I wrote about why World Wrestling Entertainment needs a women’s Money in the Bank match. [SBS Zela]
Who’s afraid of all-woman alliances on reality TV? [The Establishment]
Also: On Edith Wharton and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. [Guernica]
I wrote about why World Wrestling Entertainment needs a women’s Money in the Bank match. [SBS Zela]
Who’s afraid of all-woman alliances on reality TV? [The Establishment]
Also: On Edith Wharton and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. [Guernica]
I’m at The Big Smoke asserting that Kim Kardashian is our modern day Marilyn Monroe.
Why famous male wrestlers need to stop being the deciding factors in women’s matches. [The Spectacle of Excess]
*Spoiler alert* Olivia Pope may have killed the man who set her up to be kidnapped but Scandal has missed an opportunity to address her PTSD with therapy. [WaPo]
Why I don’t want my daughter to be a footy fan. [Daily Life]
Road-testing alternative menstrual products. [The Vocal]
The history of cats in bookstores. [Lit Hub]
In praise of the “ugly cry”. [New Republic]
The toxic relationship between masculinity and meat hinges on the “factory farm industry that makes billions of dollars insisting that men are the strongest when they have the most muscle, the least amount of feelings, and ingest the most ‘manly’ protein, like bacon, steak, and sausage.” [The Establishment]
Hillary Clinton said feminism and being pro-life can co-exist. Here’s a reminder of what being pro-life actually means. [Daily Life]
And Jill Filipovic unpacks it in a practical, US-centric sense. [Cosmopolitan]
Melissa Harris-Perry interviews Anita Hill 25 years after testifying that Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her. [Essence]
More feminist goodness at the 95th Down Under Feminists Carnival. [Sacraparental]
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.
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.
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.
Elsewhere: [Calling Spots] Issue 19 Pre-Order.
This article originally appeared in The Tag Rope Issue 6. Republished with permission.
Women’s wrestling has experienced a resurgence of sorts over the past couple of years, arguably initially spearheaded by the popularity of Total Divas. The E! reality show, which aims at giving fans a better look at the lives of eight World Wrestling Entertainment Divas—along with the increasingly positive portrayal of and dedication shown to Divas-in-training in WWE’s developmental brand, NXT—perhaps contributed to the trending of #GiveDivasaChance on social media earlier in the year. The hashtag, along with #WomensWrestling and #DivasRevolution, continues to urge WWE management to give their cohort of women’s wrestlers more than five minutes of match time per three-hour episode of Raw, and furthers the apparent change in the characterisation of Divas as “former fitness models and Playboy Playmates”, as Grantland writer David Shoemaker put it, to the talent athletes they are.
But what exactly is a Diva?
The term surfaced around the late nineties and was officially uttered for the first time in 1999 by Sable, however fan favourite Sunny later claimed that her revolution of the role of women in wrestling meant that she was “The Original Diva”. (Sunny has since defamed the current crop of Divas on social media, saying she’s “never been a fan of womens [sic] wrestling”.) While the word is often used to describe difficult women (read: assertive women who know what they want and refuse to be treated like crap), in this context it is simply WWE’s adjective for their female wrestlers (sorry, “sports entertainers”).
Some of the best-known former Divas, Trish Stratus and Lita, have said multiple times that they don’t identify with the moniker “Diva”, though. Lita told WWE Superstar Chris Jericho on his podcast, Talk is Jericho, that she feels it’s another term for “window dressing” and that—“not to be sexist”—she was always “thinking like a guy” in the ring as opposed to worrying about how hot she looked. Stratus reiterated this notion of a Diva as a “sideshow” term when she spoke to wrestling announcer, Jim Ross, on The Ross Report:
“We get it: you’re beautiful and you’re a woman. Great, now let’s get in the ring. Let’s be athletes.”
Lita and Stratus were instrumental in changing the notion of what it means to be a women’s wrestler. Both wrestled in the first ever one-on-one women’s main event to close Raw in 2004 (not including Lita VS. Stephanie McMahon for the WWE Women’s Championship in 2000 in which, as Lita puts it, they had male “props” including The Rock as special guest referee and McMahon’s on-screen and real-life husband, Triple H, at ringside). Lita also wrestled in WWE’s first ever women’s cage match and was part of the highest rated Raw segment in the show’s then thirteen-year history in 2006. (Let it be known that this segment was marketed as a “live sex celebration” in which Lita was topless but her breasts concealed from view so it probably isn’t an exemplar of gender barriers being broken.)
Come 2004, the WWE Diva Search—a reality competition that took place during Raw and in which wrestling fans could vote and which is apparently returning to WWE programming later this year—was introduced and many of the Divas began posing nude for Playboy in a period that became known more for promoting the Divas’ looks over their in-ring abilities. Former WWE Diva and two-time Playboy cover girl Torrie Wilson made reference to the ubiquity of bikini contests and bra and panties matches she was required to perform in on The Ross Report during this time.
These days, in the “PG-era”, Divas Brie and Nikki Bella, Nattie, Eva Marie, Paige, Trinity and Alicia Fox have their own hour-long reality show, Total Divas. Seeking to capitalise on the 35% female viewership of WWE’s traditional wrestling shows including Raw, SmackDown!, and the myriad of other weekly shows on the WWE’s online, on-demand network, it’s no surprise that Total Divas airs on E!, a channel whose primary audience is 65% female.
