Wrestling Sexism: An Interview
- INTRODUCTION -
Although the pro-wrestling industry often appears content to exist on the fringe of popular culture, fancying itself apolitical, asocial, and purely "entertainment", it does not, in fact, exist apart from society.
Pro-wrestling is every bit a reflection (the good, the bad, and the reprehensible) of society as any other theatrical medium. Just as Hollywood, the video game industry, the sports world, and every other business enterprise where creativity, athleticism, and culture collide, professional wrestling is undergoing a transformation.
In pro-wrestling, particularly in the past few years, those fans & performers who have historically been underrepresented, marginalized, or vilified are pushing back. The bigoted and sexist caricatures in pro-wrestling, as well as those fans who dismiss people who don't fit the white, straight, eighteen to thirty-five year old male demographic as "fake fans", face a mounting resistance. Pro-wrestling fans are combating the tired, false narrative that this form of art is "for the few, by the few".
Social media has been an invaluable tool for pro-wrestling fans and pro-wrestlers to spur on this social change. One such Twitter Account & Blog, Wrestling Sexism, is focused on "showcasing, discussing, and addressing the rampant sexism and misogyny in the wrestling community".
I was fortunate enough to get to ask Wrestling Sexism some questions about their efforts, and what they see for the future of professional wrestling.
- THE INTERVIEW -
WOW: When did you first become a wrestling fan, and what do you love about pro-wrestling?
WS: I started watching in 2000, I believe, when Dutch TV had a short stint of broadcasting RAW on one of their regular channels. I was hooked the moment this blond dude with crazy hair came out with a microphone, berating everyone and then having this crazy-ass match with two other blond dudes – Edge & Christian – and a teammate, whom I can't recall. I'd been introduced to Chris Jericho and he was my favourite from day one.
I loved it for all the reasons I love it now. Drama, storylines, crazy athletics, larger than life characters, and something to sink my teeth into. It was a whole new world very different from mine and I absolutely adored it.
Six years later, in 2006, I'd become very active online and at some point was re-introduced to wrestling on a website called Livejournal - and I discovered something else that has become a huge part of my life: the wrestling community.
This is another part of what I love about wrestling. As someone who was stuck in a country that didn't much care for wrestling and with a family who disliked it, my internet friends were the only ones I could share it with. (That's still the case today!) I became part of a huge online community of mostly female wrestling fans on livejournal. We talked and discussed and wrote stories and drew art and it was amazing! I was very active there for years and years and I watched every episode of RAW and SD religiously. Even a lot of TNA. At this point I also started watching older stuff. Lots of Attitude Era, which I wasn't too keen on, and I've seen pretty much every original ECW match and watched a whole lot of Sabu and RVD stuff. They were my absolute favourites.
Then, late 2010/early 2011, a lot of real life drama and disillusionment with the product – specifically, how women were being treated in WWE – slowly made me watch less and less. Halfway through 2011, I gave up on wrestling entirely. I just couldn't deal with it any more emotionally.
In 2014 I came back and my passion for it was renewed. That's where we are now.
WOW: Who are your favorite wrestlers and why?
WS: Currently my favourite wrestlers include, but aren't limited to, Hiromu Takahashi, Roman Reigns, Charlotte, Alexa Bliss, Sasha Banks, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, Seth Rollins, Tyler Breeze, and lately I've been watching some Kairi Hojo as well.
Past favourites include Stone Cold Steve Austin, Chris Jericho, Sabu, RVD, Maria, Michelle McCool, Melina, Rhino, and Jerry Lynn.
(Two of those I've had to drop because they turned out to be wife-beaters or assholes, but...you know, wrestling.)
When I look at these lists, I think what jumps out at me is that I love huge personalities and very distinct characters. I love larger than life personas. I may respect and like guys like Kevin Owens, or Cesaro, but I don't fall for them in quite the same way as I do for much more outrageous personalities. I like the drama and the emotions and the ridiculousness in some of the people I mentioned. Hiromu Takahashi ticks all my boxes right now.
Amazing matches help and I think all of my current faves exhibit that, but I think it's the character work that really interest me. It's why I adore factions like Los Ingobernables de Japon, because of their defined characters and their interactions and the way they've been established.
WOW: Who do you see as having "Top Superstar" potential in the WWE today?
WS: Charlotte. Roman Reigns. Sasha Banks.
Emma, if treated well. Alexa Bliss, if treated well. I think Sami Zayn and Bayley could be amazing top babyfaces, but maybe wouldn't fit the 'top superstar' role as well as those mentioned above.
