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.