Traditional reality TV tropes have been at play on Total Divas, which at times only marginally passes the Bechdel test (at least two named women who speak to each other about something other than men) and casts “bad girl” Eva Marie in the role of the temptress bitch who comes between the other Divas; the other Divas and their men; and the other Divas and their aspirations to climb the wrestling ladder. This season though, the show has increasingly highlighted its stars’ careers amidst the #GiveDivasaChance movement that has evolved into a #DivasRevolution. Eva Marie finally put in the work in the ring; Nattie updated her gimmick from wholesome sweetheart to black-clad dominatrix; and Nikki Bella decided to stay with WWE and “continue to help women conquer this industry”. Total Divas is still reality TV after all, so rote catfights still take pride of place, but at least the women are fighting about their careers and livelihoods and not men as in seasons past.
Maybe because it doesn’t deviate too far from E!’s formula, the mainstream has responded well to Total Divas: its first season averaged 1.3 million viewers in the all-important 18-34 demographic with the highest season premiere of 2013. Due in part to its success, along with the WWE audience’s agitation on social media, the #DivasRevolution is taking steps to elevate women wrestlers from the way they’ve been portrayed for much of the past decade.
In 2013, for example, the Divas tag team match at WrestleMania got cut due to time restraints; the 2014 event’s obligatory women’s match was an invitational battle royal featuring fourteen Divas vying for the sparkly pink butterfly-shaped Diva’s Championship; and this year’s WrestleMania 31 tag team Divas match only went for 6:40 minutes on a four-hour show. As Lita told Stone Cold Steve Austin on his podcast, “It seems like you don’t see a lot of them until it’s a big free for all and you don’t even know what’s going on.” It would stand to reason that if WWE is promoting the Divas to a mainstream audience, they would want to showcase them as much as possible in order to lure those E! viewers over to the larger WWE product.
It seems the company finally cottoned on to that notion with the #DivasRevolution taking place on the July 13th Raw that saw NXT trail blazers Charlotte, Becky Lynch and then-NXT Women’s Champion Sasha Banks dominate the other Divas with their submission moves as the live audience hollered “this is awesome!”, a chant usually reserved for high risk stunts in men’s matches. Since then, WWE has at least paid lip service to the apparent “revolution”, with subsequent Raw and SmackDown!’s featuring multiple Divas matches often spanning numerous segments, a marked improvement on the 30 second Raw tag team fare (is 30 seconds even long enough to get a tag in?!) that sparked #GiveDivasaChance in February. A champion vs. champion match between Nikki Bella and Sasha Banks even technically main evented the final Raw before SummerSlam. (This is not to mention its spot on the card right before Brock Lesnar’s homecoming in Minneapolis and the lack of relevant hype surrounding the match.)
Perhaps the most obvious disconnect between the revolution in theory and in practice can be seen in Sasha Banks and Bayley’s meeting at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn for the brand’s women’s championship in what was the match of the night and maybe even 2015. Stephanie McMahon (whose character thinks of herself as the arbiter of the revolution) made sure to announce that it was the semi-main event while smarks scoffed at WWE’s hypocrisy.
In Lita and Stratus’ heyday women arguably played a more integral role in the product, such as in intergender matches in which women wrestle men. “Intergender matches were some of my favourite matches to be a part of. There’s [sic] just so many elements: sexual elements, comedy elements and you can also be a real badass interacting with the dudes [on a level which] you don’t normally get to interact,” Lita told Ross.
The argument could be made that men wrestling women normalises violence against them. On the other hand, feminism works to promote the idea that all genders are equal so therefore, if a woman can physically match a man (*cough* Charlotte *cough*), then it makes sense that they would compete. The tag team of Joey Ryan and Candice LeRae are an example on this on the indies. In wider society, the abolishment of gender restrictions in combat roles in the military reflects this notion (the actual uptake of women in these roles leaves much to be desired, though).
One of women’s wrestling most influential pioneers is Joanie Laurer, better known as Chyna. She was the first woman to compete in the all-men Royal Rumble match, the first woman to hold a men’s championship and the woman who made it widely acceptable for women to wrestle men. Following her WWE departure in 2001, Laurer’s tumultuous personal life—including a high profile stint in (Celebrity) rehab, an abusive relationship and a sex tape that she parlayed into a porn career—has prevented her from getting the professional recognition she deserves. In an upcoming documentary funded through Kickstarter entitled The Reconstruction of Chyna, Laurer will attempt to tell her side of the story. She’s also undertaking a social media campaign to get inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Total Divas’ reality TV predecessors, such as The Hills, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and The Real Housewives, predictably portray women as dramatic layabouts who are famous for being famous. Though you wouldn’t think it from Total Divas’ past focus on the personal dramas of its cast, female wrestlers are the antithesis of this, putting their bodies on the line whenever they’re given the opportunity to do so. Matches such as Sasha and Bayley’s Takeover clinic prove this. If WWE and Total Divas can look beyond characterising women as eye candy without any discernible motivations and instead focus on healthy competition between women who respect each other but also strive to beat each other (again, as with Takeover’s four horsewomen curtain call), only then can Divas truly be given a chance.
Artwork by Rainmaker Inc.
I’m getting straight back into it in the New Year, with pieces about abuse in Jessica Jones, what World Wrestling Entertainment can learn from Jem & the Holograms‘ flop and why its spate of injuries might be a good thing for other wrestlers. [Bitch Flicks, The Spectacle of Excess, Cageside Seats]
On selfies. [Matter]
Forget the manbun. The latest in men’s hair styling are manbraids. And they’re cultural appropriation. [Ms. Magazine]
Erin Riley kicking goals (mixing metaphors, I know) with her piece on the Chris Gayle incident being a symptom of a much larger problem with sexism in sport. [Daily Life]
There’s been plenty of coverage of Cole Miller’s death by one punch, but what about Indigenous man Trevor Duroux’s death of the same? [New Matilda]
The history of glitter. [Broadly]
The history of toplessness. [Broadly]
And the history of the crystal ball. [Broadly]
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.
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.
Artwork by Elow Mojo.