WOW: Just as there's a big gap between being a wrestling fan and actually being a wrestler, there's a big gap between believing in equality and actually taking action in the name of equality. As the creator of @WrestlingSexism Twitter and your blog, you're taking action to shine a spotlight on inequality in professional wrestling and in the pro-wrestling community, where others (even people who may agree with you) hesitate to take that action. What propelled you to take action?
WS: I felt powerless, really. When I started @wrestlingsexism, I still felt insecure about my position in the wrestling community – as a predominantly WWE fan, at the time, and a bisexual woman, I didn't really feel like I belonged a lot of the time – but I wanted to do something. I wanted to speak up about the injustice I saw and the ways in which female talent and female fans were being treated that others might not see.
So I created an account where I could do that. I asked an old friend from livejournal to join me – though she very rarely does these days, I'd say it's about 95% me – and we started @wrestlingsexism. A way to call it out and discuss it, but also a way to gather a group of like-minded people. A way to bring female wrestling fans together. Hell, a way to bring other marginalized demographics together.
It gave me a freedom – more so at first, when I didn't link my accounts the way I do now – to speak up without immediately getting personally attacked. As someone with huge social anxiety issues – I have avoidant personality disorder, so I avoid situations that might result in rejection, ridicule, and other unwanted negative reactions – that was a real relief. Lately I've chosen to connect the two accounts quite clearly, though, because I think it's better that way. I don't want to hide where others are targeted daily for their opinions.
WOW: There are some wrestling fans who refuse to acknowledge that sexism & misogyny even exists in pro-wrestling. Or they choose to not see sexism & misogyny in pro-wrestling as a problem. Time & again, I've seen & heard, "It's pro-wrestling. Look elsewhere if you want something that's politically correct" or "It's pro-wrestling, it's a guy thing".
Firstly, do you think it's possible to break through that wall of denial, or shatter someone's willful ignorance? If not, how do you personally stay vigilant, not get discouraged, and keep fighting?
Secondly, what do you see as the longterm damaging effects of sexism & misogyny in pro-wrestling?
WS: I don't think wilful ignorance is something you can overcome in the short term, but I do think it's possible eventually. Short term, the person is just going to keep doing what they're doing and reject anything being said to them. Long term, though, they'll digest what is being said. They'll encounter more people who feel similarly and maybe, when not directly challenged, they might see the logic to it. In a community that still actively supports misogyny, it can be hard to see it as a bad thing. So it'll take time and effort. Let people know it's not okay, even when they've been taught it is. Reinforce those who say it isn't okay. Support them.
Show the people in denial that it's not just one woman who thinks it's not okay to call women whores, or treat them as if they're inferior to men. It's lots of people and it's lots of men. Men like them, who also grew up in the wrestling community or have been there a long time, but who don't accept this kind of behaviour. And stop rewarding the bad behaviour. Stop excusing it for the sake of free speech or humour. Stop considering it part of wrestling. Stop telling others they can't be upset at these things. Stop lessening the impact of all this.
I keep going because I have a great group of friends who back me up. They're there for me when I'm exhausted and they'll back me up. I know I'm not alone in this fight and that there have been amazing women before me – some of whom are still speaking up and much more eloquently than I ever can – and that there'll be amazing women after me. Getting to enjoy victories – big or small – and seeing the way the wrestling community works at becoming better keeps me going. Every time WWE listens, or we come together to address something, or a wrestler shows an interest in helping improve inequality, my heart soars and I feel energized. Yes, there can be a lot of shit, but there can also be a lot of beauty.
In regards to the damaging effects of sexism and misogyny? It can become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the negative way women are treated in the industry and in the community further makes women feel alienated and try less, which in turn makes people feel women don't belong as much. It creates a divide between demographics – the 'real fans' vs those we at best condone and at worst try to drive out – which has a very negative impact on the appeal of wrestling to larger audiences. You're not going to interest the very large female audience if the product and community aren't welcoming to them. You're not going to get more LGBT+ people to watch if you actively block them at every turn.
It does wrestling a injustice by being so set on just appealing to a white, straight, male audience, which it so often still does.
It also does an injustice to the women who are currently in the community, trying to have a voice. It can be incredibly demoralizing when you have to deal with a long history of terrible representation, but also with very outspoken, angry voices telling you to shut up when you point that out. It can make women feel like they can't speak up. Like they're less. Like they're worse fans and need to fit a certain mould before they'll be accepted.
