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March 14, 2010

Feminism and Pro Wrestling

Ms. Cewsh: Greetings muffins, and welcome to a special Sunday Supplement. Usually I come out and give you some fluff about web stats or bad fan-art. Today, I'm bringing you a serious essay on the difficulties of being a feminist and a wrestling fan. This is a topic that's very near to my heart. If you're here for jokes, boobs, or to leave comments about how "women spelled backwards is kitchen", move on now.

Women are a huge part of the wrestling business, both as performers and as fans. You doubt me? Statistics of show that the split between male and female viewers isn't as great as you think. 39% of people viewing are women. That's more than 1/3. I am not an anomaly.

This is also not one of those, "I'm not like other girls; I'm special because I like boy things like WWE and video games and not being a bitch!" posts. Posts like those only serve to further the internalized misogyny that we fight against, by villainizing "girl-things” and idolizing “boy-things”. This leads to the continuation of dated gender roles and stereotypes. This is a post about the difficulties facing feminists, male and female, supporting an institution that still relies heavily on sexism and misogyny for ratings or, worse, laughs.

Misogyny in wrestling is so disappointing, not only because it’s 2010 and we should be beyond such petty prejudices, but because the Women’s Championship is one of the oldest titles with a long, rich history. In the 1930s, when most local promotions didn't employ women, or only employed them as valets, Mildred Burke broke molds, first wrestling men and then by beating Clara Mortenson for her first championship.

Total Badass.

After her husband, Billy Wolfe, joined the NWA in 1949, Burke and the other 30 women Wolfe employed, became available to all of the promoters in the NWA. Burke's happiness with the NWA would be short-lived, as she and Wolfe split in 1952 and she found herself frozen out of the company. Rather than give up, Burke created her own women's promotion, which sadly went bankrupt after Wolfe reneged on their agreement and started his own women's company that quickly undercut what Burke could pay her wrestlers. Wolfe declared himself the booker of Burke's company. Despite women not being allowed in NWA conferences, she showed up at the 1953 convention and sat in the lobby, petitioning for Wolfe to return her company to her. Her petition went unanswered, but her wrestler's stayed loyal to her. Burke opened the World Women's Wrestling Association, and continued to market herself as the NWA Women's Champion, until her retirement.

Not only responsible for her own advancement in the industry, we also have Mildred Burke for Lillian Ellison. Ellison, best known as the The Fabulous Moolah, had been a wrestling fan, but it wasn't until she saw Burke wrestling in Columbia, South Carolina that, “[the matches] began to mean much more to me." At the age of 15, she went to work for Wolfe. She quickly left him, however, because of his penchant for pressing wrestlers into sexual relationships in exchange for better spots.

She then signed with Jack Pfeffer, who gave her a slave girl gimmick. Later, she was made the valet of “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. Again, this partnership did not last because Moolah refused to go along with the sexual relationships that were par for the course of the time. In 1955, Moolah began working for Vince McMahon Sr's Capitol Wrestling Corporation. Less than a year later, she earned her first championship by defeating Judy Grable in a battle-royal. The World Women's Championship shares a lineage with the NWA World Women's Championship. Like Burke before her, Moolah was not recognized as the NWA Women's Champion because she had spurned Wolfe in her earlier career. Despite protests, Moolah held the championship for more than ten years.

Moolah remained in the business for another 40 years, as a trainer to women like Wendi Richter and Judy Grable, and as a wrestling talent. Her professional accolades are numerous, including the longest women's title reign of “28 years”. She was the first female captain at the inaugural Survivor Series. She was the first woman inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame.


I could list accomplishments of groundbreaking women's wrestlers all day, but the question is, how did we get from there to here? Granted, we have come a long way as a society in the past 50-70 years. It's no longer acceptable to intimidate our employees into having a sexual relationship with us. Or rape them, or pimp them out. The majority of people no longer believe women are lesser than men, or that they are incapable of working outside of the home, or that they exist only for sexual purposes. Yet, why do we treat the current women's wrestlers as lesser athletes than we did 50 years ago?

Valets, as we've seen, date back to the earliest days of wrestling. It's shameful to use women as voiceless eye candy. But when did we start treating our wrestlers themselves as sexed-up sideshows? When did we start referring to women's matches as “piss breaks”? Unfortunately, the blame needs to be laid on Vincent K. McMahon's shoulders. Sports Entertainment, as a concept, means appealing to the 18 – 30 year old male market. This market has historically found the degradation of women to be entertainment. WWE has never appealed to this market more than 1998 -2001.

