Can a Feminist Love Pro Wrestling?

This article was originally published on TheVine on 14th May, 2013.

Being a professional wrestling fan and a feminist don’t necessarily go hand in hand albeit I identify as both of them.

While I’ve been a wrestling fan since the age of 13 and have only begun calling myself a feminist in the past few years, I think I’ve always had feminist tendencies: I’ve always believed in reproductive rights, I try—and often fail—not to judge other women for their choices, and it’s instilled in me that everyone is and should be treated equally, no matter their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, abilities or class.

So to have an affinity with professional wrestling has, at times, baffled me personally and anyone who knows my dirty little secret.

Because professional wrestling is very much a guilty pleasure: the homoeroticism of a bunch of muscular, oiled up and sweaty men grappling with each other’s flesh for the visual gratification of (primarily) other men and the reliance of tired and bigoted male stereotypes that go along with it don’t always connote a proud admission of fandom from its more self-aware enthusiasts.

For example, one of the most high-profile and long awaited feuds—between John Cena and The Rock, culminating in their match at this year’s annual WrestleMania, the 29th in the franchise—employed the use of homophobia and gay jokes in the several-year lead up. In 2011, the two traded barbs that included The Rock making fun of Cena’s purple garb, calling him a “Fruity Pebble” (a cereal for which he is now a mascot), and Cena retorting that in his movie career as Dwayne Johnson, The Rock tends to accept roles in which his character wears lipstick (Be Cool) and a skirt (The Game Plan, Tooth Fairy), which got them into trouble with GLAAD.

Earlier, in 2002, a same-sex life partnership ceremony between tag team partners Billy and Chuck was set to take place on live television, but was abolished at the last minute despite GLAAD previously showing support for the storyline.

More recently, WWE announcer Michael Cole tweeted fellow commentator Josh Matthews with one word: “faggot”, which was later deleted and apologised for. And just last month TNA World Heavyweight Champion Bully Ray was caught on camera living up to his name and calling a fan a “faggot” and a “fricken queer”.

For those with a passion for wrestling and who are also capable of intelligent, critical thought, such marginalising slurs are just embarrassing. As Anita Sarkeesian asserts in her exploration of the damsel in distress trope in video games, it is “both possible and even necessary to simultaneously enjoy media while being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.” Similarly, in her fantastic article about the intersection of rap, feminism and cunnilingus (!), Maddie Collier urges us to acknowledge the instances our pop culture of choice “sickens and disappoints us” in order to “fully appreciate the moments when it’s good and kind and real”.

But if you thought the blatant promotion of one kind of masculinity (ripped, strong and, perhaps above all else, heterosexual) as supreme is the only agenda professional wrestling is guilty of pushing, it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problematic nature of the sport (entertainment).

From a gender equality point of view, for example, professional wrestling most certainly has a long way to go, baby. Sure, there are female wrestlers, like Chyna, Jazz and Lisa Marie Varon (better known as Victoria in WWE and Tara in TNA) who eschew traditional femininity, but the bulk of women in professional wrestling are employed as eye candy, not as athletes. Those who do get to face off in the ring are often limited to three minute gimmick matches, which involve such male-gazey stipulations as Paddle on a Pole matches, where the winner is determined not by pinfall, submission or countout, as in most traditional (read: male) matches, but by retrieving a bat suspended from a pole with which to spank their opponent, and Bra & Panties Matches, in which the winner emerges victorious only after stripping her opponent of her clothes.

There are exceptions, though, such as a cage match between the aforementioned Victoria and Lita in 2003, which could be seen as damaging to the status of women in a whole different way in that it normalises violence against them, but by and large women in wrestling are used as managers, valets, guest ring announcers, wives and girlfriends. This attitude is evident in the demotion of the WWE Women’s Championship, held by such legends as the late Fabulous Moolah and Sherri Martel, Lita, Chyna and Trish Stratus, to the renamed Divas Championship, replete with a sparkly pink butterfly design, to better signify that it’s meant to be fastened around a slight, feminine waist.