After I'd posted my Roman Reigns article, I was struck by how many women told me how much they hate being considered inferior just because of a wrestler they like. How hurtful it was to be put in a box of 'she's just shallow and likes wrestling for Reigns' looks' when you're there for so many reasons and want to love a community that doesn't always love you. I've been there myself and being disrespected, thought of as less, over something so stupid can be incredibly harmful. How many women have stopped enjoying wrestling because some assholes online told them they weren't enjoying wrestling in the 'right' way?
Also, for the industry and money side of things, it still creates a lack of positions for women and fails to appeal to women – thus make more money – the way they do men. Some people still work really hard to maintain wrestling's 'boy's club' status.
WOW: What's one of the biggest myths of professional wrestling culture, either the art itself or this community?
WS: I'll limit myself to the subjects we've been discussing. I think one of the biggest myths is that women watch wrestling for one reason alone.
Men don't watch wrestling just for the athletics. Men don't watch just for the attractive women. Men can like athletics and storylines and big PPVs and amazing matches and, yes, also think the women/men are hot.
The same is the case for women. I wish our community would stop putting women in boxes of 'fits my standard of a wrestling fan and is therefore allowed to exist' and 'is a fake fan who's only here for (insert negative stereotype about female fans here)'. Just as men we like wrestling for a multitude of reasons. And all at the same time too, sometimes.
I can appreciate Hiromu's entertaining matches, character, promos, interactions with others, and at the same time think he's pretty as hell. That some people think these are mutually exclusive – and therefore would deem me a 'fake fan who just watches because she thinks the guys are hot' – bothers me to no end. (That doesn't even acknowledge that attractiveness isn't just based on looks, by the way. Wrestlers being great wrestlers can be enough to make them attractive. But I digress...)
Women finding wrestlers attractive does not automatically make them ring-rats either, by the way. Hell, even women who've slept with wrestlers aren't ring-rats. That term is vile and demeaning and one of the most glaring cases of misogyny still left in wrestling. Which is saying something.
There is nothing wrong with sex or a woman's sexuality. She should be allowed to express that and sleep with whomever she wants. (As long as it involves single, consenting adults, of course.) That shouldn't immediately result in likening her to an animal with gross ulterior motives who just pretends to like wrestling so she can sleep with hot guys. That shouldn't immediately result in female fans as a whole being painted with gross, mislabelling brushes.
WOW - You've written a lot about toxic masculinity - one of the ways in which this toxicity reveals itself is in how men can interact with others online; targeting, disparaging, harassing, and even threatening marginalized people. Aside from creating our own blogs, podcasts, and social media dedicated to resisting such trends, how can the casual pro-wrestling fan resist this toxicity and push the pro-wrestling community in a more progressive direction?
WS: Support women. Support their voices and endeavours. Show people that there's nothing wrong with femininity or with women. Speak up where need be – if no one else is, or it's clear the female voices won't be listened to – or otherwise just stand behind those who've already spoken up.
Support men who don't fit the mould of toxic masculinity. Call out those who call Tyler Breeze gay. Call out promotions who consider putting men in drag an insult. Call out wrestlers who compare opponents to women or who call them gay in a way to mock them.
Support any man who doesn't live up to wrestling's idea of masculinity. Support a Dalton Castle and love him for who he is. Support characters that challenge preconceived notions and LOVE THEM.
And think about the way you think. If you see something to do with masculinity or lack thereof that makes you feel uncomfortable, think about why it does and if you need to challenge yourself on this. We've all been taught to be this way. I have internalized misogyny as well. I've grown up surrounded by toxic masculinity as well. We all do. Recognize it in yourself and try to change the way you think. Ask others about it and discuss it with them, if need be. We can't be perfect – and we'll probably never be – from the get-go.
WOW: Do you think the pro-wrestling community is getting better in this regard, worse, or is it basically the same since you've started @wrestlingsexism?
WS: It's hard for me to say, because I have a lot more followers and thus a wider range now than when I started and the amount of people who show up to disagree with me, yell at me, or even threaten me has grown along with it.
I do think the community has gotten better, though. Pro-wrestling getting better about the position and treatment of women has made the community move along with it, albeit at an equally slow pace. More women are finding their voice and are being given a platform, which is huge and important. (And is something we still need to work on!) Things are addressed and discussed much more readily, I feel, than when I first started – though it could well be I just wasn't in the right sections of fandom at the time!
This change has also brought on a few very stubborn men who become more hesitant and combative the louder we get, but that was bound to happen. Hopefully the positives will be able to drown out their negatives.
