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.

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: [Hollywood.com] 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.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

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Playboy has a surprisingly positive take on Laverne Cox’s nude photoshoot for Allure (SFW).

Meanwhile, a conservatively idiotic “feminist” lambasts the shoot because it promotes an unrealistic, sexualised and “fake” version of womanhood. (I’m not linking to the website because I don’t want to give them traffic.)

For a nuanced look at reconciling black and trans femininity from the woman herself, check out Laverne’s conversation with bell hooks, below.

Mel Campbell on Anzac Day hysteria and the fallout from Scott McIntyre’s tweets and subsequent firing from SBS. [Spook Magazine]

The rise of emotional male musicians. [Pitchfork]

The face of World Wrestling Entertainment, a company that participates in anti-bullying campaigns, John Cena, who is held up as a role model to children, implicated that a woman prostituted herself because her “pimp” physically abused her. And this is the “PG-era”. [Cageside Seats]

Australia’s outrage over Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran’s executions illustrates this country’s hypocrisy. [The Drum]

I recapped Outback Championship Wrestling’s Anzac Day show with Tyrus.

I’m also speaking to the OCW Heavyweight Champion, Drew Galloway, on the second edition of their podcast.

Image via Allure.

My Weekend with Wrestlers.

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The last thing I expected when I attended a cousin’s wedding a few weeks ago was to reconnect with a family friend/fellow wrestling fan and be swept up in a two-week whirlwind of wrestling mania.

But that’s what happened to me and I’ve been reeling ever since.

A bit of background: I’ve been a die hard wrestling fan for twelve years, and even though I can’t afford/my landlord won’t let me have cable television to watch weekly episodes of WWE Raw, SmackDown!, Main Event and NXT, I try to stay abreast of what’s happening in the world of professional wrestling, and I never miss a WrestleMania. (For the uninitiated, WrestleMania is a yearly wrestling spectacular that brings the biggest stars [The Rock, Hulk Hogan, John Cena, The Undertaker, etc.] together in some of the most memorable moments [Hogan lifting the over-500 pound Andre the Giant in a scoop slam at WrestleMania III, The Undertaker’s undefeated streak, Edge spearing Jeff Hardy from 20 feet above the ring at WrestleMania X-Seven, the Money in the Bank ladder matches] in wrestling history.) One of my grandma’s close friends, Zoran—a huge wrestling fan and promoter who is married to the cousin of a WWE Superstar—and I have been introduced once or twice before and bonded over our mutual interest, but that was really the extent of our relationship.

So when we ran into each other at the aforementioned wedding, you can bet wrestling was on the conversational agenda. My answer when asked if I was still into it was, “Hell yeah, I just met Mick Foley last week!” Zoran revealed he was actually the photographer for Foley’s show, and that they went out to dinner prior. If only that wedding had’ve been the week before…

Zoran also told me that as of the following week he was working on a film project with a bunch of former WWE stars: Nick “Eugene” Dinsmore, Orlando Jordan, Gene Snitsky, “The Masterpiece” Chris Masters, Carlito and Rob Conway, as well as Ohio Valley Wrestling star, Mohamad Ali Vaez, and that I should come out for dinner with them later that week. He didn’t have to ask me twice.

In the days leading up to the dinner, I contracted a stomach bug. Great! After a few days off work, I mustered up enough physical strength to trek to Prahan for dinner to sip lemonade while everyone else indulged in a three-course meal. There I spoke a little with Nick, Orlando, Rob and some non-wrestling company including Zoran’s lovely wife Carrie, but mainly kept quiet as I pondered Zoran’s previous offer to be involved in the film as a wrestling valet. Or, a piece of eye candy that escorts wrestlers to the ring, for those not in the know.

As soon as I was dropped home by Zoran and Nick and stepped in my front door I decided to do it. After all, it’s not every day you can say you spent the evening at dinner with some of the world’s most famous wrestlers, let alone engage in a working relationship with them!

