My Favourite Articles That I Wrote in 2016.

2016, it’s fair to say, was a pretty shit year for humanity in general. For me personally, though, it was pretty good. I’ve published the most freelance work I ever have, and I’m writing this from New York City, where I’ve been seeing out the apocalypse (the Mayans were wrong: 2016 is the end of their calendar and, thus, the world) for the past two months. Here are some of my favourite things I’ve published this year.

“Beyoncé Makes Us Want to Be Better People” & “The Kardashians Are Better Than You”The Vocal.

Some of the most fun I’ve had writing was for The Vocal and I think these were two of my best pieces. I love writing about controversial issues and controversial women, and these two subjects certainly tick those boxes.

“Kim Kardashian: Our Modern-Day Monroe”, The Big Smoke.

Similarly, what’s more controversial than comparing perhaps the most reviled woman in contemporary culture with the iconic, though equally disdained, Marilyn Monroe?

“In Defence of Eva Marie”Calling Spots.

And in the wrestling world, who is more controversial than Total Divas star Eva Marie? I wrote in defence of her for Calling Spots magazine.

“Whorephobia & Misogyny in Wrestling: Still Real to Me, Dammit”, Harlot.

Short-lived feminist site Harlot let me write about what a travesty it was that woman wrestler Chyna wasn’t inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame. She died a month later.

“The State of Women’s Wrestling”SBS Zela.

Writing for SBS’s now-shuttered women’s sports site Zela was one of the defining moments in my career. A writer and editor I’ve long admired (but who I thought didn’t even know I existed!) recommended me to Zela editor Danielle Warby to cover the women’s wrestling renaissance. My favourite piece was an overview of the year in women’s wrestling up to that point in one of my last articles for the site.

“Nia Jax: Not Like Most Girls”, “Smack Talker! Daniel Bryan’s Tiresome Vocal Misogyny” &  “A Woman’s Place Should Be in the White House—And in the Cell”Intergender World Champs.

With Zela and Harlot shutting down, I was without a place to write about women’s wrestling for a time. Then along came Intergender World Champs, for which I’ve written an assortment of things.

“Why Celebrities Prefer Empowerment to Feminism”Daily Life.

I’d long been thinking about “women’s empowerment” and what it even means, and I got to write about it for my first piece for Daily Life, an outlet I’d been trying to crack for years.

“Trading in the Beauty Economy”feminartsy.

I’d been pushing words around in this piece for ages and feminartsy allowed me to publish it.

“The James Deen Allegations: How Porn Sets the Example for Responding to Sexual Assault”Archer.

My first piece for Archer was a look at the rape allegations against James Deen and what mainstream industries can learn from porn’s response to them.

“This is the Most Devastating & Political Season of Orange is the New Black Yet”Junkee.

Getting paid to write about things you enjoy doing is a pretty good gig.

“Women of The People VS. OJ Simpson, The Big Smoke.

Ditto.

“Why An Australian Woman Felt Compelled to Go Door-to-Door Campaigning for Hillary Clinton”Daily Life.

Though not my last published piece for 2016, what better way to cap off a tumultuous year than by writing about volunteering for Hillary Clinton?!

Navigating Kayfabe in the Reality Era.

dolph ziggler

This article originally appeared in Calling Spots Issue 21. Republished with permission.

The dwindling amount of old-timers still alive that experienced the territories of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and even ’80s tend to look back on making towns with fondness, when wrestling was still considered by the masses to be “real”, so much so that even many rookies making their debuts at that time weren’t “smartened up” until after they climbed through the ropes.

The Attitude era that dominated the latter part of the 1990s will be remembered as the heyday of “sports entertainment” when anything could happen and often did. When the WWE “got the F out” in 2002 it took with it outrageous shenanigans such as DX invading WCW, Alundra Blayze dumping the WWE Women’s Championship in a trash can and Sable parading around the ring in hand print pasties, making way for the PG era in which John Cena and his candy-coloured merchandise reigned supreme.

Now, with social media and the WWE Network, it seems kayfabe is almost non-existent and Superstars have to strike a balance between making themselves available to fans on Twitter, Instagram and at meet and greets while attempting not to engage in any bad behaviour that might piss off sponsors. (Though there are still untouchables: Seth Rollins’ cheating dick pics were leaked early in 2015 before he became WWE Champion and when the new girlfriend he sent said pics to was revealed to be a Nazi-sympathiser later that year, she was promptly fired from her developmental deal while Rollins remained a dual champion. And although Hulk Hogan and Jimmy Snuka’s histories have been effectively erased from WWE, Legends who’ve behaved badly in the past but not since the company brought in the domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse clause in their Wellness Policy, such as Scott Hall, are still decorated.)

Perhaps the most obvious example that we are living in the reality era of sports entertainment is Total Divas. What was first marketed as a glimpse into the unique careers of female professional wrestlers quickly devolved into your typical E! fare: 40 minutes of personal drama such as Brie Bella and Trinity’s husbands, Daniel Bryan and Jimmy Uso, respectively, taking issue with their sexy clothes, and Brie’s desire to start a family. The latest seasons seem like an attempt to rectify that and, in the midst of the #DivasRevolution, explore what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry.

What’s also interesting about Total Divas is that it builds a fifth wall between kayfabe and the “scripted reality” of shows such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians and The Hills. In a profile on The Hills villains Spencer and Heidi Pratt in Complex magazine last year, “a talent manager who requested to remain anonymous” claimed that the show was “80 percent scripted”.

