he had a hard time learning to be an effective worker in the ring. Like most power lifters, he had trouble controlling his weight. He was big, slow, and had a stiff touch in the ring. Henry spent more time in WWE's developmental territory Ohio Valley Wrestling than any other performer under contract, but he never progressed much. Unlike the rest of the wrestlers in WWE employ who could be dropped with a month or two's notice, Henry had a guaranteed contract.
As long as Henry followed their direction and didn't quit WWE had to pay him a quarter of a million dollars a year whether he was booked in front of three hundred people a week in Louisville, Kentucky or in front of hundreds of thousands on a WrestleMania.
So Henry was sent to the main WWE television show, Monday Night Raw, and booked in a series of humiliating storylines. It started when he had a crush on the mannish Superstar Chyna, who rejected him outright.
He was then booked to proclaim his love and have fake sex on the air with the elderly wrestler Mae Young, getting her pregnant so she could give birth (in one of the most infamous moments in an infamous sport's history) to a plastic hand. (The writers at the time at no idea how to resolve what they had set up. Who would?)
Everything climaxed for Henry in this run when he was written to confess that he was a sex addict and had been ever since he slept with his own sister as a teenager.
Oh, and one of the sub-human stereotypes slave-owners spread was that African men had dangerously out-of-control sex drives. You know, like animals.
Henry learned a valuable (as in millions of dollars) lesson then, much like slaves did when they did anything they had to survive. He shut his mouth, grit his teeth, said his lines, and got paid.
WWE finally sent him back to Ohio Valley Wrestling, where he stayed at full pay. A few years before his contract ended, WWE brought him back to national television to see if they could get anything out of the money they were paying out. He became a pretty effective killer heel character, appearing in several pay-per-view main events. He did well enough that at the end of his ten year guaranteed contract, WWE, desperate for big heel types, signed him to another, shorter contract.
He couldn't sustain that momentum, though, because at his age and size, he was subject to suffering major injuries that kept him out of the ring for months at a time.
So McMahon's incomprehensible decision to market Henry as a gorilla on national television left him with some difficult, if familiar options. Henry could quit this time and leave a lot of money on the table. WWE is a virtual monopoly in the worked wrestling business right now. The Tampa-based TNA promotion may or may not even be interested in hiring Henry and probably not at his WWE price. He's not suited for Mixed Martial Arts competition such as UFC. And there's not much money for him on the independent wrestling scene.
He could also work in WWE, keep his mouth shut and his eyes open, and prepare to file a racial discrimination suit sometime in the future. The circumstances were somewhat different, but there was a major settlement in a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by much lower profile wrestlers than Mark Henry against TBS owned World Championship Wrestling in the '90s.
Or Henry could do what he's done for eleven years, what was done for hundred of years before him, and shut his mouth and do what he's told.
This is, after all the pro wrestling business, not Rutgers University.
Bruce Mitchell has been a PWTorch columnist since September 1990. Listen to him discuss current events in pro wrestling and its history every weekend with Torch editor Wade Keller on the "Bruce Mitchell Audio Show" in the PWTorch.com VIP Audio Shows section.
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