At a barbeque a few days later, I got to know some of the wrestlers a bit better, namely Rob and Ali, met some more people involved in the film, and was privy to bits and pieces of the film’s storyline. It was there that my feminist tendencies were revealed in conversation (something I’m still trying to reconcile with my wrestling fandom: watch this space), and were continuously brought up throughout the rest of my time with them. While many people tend to tune out when the topic of gender equality comes up, I think most of the wrestlers really got a kick out of being around a feminist; something I don’t imagine happens very often.

It was also at the barbeque that Zoran invited me to go up to my hometown, Bendigo, for the filming and some club-hopping with the group the following weekend.

It’d been years since I’d experienced the insular nightlife of Bendigo, and I was feeling some trepidation about it. But, again, when else am I ever going to hang out with wrestlers I grew up watching in the town I grew up in? Worlds collide…

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So, on a Friday night after work, I took the train up, dumped my stuff at my mum’s house, and headed out to meet the group. We hit up a couple of relatively dead bars before ending up on the top floor of Huha, where people over 21 and music with words and a decipherable beat go to die. I gravitated towards Zoran, Carrie, their friend Merrin and the two guys who were filming the late-night shenanigans, Corey and Sam, as they seemed to have a similar attitude as me to the atmosphere of the club.

It wasn’t a total loss, though; I got a free drink, saw a childhood friend, got to wear an outfit I’d been wanting to debut for months, and had a D&M about U.S. politics, feminism and Tupac with Chris, who I had yet to really get to know.

Me and a couple of others eventually convinced the group to gravitate downstairs where they were actually playing good music. By that point we’d lost Zoran, Ali, Corey and Sam and their cameras, and Nick.  I had a dance to a few songs, but by about 2:30am with no end in sight for the rest of the revelers, I called it a night and went home.

The next day, after barely any sleep from ruminating about the surreality of the previous night, I caught a ride with Corey to the location of that day’s filming, a property out whoop-whoop. We stood around in the sun for a few hours while production managers, investors, the film crew and hired help set up for that night’s scene, until it was time to go and pick up the wrestlers and their food.

The rest of the day was kind of a blur, as I became increasingly anxious about my cameo appearance in the project. What started out as a simple valet job that required next to no acting transformed into my character (check me out, I have a character!) needing a reason to suddenly appear on the scene as a valet. At one point the idea of me physically interfering in Chris and Carlito’s match and getting spanked for my efforts (see how troublingly sexist wrestling can be?) was brought up, but was scrapped due to my inexperience in and around the ring and the likelihood that I could get hurt.

We shot a few takes of my eventual cameo in the hot early evening sun and it was over in less than twenty minutes, so I worked myself up over nothing. What I really should have been focusing on, though, was navigating my through the ring ropes in heels, which I’ve never done before. Hell, I’ve never even been in a wrestling ring, period.

Nick, Gene, Chris and Carlito (who I ended up escorting as a tag team) were super helpful and advised me of what I needed to do and when. I did experience some “displacement” (Chris and Carlito’s take on anxiety, from what I could understand of their sophomoric antics) in the lead up, but I’d like to think that dissipated once I clambered into the back of a ute (our mode of transportation to the ring in the middle of a dusty paddock), struggled my way between the bottom and middle ropes (according to wrestling “etiquette”, that’s the way women have to get into the ring, even if they’re too tall and wearing too high a pair of heels, with the exception of Stacy Keibler) and self-consciously cheered for my team on the outside of the ring. Only time—and the footage—will tell, I guess…

After the match we could relax, so I sat outside on the patio and chatted to Chris, Carlito, Ali and Gene, whom I probably connected with the most out of all the guys, and I got a foot massage (you can find a photo of the aftermath of said massage on Gene’s Twitter…) and a Masterlock as part of my initiation (see video above). When the filming had finished and everyone was covered in all manner of wrestling-in-a-paddock by-products (sweat, baby oil or “physique enhancer”, dirt) and in need of some serious “isolation” (another Chris ’n’ Carlito coined term for relaxation), we all went outside to take some photos in the ring to commemorate what is sure to be one of the most memorable nights of my life: the night I became a wrestling valet.