The current brand of misogyny actually started in 1996 with Tammy Lynn Sytch. Sytch joined the WWE in 1994, first as a segment commentator, then as Sunny, manager of the Bodydonnas. She was far from the first female manager, but she was the first to be seriously sexualized. WWE acknowledges her as the first Diva, though the phrase was coined by Sable in 1999. Diva is a term originally derived from the Italian noun for a female deity, but the word has gained a very negative connotation on par with “prima donna” for an egotistical, unreasonable, irritable, and vain woman. Because of Sunny's popularity, such managers as Marlena, (Terri Runnels,) and Sable, (Rena Mero,) were brought in. They too were hyper sexualized with Marlena suggestively smoking cigars at ringside and Sable known for her tight leather catsuits. Further showing the company's opinion of the women, Raw Magazine began to feature monthly spreads of the managers semi-nude and in provocative poses.

At this point, Chyna was brought in to be the antithesis of the Divas. She was brought in initially to beat Marlena, before moving on to being Triple H's bodyguard. Some consider her a strong, positive role model for women of the day. I disagree, because by marketing Chyna as a strong woman who could compete with the men, it caused further distance between the “divas” and the male wrestlers. Chyna rarely competed with the women, distancing herself from them and the burgeoning division. Again, this only serves to reinforces the idea that to be a strong woman, you must be seen as “one of the guys”.

Through 1998 and 1999, several more women were added to the roster. In addition to this and Sable's popularity, (following her abused wife gimmick with real life husband Marc Mero, see my Wrestlemania 14 review for why this is damaging,) the company decided to reinstate the Women's title. Unfortunately, Sable, Sunny, and many of the other women were not trained wrestlers. This led to an influx of bikini and and evening gown matches, to highlight Sable without forcing her to take bumps. By having glorified models compete with actual wrestlers, it did nothing more than hurt the credibility of the athletes.

In this year, the tradition of Divas appearing in Playboy was born, a terrible tradition that continued for nearly a decade. WWF continued capitalizing on her popularity by having Sable appeared on the cover in 1999. Sable's rise led to pushes for several other Divas, including a renewed push for Chyna. She too was given a more sexual look and became the second woman to appear on the cover of Playboy. However, she also became the first woman to win a “man's” title, winning the IC title off Jeff Jarrett at No Mercy 1999. Of course, it was in a Good Housekeeping match, which relied entirely on kitchen implements as weapons.

Not Shown: Apron.

The new millennium also saw an influx in new talent. Lita, Trish Stratus, and Molly Holly all debuted within a few months. These three women would lay eventually lay a positive ground work for the division after the Attitude Era. While Trish is remembered as the greatest women's wrestler of our era, let's not forget that she was initially hired as a fitness model with no wrestling experience. She debuted as the manager of T & A. She also entered into one of the worst storylines in history, where she played Vince's mistress. The storyline eventually culminated in Trish being stripped down to her underwear and forced to bark like a dog. If I have to explain to you why this is misogynistic, you need to leave.

Then end of the Attitude Era did little to change the attitudes towards women in the company. WWE began hiring new Divas such as former Nitro Girl, Stacey Keibler, and fitness model Torrie Wilson. They searched local modeling agencies, and instituted the Divas Search. They also brought in legitimate wrestlers, Gail Kim, Jazz, and Victoria. (Victoria actually initially debuted in 2000 as one of the Godfather's hos, [I need a separate, three-page essay on THAT gimmick,] but she was only on screen for two months before being sent back to developmental.) Trish was sent to development and became an accomplished wrestler, bridging the gap between the two factions.

This led to the “model” divas participating in pillow fights, bra and panties matches, and bikini contests, while the “wrestler” divas began using a more physical style, participating in the first ever women's steel cage match, street fights, hardcore matches, and tables matches. The division couldn't be taken seriously. It's also difficult to take your champion seriously when she's named “Babe of the Year.”

There are more examples than I could ever name, from 1996 to 2005. Not just WWE, but everything that occurred in ECW. Fun fact, I don't watch any of the old shows because “I'll take 'em both, I'm hardcore!” enrages me so much.

Also the Nitro Girls, and the Miss TNA contest. I mostly watch WWE, and they are the ones whose title can be traced all the way back, so they're whom I've focused on. It's not untrue that “sex sells”, and it's difficult to blame anyone for buying it. The blame lays squarely on the shoulders of the writers who should have risen above the “easy” sell. In the last four years, WWE and TNA have made efforts, but is it too little, too late?

In WWE, the majority of the old guard have retired, while more serious wrestlers have been hired. There are exceptions, *cough*KellyKelly*cough*, but for the most part women like Mickey, Beth, Natalya, and Michelle McCool are hired both for their skill AND their appearances. They are the new faces of the division. I don't necessarily see a problem with hiring attractive people, male or female, for a televised show that is entertainment and sport. But they need to have skills to back that up.

