HOW LUCHA UNDERGROUND CHANGED MY MIND ABOUT INTER-GENDER WRESTLING by BARRY HESS
I have been following pro-wrestling for 26 of my 32 years on earth. I have seen every type of match, every kind of character, every style of story imaginable. Sometime in the not so distant future I’ll experience something new, something that speaks to me unlike anything that preceded it. The medium’s ability to continually expand its own horizon, and by extension mine, is one of the primary reasons I hold pro-wrestling in such high regard as an artistic platform.
Three years ago I found my soulmate and together we brought two beautiful daughters into the world. I’ve learned more about myself in those three years than all of my previous 29 combined. More than anything else I’ve learned the importance of being self-aware, the tools required to achieve that status and how doing so can benefit every aspect of my life. It has been a difficult but worthwhile undertaking that continues to provide both challenges and rewards. The richest of these rewards has been the ability to discover things about myself I never realized before, important details that tend to fade into the minutia of everyday life unless regularly dissected. Pro-wrestling is a foundational element of my identity; I’m an Italian-American, I’m a Catholic, I’m a Philadelphian, I’m a pro-wrestling fan. Because pro-wrestling is such an important part of my life, learning to utilize this cognitive version of reverse osmosis has greatly altered the way I digest the medium as both a fan and an analyst.
Most recently this newly discovered tool helped re-calibrate my perception of inter-gender wrestling. The catalyst for this change took place during the season premiere of Lucha Underground. Ivelisse, the female member of a trios team, was forced to compete in a threeway match against her male partners, Son of Havoc and Angelico. After winning the match she was granted a title shot. Both matches were incredibly compelling specifically because of Ivelisse’s involvement. Whether or not she won the title is not important in terms of this discussion and so I will not spoil the outcome for those who have yet to see the episode. What is important is that I believed in Ivelisse. I believed she could win the threeway match and she did. I believed she could actually win the title; I wanted her to win the title, and so the psychology of the entire match was predicated on that desire.
That episode resonated with me long after it concluded but I couldn’t comprehend exactly why. Initially, I dismissed the gravity of the situation, choosing instead to justify my reaction as the latest example of Lucha Underground’s superior product. That was the old me attempting to regain control of my subconscious as it oft does; the simplest explanation must be the correct one. Old habits truly do die hard. But before long the new me regained control and began further analyzing this interesting turn of events.
What was it about the Ivelisse character that was so compelling to me? Was it simply the fact that she was is an incredibly attractive woman? I’m certainly not above admitting as much, but it was more than that. Perhaps it was the possibility of seeing something so different? The prospect of a female champion (especially within the context of the universe created by LU) was definitely exciting. While that may have been a contributing factor, there was much more to it than just a unique story concept. Finally, I realized that my fascination with the angle was completely predicated around the notion of inter-gender wrestling.
I came to the realization that inter-gender matches were an element of pro-wrestling I have unilaterally dismissed for the majority of my adulthood. When pressed for an opinion on the matter I usually explained that pro-wrestling is a subjective art form, some people will love inter-gender matches and some people will hate them. As accurate as such a statement may have been, it fundamentally failed to express my opinion. This was a significant discovery for me. I’ve always thought of myself as an incredibly opinionated individual and yet, in place of a sound opinion on inter-gender wrestling was complete indifference.
Indifference is a booker’s worst enemy. Indifference makes everything monotonous white noise. It turns out that the pro-wrestling portion of my brain had been trained to disregard inter-gender wrestling as white noise. How did this happen? When did this happen? What was it about Ivelisse that jolted my subconscious out of this trained state?
My first experience with an inter-gender match was in 1996. I was an impressionable 13-year old watching an episode of ECW’s weekly syndicated program. The players were all familiar, the lovable Tommy Dreamer and Beulah on one side, the despicable Shane Douglas and Francine on the other. The match exemplified both everything I loved about ECW and everything that would have made the promotion out of bounds had my parents known I was watching. Don’t bother logging on to the WWE Network to watch the match, it isn’t there and likely never will be.
The match intrigued me for all the obvious reasons, which is to say all the wrong reasons. Though Dreamer and Douglas were two of my favorite ECW performers I couldn’t have cared less about them on that particular evening. My attention was laser-focused on Beulah and Francine, both of whom plucked the unstable strings of my teenage hormones precisely as they were designed to do. Naturally I didn’t see whatever perverted scenario my over-active imagination conjured up prior to the opening bell, but what I did see certainly left its mark. Toward the end of the match Dreamer managed to get his hands on Francine, hoisted her upside-down in the center of the ring and delivered a thunderous piledriver; a moment that has become a lasting image of the equally innovative and controversial independent promotion.
Like most, I grew up in a household where violence towards women was considered unacceptable; it was unequivocally defined as the act of a coward. Watching the infamous piledriver sequence was extremely confusing to me. I remember my initial reaction being one of disdain for Dreamer, he was supposed to be a good guy. A good guy would never strike a woman let alone piledrive her. It was disappointing to see a character I admired stoop to such a level. But the live audience was anything but disappointed by Dreamer’s actions, on the contrary, they went absolutely insane. I told myself, if they were all cheering it must have been okay.
Still, something about the situation gave me pause. I just couldn’t find it within myself to approve of Dreamer’s actions. The entire experience was too much for me to digest at that age; proof positive as to why my parents would have been correct in forbidding me to watch it in the first place. A year later ECW challenged my ability to process another inter-gender scenario when Beulah and Bill Alfonso squared off in a violent grudge match; a subplot to a running feud between Dreamer and Taz. This time around the female was booked as the aggressor, leaving Alfonso in a puddle of his own blood after repeated strikes to the head with a kitchen pan. The gratuitous scene left me less confused than before. Alfonso’s character was beyond despicable, he was annoyingly obnoxious and frustratingly untouchable. He was the worst kind of heel, which is to say the best kind of heel. Watching him get embarrassed by a female was incredibly satisfying at the time.