Stay tuned for more wrestling shenanigans as I attempt to unpack the culture of masculinity in the sport (entertainment) and how a feminist can really call herself a wrestling fan.

Elsewhere: [YouTube] SnitskyTV.

Images via Facebook.

Chris Benoit Double Murder–Suicide: Four Years On.

A few months ago, I blogged about the disgrace of Charlie Sheen and John Galliano, and how Two & a Half Men  and Christian Dior were right to fire the men and disassociate their brands from them.

In that post, I also wrote about professional wrestler Chris Benoit who, four years ago today, committed a double murder–suicide, strangling his wife, Nancy, and their 7-year-old son using chokeholds, then killing himself using a weight machine.

At the time, the mainstream media had a field day with the tragedy, especially when it was speculated that steroids and their side-effects—specifically ’roid rage—played a role. Outspoken, right-winged commentators like Nancy Grace and Bill O’Reilly had no shortage of perspectives on the case, and used “expert” witnesses (some credible, like fellow World Wrestling Entertainment stars John Cena, Chris Jericho, and Bret Hart, and some not-so-credible, like former WWE wrestlers Marc Mero and Steve Blackman, who both had axes to grind with the company) and opinions to bolster their arguments that pro-wrestling is nothing but a homoerotic display of extreme violence and degradation of all that is good and right in American culture by a bunch of ’roided-up, “fake” performers.

Books such as Benoit: Wrestling with the Horror that Destroyed a Family & Crippled a Sport  by Steven Johnson, Heath McCoy, Irv Muchnick and Greg Oliver and Matthew Randazzo V’s Ring of Hell: The Story of Chris Benoit & the Fall of the Pro Wrestling Industry have examined that case and divided fans on the topic.

When I originally wrote the article below for a university paper, then subsequently re-edited it for a wrestling website, I struggled to reconcile the “family man” and 20-year pro wrestling veteran that fans and co-workers loved, with the monster who orchestrated a horror weekend involving domestic violence and obvious mental illness on Benoit’s part.

I have to admit I’m still biased, and still don’t feel as badly about Benoit as I should and do feel about someone like Charlie Sheen. As I wrote in “Minus Two & a Half Men:

“On the one hand, I felt his legacy as one of the best professional wrestlers ever to grace the squared circle shouldn’t be forgotten, however, Benoit took three lives…, sullied the reputation of professional wrestling and sparked a debate on steroids and drug testing that raged for years; the smoke of which still lingers today…

“Benoit was obviously seriously mentally ill; the (not-so-) funny thing is, his friends, family and co-workers never picked up on it.”

So, without further ado, here is a version of the article I mentioned above, originally written in 2008, with regular edits thereafter. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Over the weekend of 23rd and 24th June, 2007, the world of professional wrestling was rocked by the double murder-suicide involving World Wrestling Entertainment Superstar Chris Benoit, his wife and seven-year-old son.

Benoit was scheduled to appear at a WWE pay-per-view on the night of Sunday, 24th June, but had to return home abruptly a few days earlier, claiming that his wife, Nancy, and son, Daniel, had food poisoning. Suspicions arose when Benoit sent five odd text messages to co-workers and friends, repeatedly stating his “physical address”, which door to his suburban home was unlocked, and where his dogs were tied up. When repeated phone calls from the WWE went unanswered, and inquiries into local hospitals in the Atlanta, Georgia, area proved fruitless, WWE contacted authorities, who had a neighbour search the home, finding the bodies of Nancy, 43, and Daniel, 7. The body of Benoit, 40, was found hanging from a weight machine in his home gym.

At first it was thought the gruesome body count was the result of a triple-murder, and WWE ran a special three-hour tribute edition of their flagship show Raw, dedicated to the memory of Benoit. However, about 26 hours later news broke that it was actually Benoit who killed his family and himself. All mentions of his name were banned from WWE programming, and repeats of the tribute show were cancelled in international markets.

