South East Women Wrestlers (hereafter SEWW) are an artist collective in Athens, GA consisting of female and female-identified performers who seek to subvert patriarchy and the male gaze through spectacle and role play.
Started in Summer 2017, SEWW has produced performance events — such as SumHERslam, Fall BRAwl, and HalloKWEENhavoc — as well an exhibit at the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art and Ring Boi tryouts. Inspired by League of Lady Wrestlers, SEWW produces events that appeal to wrestling and non-wrestling fans alike. Tentatively planned for next year are events such as WrestleKWEENdom and WrestleWomynia.
As you may be able to tell from these event names, if you had to choose a theoretical framework for SEWW, it would include intersectional feminism and a large dose of postmodern play. According to SEWW founder Kaleena Stasiak, “Aside from an entertaining event of throw-downs, elaborate costumes and scripted role-play, SEWW promises a body-positive space, free from the male gaze where fantasy alter egos can be constructed, cultivated and performed. The humor and absurdity of these performances comes with the serious promise of a moment of optimism and possibility in the face of oppressive cultural values in order to promote empowerment, gender equity and community.”
This summer, when I first heard about SEWW, my reactions ranged from horrified (“that sounds so dangerous”), to delighted (“that sounds awesome”), back to horrified (“they are going to build their own ring??”*) and finally to nervously excited. This idea of wrestling free from the male gaze drew me in. I knew the planning, scripting, and executing of events would be primarily done by women, but I was worried about the crowd because audience participation is crucial to pro-wrestling.
About 90% of my wrestle-friends and wrestle-demia colleagues are male, and wrestling audiences are primarily male. Even the good ones sometimes slip into oppressive cultural norms at times, and I’ve seen female wrestlers stoop to using misogynist language to get over with male-dominated crowds. Additionally, I have been witness to some absolutely shameful instances of toxic masculinity at wrestling shows. We at SEWW have a code of conduct, but haven’t needed to enforce it. I’m not entirely sure how this has worked out, or if it will continue, but apparently SEWW’s environment leaves no room for this type of behavior. I suppose it’s partially, if not fully, because SEWW is so obviously not for those male fans, but I wish there was a specific thing I could point to and say “do this, promotions, and you, too, will be free from toxic masculinity.”
The character I developed is named Joan of Snark. I’ve loved Joan of Arc since I saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure as a child, and a friend gave me the excellent pun. As a medieval studies PhD student, I now like her even more. My initial characters had nothing to do with my discipline specifically, but after reading The Public Medievalist‘s series on “Race, Racism, and the Middles Ages” which interrogates the historical inaccuracy of white supremacists’ co-opting of the Middle Ages, –particularly Paul B. Sturtevant’s “Leaving ‘Medieval’ Charleston” — I decided to be a female knight.
Sturtevant reminds people involved in any kind of medieval role-playing that “you have a responsibility to ensure that the Middle Ages the white supremacists cling to is not the one you revel in.” My role-playing activities do not involve me working with white supremacists, since we don’t have any in SEWW and I don’t wrestle elsewhere currently, but I wanted there to be more medieval characters out there that are emphatically not in line with white nationalists’ racist project. Though Joan judges all other SEWW performers harshly and doesn’t like any of them except Catherine Crusader (her tag partner), she high fives everyone she can reach in the audience in an attempt to create an inclusive atmosphere aligned with SEWW’s mission.
If you have ever seen any of my conference presentations on wrestling, or read any of my writing in zines (under various names) and on the web, you likely know a few things about me: 1) the stuff above shouldn’t be surprising, 2) I study gender roles in wrestling, and 3) I love the absurd spectacle that is the Japanese promotion DDT. Typically, I am intensely disappointed in the very limited types of female characters present in women’s wrestling, i.e. I don’t think dating a man or being related to a man counts as a character.
If you, like me, are frustrated with such things, I have good news: there’s none of that in SEWW. Since wrestling is performance, and gender is performance, we present wrestling as gender performance. We have performers that include everything from party girls to cougars, business women to post apocalyptic warriors, Catholic school girls to Catholic saints, and mad scientists to dominatrices.
In a world full of dragon wrestlers like Super Dragon, Último Dragón, Drago, and Dragon Dragon, have you ever wondered what issues a female dragon wrestler would have to face? SEWW has an answer for you in Dragon Yer Ass’s fight with Amazona Prime (hint: it has to do with female bodily autonomy and reproduction).
Are you wondering who would cheat more in a fight between religion and science? We may be able to answer that for you shortly.
Love matches with ridiculous props or matches with stipulations so complicated we should really make a PowerPoint? We have those, too.
Without worrying about the constraints of what wrestling has been and instead thinking about how fun it could be, SEWW undermines the hetero-patriarchal hegemony of normative professional wrestling.
Obviously I am biased, but as a wrestling fan, scholar, and now performer, I think promotions like SEWW offer a radical new perspective on the creative potential of professional wrestling. We are not alone in doing this, and there are performers who have been doing this for as long as wrestling has existed, but the more the better! I also think there should be more female-run wrestling promotions, and enjoy our place as the little sister to League of Lady Wrestlers and Pro Wrestling: Eve.
-JH Roberts is a PhD student studying medieval literature, gender studies, and popular culture. Her work on wrestling has appeared in The Atomic Elbow, Pro Wrestling Feelings, Girl Wrestling Fan Will You Marry Me?, Uproxx, Critical Studies in Men’s Fashion (“‘Don’t Call Me White’: Fashioning Sami Zayn’s Arabic and Transnational Identities”), and forthcoming in Popular Culture Studies Journal (“The Well-Wrought Broken Championship Belt: Object-Oriented Professional Wrestling Criticism”). She trains at Landmark Arena. You can follow her on Twitter at @jh_roberts.
*We didn’t build our own ring, don’t worry.