From that article:

The talent manager isn’t breaking news here—almost everyone who was on the show has admitted how fake it was. [Lauren] Conrad, [Brody] Jenner, Kristin Cavallari, Spencer, Heidi—they were actors on a show marketed as real life so that an audience could buy into a fantasy… On the final episode of The Hills, the fourth wall was broken, the camera panned out, and a street in the Hollywood Hills was revealed to be a movie set… [T]hat audience seem[ed] willing to accept the unreality of The Hills…”

As a culture we’re still getting our heads around the cognitive dissonance of reality TV being rooted in anything but reality while wrestling has long been determined to be, erm, pre­determined. So, when it comes to the intersection of the two, does that mean the storyline on the third season of Total Divas about Nattie and her husband T.J.’s marital woes is more or less real than Nattie’s accompaniment of Kidd to the ring when he wrestled (before his sidelining neck injury, which is a focus of Total Divas this season)? Are they both just tools to further the fantasy or is it a case of real life spilling into the workplace? And what about when we add social media platforms to the mix? We know they can be used to portray the best, not necessarily truthful versions of ourselves to the world, so was Nattie posting photos of TJ and their cats on Instagram at the time of their alleged estrangement part of the ruse or were the couple working on their relationship?

A more obvious distinction between kayfabe and IRL can be seen on Total Divas this season when Rosa wants to remain involved in WWE in the wake of her pregnancy. She can’t wrestle so she suggests backstage interviewing as a consolation, which is deemed to be too risky because “anything can happen” and she might be placed in “harm’s way” in this role. Had Total Divas been more like NXT’s more sophisticated reality show Breaking Ground and/or aired on the Network, perhaps this storyline would be left on the cutting room floor. But because it caters to E!’s audience—one that WWE doesn’t necessarily want to break kayfabe in front of—the reality of simply writing altercations to take place away from a pregnant employee isn’t portrayed.

The most glaring example of Total Divas and social media colliding is in Dolph Ziggler’s inclusion in the show. As one of the more active WWE Superstars on Twitter and in his extracurricular endeavours, such as stand up comedy, Ziggler appears in season four and five of Total Divas as Nikki’s ex-boyfriend and a potential foil in her current relationship with John Cena. The photos of Dolph and Nikki together prove their past relationship was real, but can we assume Ziggler’s apparent rekindled feelings are also?

Ziggler moonlights as a stand-up comedian and there’s a sense that he’ll have a successful, Dwayne Johnson-esque career after WWE in Hollywood. His WWE Universe (apparently separate from both the worlds of Total Divas/E! and the one you and I inhabit) relationship with Lana dragged on for months while Lana’s former client/love interest/real life fiance Rusev was injured, Ziggler went on hiatus to film a WWE Studios production, and when Lana broke her wrist, with the three Superstars relying heavily on social media to prolong the love triangle (and then a love square with the involvement of Summer Rae). Instead of putting the kibosh on the ill-fated storyline, Lana and Ziggler were tasked with promoting their “relationship” on social media. As lacking in chemistry as their pairing was, Lana and Ziggler seemed to genuinely enjoy playing it up on Instagram and Twitter, proponents of an alternate reality where images alone convey something very different to what’s really going on.

Returning to Total Divas, if WWE wants our suspension of disbelief to remain in tact (which they apparently do, as one can’t imagine that Ziggler would choose to carry on an Instagram relationship if it wasn’t part of his job), why do they cross-promote the conflicting reality show and their own programming so heavily? Given Ziggler’s growing reputation as a love rat (he gifted Summer Rae jewellery while she was allegedly involved with Rusev), was his wooing of Nikki on the show for real or an attempt at rectifying his WWE character?

During an interview on The Sam Roberts Wrestling Podcast, the host further pitted Ziggler and Cena against each other in that Cena plays a musclebound meathead who’s hooking up with Amy Schumer in her runaway box office hit movie, Trainwreck, a role allegedly based on Ziggler, who dated Schumer in real life.

Relatedly, Tyler Breeze burst onto the scene as Summer Rae’s rebound, taking the spot of Ziggler both literally and figuratively. He appears on Breaking Ground and at once parodies and makes use of our obsession with social media, asking if he’s who we follow, toting selfie sticks to the ring and streaming his entrances on Periscope.

Total Divas also uses social media to their advantage with things posted by its stars on Instagram have been used to punctuate storylines, most notably Eva Marie’s falling out with the rest of the cast.

In the first few episodes of season four, Alicia Fox and the Bellas were irked because of Eva’s continued posting of ads for her hair extension line and various self-promotional content at the detriment of anything about wrestling. Then, when the rest of the cast blew up that Eva was getting specialised one-on-one wrestling training while they all had to tough it out in developmental, Eva retorted with an Instagram post about a lion not worrying “herself with the opinion of sheep”. (Just FYI: A female lion is a lioness, Eva.)

Since then, Eva has made amends with the rest of the show’s cast, even joining babyface Team Total Divas at WrestleMania, despite cultivating a successful heel gimmick in NXT and further reinforcing not only the fifth wall between Total Divas/E! and WWE, but one between WWE and NXT, as well.

Ryan Boyd unpacked the relationship between kayfabe and social media further in a piece for The Spectacle of Excess. He writes:

[U]nder the new rules of kayfabe, the audience is encouraged to be just as interested in Kofi Nahaje Sarkodie-Mensah as they are in Kofi Kingston, and what’s more than that, the Nashville crowd got worked like hell when Kofi-the-real-guy said that country music sucks purely because he went one further in his heel antics. Kofi-the-real-guy is as much a part of the show as Kofi-the-heel—they’re both props for generating heat and selling T-shirts.

“Kayfabe is a matryoshka doll of carny deception, and if you think you’re not getting worked, that just means you’re getting double-worked. The kayfabe is coming from inside the house.”

*

A few years ago I was involved in the making of a wrestling mockumentary with a smorgasbord of former WWE Superstars which then led to me working in an indie Australian promotion that often brought out big names to compliment its own talent. While most of the wrestlers I grew up watching on TV were lovely in person, I did observe a certain disconnect between their characters and reality. But it must be hard to get a good grip on reality when the bulk of your life is spent perfecting your craft and the development of the character that goes along with it. There is an expectation in the professional wrestling world that you stay in character at all times to protect storylines and maintain “kayfabe”—despite the widely held belief that wrestling is “fake”—at all costs, but what toll does that take on everyday life?