This is not to mention the blatant disenfranchisement of non-able bodied wrestlers, often called “midget wrestlers”. At one point the SmackDown! brand of WWE had a “Juniors” midget wrestling division, and employs a little person on their roster whose character borrows from the leprechaun trope. As Margaret Cho once wrote, perhaps some kind of representation of minorities, stereotypical or not, is better than none…

Arguably above all of this, though, wrestling is one of the most obviously racist modes of mainstream entertainment going around. Let me count just some of the racial stereotypes throughout wrestling history that come to mind: The Iron Sheik was pitted against such all-American opponents as Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter during the height of the Iranian hostage crisis and the Gulf War; the Mexicools’ ring entrance comprised the use of a ride-on lawnmower, insinuating that people of Mexican descent make excellent yard workers; African American wrestler Charles Wright went from one black trope—a witch doctor named Papa Shango—to another—The Godfather, a pimp who came to the ring followed by his “Ho Train”; the Boogeyman was another witch-doctor-esque character played by another African American wrestler, Marty Wright (of no relation to Charles Wright); Native American wrestler Tatanka got around in traditional Native garb, such as headdresses and warpaint and carried a tomahawk; Kofi Kingston is from the Republic of Ghana, but somehow a Jamaican gimmick for his character made more sense; we all know people of African American descent are probably criminals, so why not bring two black wrestlers together in a tag team and call them Cryme Tyme?; Jim Harris played the wild “Ugandan giant” Kamala, while the late Edie Fatu had a similar, albeit as a Samoan giant, gimmick as Umaga; and Mohamad Ali Vaez, of Iranian heritage, plays up the Islamaphobia angle for his character. In a documentary entitled Wrestling for Rotary, which chronicles an independent wrestling gig for charity in country Victoria in 2011, Vaez talks about the internal struggle he faces in “perpetrating stereotypes that my family suffers because of.”

But, at the end of the day, “I’ve suffered inherent racism in the United States, so you know what? I’m gonna make money off of it.”

So while Vaez chooses to be an active participant in the culture that disenfranchises his people, fans have to acknowledge the part they play in holding up the gospel according to pro wrestling.

About a month ago I had the opportunity to be involved in the filming of a mockumentary about professional wrestlers on tour in Australia. My role encompassed escorting male wrestlers to the ring and looking pretty whilst doing it. While it was not something I initially wanted to do, after spending time with the seven men (Chris Masters, Carlito, Orlando Jordan, Rob Conway, Nick “Eugene” Dinsmore, Gene Snitsky and Vaez) I’d watched on TV in the past five to ten years, it became evident that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity I didn’t want to pass up.

As I got to know the wrestlers better, and they were made aware of my equalist proclivities and my intent to write about the experience, I became quite a novelty to them; I don’t imagine they encounter self-identifying feminists often in their line of work. One could argue that this is just substituting the fetishisation of women in wrestling with the tokenism of feminist women in wrestling, but I elected to be a consumer of a product that thrives on the objectification of women and to be an active participant in my own objectification which, to me, is no different from donning heels and some thicker eye makeup than usual for a Saturday night out on the town. (Apparently this makes me a bad feminist, according to the mansplainers. A choice response: “How can you play the role of a pretty cheerleader on the sidelines and still be a feminist?” How indeed.) Just because a woman happens to dress in a hyper-feminine way for her own pleasure, as I do, doesn’t mean she’s betraying the sisterhood. It makes her a person choosing her choice to go about her everyday business without being chastised for it.

So while I’ve resigned myself to feeding my wrestling addiction it doesn’t mean the myriad examples of racism, misogyny, homophobia and ableism can be ignored. In discussing this with a friend, he raised the notion of whether these bigoted views aren’t better off in the cultural underbelly of professional wrestling which, in Australia at least, doesn’t get paid much lip service, than industries like politics, for example, or the corporate world.

I wouldn’t argue that such ideologies aren’t rampant in politics and business, but pop culture can be a form of education to many and it helps to work through larger societal issues. Your average Joe wrestling fan doesn’t necessarily have a vested interest in dismal numbers of women (19%) and people of colour (16%) in United States Congress, the suicide rates of LGBTIQ youths or the selective abortion of disabled foetuses, for example. And younger fans, which WWE is increasingly marketing itself to, probably aren’t going to be as open to accepting the local gay or trans kid if their idol, John Cena, comes across as homo- and transphobic. So if some more progressive attitudes about non-white, non-straight, non-cis, non-able bodied, non-males can be snuck in amongst the titles, Hell in a Cell’s, blood, T&A and tables, ladders and chairs, then that’s a step in the right direction.

Related: My Weekend with Wrestlers.

Elsewhere: [] All the Homoerotic Photos from WrestleMania 29.