Doug Frattallone, a television producer, reporter and anchor, and author of the “Professor Wrestling” column on The Pittsburgh Channel website, says, “If there’s police tape around the home of one of your employees—and your employee and his family is inside, deceased—that might be a signal that there’s foul play. It’s certainly not the time to immortalise someone [with a tribute show]”.

The media, particularly in the US, had a field day with this story as more aspects of the crime came to light. Bad press has surrounded sports entertainment pretty much since its inception, and has only increased as the juggernaut that is WWE becomes more popular on a global scale. For example, when the Chris Benoit tragedy was revealed, US news programs, such as FOX’s controversial OReily Factor, were quick to point out that four prominent professional wrestlers had died since the book Wrestling Babylon by Irv Muchnick was published in 2007, adding to the industry’s negative profile. In the tome, Muchnick reveals 2002 and 2006 studies that focused on the premature deaths of 62 power lifters and 3, 850 National Football League (NFL) players respectively, and how the bigger men and men suspected of using steroids died at rates much higher than their non-drug-using counterparts. These findings lend themselves to the theory that Benoit committed his crimes while experiencing “’roid rage”, which I will return to later. But, Muchnick says, little attention has been paid to “the mortality rate of pro wrestlers…” because “…they’re just, you know, wrestlers”, and “are not actual human beings”.

Although not a wrestling fan at the time of Owen Hart’s death, a fatal accident that occurred during a pay-per-view where Hart was involved in an entrance via a cable from the rafters, I can only imagine the bad press generated at that time. And at the end of 2005, Eddie Guerrero, a second-generation wrestler and one of Benoit’s best friends, died of heart failure resulting from heavy drug use earlier in the wrestler’s life. This death didn’t cause as much controversy as Hart’s and Benoit’s (The Los Angeles Times newspaper dedicated almost ninety times as much info on Benoit as it did on Guerrero’s death), however there was some debate over drug use in sports entertainment once the toxicology report was released. WWE have overhauled their Wellness Policy, in which wrestlers are monitored on and penalised for drug use more stringently.

Kevin McElvaney, Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine and WrestleZone.com columnist, shares his thoughts on the Wellness Policy:

“Chris Benoit was obviously either allowed to ‘slip through the cracks’ or somehow circumvent the Wellness Policy through a loophole or with a cheating device… There was a recent change implemented in the Wellness Policy which addresses the possibility of cheating in urine tests. Wrestlers must now lift their shirts and pull their pants down to their knees while giving urine samples, while a representative of the testing team observes. Some people were probably using urine filtration devices to produce clean samples, and it’s possible that Chris Benoit did the same thing… One problem with the… policy—at least as of June 2007—was that doctors notes excused plenty of drug abuses that would otherwise have been punished…”

Fellow WrestleZone.com reporter Keelan Balderson echoes McElvaney’s concerns on the legitimacy of the program:

“…There are a few major loopholes that wouldn’t be allowed in the Olympics, for example… If you have a legitimate doctor’s prescription for a substance… it’s allowed to slide”.

Benoit had a doctor’s prescription, from the corrupt Dr. Philip Astin, who was charged with 175 counts of illegally prescribing drugs to Benoit and others, and has been sentenced to ten years imprisonment.

When reading the many farewell messages on the websites of Benoit’s peers and fellow wrestlers at the time the news broke, it’s clear he and his family’s deaths were hard to fathom. Former WWE Champion and current commentator for the SmackDown! Brand, Booker T, said on Houston, Texas, news program KHOU:

“I feel like the human life is a delicate piece of equipment and everyone has their breaking point. We don’t know what his breaking point was… We’re all human. I just think it was a huge malfunction and whatever it was, we may never know”.

Controversial former WWE Superstar Bret Hart, brother of the late Owen Hart, was interviewed extensively in the wake of the tragedy, saying Benoit was a locker-room leader and never expressed any signs that could have signified the events that occurred. “It knocked you off your feet the second you heard it…”, Hart said, “I can’t imagine Chris killing his son…”. In fact, Hart revealed that as a child, Benoit “reminded me of my own little son…”

Rob Van Dam, a former WWE Superstar who is known for being outspoken, holds Benoit in the highest esteem:

“Chris was truly a role model’s role model. You simply had to respect him and admire his focus and unmatched discipline. If I ever got asked a question about who I looked up to the most in the business… it’s Chris Benoit—in the ring and in the dressing room and with his family”.