One indie wrestler who knows the importance of social media and utilising it to portray your character to your fans is Melbourne wrestler JXT, who recently received a tryout for WWE when they were in town with NXT.

With a YouTube show entitled JXTv and a photo op gimmick appropriated from Instagram’s polaroid-esque layout, JXT’s social media presence compliments his status as a party-loving, millennial everyman and will show industry heavyweights that he has an in-built following if and when the time comes to make the move to the U.S.

JXT believes that to be a wrestler and have a strong social media presence is “super important.”

“I see wrestlers now without Instagram or Twitter and straight away in my head I say ‘they’re not serious’,” he continues. “WWE talks about Twitter constantly and references [its] Superstars’ Instagrams. The fans want to invest in you so having platforms where they can talk to you and see what you’re up to constantly is key in giving the fans a chance to make that deep emotional connection. It’s 2016: people have 7-second attention spans; they want to see a lot of their favourite wrestlers in short, sharp bursts. So things like Instagram and YouTube help because there isn’t a show on Tuesday morning but they can just check your Instagram to get a dose of what you’ve been up to.”

JXT’s main goal with JXTv and his other online endeavours is to make a name for himself. “You look at any big independent wrestler, [if] they have a heavy social media presence [then] that’s how they get their name,” JXT says. “You hear of all these cool wrestlers who aren’t signed to a big company yet through social media. CM Punk was renowned [in] internet wrestling circles and that’s why he broke the mold and WWE signed the independent guy. He had so much buzz they gave him a chance.

“Everyone knows who Colt Cabana is yet he doesn’t wrestle for any big wrestling company [save for] ROH in its smaller days… Kevin Owens, Samoa Joe, Sami Zayn… Everywhere I go I want people to know who I am before I even get there. That is the goal.”

But JXT insists his character, like so many of the most successful wrestling gimmicks, is just a heightened version of himself. “I love to party and I love wrestling so I take that and over-dramatise it. [But] when I’m just being me, I’m calmer and less over the top. You need to know who you are as a person, and not get lost in the hype and perceived ego of your wrestling character.”

While maintaining some semblance of suspended disbelief is integral to professional wrestling, it’s also a delight when wrestlers break kayfabe for real. Take the Four Horsewomen’s curtain call at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn when Bayley won the NXT Women’s Championship from Sasha Banks in a hellacious match, culminating in Charlotte and Becky Lynch coming out to join them in a tear-jerking show of friendship. In my opinion there’s no greater reward than seeing competitors who gave it their all express respect and, oftentimes, love for one another. Give me that over neatly packaged “reality” any day.

If we can take one thing from the shitshow that was the Rusev/Lana/Dolph Ziggle/Summer Rae storyline it’s the ability to ask the question, what even is the point of kayfabe, anyway? If Vince McMahon claims that WWE is entertainment and not sport, then why not treat its Superstars as actors and let them do what they want, within reason (*cough* Hulk Hogan *cough*), on their own time? With social media and the 24-hour news cycle the kayfabe model is a risky one that’s no longer feasible.

Related: World Wrestling Entertainment Will Never #GiveDivasAChance As Long As It Prioritises Bad Men.

In Defence of Eva Marie.

My Weekend with Wrestlers.

Elsewhere: [Harlot] Whorephobia & Misogyny in Wrestling: Still Real to Me, Dammit.

[Intergender World Champs] Smack Talker! Daniel Bryan’s Tiresome Vocal Misogyny.

[Complex] Over The Hills: The Afterlife of Heidi & Spencer Pratt.

[The Spectacle of Excess] Kayfabe is Dead. Long Live Kayfabe.

Image via Courtney Rose/Calling Spots.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

I wrote about the lengths women have to do to trade in the beauty economy. [Feminartsy]

I also wrote about my choice to be single. [SBS Life]

Stop holding out hope that Ivanka Trump will tame Donald: she’s on board with his campaign. [Intelligencer]

A common catch cry heard in the wake of Kim Kardashian exposing Taylor Swift’s lies about not knowing that Kanye West would rap about her in his song “Famous” is to “focus on more important things”. But the demonisation of a black man for victimising a white woman is very important and echoes the spate of black men being killed in America. [Cosmopolitan]

Both Taylor’s victimhood and Kim’s famewhoring are important parts of the celebrity ecosystem. [Jezebel]

How Keeping Up with the Kardashians helps Kim control the narrative. [Vulture]

Taylor Swift is not that innocent. [Vulture]

A history of the media souring on Swift. [Vulture]

Once upon a time I wrote about Swift being the perfect victim and the use of the word “bitch” in rap music.

In defence of the term “honour killing”. [Daily Life]

Little Women‘s Meg and the labour of performing womanhood. [LA Review of Books]

How Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates subverts the use of female nudity in comedy. [Vulture]

The Spice Girls, twenty years on:

“They planted the seeds in my mind, and the minds of countless other young girls, that feminism is important and valid and should be thought about and yelled about wherever you go.” [Kill Your Darlings]

“Why Men Want to Marry Melanias But Raise Ivankas.” [NYTimes]

Actually, spiritualism was the realm of women before Ghostbusters turned it into a male bonding “pursuit focused on hunting a exterminating.” [The New Republic]

Being called a racist is worse than actually being one. [SBS Life]

Wonder Woman primer. [Movie Mezzanine]

Related: a Captain Marvel primer. [Time]

On the (Rest of the) Net.

eva marie art

I wrote in defence of Eva Marie.

From Sir Mix-A-Lot to Taylor Swift to LEMONADE: on the origin of Becky. [Fusion]

bell hooks’ criticisms of LEMONADE and black femininity. [bell hooks institute]

Janet Mock responded smartly. [Facebook]

Feministing hosts a roundtable on the topic. 

