To a native Californian and Angeleno like myself, volleyball has always meant white guys and the beach. While I know that it is played professionally, and there are women’s teams, the concept of anything volleyball-esque brings up a Pavlovian response in me. Visions of blonde men with their tanned caucasian bodies appear in my imagination and I see these perfectly formed specimens, glistening with sunscreen, throwing themselves around in the sun and sand, as their bikini-clad-companions watch. While that may seem romantic and sexy, it’s always been an extreme turn-off to me.
These are precisely the kind of guys and just the kind of culture that I want nothing to do with. In fact, it is the kind of world that I spend an alarming amount of time railing against. They represent the worst of the worst to me. They are the frat-boy types who eat, sleep and breathe white privilege and couldn’t see the world any other way than monied and upper and of the higher-classes. They are blind to what is really going on and that pisses me off. I feel a little bad for the sport of volleyball, since it has suffered my associations, but I will recognize here and now that is my prejudice. Too many summers near Santa Monica watching people play, I guess.
With this in mind, I can only describe myself as insanely curious and awkwardly starving for Ursula Liang’s documentary, 9-MAN(Ursula Liang, 2014), which played at the Director’s Guild of America as part of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on Friday night, May 2nd. Co-presented by the Asian Youth Center in the San Gabriel Valley and the Chinese American Museum in Downtown LA (they’re currently running a whole exhibit on hot sauces called “LA HEAT”- it’s totally great! Check them out!), and introduced by the popular and highly entertaining Phil Yu, also known as Angry Asian Man, this documentary blew my mind. Completely unseen, Yu told the audience that he was putting 9-MAN on a list of films he would consider to be in his “Angry Asian Film Club.” “Unless it sucks.” he joked, “But I know it won’t suck!” And boy was he right. This belongs on that Film Club List with honors!
For what it’s worth, 9-MAN is a sports documentary. Technically, 9-man is a volley-ball-style sport that began in Chinatown communities in the 1930s but it is quite definitely not volleyball. In fact, that may be why I liked it. The terms “jungle ball” and “streetball” were thrown around quite a bit. Yeah, my ears perked up for sure. As a huge fan of brutal and hyper-masculine sports activities, the minute one of the athletes described 9-man as a game that commits itself fully to a “warrior mentality” I was IN.But it’s not simply a game. 9-man developed historically and has played a significant part in the way that Chinese men have been able to keep their culture alive and dynamic, especially between fathers and sons. As Liang documents so eloquently, this was one of the only outlets that many Chinese men had to express their masculinity during the 1930s/40s and onwards. The Chinese Immigration Acts that started in the late 1880s had seriously diminished roles for Chinese men to play in American culture, and the places that they were allowed to inhabit were exhaustively feminized at that time: laundry work, food service, etc. In order to regain a sense of masculinity and as a way to bond as a community, this game was created. It gave them a sense of dignity, fun and released the stress from these daily horrors.
Picture of 9-man team, 1946
But, as Liang stated in the Q&A after the film, she wanted to give a sense of this historical background while still keeping the modern storyline. And that is what she most certainly did. The core of the film and the “meat” focused on today’s teams and the journey towards the 2010 Boston Labor Day finals for several regional teams, and, like a truly great sports film, she makes you truly love and care for all the characters. If I thought that I cried in fictional films like Warrior or He Got Game, this film gutted me. I was at the edge of my seat, really WITH every character. Loving them, routing for them, on their journey. But what made it more interesting was each person’s discussion of the cultural ties and the fact that this was not just a game to them. This was part of their life. While Liang did pointedly say afterwards that her goal was to reimagine Asian men in the sports world and do some stereotype-busting through diverse portrayals (which was quite well-done, I might add) the sports/culture/ethnic connection was what really stood out. The media does not often investigate these issues for Asian men. The discussion of these 9-men player’s masculinity stories, whether done through tales of family connections, cultural struggles or sports dedication was really singular and revealing.
Credit: A player dunks over the net at a 9-man game in Philadelphia. (Andrew Huynh), published in LatitudeNews.com
The film does an excellent job in explaining the rules of the game with animated visuals- there is a difference between 6-man and 9-man games, for instance, and no women are allowed to play. There were wonderful illustrations to explain these things and the placement of the players as well. The intertitles were also quite helpful, as far as technical info was concerned. As of 1991, there was an “ethnic rule” that became part of the rule book- at least 6 men on the court had to be Chinese. The other 3 could be mixed. When asked about this in the Q&A afterwards, the responses were fascinating and reflected a very different 9-man than what had started so many years ago. Ursula was joined on-stage by two 9-man players, and each answered this question differently but with the same basic result. Both agreed (as did Ursula) that at this point it is really up to how good the player is. Many times, it comes down to that and not ethnicity. They will have the “how Chinese is he” arguments, but it will really boil down to “how good of a player is he.” They added that there are many mixed players now, and that will probably increase with time.