Beth is being pushed as our generation's Chyna, but in a way that doesn't exclude the other women. She became the second ever woman to enter a Royal Rumble, eliminating the Great Khali in the process. She continues to wrestle in her division, beating and being beaten by other Divas. If Beth > Khali and Mickey > Beth, then Mickey > Khali. This is a formula that Chyna never got.

WWE's women are also benefiting from the switch to PG. It's easy to have performers covered up when you can't do strip poker anymore. That's not to say WWE is beyond reproach. Extreme Strip Poker was only in 2006. Maria posed for Playboy in 2008. There was a pillow fight two weeks ago on Raw. But I do feel they're making steps forward. It may be two forward, one back, but it's better than we've been getting.

TNA, however, took several steps forward, only to stop and drive a car in the opposite direction. TNA, (whose name is an issue in itself,) looked at the landscape and saw a lack. They set out to make a serious and legitimate women's division. The kind of place where there wouldn't be bra and panties matches. And it WORKED.

In 2007, the Knockout Division debuted. It was built around Gail Kim, whom WWE let go in 2004. Jacqueline, Christy Hemme, and Roxxi Laveaux were also initially brought in. Gail was named the first champion after a gauntlet match. Around this time, Angelina Love, Awesome Kong, ODB, and Velvet Sky were brought in.

The Knockouts were always marketed as equal to the male wrestlers, and except for the Beautiful People, the wrestlers were not portrayed as sexual. Initially the Beautiful People were heels who simply believed that attractive people were more deserving than ugly people, however their characters quickly became sexual teases. (See Bound for Glory 2009.) Because of the caliber of wrestlers in the division and the company's push of them, Knockout segments began to earn the highest ratings on the shows. This culminated on July 31, 2008 where TNA put the Knockouts' match on as the main event.

Some Of The Greatest Matches In TNA History.

The division started to implode, however, when Gail left the company in August 2008. Kong remained a huge draw, but they had no credible faces to face her. The company had begun signing anyone who was available, including a woman they actually named Moose Knuckles, and began to drift away from the original concept of the division. A Knockouts' DVD was released, marketed as “the TNA DVD release every red-blooded male has been waiting for” and complete with “sexy video shoots”. Adding to the insult, the cover featured a non-wrestler character, boxing.

The booking started to take seriously bad turns. Kong became a member of the Kongtourage, a blatantly racist stable comprised of all of the people of color in the division. ODB held a “One Night with ODB” contest, setting off a several month storyline about her abusive relationship with Cody Deener. Angelina Love was fired for a visa issue and Lacey Von Erich, daughter of a famous wrestling family, but not known for her own skills, was hired to take her place in the Beautiful People. An already spread too thin division was further stretched when a tag title was added.

Unsurprisingly, the Knockouts' rating started to decline. TNA cranked up the sex appeal to try to compensate. When WWE broke ties with Playboy, TNA jumped on the opening and Tracy Brooks filmed a spread. It was never published in the magazine, but did appear on the Playboy site. Survivor's Jenna Morasca debuted, in an attempt to draw in additional viewers. On the biggest show in TNA's history, not only were we treated to the Knockout Champions bare bottom, we also got a three hour strip-poker segment.

In the last few months, Alissa Flash, Awesome Kong, Roxxi, and Traci Brooks have been released. In their place, TNA debuted Chelsea, a valet who doesn't speak unless she's asking her Desmond Wolfe to bring her some diamonds. Because, “what Chelsea wants, Chelsea gets.”

I cannot begin to comprehend how a division that started out so promising can be reduced to this. I cannot comprehend how a company owned by a woman can allow this. TNA is clearly aiming for the 18-30 year old audience that WWE is no longer catering to, but can this still be what men want to see? The women have two titles, and yet they didn't have a single match on the last pay-per-view. When they were strong, capable fighters, they were main eventing.

As feminists, we must protest this treatment of women. Support the steps forward, boycott the steps back. Change the channel from bra and panties matches or strip-poker. Do not buy DVDs that are nothing but lingerie modeling, or Playboy spreads, or snowglobes with pillowfight scenes inside, even if they are oddly cute. Support the women for wrestling. Speak up on forums and let it be known that this isn't a boys club anymore. Women are here. They're running your companies. They're watching the shows. Why aren't they being respected?

Avoid This.


Anonymous said...

My name is Rob Pickering, and I am a feminist pop culture critic, with a special fondness for professional wrestling. You can check out one of my articles at Anyway, I am writing a piece about female characters/wrestlers in professional wrestling video games, and would like to talk to you more about tthis blog entry and your thoughts. My email is

frank said...

GREAT READ, though three years later, we seem to be in much the same place. The rise of AJ Lee has been great, though riddled with sabotage. The Sara Del Rey situation is kind of galling too.

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