And with LEMONADE, Beyonce says “boy, bye” to black respectability. [Fusion]

Women-only train carriages: creating a safe space for women or not doing enough to curb the predatory behaviour of men? [Sheilas]

How Jane the Virgin deals with money. [Think Progress]

George Michael’s “black” musical history. [Slate]

How social media can increase organ donations. [NYTimes]

Why do women love Chris Evans so much? [Buzzfeed]

Ronan Farrow on why the media needs to hold Woody Allen accountable to allegations of child sex abuse against his daughter and Farrow’s sister. [THR]

Chelsea Handler writes in defence of being single. [Motto]

Justin Bieber and the surveillance of celebrities. [MTV]

In Defence of Eva Marie.

eva marie art

This article originally appeared in Calling Spots Issue 20. Republished with permission.

For my latest contribution to Calling Spots, check out Issue 21 featuring my story, “Navigating Kayfabe in the Reality Era”.

I instinctively ducked for cover from the IWC (Internet Wrestling Community) when the idea for this article popped into my head after Eva Marie, perhaps the most hated woman (nay, person) in wrestling today, faced Bayley in a NXT Women’s Championship on Thanksgiving Eve last year.

I’d been ruminating on Eva Marie for quite some time, at least since her debut in NXT in mid-2015, but probably closer to the time we were introduced to her as the “rookie” Diva on E!’s reality show about World Wrestling Entertainment’s women’s wrestlers, Total Divas, in 2013.

Let me first say that I think Eva Marie gets a lot of unwarranted flack for seizing an opportunity that was arguably handed to her. Who among us would honestly turn down a prized position with guaranteed exposure in our industry of choice presented on a silver platter? Just because she didn’t bust her butt on the indies for ten years à la wrestling darlings such as Kevin Owens and Calling Spots cover stars Finn Balor and Daniel Bryan it doesn’t mean there’s not a place for her in WWE.

Let me also say that this is not so much a defence of Eva Marie herself, per se, but what she represents. She may have a background in modelling with designs on becoming “the female Rock” (she shares a manager with Dwayne The Rock Johnson—who also happens to be his ex wife—and Johnson has been a vocal proponent of hers on social media) who only joined WWE months before she gained a starring role on Total Divas, but women like Michelle McCool and the Bella Twins were models before becoming Divas. Oftentimes their success is boiled down to their associations with men in power, but McCool became known as the first ever Divas Champion (a title which she held twice) and a two-time Women’s Champion and Nikki Bella’s in-ring prowess has improved in strides in recent years, landing her the top spot on PWI’s top 50 women wrestlers in 2015 and the Slammy Award for 2015 Diva of the Year. And while much has been made about the IWC’s pride and joy Bayley and Sasha Banks’ desire to be wrestlers since childhood, current Divas Champion (at the time of writing) Charlotte only expressed an interest in wrestling in the last few years, so if the logic surrounding Eva Marie’s heat is to be applied to her, she doesn’t deserve her success either.

If anything, we should be encouraging of Eva Marie’s return to NXT to hone her skills in the foremost wrestling training program in the world. While her in-ring dexterity isn’t at the level it needs to be to warrant a NXT Women’s Championship shot, if we’ve learned anything from the chanting along of Ryback’s catchphrase, “Feed Me More”, implying to the top brass that he’s “over”, the vitriol spewed at Eva Marie from the Full Sail crowd (who are obnoxious at the best of times) signifies that she’s the biggest heel NXT has. If we want her to fail, stop responding to her.

The drama surrounding her championship shot at Bayley on Thanksgiving Eve was pitch perfect and elicited a riotous response from the crowd not seen since John Cena faced Rob Van Dam for the WWE Championship at ECW One Night Stand in 2006. Eva’s pre-match promo where she hijacked William Regal’s office with gifts from her Total Divas supporters, while not good, served to position her as a corporate placeholder along with the insertion of WWE senior official Charles Robinson as referee. (Michael Cole also appeared as the adjudicator for Finn Balor and Samoa Joe’s NXT Championship contract signing earlier in the night, giving the whole show a sort of coopted-by-management feel, perhaps not accidentally.) The deployment of Eva Marie was apt and echoes a criticism often levelled at the corporately-appropriated #DivasRevolution: she was put there by management despite, until a few years ago and a few months ago, respectively, expressing little desire or talent to be a wrestler.

Eva Marie is like the female version of John Cena: she appeals to a certain demographic (Total Divas fans who are often young women), as Cena does to young fans, but is reviled by wrestling purists, smarks and the IWC as exemplified by the Full Sail crowd. Putting her in the go-home match before Thanksgiving was “actually genius”, according to [former] Diva Dirt reporter Jake, and a perfect example of her marketability.

Her season four Total Divas storyline was interesting, and the bust up with the rest of the cast, particularly the Bella twins, was unwarranted (if scripted and dramatised for the reality TV cameras) in my eyes. It wasn’t so long ago that women like Nikki were lambasted for their apparent lack of drive and wrestling talent which has since developed to see her become the locker room leader and voice her desire to “stay and continue to help women conquer this industry”.