[Cageside Seats] GLAAD Forces WWE & John Cena to Knock Off the Homophobic Jokes.

[TMZ] WWE Announcer Tweets Gay Slur, Deletes It.

[HuffPo] Bully Ray, Professional Wrestler, Apologises After Engaging in Anti-Gay Rants Towards Chicago Fan.

[Think Progress] Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes VS. Women Series Is Up—And It’s Great. 

[The Pantograph Punch] Eat It Up & Lay Wit It: Hip Hop, Cunnilingus & Morality in Entertainment.

[Margaret Cho] Harajuku Girls.

[ABC] Behind the Scenes of Wrestling for Rotary.

Wonder Why They Call U Bitch.

This article was originally published on TheVine on 5th September, 2012.

Earlier in the year a rumour was circulating around the interwebs that Jay Z had shunned the age-old method of addressing women in rap and hip hop—“bitch”—after the birth of his baby with Beyonce, Blue Ivy, had made him realise the error of his ways. Alas, the poem in which Hova allegedly “curse[s] those that give it [bitch]”, turned out to be a fake, but it did raise some pertinent issues about calling women “bitches” in the rap game.

More recently, Jay Z’s bestie Kanye West revealed he wrote his song “Perfect Bitch” about Kim Kardashian, who took it as a compliment, showing how one person’s misogynistic insult is another’s compliment.

Rapper Lupe Fiasco’s latest track and accompanying video ask is “Bitch Bad”, using children to show the different ways we internalise the term. Again, one person’s put down is another’s feminist manifesto, like Bitch magazine, Missy Elliot’s “She’s a Bitch” and “Queen Bitch” by Lil’ Kim.

Perhaps in response to Fiasco’s request to start a dialogue on the “destructive” and “troubling elements” of bitch, Kanye has taken to Twitter to add to the discourse. He asks, perhaps in relation to “Perfect Bitch”, “is it acceptable for a man to call a woman a bitch even if it’s endearing?” To those who tend to towards “yes”, he asks, “would we refer to our mothers as bitches?”

A similar question comes to mind as the one brought up when the Blue Ivy poem, “Glory”, was released: why did Jay Z only shun the word after the birth of his daughter, as opposed to when he wed one of the most desirable women in the world, Beyonce? Is she not good enough to warrant not being called a “bitch”? I guess in this case, baby trumps baby mama.

But supposing that because women are addressed as “bitches”, “tricks” and “hos” in rap music they must automatically be viewed as such (and, really, what is a bitch or a ho? Someone who speaks their mind? Someone who gets some action between the sheets? If so, sign me up!) IRL is to subscribe to the outdated “hypodermic needle” theory of media studies. Certainly, though, popular culture does infiltrate other aspects of daily life so it’s important that Fiasco and West are contributing to the unpacking of this word that’s so inherent in rap and hip hop.

This is hardly a new phenomenon, though. 2Pac “Wonder[ed] Why They Call[ed] U Bitch” on his 1994 album, All Eyez on Me, concluding that having unprotected sex, getting paid for it, looking and moving a certain way and abusing the welfare system are all reasons why someone might “call you bitch”.

Eighteen years on, “bitch” is still “so prevalent in our culture right now,” says Fiasco. Because, as mentioned above, “bitch” is most certainly a derogatory term for many in the hip hop industry, as evidenced in “Bitches Ain’t Shit” by Dr. Dre and Too $hort’s pertinently titled “Call Her a Bitch”, but also in wider society to address a woman who doesn’t conform to femininity norms: mouth shut, “legs closed, eyes open,” from 2Pac’s abovementioned battle cry.

But, alternatively, as Busta Rhymes’ “I Love My Bitch”, Ja Rule’s “Down Ass Bitch” and Kim’s reaction to “Perfect Bitch” will attest, it’s also a term of endearment.

In a rare moment of clarity, Kanye Tweets, “Perhaps the word BITCH and N*GGA are now neither positive or negative. They are just potent and it depends on how they are used and by whom.”

Indeed. So while friends and lovers might use the word in passing affection, those who want to stifle independent women or ones who’ve scorned them, it’s still very much a problematic term.

Elsewhere: [Jezebel] Rapper Lupe Fiasco Weighs in on the B-Word: “Bitch Bad, Woman Good, Lady Better.”

[The Wire] Discussing Linguistics with Kanye West.

