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.

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.