But the utter hatred levelled at Eva feels like it has passed disdain for her lack of passion and skill and entered misogynistic territory. A tweet from user @nadavid47 asserted that “The hate for Eva Marie has gotten to such an uncomfortable ‘this is deeper than her lack of skill’ level” while @JulieAnnBird was concerned that “it will become even more obvious if/when the Takeover London crowd throws slut chants at her.” (I’m loath to qualify the “slut” accusations because it implies that certain women are sluts while others aren’t, but for as long as we’ve known Eva Marie, she’s been with the same man who is now her husband. Hardly slutty behaviour, but I digress…) In an interview with Bayley in The Independent ahead of NXT Takeover: London, writer Martin Hines even asked the then-Women’s Champion if she thinks Full Sail’s taunting of Eva Marie is less to do with her character and is more personal. Bayley disagreed as NXT stars are wont to do (Kevin Owens and Charlotte are the only wrestlers that come to mind who’ve spoken out against Full Sail), perhaps in an attempt not to upset an audience that seems increasingly on the precipice of spilling over into hostility. Eva’s treatment is antithetical to the #DivasRevolution and harkens back to the not-too-distant past when women wrestlers were valued for their T&A (as evidenced by the tag team of the same name managed by Trish Stratus in her eye-candy beginnings) and their “popcorn” matches were an opportunity for a bathroom break. As much as the Revolution found its beginnings in NXT, its fans are anything but respectful to women wrestlers, and wrestlers at large, giving priority to their excessive chants rather than what’s going on the ring. If there was a question left as to whether Eva as a person and her polarising wrestling character can be separated, porn site Brazzers tweeted the following to Eva Marie:

But NXT seems to have let Eva fall by the wayside since her Women’s Championship match against Bayley, pushing Eva’s henchwoman Nia Jax (or is Eva Nia Jax’s henchwoman?) into the picture with a title match against Bayley at NXT Takeover: London. Eva has seldom been seen on NXT TV and was in Dubai while NXT Takeover: London was underway. While some may welcome her absence (and I’m glad @JulieAnneBird’s “slut” prophecy didn’t come true), it’s a wonder they haven’t utilised her undeniable heat more. Call it slow burn booking, or maybe she’s upping her training again to feasibly be able to go toe to toe with Bayley and NXT’s burgeoning women’s roster, but WWE has dropped the ball on Eva Marie, much like the #DivasRevolution at large.

Related: The Beginning & the End of an Era—Sasha Banks’ Evolution from NXT to the Main Roster.

Are Divas Finally Being Given a Chance?

Elsewhere: [Junkee] How Caitlyn Jenner, the Kardashians & Total Divas Are Making Reality TV Relevant Again.

[The Independent] Bayley: NXT Women’s Champion Talks NXT in the UK, Eva Marie, Coffee & The Future.

[SBS Zela] A Diva is No Longer the Women’s Version of a Wrestler.

Artwork by Elow Mojo.

The Beginning & the End of an Era: Sasha Banks’ Evolution from NXT to the Main Roster.

calling-spots-magazine-19

This article originally appeared in Calling Spots Issue 19. Republished with permission.

For my latest contribution to Calling Spots, check out Issue 20 featuring my story, “In Defence of Eva Marie”.

Anyone who’s been following Sasha Banks’ career trajectory in NXT is probably familiar with how the 99-pound biracial woman billed from Boston but originally from California, born Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado, came to be The Boss and arguably the best wrestler working today.

When she debuted in NXT in 2012, she was a tiny blonde “just happy to be there” without any discernable “It factor”. She aligned herself with Summer Rae, and later Charlotte, as the “BFFs” (the more sophisticated main roster version of which is Team B.A.D.) followed by a pre-orange haired Becky Lynch in her quest to make something stick character-wise.

In the backstage vignettes that dance around kayfabe that NXT has become known for, Banks has repeatedly said she took inspiration for her “Boss” character from her real-life cousin, Snoop Dogg. “I remember always being around him and people calling him [the] Boss,” she said on WWE 24 NXT Takeover: Brooklyn. We’ve also heard her talk about this on Talk is Jericho with Chris Jericho and Sam Roberts’ Wrestling Podcast.

Wrestling-wise, Banks takes inspiration from Eddie Guerrero. She has been adamant that the bra and panties matches that perpetuated her childhood wrestling fandom made her not want to be a “Diva” and thus women like Trish Stratus and Lita weren’t integral to her passion and skill for wrestling.

Banks reiterated this on Talk is Jericho:

“There wasn’t [sic] really girls that I looked up to… It was always Eddie for me… Growing up, I always wanted to wrestle like the guys but I never had that woman figure … in the WWE because the time I was watching it was all bra and panties matches and you had to be on the cover of Playboy to get a storyline and it was so frustrating for me to watch that and know that this is what I wanna do when I grow up… I didn’t love what was going on [in the women’s division] but I was going to settle for it and I knew that to be in the WWE I was going to have to do something like that… But when I got to NXT I didn’t want that. I couldn’t settle for that.”

Banks and her NXT Takeover: Respect Iron Man (why it wasn’t called an Iron Woman match is beyond me. Sure, Banks and Bayley proved they can do anything men can do and oftentimes they’re better at it but World Wrestling Entertainment and NXT didn’t take the steps to get to a point where the phrase is gender neutral. Maybe when wrestlers of all genders contracted by WWE are called Superstars…) opponent, Bayley, were everywhere in the lead up to this match. NXT aired special video packages detailing their intensified diets, workout routines and mindsets leading into the match and the women’s prophetic high school essays about why they would change the face of WWE even went viral.

On WWE 24 NXT Takeover: Brooklyn, a good portion of the documentary was centred on Banks VS. Bayley round one, a match in which the long-suffering Bayley finally won the NXT Women’s Championship in a “co-main event”. (Come on, there are no co-main events, and calling a Women’s Championship match one in an effort to legitimise the main roster #DivasRevolution that found its roots in NXT is transparently disrespectful.)

Kevin Owens, wrestling Finn Balor for the NXT Championship in the main event ladder match at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn, said in a voiceover as Bayley hugged him after her match, “It was a tough act to follow, honestly.”

“I don’t think we could have done better,” Owens continued at the conclusion of his own match.

NXT announcer Corey Graves stated on the NXT Takeover: Brooklyn preshow, quoting Triple H, that “We don’t just put our Divas in the main event. They are the main event.” And while that may not have been the case when it came to top billing, Banks and Bayley stole the show from Owens and Balor, leaving those who watched emotionally exhausted in a puddle of mutual tears, which I’m still personally reeling from. Its place as the best Divas match of all time and the best NXT match of 2015 on WWE.com is deserved and cements Banks as the best wrestler working today.

