by David Beard, Associate Professor of Rhetoric, University of Minnesota Duluth
There was one women’s match at FortuneBaynia, a regional professional wrestling show held in Tower, Minnesota, July 29, 2018, about three hours north of Minneapolis. That match demonstrated some of the limitations of women’s professional wrestling when it settles down into the regional circuits.
Regional professional wrestling is supported by a system of gyms and schools that cultivate talent. Maybe more accurately, these schools attempt to funnel young men’s passion [to fill the cultural role occupied by wrestlers] into training. Effective training is the path for those young men to become professionals. For example, FortuneBaynia stars wore shirts promoting The Academy: School of Professional Wrestling in Minneapolis.
Women do not have the same path. At times, women’s wrestling has almost felt like stunt casting in television: as noted by the Associated Press, at one time, Takashi Matsunaga offered Tonya Harding $2 million to become a pro wrestler. “Tonya was made to be a pro wrestler… She’s about as tough as they come and she’ll last a lot longer in our sport than she will in figure skating” [AP, “’Tonya was made to be a pro wrestler’”]. There was no path that leads Harding into the squared circle — only media attention that the promoter could convey into ticket sales.
At the national level, women didn’t occupy the same role within the WWE. It’s only since 2016 that the WWE ceased referring to their female performers as “Divas,” now referring to them as “Superstars” [the same term for male performers]. Fewer women aspired to become “Divas” than men aspired to be “wrestlers.” As trainer Susan Green complained in Curve magazine, “if you’re not 7-foot tall, [national wrestling promotions] don’t even think about you.” — finding their emphasis “to be less on athletics and more on showmanship and telegenic faces” [Plenty of pain and gain,” Curve, March, 2007].
How do women enter professional wrestling, then? Trainer Randy Powell, the founder of the Professional Girl Wrestling Association, “thinks that the attraction to wrestling by women athletes is simple. ‘After girls get out of high school and college, maybe they’ve played sports, the only thing left for them is the little community leagues or something they have at the Y, there’s no other outlet. And sometimes that’s just not enough’” [Plenty of pain and gain”]. Women redirect other athletic passions into wrestling, rather than dreaming to become a wrestler.
The women who make their way to Tower, Minnesota for an event like FortuneBaynia are committed to the craft. Lisa Marie Varon tore her ACL in 2002 and since then has wrestled with a leg brace well into her forties. But Varon and Dashwood wrestled alone, without an undercard of local women wrestlers to support.
This dynamic was different for women wrestlers than for men wrestlers. At FortuneBaynia, nationally recognized male superstars wrestled in part to legitimize the undercard of local wrestlers. In contrast, these women wrestlers were the only representatives of their gender wrestling in the ring. [NWO brought a young woman as eye candy earlier in the event, not to wrestle.]
Women wrestlers struggle with the dynamics art critic John Berger identified in his TV series and book, Ways of Seeing. Therein, he claimed that “Men act and women appear.” The woman who followed NWO into the ring was designed to appear while X-Pac acted. Varon and Dashwood are trying to break that mold.
But it’s hard — women internalize this distinction. Berger goes on to explain: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves…. Thus [a woman] turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.” When I discuss this text in classes I teach, female students remind me that women may no longer check themselves in pocket mirrors, but they do check themselves in their reflection in their cell phones — they turn themselves into a vision, a sight.
Varon and Dashwood have done their level best to become women who act, with the technical proficiency and crowd appeal equal to the male wrestlers. But the dynamics of the audience, who whoop and holler at cleavage as much as at a well-executed moonsault, works against their efforts. The pop of the crowd converts Varon and Dashwood into objects to be ogled, rather than actors equal to their male peers.
The regional professional wrestling show, then, works to trap the women it spotlights. Berger describes the process I’m describing, in terms of art, by looking at renaissance paintings:
“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.” –John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Wrestling fans watch genuinely talented athletes, with enough acting skills to convey characterization at least as well as any actor in commedia dell’arte [or in any production of an emotionally flat musical like Music Man]. And then, they hoot more loudly when they wiggle their asses than when they jump from the ropes. The audience under-recognizes the talents these women displayed to earn their place in the ring. The audience forces them, instead, into the sex object roles they are more comfortable with.
It’s no wonder that the women in the audience aren’t rushing to The Academy: School of Professional Wrestling, aren’t aspiring to become the next Victoria or Emma.