WOW: There are plenty of "well-meaning people" who "want to help" combat inequality today, but they aren't really aware of how their privileged positions in society contribute to the very system they say they want to combat. And when they're challenged to realize this, they can shut down or even get defensive and lash out. For example: a man who identifies himself as a feminist simply because he believes in equal pay, equal representation, reproductive rights etc, but who doesn't necessarily do anything about it because doing so would risk giving up some of his own benefits. Well-meaning as they may appear to be, they're not taking clear, measurable action to disrupt systems of oppression that benefit them (ie white supremacy, the patriarchy etc).
What's your response to such people, and what resources do you recommend for people who genuinely want to take action, but who may not know where to start?
WS: My initial response would be: look, I get it. I'm a white woman who lives in a society which greatly benefits me because of that. I get that it's scary to rattle those privileges and step on people's toes. Especially people who might not realize they're doing something wrong. People who might not mean to.
So, I get it, but understanding that it's scary does not mean we shouldn't push through anyway. You don't lose privileges here, you only help others gain them. We don't achieve equality by dragging the privileged down, but by bringing the marginalized up right along with us.
As a man in a community and industry that's still seen as 'for men' a lot of the time, you need to recognize that and use it. Use your privileged voice. Use your position of relative safety to strengthen the voice of those who find themselves challenged. Use your power or your reach – how many men have popular podcasts they could use to at least address these issues, or call them out? - to remind others. To explain to an audience who might not listen to stuff like this why it matters. Use your platforms to give women and minorities a chance.
Also, learn to step back. Learn when your voice isn't needed. When your opinion isn't required and only lessens the voice of someone you might be trying to support. If a discussion on sexism is happening and you're using your privilege to tell women what you think the issue is, you're doing it wrong. Not every discussion needs your input. Sometimes it just needs you to be supportive and to share the message with those that most need to hear it.
I'm not going to sit here and recommend books and articles and youtube videos and huge lists of things to read. If someone wants to learn, they're one google search away from doing so. Google feminism. Google sexism. Google a term you see that you might not understand. If you have a good relationship with the person using it, you can even politely ask them. Make an effort yourself before you demand women to explain it to you, though. We live in a time where it's very easy to educate yourself on the basics.
If you want to learn, use those avenues. There are plenty.
In regards to the wrestling community? Follow women. Follow minorities. Follow outspoken people who address these issues. And don't shy away from following some who challenge you. Who hold opinions you aren't sure about. They might be addressing something you're not yet willing to accept. It takes all of us a while and there are still a lot of things I need to learn.
I created a huge list of female, POC, and/or LGBT+ content creators here: https://twitter.com/wrestlingsexism/status/810518754635423744
They're a varied, amazing lot with varied, amazing opinions, so just have a look if you want to follow more diverse voices in our community.
WOW: Lastly, what's your vision for the future of professional wrestling? How would you like to see the art and the community evolve?
I would like to see a wrestling world where women have as much of a voice as men do. Where other marginalized demographics are represented well and given the chance to exist right along with us. Where we have women writing, creating, directing, financing, booking, and just influencing wrestling in a way that properly and fairly represents them. And I want them to do this as much as the men do.
I would like to see storylines that are longer and more intricate than they are currently. That focus on friendship and betrayal and competition just like they do for the men. That are given the same amount of time and attention and are spread out across the division, not just one or two women.
I would like to see epic matches that aren't seen as groundbreaking just because they are being performed by women. I would like to see women regularly main event shows. I would like to see them main-event Wrestlemania one day.
I would like to see women front and centre on graphics. I would like to see them featured over guys sometimes. I would like to see more than one women's match on Indie cards, or just two women and ten men on posters.
I would like to see more interaction between men and women – maybe even intergender wrestling, though I recognize WWE's very valid reasons for not wanting to go that route – and more angles that involve both without immediately going into relationships. I would like to see friendships. Stables. Men and women interacting without there being something to gain for one of the parties.
I want female wrestlers to feel safe and accepted. To feel they can speak up and challenge the status quo without getting into trouble. I want them to feel like they're just there to wrestle and that that's all the audience expects of them. I want them to be given as many opportunities as the men in as many amazing venues. I want more of them to be given these chances.
There's so much I want for all these amazing women in wrestling.
And for us? For the wrestling community? I want a wrestling community where women can have contrary opinions without being threatened. I want women to be able to disagree and not get told to shut up. I want women to have prolific voices in popular, high-profile places without them being treated differently than the men in similar positions. I want women to be able to love what and who they love without feeling they don't live up to ingrained standards of what it means to be a fan.
Yes, I recognize this is going to take time. (A lot of it.) Yes, I know I'm asking for a lot.
I'm willing to fight for it.
Follow Wrestling Sexism on Twitter @wrestlingsexism.
Visit the blog at http://wrestlingsexism.blogspot.nl/
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