She has the skillset, the character and the passion to rival any big name—and, synonymously—male wrestler in the business.

Much has been made of the fact that when female talent arrived in NXT in its early days, they were told to “wrestle like Divas”, meaning “no punches, no forearms, no kicks, no striking, just pull hair… Be girly, do hair pulling, do catfights,” as Banks revealed on Talk is Jericho. Her brutal isolation of her opponent’s body parts, such as Bayley’s formerly broken hand at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn and Alexa Bliss’ broken nose, her patented corner step-up foot choke, and her arsenal of moves seldom seen by women wrestlers makes her exciting and surprising to watch. She could certainly hang in an intergender match with any of WWE’s top Superstars today, such as Owens, Seth Rollins or Cesaro, not to mention give former masters of the ring such as Shawn Michaels, her idol Eddie Guerrero and Owen Hart (as offered by fellow Calling Spots writer Neil Rogers when I asked on social media which legends Banks’ reminded people of) a run for their money.

10151782_10207345967040357_7311611884614620780_n

Because Banks is so slight she sells the shit out of any offensive moves put on her, from Bayley’s Bayley to Belly to Becky Lynch’s pumphandle side slam. Her small stature also gives her that unpredictability: can she really pull off moves like diving over the referee and the top rope in a single bound to Bayley on the outside at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn? She proves time and time again that she can.

tumblr_nvw2k9aWLN1sj4xr4o3_500

Banks is truly one of if not the best heels in the business today. Kevin Owens held that spot for a while, particularly when he refused a bouquet of flowers during a traditional Japanese presentation before his NXT Championship match at Beast in the East, but Banks stealing consummate NXT fan Izzy’s Bayley-branded headband right off her head and then mocking her tears in the ring before throwing it back at her protective dad was next level heelness.

She’s also a new kind of heel in that her well-documented real personality seems to be worlds away from The Boss. It’s hard not to empathise with a woman who openly cries when talking about her career trajectory and the friendship she’s found with her NXT compatriots and fiercest rivals. It’s also hard not to be wowed by the nastiness she displays in the ring, such as the abovementioned taking of Izzy’s headband. Where she differs from Owens, who seems to have a genuine chip on his shoulder at working the indies for so long while going unrecognised by WWE, as evidenced in his debut Raw promo on John Cena, is in the disbelief that a character so disgraceful could coexist inside a young woman simultaneously so appreciative to be doing the thing she loves and succeeding in it at such a young age.

It’s widely argued that the best characters are their portrayers’ real personalities dialed up to 11, as Steve Austin likes to say. Personally, I think it’s often the nicest people who are the most adept at playing reprehensible characters, as they can appreciate the difference. Take Bryan Cranston’s Breaking Bad character, Walter White: as one of the baddest men on TV during the show’s AMC run, the actor that played him couldn’t be further from that, hamming it up on award show red carpets and in Funny or Die sketches. That’s what makes some of the best actors, and let’s not forget acting is a huge part of wrestling, despite what some less-successful crossover stars (*cough* Triple H *cough*) would have you believe.

Much has been made, both in WWE and society at large, of millennials’ apathy towards striving for the “brass ring” but Banks is proof positive that young people have the passion and tools to strive for greatness, as LeBron James, another millennial, would put it. How many times have we heard current Superstars such as Daniel Bryan in his book Yes!: My Improbable Journey to the Main Event of WrestleMania, Tyler Breeze on Breaking Ground, and Bo Dallas and Neville on an episode of Table for 3 say that they knew they wanted to be wrestlers since childhood, Banks being one of the most vocal among them. I challenge any baby boomer, Vince McMahon in particular, to accuse WWE Superstars who’ve achieved such goals of being directionless. That goes double for a 23-year-old biracial woman in a sport dominated by middle-aged white men who refuse to pass the torch. The mind boggles at how much more Banks can achieve if this is what she has done only a few short years into her wrestling career.

Banks brings a new kind of cognitive dissonance to wrestling, which has arguably been spearheaded by NXT’s efforts to humanise their performers in vignettes and documentaries such as Breaking Ground that track their journeys to stardom. It can be hard to fathom Banks’ ruthlessness towards her fiercest rivals who are also her closest friends. That she’s able to dish out such vitriol—like telling Bayley she’s worthless and undeserving of her championship chance against Banks at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn—without breaking character (Rollins cracking up at New Day’s antics, I’m looking at you) is a testament to her acting skills and dedication. One of my favourite things about the spectacle of wrestling, though, is when kayfabe is broken and fans get a glimpse into how the business really works, the fun that can exist between the ropes, and the respect competitors have for one another. That’s probably why the Four Horsewomen curtain call at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn and the subsequent deeply personal vignettes surrounding the Iron Man match were so successful: despite the monotonous insistence from main roster commentators, fans want to see wrestlers, particularly women wrestlers, show respect, admiration and love for each other if that’s what they feel. There’s no doubt Banks will continue her heelish antics when given the chance to really show the fabled “casual Raw fan” what she’s made of. The camaraderie between Banks and her fellow wrestlers, however, will get little chance to peek through the main roster iron curtains of kayfabe, other than on social media where she “snatches weaves” with Team B.A.D. and rides segways with New Day.

Yet another thing NXT does right: focussing on a select few Divas like Banks, Charlotte and Lynch, and now Bayley, Bliss, Asuka, Dana Brooke and Nia Jaxx, instead of interchangeable and undefinable “teams” of wrestlers, categorised by race in the case of Team B.A.D. NXT builds their characters up in no-nonsense storylines and short cohesive promos that culminate in 20– to 30–minute showcases, catapulting them to debatably greener pastures only to have them flail, through no fault of their own, with five minutes of meaningless screen time (in the case of the Divas division) on broadcast television.