[The Rap Up] The Unified Bitch Theory.

The Rise of the Hunk.

This article was originally published on TheVine on 9th August, 2012.

“You know the apocalypse is nigh when men want to see a movie about a talking teddy bear and women want to see a movie about male strippers,” read a friends’ recent Facebook status.

While the world may be ending in December, and the integrity of Ted is questionable at best, I think it’s high time hetero women (and gay men to a lesser extent) turn subjugation on its head and become the voyeurs, and they’re using Magic Mike as a tool to do so.

Never before in mainstream Hollywood film can I recall a movie that so blatantly puts the male body on show for the unashamed consumption by straight women, primarily. Tom Cruise may have been shirtless for the majority of Rock of Ages, and True Blood has as much male eye candy as it does female, but Magic Mike is the first of its kind to feature conventionally attractive and perennially half-naked male actors as strippers: Hollywood’s last taboo, perhaps.

The male form has been sexualised for the last few decades, notably in underwear commercials. Remember Mark Wahlberg’s Calvin Klein’s and David Beckham’s distracting Armani ads? Or how about a shirtless Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid Love, which arguably spawned the current obsession with him that has reached fever pitch? Porn star James Deen is experiencing a cavalcade of female appreciation not normally seen with adult actors. Even pay TV channel LifeStyle You is cashing in on the male body objectification trend, using in their advertisements shirtless men carrying out everyday household duties like ironing to reel the women in. (Because women are who we talk about when we talk about “lifestyle”.)

In the male stripper movie vein, there was that late ’90s UK effort, The Full Monty, which featured a bunch of average Joes getting their kit off at the encouragement of women, demonstrating that men don’t have to look like Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello or Matthew McConaughey for women to find them sexy and to want to see them naked. But there is a certain allure to rippling abs, strong thighs and loaded guns that the comedic stripteases of unemployed steel workers just doesn’t have…

Dodai Stewart writes for Jezebel of the hollering and hooting in the cinema when she went to get her Channing fix, while I noticed more of a silent sexual tension in the air. There was nary a squeal of approval throughout, which lent a certain palpability that watching a sex scene with your parents or a potential love interest might elicit. Tatum’s dance moves succeeded in getting me and—if all the mute leg-crossing, uncrossing and squirming in seats was any indication—all the other red-blooded, presumably straight women in the audience hot under the collar. As Stewart continues, “Could it be that women are so used to seeing the female body sexualised on screen—from the point of view of the male gaze—that we don’t even know how to react to the sexualized male body?”

It seems that the characters who are virgins to the Tampa male stripping scene don’t know how to react either, with Alex Pettyfer’s portrayal of Adam consisting of equal parts disgust at Mike’s occupation and awe at the perks of his lifestyle. Adam’s sister, Brooke (played by Cody Horn), is closed in on by the camera when she first sees Mike dance and a range of emotions cross her face: judgement, arousal, amazement, discomfort at the role reversal male strippers provide. Discomfort and concern are also expressed by the bank clerk when Mike attempts to get a loan, showing up with a down payment in wads of ones and fives. Presumably the teller recognises Mike from the male revue, and offers to sign him up to a program for “distressed” clients, inferring that because he gets his kit off for money, he must be either strapped for cash or lacking self-esteem. Hmm, where have we heard this before? Usually directed at women who trade on their looks and are deemed “at risk”, “battered” and, yes, “distressed” as a result. Mike even has to resort to the ol’ spectacles trope to be taken seriously as he enters the bank, an action most often utilised by hot chicks who want to appear smarter. Speaking of hot chicks, in another play on man as sexual object, Mike’s lover, Joanna (Olivia Munn), tells him she doesn’t want to talk about his feelings: “just look pretty”.

With all the double standards that come with being a male stripper in Magic Mike—female adoration, money, drugs—Caroline Heldman at Sociological Images wonders why this kind of “stripping as fantasy life” attitude would never be seen in media about female stripping: because Magic Mike still panders greatly to male sexuality.

“Make no bones about it, this movie is all about reinforcing the notion that men are in control and men’s sexuality matters more…” Heldman writes. “… [M]any (but not all) of the simulated sex acts the dancers perform in their interactions with female audience members service the male stripper’s pleasure, not hers. Dancers shove women’s faces into their crotch to simulate fellatio, hump women’s faces, perform faux sex from behind without a nod to clitoral stimulation, etc. As a culture, we have deprioritised female sexual pleasure…”

Indeed, there is no full frontal male nudity in the film (does a stunt penis in an enlarging device count?!), however Munn and the actress who plays stripper Ken’s (Matt Bomer) wife have their breasts on show, as well as several other female nude scenes. When it comes to the penis, it would seem that it is the last taboo, not male stripping.