However, there are others who view Benoit’s actions as unthinkable. Former WWE Diva Victoria, who chose to vent her feelings on MySpace, said the murder-suicide was “selfish” and “hurtful”, fearing that the high profile of Benoit “glamorises the situation”.

And of course there’s the official statements from WWE and Vince McMahon (whose WWE character and alter-ego “Mr. McMahon” was involved in a murder angle in the weeks leading up to Benoit’s death, which was immediately abolished in light of the tragedy) who appeared on US morning show Today, and his wife and WWE CEO Linda McMahon on Good Morning America. In Vince’s interview, he said that Benoit doesn’t represent what the WWE is about (although when he was alive, many people in the company, wrestling insiders and wrestling fans would say that Benoit was exactly what the WWE was about, or should be about), and that there was “no way of telling that this man was a monster”.

The WWE knows how smart their fans are in terms of knowing what goes on outside the ring, so why not incorporate some of that into the product? Chris Benoit will never be mentioned on or in WWE programming and publications again. However, to my knowledge Benoit has been mentioned twice on WWE programming since his demise [up to May 2008]: once in an onscreen address from Chairman McMahon the night after the Raw tribute show aired, saying that references to their disgraced employee will cease immediately, and during Ric Flair’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech (which has been edited out of the forthcoming WrestleMania XXIV DVD, on which the ceremony is a bonus feature). Due to the sensitive nature of the crimes it’s obvious why they haven’t been used to bolster the product.

Many are wondering what drove Benoit to murder his wife and child and take his own life over the span of three days. (Nancy was killed on Friday 22nd June, Daniel on Saturday 23rd June and finally, Benoit on Sunday 24th June, according to medical reports.) Much speculation revolved around “’roid rage”; violence stemming from the use of steroids. However, the rage usually only occurs for a few minutes after taking the drug, and with the murders taking place over three days, ’roid rage seems unlikely. Balderson says, “…There have been no studies that prove it even exists and on top of this there was method in Benoit’s actions—you can’t kill your wife, son and yourself in one quick burst of rage”. Heath McCoy, writing in Benoit: Wrestling with the Horror that Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport, agrees: “… there was much about the incident that indicated deliberation, not rage”. Contributing doctors on the case revealed that withdrawal from steroids does cause bouts of severe depression, fatigue and mood swings, which seems a more likely scenario. But the abundance of steroids found in Benoit’s possession (Dr. Astin provided the wrestler with ten months worth of steroids every few weeks), isn’t evidence to support withdrawals. Though, “to be safe, I think steroids should be treated as the cause of the problem, but so should concussions, mental health, and personal problems,” says McElvaney.

The factors in Benoit’s life mentioned above may have contributed to the tragedy. Benoit suffered a broken neck eleven years ago, and if he was still feeling the effects of the injury, it could have impacted tremendously on his emotional and physical wellbeing. The travelling involved with being a WWE Superstar results in being away from home for long periods of time, which can take a toll on personal relationships. Reports surfaced that Benoit and his wife Nancy fought constantly for the wellbeing of Daniel who, it was alleged, had Fragile X syndrome, a form of inherited developmental delay that can be accompanied by growth problems (Benoit had apparently been injecting his son with Human Growth Hormone [HGH] in an attempt to counteract that) and autism. Benoit may have transferred his paranoia about his own size onto his son. It took the wrestler years to break into the mainstream American market because he was “such a small man”. Bret Hart says when he met Benoit as a teen, he “remembers him looking closer to nine or ten”. Balderson explains:

“I think all smaller wrestlers deep down feel that they need to be bigger to make it [in the WWE] because that’s how Vince [McMahon] likes it… Vince continues to push wrestlers… because of their size [as opposed to actual wrestling talent], so there is an ideology that to make it in this industry you have to be big, or at least ripped for your size.”