One can be forgiven for expressing sadness at moving up to the main roster. Banks, defending her tears that made it to the (web) pages of Forbes magazine in a sexist missive about women crying in wrestling, said on Xavier Woods’ YouTube gaming show UpUpDownDown that she has only cried post-match three times, all of which occurred when she was of the belief that she was having her last match in NXT: for her women’s championship against Charlotte after her main roster debut in July, at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn and again at NXT Takeover: Respect.

Banks puts into words what perhaps made fans so emotional about those final matches: NXT Takeover: Brooklyn and Takeover: Respect felt like the end of an era. Banks, again in tears, on WWE 24 NXT Takeover: Brooklyn, said “To come out with all those girls and to put up the four fingers that just kind of wrapped up my whole experience here in NXT and how far I’ve grown [sic], and I’ve grown with them.”

I’m in two minds about Banks’ graduation to the main roster. On one hand, millions more WWE fans than those who were privy to her NXT greatness will get the chance to witness it. On the other, when the Divas Revolution is nothing more than lip service at this point, can the main roster be trusted to give Banks the exposure she deserves? One of her most recent matches against Lynch during the WWE’s European tour made it on to Main Event as the… erm… main event, with Michael Cole calling it “a wrestling clinic every time Becky and Sasha clash.” If that’s the case, then why wasn’t it featured on Raw or a pay-per-view?

Banks’ followed her Four Horsewomen curtain call comments on WWE 24 NXT Takeover: Brooklyn thusly: “When we hugged each other at the end, [Bayley] told me, ‘I don’t want you to go.’ And I told her, ‘I don’t wanna go.’”

I don’t want you to go, either.

Related: Are Divas Finally Being Given a Chance?

Queer New Day.

Elsewhere: [Calling Spots] Issue 19 Pre-Order.

[Calling Spots] Wrestling Merchandise.

[Podcast One] Talk is Jericho: Episode 168—Sasha Banks.

[Stitcher] Sam Roberts’ Wrestling Podcast: Episode 33—Sasha Banks.

[World Wrestling Entertainment] The 10 Greatest Divas Matches of All Time.

[World Wrestling Entertainment] The 10 Best WWE NXT Matches.

[YouTube] Kevin Owens Confronts John Cena: Raw, May 18, 2015.

[Funny Or Die] Bryan Cranston.

[Forbes] WWE’s Future is Gender-Neutral & Filled With Tears.

[YouTube] UpUpDownDown: Sailor Moon With Sasha Banks AKA Boss—Superstar Savepoint.

Images via Paul Cooper, David Gammon, Sasha Banks.

Queer New Day.

new day elow mojo

This article originally appeared in Calling Spots Issue 18. Republished with permission.

For my latest contribution to Calling Spots, check out Issue 19 featuring my cover story on Sasha Banks, “BOSS: The Beginning & the End of an Era”.

Like many of us, I’ve been a wrestling fan since the age of thirteen. So when a family friend revealed he was starting a wrestling company that would begin with a mockumentary about wrestlers I grew up watching on tour in Australia, I jumped at the opportunity to be involved. While I’ve met wrestlers before, this was the first time I got to interact with them for more than 30 seconds in an autograph line and as fellow human beings instead of as demigods.

As a feminist who unpacks gender roles and expectations for a (freelance, part-time, side-job) living, my presence was somewhat of a novelty to the cohort, but hanging out with sports stars working in one of the most masculinity-obsessed forms of entertainment not only appealed to my inner mark but it also served as an anthropological study breaking down just how covertly feminine wrestling actually is. You know, in case the blatant homoeroticism of near-naked muscular, oiled up men grappling with each other’s flesh wasn’t clear.

For example, something you wouldn’t necessarily notice when watching the high definition WWE Network is that wrestlers are covered in stretchmarks. Upon consideration, it isn’t an unlikely phenomenon considering many wrestlers push their bodies past their natural limits, and people who’ve both lost a lot of weight and put weight on receive purple, and then faded white, squiggly lines of war paint for their efforts. With stretchmarks on my lady lumps and humps myself, I previously only associated them with being a woman: we are socialised through magazines, the media and the mirror to believe that stretchmarks are a solely female marker.

Another attribute traditionally seen as feminine but a must amongst men in wrestling is grooming. Over the years, I’ve been witness to an amount of leg shaving, hair straightening, baby lotioning, spray-tanning and eyebrow-threading to rival my own as a fairly high maintenance woman. I’m just a normal person whose looks don’t (or, in a perfect world, shouldn’t) determine my livelihood but pro wrestlers rely on their appearance probably more so than their physical abilities.

After all, the way wrestlers look indicate their success to a certain extent. In a way, professional wrestling is like the gendered polar opposite but looks-based counterpart of the women’s modelling industry. While success in one profession is dependent upon how thin you can get and how prominent your cheekbones are, emerging victorious in the other relies heavily on becoming Bigger, Stronger, Faster (the title of a 2008 documentary about steroid use in sport and American culture as a whole). Different from legitimate sports, though, where athletic ability is the determining factor to success, in wrestling if the powers that be (*cough* Vince McMahon *cough*) don’t feel you can be marketed as a character, it’s the end of the road. As long as you’re marketable, can work the mic and look good (read: big, and that’s where steroids, though technically illegal in WWE as per their Wellness Policy, and prescription drug dependency play a part), you’re in with a chance. As one wrestler told me once upon a time, “we don’t actually have to be strong; we just have to look it.”

Despite this, there are some wrestlers who don’t fit that mould who’ve managed to get themselves over; Daniel Bryan being the biggest underdog success story in recent memory. Dolph Ziggler, Damien Sandow and New Day also come to mind as fan favourites who deviate to varying degrees from the widely accepted archetype of a hypermasculine wrestler.