That Tatum’s penis ever so briefly flashed onscreen during a bedroom scene means there’s hope for a full-frontal peen shot yet, with Magic Mike 2 on the horizon. You’ll notice that most of the male stars of the films’ careers have thrived on the comidification of their bodies. McConaughey is more recognisable with his shirt off than on and Manganiello has been quoted as saying he “could care less” about being typecast as a beefcake. I find it kind of refreshing that men are wanting to show off their bodies in a way that has been traditionally reserved for women.

For those who cry “hypocrite” at the women who’re now wolf whistling at the screen, as if all women find the sexualisation of their bodies oppressive, I direct you to one of the core tenents of feminism: choice. If women are deemed autonomous enough to make their own decisions about their bodies and whether they want to use them as a commodity, it stands to reason that men are, too. It might be a hard concept to grasp, but after centuries of the ingrained objectification of women, perhaps men want to try their hand at being desired as opposed to desiring.

While the mainstream media still has a ways to go towards female sexual liberation and the refocusing of the gaze onto men and away from women in a way that benefits all parties and exploits none, Magic Mike is a step in the right direction.

Elsewhere: [Musings of an Inappropriate Woman] On #DailyWife & Writing for the “Women’s Pages”. 

[Jezebel] Magic Mike, Junk in the Face & the Female Gaze. 

[Sociological Images] Magic Mike: Old Sexism in a New Package.

[The Frisky] 12 Women Who’ve Used Their Sexuality (To Get Ahead).

[Salon] Male Strippers: Please, Just Leave It On.

All Dogs Go to Seven.

This article was originally published on TheVine on 9th July, 2012.

As Australia’s Got Talent nears its grand final, I find myself wondering why the hell the scandalous Kyle Sandilands is still hosting the family show.

You’d have to be oblivious to the Aussie media scene for the past few years not to remember the lie detector-sexual assault incident, the Magda Szubanski-concentration camp comments and the on-air berating of a journalist for her appearance after she expressed concern over the integrity of Sandilands’ and Jackie O’s radio show.

Despite this, Channel Seven still seems to deem him a valuable talent and, perhaps because of this, a host that draws in the ratings. I can understand his presence on a show like Ten’s Can of Worms or The Footy Show on Nine, which aim to shock, but what does Sandilands really bring to the judging panel on a talent show that airs in the kiddie timeslot of 7:30pm? The straight-talking, older white male talent show host trope in the vein of Simon Cowell and Ian “Dicko” Dickson is a tired one. Sandilands may not be causing any trouble at the moment, but you can bet another controversy is right around the corner…  

But Sandilands’ prominence is by no means a standalone occurrence in Seven’s lineup: After it was revealed that former NRL player Matthew Johns was involved in group sex with his fellow Cronulla Sharks teammates and a teenager whose consent was questionable at best, he received his own Channel Seven footy program, the creatively titled Matty Johns Show. And, staying with sportsmen, what about the Ben Cousins doco, Such is Life, which at once tragically and glamorously profiled his life as an addict? What about former Home & Away actor, Lincoln Lewis, whose sex tape with a co-star went public the same day he was announced as a contestant on the dancing show in 2009? Convenient, hey? Did you know fellow H&A alum Dan Ewing was charged with assault against his fiancé at the end of 2011, the same year he was a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, a show that loves its bad boys? Speaking of assault, it was only after Matthew Newton beat girlfriend Rachael Taylor in a Rome hotel room in 2010 that he was axed as host of—you guessed it, another family-geared talent show—The X-Factor. I suppose his history of trashing hotel rooms and violence with previous intimate partner Brooke Satchwell was written off as a onetime thing. Remember Axle Whitehead’s public act of indecency at the 2006 ARIA’s was all but forgotten when he moved to Summer Bay and received a gig as host of the network’s World’s Strictest Parents in 2009. And who could forget Brendan Fevola’s illustrious career of AFL tradeoffs, drug- and alcohol-fuelled benders, gambling problems, infidelity, inappropriate picture-taking of Lara Bingle and, just last week, his grammatically-incorrect Twitter tirade against a country footy umpire? Apparently, Channel Seven: Fev was signed up for this years’ season of DWTS as its lovable larrikin.

