Sara Passmore looks at how women’s professional wrestling is moving beyond ‘bra and panties’ bouts and getting back to its roots, when women wrestlers were valued for their ability.
If Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler taught us anything, it was that being a wrestler is humiliating. The film received critical acclaim, but it didn’t exactly bring the sport to a new audience. Indeed, it showed us the worst of professional wrestling and little of the good.
Tragedy in the lives of professional wrestlers is exploited by the mainstream press like that of any other celebrity. Recent stories include World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE)’s Jeff Hardy being arrested for drug trafficking, Total Nonstop Action’s Kurt Angle being accused of stalking his former girlfriend, and in 2007 Chris Benoit, widely acknowledged as one of the world’s best technical wrestlers, murdering his wife and seven-year-old son before killing himself.
On the other hand, professional wrestling receives little coverage as a sport. It’s only when something horrific happens that the press give it any space, and more often than not, in the news rather than the sport pages.
‘Admitting to being a fan of professional wrestling is a bit like admitting to being a panty-sniffer.’
Is professional wrestling just too embarrassing to write about? I find that admitting to being a fan of professional wrestling is a bit like admitting to being a panty-sniffer, unless other professional wrestling fans surround you, but even they will be reluctant to talk about it.
Many people are confused about professional wrestling. ‘But isn’t it all faked?’ is a common question. Of course, it is, to an extent – results are scripted and the key incidents pre-planned, but for many, that is half the appeal.
While many pro-wrestlers are clearly amazing athletes as well as brilliant performers, the scripting means that professional wrestling doesn’t sit comfortably within the realms of sport, but will never be accepted as theatre either. It resides in the difficult grey area set aside for carnival sideshows and will perhaps always be considered a lowbrow form of both: the genre of sports-entertainment.
The history of women’s professional wrestling
Over the two decades I’ve watched professional wrestling, women’s professional wrestling has slowly been developing, but not all for the better.
‘Although Mae Young – who in her 80s famously gave birth to a hand – and Mildred Burke brought glamour to the ring, the focus was clearly on wrestling ability.’
In the 1930s professional wrestling was a carnival show attracting a live audience week after week. The show was simple. They advertised never beaten and world’s strongest, and although wrestlers like Mae Young – who in her 80s famously gave birth to a hand – and Mildred Burke brought glamour to the ring, the focus was clearly on ability. In 1935 at age 19, Mildred Burke would offer $25 to any man of reasonably similar weight who could pin her within 10 minutes.
Mildred Burke was a key figure in ensuring that women’s professional wrestling succeeded in a field dominated by men. In 1952 her marriage to trainer Billy Wolfe ended in divorce. At the time women were banned from yearly National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) conferences. Wolfe used this to his advantage, getting her NWA membership frozen and putting an end to one of the most promising strands of her career.
Burke went on to create the World Women’s Wrestling Association (WWWA) in 1954. Even after retiring from the ring, she continued to contribute to women’s professional wrestling, opening a training school in California. Burke died from a stroke in 1989 and in 2002 was posthumously inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Women’s professional wrestling nowIn the 1980s, with the expansion of television coverage, professional wrestling became even more popular. World Wrestling Federation (WWF) started heavily promoting the sport nationally through events like Wrestlemania, and the shows included complex storylines more like soaps than sports events. Often these storylines contained hints of truth, which would keep viewers hooked.
‘The shows included complex storylines, more like soaps than sports events.’
Professional wrestling for women changed in the 1980s. In the glory days of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), women were still wrestling in the ring, but the focus turned more to glamour and looks than ever before. Miss Elizabeth, the first non-wrestling female valet, who managed husband Macho Man Randy Savage, dressed in ball gowns and always had immaculate hair and make-up. Although she never made it into the ring, her style influenced female wrestlers, and producers saw how sex appeal could increase their revenue. This is evident in the names under which women wrestle: the female talent at WWE are collectively known as Divas, and it is only slightly better at TNA where they are known as Knockouts.
‘The change of focus towards more glamour and less technical ability lead to the increase of gimmick matches like ‘bra and panties bouts’.’