Credit: Andrew Choy, Flickr
I wondered if this was losing the spirit that been expressed by so many of the older interviewees in the film, especially certain men who had discussed playing 9-man in the 1970s, who had learned to have Chinese community and brotherhood through this activity, and had passed the tradition on to their children. It also made me think about something more serious. As someone who has studied sports that are familial and passed on in that manner (ie wrestling), this “more sports than culture” view being expressedmight end up deteriorating the 9-man community and a cultural history and important activity that goes beyond “sports.” But as the final interviewee in the film said about the game, sports or cultural expression, “There’s nothing like it and I’d never give it up.”
Producer Theresa Navarro, director Ursula Liang, and producer Bing Wang of 9-MAN, at Boston premiere
Ursula Liang has created a documentary that has inspired tears of triumph and heartbreak, nail-biting suspense and loud cheers of joy. This primarily female-produced film (as Liang discussed during the Q&A, most of the crew were women as well, something “you don’t see very often these days!”) combines historical fact with tough sportsmanship and really intelligent discussion about a highly marginalized and underrepresented community.
One of the most beautiful things about the screening was when Phil Yu asked the athletes during the Q&A what it was like to watch the film, and Lawrence, one of the athletes, replied, “I got to see people I know for once.” While it was clear that this referred to 9-man players he was pals with, it had a double-meaning: he got on-screen representation for once. Which is really what the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival is about, and I am glad for it.
FILM ARCHIVIST’S PLEA:One final note that I would have to make and this is more of a plea. I spoke to Ursula after the screening because, as a moving image archivist I was SINGULARLY IMPRESSED by the footage in the film. Not only is the subject INCREDIBLY unique and rare (she told me very few people she encountered had even heard of 9-man) but the stills and visual elements that are used have come almost entirely from personal collections. Museums and archives that specialized in Asian or Chinese historical works didn’t have anything on this, regional archives were empty, barely anything. I know that Prelinger Archives was on there, but they are amazing like that. Here’s the thing- THIS WAS ALOT OF HOME MOVIE STUFF, GUYS. This is not a surprise to me. PLEASE see this movie. I will tell you why:
1) It is THAT good. I’ll say it again. IT IS THAT DAMN GOOD.
2) The archival footage will show you that you need to go looking in your Nana’s house for all the cultural 16mm/8mm/etc stuff. It can be really important. LIKE NOW. GO.
3) If you are a POC, your works are EXTRA important and MUST BE SEEN. This film is a FABULOUS WATERSHED EXAMPLE of what can be done if you have a good subject and are a great researcher & can get some help. Liang went the extra mile on this because she taught herself how to be a filmmaker as she was making this film.
4) If you know of anyone who might have any other footage like this, let’s make sure it’s all out there. Seeing this was so great. As an archivist & as someone in preservation, this is *exactly* what we strive to do- restore history to its rightful viewers: us and everyone in the future. Make goodness happen with film. It can be magic. I BELIEVE THIS.
5) Female filmmaker. Need another reason?????
DID YOU MISS 9-MAN LAST NIGHT? NO WORRIES. IT’S PLAYING AGAIN! HERE’S THE INFO!
9-MAN – LOS ANGELES ASIAN PACIFIC FILM FESTIVAL
MONDAY, MAY 05, 2014 – 4:30
Tateuchi Democracy Forum, National Center for the Preservation of Democracy 111 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012
So in the mid-2000s I was in graduate school for the first time and I wrote a paper that I REALLY loved on a subject that I REALLY loved (and still do) and made the wonderful choice to submit it to a highly esteemed international conference on feminism and television called CONSOLE-ING PASSIONSand they accepted it. I had just graduated at that point and I was high on academia like a 90s raver on Ecstacy. But, as Frank Sinatra said, I was going to do it MY WAY. That probably cost me the PhD stuff that I was applying for, but looking back on the whole thing, I’m not sure if I have any regrets. I love how my life has gone and I have produced some incredible things & work in my career so far. I’m blessed.
THAT SAID, this piece is my favorite piece that I did in my Critical Studies (now called Cinema and Media Studies) program at UCLA. I got me a nice MA sitting on my desk and I *loved* doing this paper. Every day was bliss. Talking to these women, getting to know them and their stories…I guess I shoulda known then that I would be some kind of oral history & documentation whore at that point, but this paper is still something that I hold with more pride than almost anything that I have ever done & the only thing that I regret is that I never submitted it for actual publication in a journal. Some of the details now are out-of-date so it is no longer a relevant paper (this is the way that wrestling goes…cie la vie!) but I submit to you that my theories- in particular the Discourse of Disgust and Viewing Transvestitism are as fresh and useful today as the time they were written back in 2005ish.