Television commentator Andrew Mercado put it best two years ago in the wake of the Newton incident when he wrote:

“… [T]he station is chock a block full of bad boys on big pay packets who are being rewarded for their unsavourity [sic] indiscretions with higher profile jobs during the family hour… So let me get this straight—gang bangers, bullies and bashers are in but closeted gay men (like NSW Transport Minister David Campbell) are to be outed on the 6pm News.”

But why? It’s not like any of the abovementioned men—bar perhaps Sandilands, who the general public pretty much abhor—are huge drawcards for the station like Charlie Sheen was for CBS (and, by extension, Channel Nine). Johns is but a blip on the radar of sports programming, Newton and Cousins have descended into the cycle of mental illness, and I challenge any non-H&A fan to identify Ewing by name.

A quick look at the Seven corporate website indicates the male chauvinist pig syndrome transfers from in front of the camera to behind it, with an all-male board of directors and management team. While I’m in no way insinuating that the male bosses at Seven get up to the same kind of extra-curriculars their talent does, could it be a contributing factor to the swept-under-the-rug mentality the commercial channels seem to subscribe to?

If so, could, at the very least, a lone female on the board be the voice of reason? I doubt it. The boys club zeitgeist of most traditional forms of media (nay, most industries in general) is not going to be permeated by one woman alone, despite their best intentions: just look at Mia Freedman’s foray into television at Channel Nine. And why should it be a woman’s job to make sure over-privileged, under-accountable man-children behave in their personal lives? Wouldn’t a better solution be to not reward verbal insults, physical violence, drug use, lewd behavior and sexual assault with free-to-air-time in the first place, regardless of who’s performing it and who’s in charge?

On the other channels, while Channel Ten is debuting Australia’s version of Jersey Shore, The Shire, in a couple of weeks and Sheen’s new vehicle, Anger Management, is sure to be a ratings hit, ABC and SBS push forward with groundbreaking shows that don’t reward the dominant, bad boy bogan culture, like Go Back to Where You Came From (celebrity version coming soon!) and Joe Hildebrand’s Dumb, Drunk & Racist. Unfortunately, the latter two programs appeal to what all-too-often happens to be the minority, while many of the shows listed throughout this piece are geared towards the lowest common denominator: those who are perfectly happy with the status quo or don’t notice what’s wrong with it.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

bridesmaids baking

Women and baking: from social capital to comfort. [The Guardian]

Witches rode broomsticks, yes, but differently than they are traditionally depicted. [Broadly]

Equality vs. liberation in the wake of Michelle Payne’s Melbourne Cup win. [Daily Life]

Why does it always come down to the question of children for professional women? [Harper’s]

Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet counter-intuitively attempts to make the people who dehumanise our most vulnerable people more human. [New Matilda]

My story about wrestling fandom and armchair criticism features on Tim Kail’s Work of Wrestling podcast.

ICYMI: “The Dark Side of Hollywood.”

Image via Bitchin’ Lifestyle.

The Dark Side of Hollywood.

hollywood sign in ruins

Ever since reading Dominick Dunne’s Another City, Not My Own—a fictionalised account of his time spent chronicling the O.J. Simpson murder trial for Vanity Fair—a few years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the dark side of Hollywood. You know, the Tate–LaBianca murders, the Black Dahlia mystery, the strangulation murder of Dunne’s own daughter, Poltergeist actress Dominique, at the hands of her former partner… The list goes on.

Recent pop cultural products that tap into said fascination include The Black Dahlia novel and subsequent film, the Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone­-helmed Gangster Squad, and the first season of American Horror Story, which renewed my interest in the macabre underbelly of Los Angeles and prompted me to book a Dearly Departed Tragical History tour of the city as well as visit the Museum of Death on Sunset Boulevard on a trip there a couple of years ago. (Warning: extremely graphic contents abound in the Museum of Death. I was so overwhelmed by the objects on display that I had to exit the gallery space, so only those with a strong stomach and dull imagination should give their patronage, as there are no refunds.)

