On Thursday afternoon, WWE ambassador and creative team member Dana Warrior, tweeted a pro-LGBTQ+ pride message, stressing that she “believe[s] in equality, education, awareness, and this simple fact: love wins… Always!!” In and of themselves, the words would be fine, but because Warrior is best known as the widow of noted insane dick and towering bigot The Ultimate Warrior, her words always ran the risk of landing with a clang. The message is perfectly acceptable Corporate Pride Mad Libs stuff on its own, and she is not her dead husband; a garden variety pride tweet she made a year ago passed without much comment or complaint. This time, though, Warrior appeared in her own mild tweet wearing the face paint of her virulently homophobic late husband, and the reaction was predictably negative. The key word there is “predictably”—in October, for GLAAD Spirit Day, she penned a blog post for WWE’s community website centered around a similar photograph, and the tweet promoting it got a similarly hostile response to Thursday’s. Wrestling fans know what The Ultimate Warrior was about, at least away from the ring, and it wasn’t equality or education or, lord knows, love.
It can be difficult to describe just how strange this feels if you’re not intimately familiar with Warrior’s personality away from the ring. As a political figure, Warrior—yes, he legally changed his name from James Brian Hellwig to simply “Warrior” in 1993—is most well-known for being a huge homophobe. He said and did plenty of awful things, because he held and repeatedly expressed basically every reactionary opinion imaginable. But yelling out that “queering doesn’t make the world work” during his famously awful 2005 speaking engagement at UConn is the one that everyone remembers. You may not know of the ties between him and the notoriously anti-Semitic Charles Martel Society or the other lowlights of his life on the lower rungs of American reactionary politics, but “queering doesn’t make the world work” became famous in all the worst ways. His 2006 speech at DePaul University, which centered around his hate of “queer studies,” is less well-known, but of the very few blog posts of his that is still properly archived elaborates upon the message. It’s not any better than you’d expect. Warrior was an all-around bigot, but his homophobia was at the heart of who he was and what he believed.
Producing and promoting images of Dana Warrior painted up as The Ultimate Warrior, with the explicit goal of showing solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, is so obviously ill-conceived that it feels provocative, and intentional. Warrior’s legacy is obvious and public, but it’s not as if Dana has nothing to answer for. Her husband’s odious blogs are gone from the internet because the company that the two founded, Ultimate Creations, filed a copyright violation takedown notice with The Internet Archive just two days after the publication of a 2017 VICE Sports article about said posts. According to a contemporaneous report that appears to have originated with celebrity blog Oh No They Didn’t, Warrior’s DePaul speech included him saying that his kindergarten-aged daughter couldn’t turn out to be a lesbian because, as paraphrased, “she[‘]s completely feminine in every sense of the word.” Thanks in part to Dana Warrior, we’ll have to take that post at its word.
Two years before the DePaul speech, in a blog post shared with Deadspin—it’s no longer archived publicly, but key passages match excerpts posted on Yahoo Answers five years before his death—Warrior went even further in describing how his homophobia informed raising his daughters. “What people should be outraged about is that with each successive disappearance of a ‘truth,’ the world our kids will be growing up in becomes more of a shocking and prejudiced fraud less and less capable of being rationally dealt with,” Warrior wrote in the middle of a tract on gay marriage. “That is my concern. My kids deserve that, don’t they?” The post devolves from there, into ranting about gay sex causing the apocalypse.
At the risk of belaboring the point, all this awful ugly bullshit is real. This all happened, which makes WWE attempting twice in eight months to rebrand Warrior as a pillar of LGTBQ+-positive strength—and the fact that Dana Warrior remains in a public-facing role as a WWE ambassador—suggests that the company is aiming to make Warrior over as WWE’s ultimate symbol of honor and strength, minus all the things that made him complicated and repellent when he was alive. The attempt to completely invert the legacy of the greatest bigot in WWE’s history is a brazen lie, and it looks like it.
You will likely not be surprised to know that this is not the first time that WWE has attempted upend its own ugly history, much less recently.
Since rebooting the women’s division as a more serious and athletic concern four years ago, WWE has routinely framed the division’s rise as a story of women overcoming oppression. This has happened as WWE produces documentaries in which retired female talent lament being instructed not to try to have good matches “like the guys.” This is a disjunction, but only if it’s acknowledged as such.
WWE simply chooses not to, and instead frames itself—the promotion in charge of both the old, regressive women’s division and the new and improved one—as not just an advocate for women’s pro wrestling but a cutting edge, progressive force in general. This is easy to do if you disclaim any responsibility for and acknowledgement of the fact that the promotion itself was the oppressor during those dark years. “The women are moonsaulting right over that glass ceiling,” WWE CFO and Co-President exclaimed George Barrios exclaimed at the company’s annual Business Partner Summit in April, a statement that conspicuously neglects to mention that it was WWE that installed that ceiling in the first place. This disconnect extends into broader issues, including some thankfully untouched by The Ultimate Warrior.
A little over a week ago, WWE was having an interesting Friday night. In the U.S., Daria “Sonya Deville” Berenato—now positioned by WWE as the promotion’s first out lesbian performer—and tag team partner Amanda “Mandy Rose” Saccamano appeared on WWE’s behalf at the GLAAD Concert for Love and Acceptance. While that was happening, most of the male members of WWE’s main roster were in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for Super Show-Down, the third show in WWE’s 10-year, billion dollar deal with a regime that has decreed that homosexuality is punishable by death.