The change of focus towards more glamour and less technical ability lead to the increase of gimmick matches like ‘bra and panties bouts’. Unsurprisingly, these vaguely pornographic matches get some of the highest ratings on television. Sara Del Rey, a mainstay at independent women’s wrestling promotion Shimmer Women Athletes, has featured in a number of independent professional wrestling promotions, including Ring of Honor. She says the likes of bra and panties bouts ‘had their place ten years ago when no one had ever seen it. It was a shock, but that is what WWE was trying to do. Now when I see it, it makes me sad because the girls look so foolish rolling around playing sexy wrestler.’ She goes on to say, ‘You see sexy girls everywhere on TV, but you don’t see girls that can wrestle.’This is changing slowly as more women’s professional wrestling promotions form and more women in the industry take management roles. While the audience of professional wrestling continues to be mainly men it is easy to see why Del Rey would say, ‘you get a lot of creeps who just want to see girls in small outfits roll around and hit each other.’
Outside professional wrestling these needs are well catered for. A number of companies offer ‘mixed wrestling’ services aimed at men who pay £300 an hour or more for sessions with a female wrestler. This is seems to be aimed at the fetish market, as most offer a range of services, including foot worship sessions.
In truth, there are many passionate fans of women’s professional wrestling and they are far removed from those who fetishise the sport. Del Rey says that pressure to focus on her image hasn’t been part of her career: ‘I think I have a very good reputation in professional wrestling and have never been asked to be anything other than an athlete.’ When it comes to the respect women wrestlers get from colleagues, she comments, ‘Most of the time they are treated a certain way because they act a certain way. I always try to present myself with dignity and work hard at what I do, and my colleagues see that and treat me with respect.’ But without a doubt, the inequality between men and women in the storylines is something that needs to be addressed before the sport becomes truly inclusive.
‘There are many passionate fans of women’s professional wrestling and they are far removed from those who fetishise the sport.’
The future for women’s professional wrestling
The golden age of the 80s is well behind us, but the future for women’s professional wrestling looks great. It is slowly attracting a wider fan base and being taken more seriously as a legitimate revenue stream for many promotions.
‘The future for women’s professional wrestling looks great. It is slowly attracting a wider fan base and being taken more seriously.’
Women are branching out behind the camera too. Dixie Carter Salinas, president of TNA, is helping to build the company up to be a major competitor to WWE. Salinas started working for the company in marketing and publicity in 2002, and went on to source significant funding, secure a television deal with Fox Sports Net and negotiate a contract with wrestling superstar Kurt Angle.
Meanwhile, WWE has its own prominent businesswomen. Linda McMahon has been involved in running WWE since 1980. She recently resigned as company CEO to run for US senate in 2010. Following her announcement that she would seek the Republican nomination for Senator, the press began picking over her career and reporting on the storylines she has been involved in over the past 20 years – including a kayfabe (scripted) nervous breakdown. The New Yorker website – possibly the last place you’d expect to see professional wrestling feature – even brought up her involvement in the use of steroids in professional wrestling, highlighting that WWE regularly approved ‘therapeutic use exemptions’ that explicitly allowed steroid use.
For Del Rey, women’s professional wrestling still has a long way to go. ‘I would like to see women step up in the technical side of the sport and focus less on looks. That is in a perfect world, but I do not see it happening anytime soon.’ However, there is evidence that it is already happening. TNA has consistently expanded its Knockout roster and has a reputation for hiring women based on talent, so the Knockouts attracts women wrestlers away from WWE’s Divas. In the ring, TNA has introduced the new Knockouts Tag Team Championship, with women wrestling in more diverse gimmick matches, including Six-Sides of Steel, Monster Ball and Ladder matches.
‘This step-change doesn’t all have to happen from inside – fans can influence what goes on in the ring.’
This step-change doesn’t all have to happen from inside – fans can influence what goes on in the ring, and a broader fan base could encourage the major promotions to consider what it is we want to see. With independent promotions like Shimmer, Ring of Honor and Chikara focusing on the technical side of the sport and touting ability over glamour, supporting them gives a clear message to promoters that the days of promoting the ‘sexy wrestler’ female ideal are numbered.
Let’s get the beauty pageant out of the ring. I’m ready for a fight.
Sara Passmore is a comic-loving, horror film-watching writer, unrepentant nerd and regular contributor to Filament. This article appeared in Filament magazine Issue 3; December 2009.