Despite not being a fan of horror movies due to my overactive imagination, I somehow thought the Museum of Death was a good idea. After all, they had crime scene and autopsy photos of Nicole Brown Simpson and JFK, respectively, among other morbid memorabilia such as serial killer artwork and letters, which I do have an interest in. But the Museum of Death also houses the decapitated head of the Bluebeard of Paris, graphic images of bodies in various stages of death, and an effectively frightening layout that saw me having to leave after ten minutes. The overwhelming watermelon­-scented cleaning products that seem to be favoured by much of America’s hospitality and tourism industry and that wafted through the museum elicited in me an aversion to the aroma. It just so happens that watermelon-­flavoured gum is also my sister’s breath ­freshener of choice and now whenever she’s chewing my heart races, I start to perspire and I feel a headache coming on. Sisters: they really know how to push your buttons.

When my companion was done touring the museum while I sweated my anxiety out and chatted to the proprietors in the gift shop, she escorted me back through to the Hollywood section, much of which I’d already seen online and was prepared for, with my eyes closed lest I happen upon something grisly and be (further) scarred for life. Having recently read prolific filmmaker, actor and author Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, which delves further into famous Tinseltown deaths, prior to my visit I recognised many of the objects on display at the museum as being donated by him.

When it comes to Anger, though, some might argue that certain details in his books are fabricated. The following day, on the Dearly Departed Tragical History tour, it was alleged that when destitute actress Marie Prevost was found dead in her apartment of acute alcoholism in 1937, her body was not partly eaten by her dachshund, as Anger wrote, but that the pet was merely trying to rouse its master by nipping at her. It is true, however, that an IOU for $110 to Joan Crawford, who ended up paying for Prevost’s funeral, was among some of her belongings. In the wake of Prevost’s death, the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital was set up to prevent similar fates for others in the industry. Speaking of stars forking out for their peers funerals, it emerged on the tour that Frank Sinatra was quite generous when it came to interments. He ensured that Bela Lugosi, who played the original Count Dracula, Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Jr. were all given fitting farewells in the wake of their troubled demises.

It is also alleged by Hollywood historians, most recently Jackie Ganiy in Tragic Hollywood: Beautiful, Glamorous, Dead, that Anger’s account of Lupe Velez passing out and drowning in her toilet bowl is trademark Anger sensationalism. It is more likely that Velez died making her way from her bed, where she ingested hundreds of Seconal pills in a suicide attempt, to the bathroom upon her body rejecting the overdose. This theory was cemented in with the first publication of Velez’ crime scene photos in the 2012 book Beverly Hills Confidential: A Century of Stars, Scandals and Murders by Barbara Schroeder and Clark Fogg.

Another Hollywood legend that’s seemed to gain traction despite its unknown origins is death ­by­ jumping ­off ­the Hollywood sign. In actual fact, as pointed out by Dearly Departed tour guide Brian (but is also easily found in many a Hollywood history exposé), Peg Entwistle was the only person to ever have committed suicide­-by­-Hollywood­-H in 1932.

Entwistle was a Broadway star who migrated West to make it in the movie business. She married fellow actor Robert Keith who neglected to mention he’d previously been married, a union which produced a son, Brian Keith. Entwistle’s unwitting stepson would go on to star in the original Parent Trap and TV series Family Affair. Another tragic young suicide would haunt Brian in his later years, though; his daughter committed suicide in 1997 at the age of twenty­eight using a gun he gave her. Brian, suffering from lung cancer, emphysema and grief, would use this same gun to end his life two months later.

Tour guide Brian made mention of this family curse as we drove through Hollywood, but the only other reference I could find comes from James Zeruk, Jr.’s book, Peg Entwistle & the Hollywood Sign Suicide: A Biography.

In addition to the marital abode of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio; the “Nightmare on Elm Drive” property, as Dunne so accurately wrote in an account for Vanity Fair, where the wealthy Jose and Kitty Menendez were slain by their own sons, Lyle and Erik; “the cheapest house in Beverly Hills”, as Brian put it, previously owned by American Idol’s Simon Cowell; and Johnny Depp’s secluded abode overlooking Sunset Boulevard, another house featured on the tour was that in which Lana Turner’s teenaged daughter (allegedly) stabbed to death Turner’s lover, mobster Johnny Stompanato, during a domestic dispute in 1958. It is widely believed that Turner was the one who committed the crime but the star reasoned that no jury would convict a young girl endeavouring to protect her own mother. Dunne, in his pictorial memoir, The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well­-Known Name Dropper, writes that he lived around the corner from Turner when the murder took place. As we drove past this Beverly Hills property whose history helped form the bedrock of Hollywood’s golden age, I eerily noticed children’s toys and bikes strewn across its front yard. I wonder if the current owners are aware of the debauchery and tragedy that occurred in their family home years earlier?