The first show in WWE’s Saudi deal was shot through with explicit propaganda, but the regime seems to have allowed WWE to skip the more overt disinformation after news of the regime’s murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi became public. Propaganda is still what WWE signed up for, though, and it is still trying to have it both ways—to be a positive, sunshiny ally on LGBT issues at home, albeit in a way that involves shamelessly gaslighting fans about The Ultimate Warrior’s legacy, while also being absolutely on board with whatever reactionary shit its clients want abroad. The effective co-owner of WWE also chairs a reelection PAC for the dangerously anti-LGBT Trump/Pence reelection campaign, but at least that bit of deception is overt and public. The rest of it is more obviously a hustle, or a bet that the promotion will never be forced to square what it says with what it does.
Back in March, when we last discussed Warrior in this space, a pair of commenters posited a theory that I’d not seen discussed before. Would WWE be doing any of this if they didn’t have to deal with the sudden yet ludicrously timed death—Warrior died literally within minutes of getting home from WrestleMania weekend—of a performer whose name seemed custom built for cause marketing? Leave aside what The Ultimate Warrior actually fought for, and it’s easy to imagine the name on awards given to worthy people who Fight For What They Believe In.
WWE loves to keep in-house legends on standby, seldom to any great effect. Vince McMahon Sr. used former champion Bruno Sammartino as a garnish for major shows during much of successor Bob Backlund’s years-long title reign, keeping him around the periphery in case he was needed to make things interesting. Only Randy Savage filled the role for any length of time during Vince Jr.’s reign, and he bolted because he knew he still had good years left in the ring. Bret Hart signed a 20-year contract that included a decade on retainer just in that very role, but fans know what happened when McMahon broke that deal. After two decades, John Cena seemed to be transitioning into the role—or, anyway, doing so as his burgeoning acting career allowed—but he has been M.I.A. since pulling out of WWE’s “Crown Jewel” show for the Saudi government after Khashoggi’s torture and murder.
Given how opinionated and/or principled living wrestlers can be, shaping a deceased legend into the image that best suits WWE’s business goals certainly seems like a convenient option; an idealized and deceased Andre The Giant filled a similar role for the promotion around the turn of the millennium. Warrior is a tough fit for this sort of thing, but he’s at least made his last bigoted statement. Today’s WWE has a Chief Brand Officer who is much savvier but equally shameless—McMahon’s daughter, Stephanie. It was Stephanie who quoted Twitter co-founder Biz Stone at her own company’s 2015 Business Partners Summit, saying “philanthropy is the future of marketing,” and “the way brands [a]r[e] going [to] win.” (An hour later, Stone attempted to smooth over the negative response to that tweet by vaguely positioning the marketing benefit of philanthropy as a happy side effect to genuine benevolence.) Just hours after Stone’s comments and Stephanie’s tweet lauding them, WWE’s first annual Warrior Award, presented by Dana Warrior and Daniel Bryan, was given out at the WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
McMahon cribbed Stone’s message such that it looked like a comment on the Warrior Award presentation and, to a lesser extent, its recipients—in this case, to the family of pediatric brain cancer casualty Conor Michalek. (You won’t be surprised that WWE did not include the Stone segment in the video of the Summit uploaded to their website days later.) While there were invariably several potential “insane dick” angles to the inaugural Warrior Award—Warrior’s inexplicable hatred of cancer patients and terminally ill children wouldn’t help, here—WWE barely bothered to conceal that the Warrior Award was a cynical branding exercise. They clearly didn’t feel like they had to.
Days later, Justin Roberts, a ring announcer who had been let go six months earlier, blogged on Medium about his frustrations with WWE’s handling of the above. He had been the key connection between the Michaleks and WWE, although he was cut from the videos produced about the boy, which were eventually used to push the company’s “Connor’s Cure” drives for cancer research charities.
“When I was reading Twitter this weekend, I felt like I was punched in the gut,” Roberts wrote. He wrestled just as much with why he’d been cut from the promotion as the fact of that elision. “Despite rewriting the story and using it to pat themselves on the back for being a standup organization, I wish Connor’s Cure and Connor’s induction into the Hall of Fame were driven by sincerity and not strategy,” Roberts continued. “But sadly, it looks like they are just part of the ‘philanthropic’ future of marketing.” Roberts was branded—unfairly, to my mind—as fighting for “credit” with WWE. It’s clear, given his broader statement, that his gripe had more to do with WWE’s broader work of making over reality so that it fit more with its corporate-ally present.
“It is offensive to suggest that WWE and its executives had anything but altruistic intentions in honoring Connor and his legacy with The Warrior Award,” WWE said in a statement to the Washington Post and other outlets. Some 30 months later, the closing line of the promotion’s response to VICE about using the Warrior imagery struck a similar note: “Any attempt to distract from the mission of these initiatives and take the spotlight away from the honorees is unfortunately misguided.” This is how political campaigns talk, and specifically how they talk when they want to hustle past something embarrassing. Here, as in campaigns, it works exactly as well as it’s allowed to work.
The strangest part is that WWE really does do a great deal of genuine good with various charities. They’ve put much more into their decades-long associations with the Special Olympics and Make-A-Wish Foundation than they’ve taken out in public relations value, to the point where it’s easy to believe they really mean it. But the more the promotion’s philanthropy becomes a matter of branding or public relations, the more their good work becomes indistinguishable from crass marketing.
Dana Warrior using Pride Month to dress up as the man who intended to indoctrinate her daughters into his bigotry brings home just how tangled this knot has become. Her mostly successful effort to whitewash that man’s most hateful rhetoric from the internet suggests just how much power and money help make this confusion possible. “Queers don’t make the world work,” Warrior wrote in 2004, adding that “Marrying them will bring [the world] one step closer to its end. ” The man who said that is a pillar of weakness, not strength, and belongs nowhere near Pride Month. But then this gambit isn’t really about that man, anymore.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.