The team of Kofi Kingston, Big E (formerly Big E Langston) and Xavier Woods, collectively known as New Day, are the ones particularly challenging what it is to be a black tag team today.

Listening to the trio speak on Chris Jericho’s podcast, Talk is Jericho, New Day was its members’ own brainchild, however McMahon was the one who pitched the gimmick of gospel preachers who jovially extol “the power of positivity” because apart from savages, rappers and criminals, what other roles are there for black wrestlers, right?

Originally debuting as babyfaces, which can often be the death knell of many a career trajectory, the decision was made after some months to turn the group heel, and since then E, Kingston and Woods have been responsible for some of the most entertaining and subversive promos, backstage segments and after-match celebrations in WWE in a long time. This is not to mention their in-ring work which has successfully amalgamated the power of Langston, the agility of Kingston and the intellect of Woods to become two-time tag team champions in the less than twelve months since their debut.

Examples include Woods employing the use of a trombone during their entrances and at ringside, the booty shaking that occurs after a win and their appropriation of campy Sinatra classic “New York State of Mind” during SummerSlam weekend. Their acceptance of the #JustKeepDancing social media challenge to raise funds for pediatric cancer saw New Day singing and dancing to “Kiss from a Rose” by Seal, replete with a cameo from Sasha Banks.

Meet Joshua Benton aka JAM! #jemandtheholograms @dragoncon

A post shared by Austin Creed (@xavierwoodsphd) on

Woods is perhaps the most insurgent of the trio, cosplaying at Dragon Con as a gender- (and race-)swapped Jem from Jem and the Holograms, debuting unique and feminine hairstyles such as relaxed locks and a Rufio from Hook-inspired ’do, and calling former WWE Superstar Virgil out for allegedly telling Woods he’d never make it as a wrestler because of his race. (Having played the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase’s manservant and, in essence, his slave, is it any wonder Virgil’s internalised this racism?) He’s also a Brony (a male fan of My Little Pony) and will be the first professional wrestler to get his PhD, a role model for the increasing rates of black men obtaining university degrees.

That New Day can still be over with performances so overtly challenging yet simultaneously so covertly queering the the dominant paradigm in wrestling is a testament not so much to the higher ups willing to push them but to an increasingly diverse legion of fans (the same fans that brought about the #GiveDivasaChance and #DivasRevolution campaigns, no matter what Paige or Stephanie McMahon tell us) willing to cheer them. And not only are they subverting the traditionally masculine archetype of a wrestler, they’re toppling the savage, out of control machismo of the archetype of black men and black wrestlers.

When I asked feminist wrestling critic Jetta Rae to elaborate on recent tweet of hers asserting that New Day “is the answer to wrestling’s toxic masculinity”, she had this to say:

It’s important to note that racism is integral to toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is the assignment of roles based on race: white is purity, black is raw, Asian is effeminate, Hispanic is overly romantic, etc. By challenging the confines of race, you challenge masculinity.”

This is not to discount the fact that New Day still very much subscribes to a fit, strong, straight and cisgender (as far as we know) image of manhood. Kingston has a running gag with Dad of the Year Titus O’Neill as to who’s a better father (which in itself disputes the stereotype of black men as deadbeat baby daddies) while Langston was featured on an episode of Total Divas as a potential paramour for Nattie’s sister Jenny.   

At its core, professional wrestling is a spectacle. Match outcomes are predetermined (going back to the importance of character and appearance as opposed to physical power), and foreign objects such as chairs, tables and barbed wire in the more brutal instances are often employed to further the storyline and, thus, the accentuation of masculinity: those who are able to withstand the most violence win.

That’s why New Day’s #SaveTheTables promos leading into their Night of Champions clash with the Dudley Boyz were so revolutionary. Not only were they expressing disdain for a less PG era in which the Dudleyz revelled in putting their opponents and the odd woman through a table, but they’ve equated WWE’s props with the first Thanksgiving table and the table the Declaration of Independence was written on, making a larger argument about traditional white American masculinity taking precedence over those of other cultures at a time when #BlackLivesMatter has emerged in response to police brutality and racial profiling. (Yes, one half of the Dudleyz is a black man, but D-Von’s position as the getter of tables could be seen as a modern day equivalent of Virgil.) Woods utilised that all important social media to further New Day’s agenda between Raw and SmackDown!, retweeting fans who (presumably) jokingly opined that because of the Dudleyz penchant for breaking tables, they no longer have a dinner table to eat at, further drawing attention to high rates of poverty among black families. As Rae observed, “… New Day’s #SaveTheTables could also be seen as a rejection of a prior model of ultraviole[n]t masculinity.”

While I don’t necessarily believe that violence in the media has a detrimental effect on young minds, there definitely needs to be some education and debunking of masculinity myths to go along with the watching of wrestling, the playing of video games, the consumption of porn, etc. Male viewers need to be made aware that violence and the acquisition of the biggest, most ripped bodies aren’t the be all and end all of modern masculinity, just as young women are becoming accustomed to body image clinics put on by schools, community groups and, increasingly, fashion magazines, the very commodities that are seen to negatively affect self-esteem.

New Day are part of a new wave of wrestlers working within the sport(s entertainment) to challenge these notions. Guys like Joey Ryan, who wrestles in intergender matches on the indies as one half of The World’s Cutest Tag Team with Candice LeRae, parodies the hypermasculine sleaze archetype so successfully that it almost results in a high-camp, feminised version of it, while Max Landis’ Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling YouTube short turned the hypermasculinity of wrestling on its head by genderswapping iconic masculine roles such as John Cena, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Triple H.

New Day is special not only because they dispute toxic masculinity and racism in wrestling but because they’re redefining what it means to be wrestlers.

Related: My Weekend with Wrestlers.

Elsewhere: [Calling Spots] Issue 18 Preview.

[Calling Spots] Issue 19 Pre-Order.

[YouTube] Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling.

Artwork by Elow Mojo.