There's an adage among writers that, when creating characters in fiction, one should write people first, then add things such as race, religion, and sex second. In other words, the easiest way to create a realistic and believable character in a fictional setting is to have them behave as human beings first, then, as their designated race, religion, sex, etc. The purpose of this is to limit the use of stereotypes, and to create fully-rounded, believable people that your audience will connect to.
Wrestling does not do this.
As an Artform, wrestling has generally depended greatly on the use of gimmicks, which is really a good carny way of saying that you depend on stereotypes in order to connect with your audience. Instead of portraying their characters as people first, wrestlers tend to play off of the crowd's expectations of what their gimmick ought to be. For instance, if you have brownish skin and wear a turban to the ring, people expect you to be some crazy, whacked-out Muslim terrorist who hates all things American. If you're black, you're expected to be able to rap, or dance, or, worst case scenario (especially in the post-Nation of Domination world), hate white people for some poorly, ill-defined reason. If you're a woman, you're expected to wear skimpy outfits and bounce around or be a prudish bitch who doesn't like to be objectified at all. If you wear throwback jerseys and let your pants sag, you're a gangsta... unless you're white, then you're just a poseur. And so on, and so forth.
Gimmicks aren't limited to just racial or sexual stereotypes, though. Gimmicks are really any concept you can boil down to its most basic elements. Ideas like "rapper", "rich guy", "working-class joe", "socialite", "drunk", "goth", "emo", "zealot", "mad man", "model", "pimp", "ladies' man", "all-american athlete", "stoner", "surfer"... all of these terms conjure up a certain set of ideas in the audience's mind, expectations of who and what a wrestler will be, based on little more than the clothes they wear and the music they come out to. With such a dependence on the use of blatant stereotypes, to the point where just about every wrestler's character is designed to be boiled down to a blurb, its no wonder that the Art and Entertainment world looks at Pro Wrestling as the absolute bottom of the barrel as far as substance of content is concerned. After all, no matter how complicated or interesting a particular pro wrestling character actually is, the very nature of the business forces both those who create the experience, as well as its fans, to boil everything down to its simplest, most basic form in order to be processed.
It's not as though wrestling fans are stupid. We are people of just about every possible cultural makeup, all coming from different experiences and backgrounds, with varying degrees of intelligence and taste. In fact, it's this exact diversity in the makeup of wrestling's audience that forces it to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Pop Music works the same way. Critics of Top 40 Radio tend to attack artists who top the charts as cheap, insubstantial, and repetitive, only suitable for the dimmest and dullest among us for consumption. These critics completely miss the point. Top 40 artists don't top the charts because the audience is dumb. Folks like Katy Perry and Flo Rida top the charts because they make simple, catchy, fun music that a lot of people can pick up, sing along with, and remember much easier than any 20-minute long prog-rock symphony. In the same way, wrestling attracts the large audiences because the characters are simple, relatable, and easy to remember.
Unfortunately, one of wrestling's strengths, its ability to appeal to mass audiences quickly by keeping things relatively simple, is also one of its greatest weaknesses, an Achilles' Heel that critics immediately attack when trying to discredit wrestling as a viable choice of entertainment. It's also how wrestling, despite its best intentions, shoots itself in the foot in today's overly-PC environment.
Everyone has an opinion on Mohammad Hassan. Hassan, for better or worse, was essentially the great American Boogeyman of the Moment. In prior generations, men like Fritz Von Erich and Ivan Koloff were in this role, playing off American fears of Nazi Socialism and Communism. These days, the Boogeyman comes in the form of religiously-motivated terrorists hailing from the Middle East, where the very sound of "Allah Akbar" can send even the bravest of men running for the hills. Unfortunately, WWE wanted to have its cake and eat it too by portraying an obvious terrorist sympathizer as a victim of social backlash against Muslims in America post-9/11, and only did this because they simply didn't have the balls to buck PC trends and portray Hassan as an Extremist in the first place. They clearly wanted Hassan to be the embodiment of Osama Bin Laden in wrestling. There was a time that society would have been completely fine with that portrayal. And thus, you now begin to see the problem wrestling faces these days by following its Modus Operandi, to essentially
Keep Things Simple, Stupid!
Now, you may be reading this and thinking that it's rather unfair that certain topics have to be kept off-limits to wrestling, especially these days, because society at large will not condone the boiling down of certain taboos to their essential elements and exploited for entertainment. Others of you will agree that wrestling has no business exploiting people's greatest fears and sorrows for cheap entertainment. While I personally feel that, much like with comedy, either everything is on the table, or nothing is, I certainly do realize that some things just don't have a universal appeal, and should be kept off limits, just for the sake of keeping the audience happy. In other words, if exploiting terrorism is going to cost me money, rather than make it... yeah, I'm not running terrorism angles. But I'm not going to do it just because someone's feelings might get hurt. After all, if I'm not trying to get you to react emotionally, then I'm not doing my job as a writer, a wrestler, or a promoter. Without emotional investment, there is no wrestling.
Wrestling as a form of art and entertainment exists in the form it does today in great part because of people's fears and prejudices. Without them, there's nothing to exploit, nothing to get you invested in the characters or the story, because the Artform does not allow for moments of silence, or subtle emotions, or time to build on nuances. Wrestlers are performing in front of live crowds, often at a distance inside a small, limited stage, and expected to tell most of their story, not in words or subtle expressions of emotion, but with grand, sweeping motions. Everything in wrestling has to be large and exaggerated in order to resonate, not only with those in the front row, but with the guys in the rafters, as well. There's a limited window in which pro wrestling can engage its audience, both in time and content. If you can't hook the audience in that window, you're not going to hook them at all. It's just like Pop Music. If you can't hook someone by the first chorus, your song doesn't chart. Simple as that.
So, you're probably wondering how wrestling can overcome its dependence on fears and prejudices. The simple answer is that it can't, not without losing something that is essential to making wrestling the artform it is. The long answer is that wrestling has to be smart, and learn how to adapt to its audience, knowing what fears and prejudices to exploit, which ones to stay away from, and to realize that this can and will always change. What is socially acceptable today will be socially abhorrent a decade from now, and vice versa. Those who put together wrestling shows need to be on top of the Zeitgeist, knowing what their audience will accept, and what is considered "going too far".
In other words, you have to actually pay attention to the world around you, which is something that, sadly, most inside the wrestling business either don't know how to do, or care to.