Which Benoit was. McElvaney goes on:

“…Chris was self-conscious about his own size and, apparently, insecure about Daniel’s size. The latter is completely unjustifiable, to me. I think the fact that Chris Benoit injected his son with HGH affects my opinion of him far more than the fact that he, himself, used steroids.”

Daniel’s condition had been pretty well concealed, as McMahon, Benoit’s closest friends, and even Nancy’s parents were not aware of it (they deny that their grandson suffered from Fragile X). As stated earlier, grief over the death of friend Eddie Guerrero may have been a contributing factor to the killings, or at least Benoit’s state of mind. Greg Oliver, another author of the book Benoit, was in contact with the wrestler at the time of Guerrero’s death:

“‘… I do not believe that I will ever find someone that I will bond with and be able to understand and be understood as I was with Eddie… My wife Nancy bought me a diary and I have started to write letters to Eddie…’”

Said diary was not found by the authorities.

Also, it surfaced that Nancy filed for divorce and obtained a restraining order against her husband in 2003, signaling that perhaps domestic violence was an occurrence in the marriage. (The divorce petition and restraining order were later dropped.) It had also been speculated that Benoit was to be demoted in the WWE. Just weeks before the tragedy, it was reported on many wrestling news websites (not WWE.com) that the WWE creative team didn’t feel Benoit had a strong enough on-screen persona or microphone skills to be a top Superstar or champion. However, the pay-per-view that Benoit missed the Sunday that he died was the day that he would once again be a World Champion. Chris Jericho weighed in on this at the time on Nancy Grace:

“… He was about to become the ECW Champion… ECW is more with some younger guys that are just learning, and Chris was a great trainer and so well respected, they wanted him to be kind of more of a trainer to some of these younger guys… So to move Chris to ECW, Chris would not see that as a demotion”.

His other stint as World Heavyweight Champion was at WrestleMania 20 in 2004, where Daniel and Nancy came into the ring to celebrate with Benoit. “… A hundred years from now, at WrestleMania 120, they’ll look back and see [that] Chris Benoit made Triple H tap out at Madison Square Garden…”, Benoit has said. No, they won’t. McCoy believes what Benoit did “to drag it [wrestling] down and scandalise it in the eyes of the public would have shamed [Benoit] to the core”.

Once again, WWE’s decision to pull all mentions of Chris Benoit from their product was the socially responsible and ethical thing to do. “Future generations will never know what a great performer he was, and that’s a shame,” says Oliver. “He epitomised what professional wrestling could and should be: hard-hitting, dramatic, serious action between high-calibre, exciting athletes”.

“We can… never forget or forgive these horrible acts… And that overshadows everything else in his life. But you can’t tell the story of pro wrestling without talking about Chris Benoit,” says Jericho.

Much like you can’t tell the story of the history of the world without taking the bad with the good. And, if turning on the nightly news is anything to go by, there’s still a lot of bad.

*

Three years after I wrote this article (with some edits I made just now), my feelings have changed somewhat. But if reading the copious amounts of literature on the subject of Benoit and questionable behaviour in sports entertainment (some of which I’ve mentioned here and, if you have any interest in this topic whatsoever, I advise you pick up. Perhaps I could even lend you a copy ;)), professional wrestling companies aren’t completely innocent in all this. One of the sections I edited out of the piece for publication on The Scarlett Woman was about wrestling legend Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka who, in 1983 after a domestic violence incident, was suspected of murdering his girlfriend. Yet he still appears frequently on WWE television as one of the greatest high-flying wrestlers of all time. I guess it goes to show that domestic violence, drug use and all manner of other crimes are passable in the entertainment industry (sorry to bring his name up again, but Charlie Sheen comes to mind), just as long as you’re not found guilty of murder. Then you’re really done for.

Related: Minus Two & a Half Men.

Elsewhere: [WTAE Pittsburgh’s Channel 4] Homepage.

[WrestleZone] Homepage.

[MySpace] TNA Knockout Tara AKA WWE Victoria (TNA Knockout Tara)’s Page.

Image via Who’s Dated Who.