As I got older and WWE gradually introduced edgier content into its programming, inter-gender situations became much more commonplace. The most significant female character of the Attitude Era was Chyna. While females like Sable, Terry Runnells and Sunny made a lasting impression with their sexuality, Chyna was presented as the antithesis, a woman who looked and acted like a man. She often participated in the rebellious antics of Shawn Michaels and Triple H as if she were just one of the boys. She was not intimidated by other men and often invited physical confrontation. She even sold low blows like a man (a cruel inside joke of Vince Russo’s designed to express how little the character was actually respected by her peers).
Soon after Russo’s departure from the creative team, Chyna’s character morphed into a more respectable representation of a strong female character while still maintaining the willingness to compete against men.
She even won the Intercontinental title in 1999. However, the damage had already been done. I was never capable of viewing Chyna as anything but what her creator trained me to believe she was, a bad joke, or worse yet a running sideshow act like the bearded lady or a fire breather. As unfortunate as that admission may be, it also provides a great deal of clarity as to the origins of my indifference. Perhaps rather than actively participating in blatant exploitation, which I knew to be wrong, I made the subconscious decision to simply ignore the fact that it was occurring at all. In essence I became a mob wife, a conscious enabler by refusing to distance myself for no other reason than my own selfish gain. I grew up loving McMahon’s product, letting go of that because of a moral or ethical objection was not in my best interest.
Inter-gender angles remained a staple of WWE programming even after the Attitude Era wore out its welcome. In 2003 Stephanie McMahon competed in a brutal ‘I Quit Match’ against her own father. In 2004 the soon to be a Hall of Fame inductee, Jacqueline participated in a program with Chavo Guerrero that involved the two trading Cruiserweight title victories. In 2010 Beth Phoenix entered the Royal Rumble match, eliminating The Great Khali. Later she was involved in a program with Santino. These are but a few of the more memorable examples in WWE’s recent history; angles that received significant time or favorable card placement.
These programs and others like them failed to create any sort of meaningful emotional connection with me as a viewer; they were unable to breach the white noise barrier established by Russo and McMahon in my brain. Looking back on them with the eyes of a trained critic it’s easy to understand why. In each instance the female role is simply a device used to elicit a specific reaction (shock value, a means to generate heat on a heel or even comedy) as opposed to a substantive character. An emotional connection was not created because it was not the intention of the storyteller to ever create one. This style of lazy storytelling undoubtedly enhanced my general apathy; I grew to associate inter-gender stories as stories without substance.
Why would anyone attempt to invest in a story they knew to lack substance?
Amazingly enough, the mental barrier constructed around inter-gender wrestling had failed to expand to other areas of my brain. Some of my favorite films involve strong female characters interacting with men. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling succeeds despite being a vulnerable female in a male dominated world. In both Kill Bill films, Beatrix Kiddo often engages in physical combat against men in a manner that enhances the overall narrative of the story in a believable fashion. Most recently in The Force Awakens the character, Rey is presented as the most powerful character in the film (even if she doesn’t realize it) without any credence placed on the fact that she is a female at all.
Clearly my ability to connect with strong female characters was not corrupted across multiple mediums, in fact, the corruption didn’t even span across the entire pro-wrestling spectrum. The recent increase in women’s wrestling and the stories generated from that movement have been some of the more satisfying developments over the course of the last two years. At the very least that eliminates any possibility of an underlying chauvinistic prejudice I was not previously aware existed.
As eager as my old self may have been to highlight Lucha Underground as the facilitator for my sudden change of heart, that does not tell the entire story. Truth be told, I largely ignored the numerous inter-gender matches that took place during the debut season (outside of recognizing the presentation of the matches as a regular occurrence) as I would while watching any other promotion. In fact, the character Sexy Star, whom many gravitated towards as one of the more compelling characters of the season, was a character that failed to resonate on any level with me personally.
Likewise, the complicated relationship between Ivelisse and her partners throughout the first half of season one added little value to the overall program in my eyes; years of fruitless WWE love triangle programs are likely to blame in that regard.
It was only after the three returned for season two that my opinion finally started to change for the better. After months of infighting the trio returned to The Temple as a united group, exhibiting growth as characters. When their past was used as a device to destroy that unity, the characters refused to fall into the trap, even while actively competing against each other in a match.
Ivelisse’s victory in the threeway match presented her as the glue of the group rather than the root of their problems as I once believed. Watching Son of Havoc and Angelico coalesce around her rather than sulk in the anticipated emasculated fashion was incredibly inspiring. Her performance in the title match that immediately followed presented her as an unapologetic hero; as someone in the midst of a journey with a tangible victory waiting to be claimed. It was as if a veil had been instantaneously lifted from in front of my face and I was suddenly capable of seeing this character for exactly who she was all along.
What an amazingly pure moment it was – even if I didn’t fully comprehend why until I embarked on a journey of my own; a journey that has yet to reach its final destination. I believe it’s entirely possible that the emotional connection Ivelisse made with me that night was done so in spite of the fact that she was a woman competing against men. In fact, it’s possible I failed to view her as a strong woman at all, but strictly as a hero of the Lucha Underground universe, whose gender was inconsequential to the narrative being told. I’m unsure if that is a positive or a negative. What I am sure of is that I will continue to grow until I can answer that question with some level of certainty.
My new self will make sure of that.
*THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN THIS EDITORIAL SUBMISSION ARE EXCLUSIVELY THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE THE VIEWS OF WORK OF WRESTLING