Tomorrow morning/afternoon/early evening, WWE is going to do the first of a number of shows in Saudi Arabia, a decision that has brought about much controversy and consternation. There are legitimate questions about what is morally acceptable given Saudi Arabia’s archaic views on women’s right issues as well as treating the LGBTQ community with even the most basic level of respect.
I can’t help but be reminded of my time in China. Although the two countries are very different culturally, they do have a lot of things in common. Both governments are repressive. They are foundationally built around men and patriarchy. What China has done in recent years is attempt to westernize. When I lived there, I could find a KFC in multiple locations. Every Disney movie opened in theaters the same as in America. My Chinese students could frequently be found watching and discussing American movies and television shows. For example, some of my students loved the show Friends because it has recently been “discovered.”
What is so important to understand is westernization does not mean freedom. WWE going to Saudi Arabia does not inherently mean progress will be made. Progress will only be made if the people demand it. I don’t think it matters whether the women of WWE can wrestle in front of those fans one iota. That only matters in the context of what the actual women who live in the country are able to do. Can they achieve equality in society?
I left China for a number of reasons. Family considerations were at the top of the list, but I felt that if I came back again, I would be undermining my own academic integrity and values I’ve cultivated for myself as a human being. Ultimately, I feel like I was able to make tiny progress with the students, but I’d never be able to fundamentally change things in my role because there I couldn’t trust the people who were supposed to be helping me.
What does this have to do with WWE in Saudi Arabia? We all have lines. They’re malleable and can change over the years. What once was acceptable at one point is not acceptable now. People who won’t watch have their reasons. Saudi Arabia using this as propaganda strikes me as the most convincing argument. It’s certainly something Russia and China have done with the olympics. There is the fact women are not allowed to be on the show because of cultural differences. Quite honestly though, there are a lot of people who can’t possibly process the nuance. This is what happens when there isn’t a lot of quality journalism in the American press about a country like Saudi Arabia.
I’m not going to judge people on their decision to watch the show or not. At this point, my feelings about supporting any of the major wrestling companies is constantly in flux because so many of the people in charge have political views that I find to be utterly repulsive. What I think is most important in the discussion is to understand that there are not just two sides to the issue. WWE’s show isn’t a simple binary decision. The best thing to come from this would be a real discussion on Saudi Arabia as a country and the values of what it means to be a fan of a giant company. Even if you do watch the show, you can demand more of WWE and of Saudi Arabia. We should still be able to support the things we love and still be able to make changes for the better.