Speaking of, a suite of homes even the shrewdest real estate agent would have trouble moving happens to be situated across the street from Lea Michele’s modest pad and only blocks away from where I stayed during my vaycay.

In 2004 screenwriter Robert Lees, best known for his work on Lassie, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and with Abbott and Costello, was decapitated by a drug­-addled, breaking-­and-­entering homeless man Kevin Lee Graff in his home on Courtney Avenue at the age of ninety-­one. The horror story doesn’t end there, though: Graff then took Lee’s severed head and entered the neighbouring residence of Morley Engleson and murdered him before stealing his car to make a getaway. The following day Graff was noticed by guards at the entry to the Paramount Pictures lot due to his erratic behaviour and was picked up by police. He is currently serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Brian also cruised by famed Mexican eatery, El Coyote, which isn’t so much known for its food as its clientele. Its biggest claim to fame is that Sharon Tate’s last meal was eaten there before her murder by the Manson Family. But after eighty years of service, there must be something else about the place that keeps ’em coming back. (It was at this point on the tour that I found out I don’t just dislike coriander [or cilantro, its Mexican derivative]; I’m allergic to it, as is tour guide Brian. The allergic reaction manifests itself as a soapy or metallic taste when consuming the herb. You learn something new every day!)

The apartment building where budding ingénue Rebecca Schaeffer was shot dead by a stalker in 1989 is located in the Fairfax district of L.A., also the home of the famed outdoor shopping mall and celebrity hangout The Grove. After hearing the story of how overzealous fan, Robert Bardo, obtained Schaeffer’s address from the Department of Motor Vehicles by paying just $1 to access their records, we stopped at The Grove to revive our blood sugar and relieve our bladders. Laws have since been put in place to prevent such access to DMV records.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom behind the scenes of the golden age of Hollywood, though: when Mae West’s landlord at the exclusive Ravenswood apartment complex barred her boxer boyfriend, Gorilla Jones, from the premises because he was black, she bought the whole building and abolished his ruling! Fun fact: the current phone number for residential enquiries is the same number that was listed as West’s in the phone book way back when, before her death in 1980.

Unless you include TMZ presenter David House, who gave an intimate tour of Hollywood’s hotspots to myself, my friend April and two other patrons on my first rainy day in L.A., and a former World Wrestling Entertainment Superstar I’d met through friends earlier that year, I didn’t encounter any celebrities in Tinseltown. Dearly Departed tour guide, Brian, wagered that the most opportune time to get up close and personal with your favourite celebs is Halloween: hire a car, bring your kids or borrow someone else’s, get gussied up and go trick or treating in Beverly Hills. As door knocking in the neighbourhoods featured in Star Maps is illegal every day except October 31st, All Hallows Eve not only blurs the line between the living and the dead, it blurs the line between the famous and the non­-famous.

Related: Another City, Not My Own by Dominick Dunne Review.

Image via Epic Times.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

drake hotline bling gif

Check out my last minute Halloween costume ideas and the one I contributed to Junkee‘s roundup.

Speaking of Drake, his obsession with “good girls” is sexist. [Fusion]

On the silence of child sex abuse victims:

“Child sex abuse victims face a dilemma. To be recognised as victims, they cannot remain silent, but they must be silent enough to seem authentically hurt.” [WaPo]

Why putting women on the American banknote is far more complicated than we realise:

“What’s more insulting: to live in a society that treats you unfairly whose symbols remind you of that fact, or to live in a society that treats you unfairly but whose symbols belie progress?” [Jezebel]

Shonda Rhimes took on the “angry black woman” stereotype on Scandal, nailed it. [Slate]

The origins of the “It me” meme (it meme?). [Paper]

No, the Kardashians didn’t destroy Lamar Odom. They took him under their wing and supported him through his addictions and losses. [LA Times]

Celebrate Halloween by reliving periods and teen sexuality on film. [HuffPo]

How subscribing to The Big Issue can help keep at risk women in jobs. [The Vocal]

The problem with speculating about homophobic people’s sexuality. [Kill Your Darlings]

“What happened to Whoopi Goldberg?” [WaPo]