1) This is an academic paper and not *technically* published in a journal but if you wish to use or quote ANYTHING AT ALL…ASK ME FIRST!!!!!!! It’s the nice thing to do. Don’t plagiarize. This is my baby. I worked really hard on this.
2) All interviewee names have been changed, with the exception of those who gave me explicit permission to use their real ones.
3) Enjoy the hell outta this. I love it & it fills me with happy feelings to know that I made it. It’s long, but I think it’s good. Ladies love the wrasslin’! It’s a true thing!!! ❤
4) Be somewhat kind…I wrote this a while ago…not sure if my work has gotten better or worse, but if it’s not entirely sound, I was in my 20s. Forgive?
In the early 1950’s in America, when the Cold War was in full effect, Joe McCarthy and company were running Hollywood, and everyone who was anyone had credit, a brand-new refrigerator, and a ranch-style home, Bess Truman was asked what she would miss the most about the White House, now that her husband was ending his term of office. Without missing a beat, the sharp former first-lady responded, “Wrestling on Thursday nights.” While her response may seem extraordinary to the average, non-wrestling fan, Bess was not alone in her affinity for the events that took place within the “squared circle,” and she is still not. In my experience as a wrestling fan and in my research for this project, I have found that there are (and have always been) female fans of professional wrestling, who are just as vocal and just as dedicated to it as the men. However, to my great disappointment, what I have also discovered is that there is far less coverage or attention paid to female wrestling fans. It is almost as if we don’t exist. As an academic scholar who aligns myself both with feminism and subcultural concerns in general, I found that this invisibility presented me with a perfect chance to give these women a voice, and therefore break the institutionalized silence.
First of all, I would like to define a few of my terms. For the purposes of this project I will be working with information regarding the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), and its two primary television shows RAW and Smackdown! As an aside, a small (but important) piece of background information is that the WWE was formerly known as the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Occasionally, there might be references to Pay-Per-Views, as that is a huge element of the WWE organization (not to mention their revenue). There will be some discussion about live shows, as well as shows watched at home. Primarily, I will be concentrating on the televised text, but the live experience is also well worth noting. Because wrestling has a huge history, complete with its own terminology and main characters, I will be periodically defining terms within the footnotes. Much of the vocabulary used in wrestling has an even longer tradition within the carnival and circus world, and much of it was borne out of that tradition. For the sake of this piece, and aligning myself with the people I interviewed, the time period that will be discussed will be focusing mainly on professional wrestling from the last 20 years. Wrestling has an exceptionally long and involved history, of which many books have been written. However, for the scope of this paper, my concentration will lie with current trends and information as that maintains the most relevance to my area of investigation.
My methodology was quite simple: in order to achieve any information about why women would participate in a fandom organized around what is summarily a hyper-masculine and at times misogynistic display of events, I clearly had to speak to the women themselves. As a fan, I was aware of why I watched it, but why did other women? I knew a few women who liked wrestling personally, and I asked them if they would be willing to participate, and, without hesitation, they agreed. I then turned to a World Wrestling Entertainment online community that I am part of, and placed a small “advertisement.” I identified myself as a female and as a fan, and said that I was working on a project about female fans of professional wrestling, and asked if anyone would be interested in participating. I then left my email address and waited. It was crucial, in my book, to identify myself as a fan, in order to gain trust and access. As Henry Jenkins notes, regarding his own experience in studying fan culture, scholarly work surrounding fan culture has not always been kind, and professional wrestling is no stranger to heavy criticism. In order to demonstrate that the work that he was doing would be sensitive to fan concerns, Jenkins revealed his own personal affiliations with fan communities and identified himself as a fan, to the fans. In doing this, he was able to secure a better line of communication, as he had “reassured” them that he was not going to exploit them or denigrate their position. I concur with Jenkins’ theories about self-identification for entry, thus I made certain that the people who would be participating in my study knew that I was an academic, but was also a fan. I feel that this revelation led to far more fertile results, as the fact that I, too, was a member of the marginalized group, gave the participants greater freedom to speak their minds.
I initially had approximately 25 women enthusiastically respond to my communiqué. Out of those, I was able to secure 13 solid interviews, which I conducted through email. While I recognize the problematic nature of this method, I feel that it was an amazingly successful way of getting information about this particular subject. Besides being an extremely international bunch, wrestling fans are very computer literate. Thus, the capacity that the Internet gives for communication over cities, states, and even oceans is quite positive. I was able to interview women from locations that ranged from California to Canada, Texas to New Jersey, Kansas to Australia. The age range and ethnicities that I came into contact with were just as diverse as the locations. These women placed anywhere from 16 to 32 years of age, and identified themselves as African-American, white, Vietnamese, and of Native American descent, as well as mixed ethnicity/race. Unfortunately, the Internet “problem” is still one to be recognized. Because of the impersonal nature of computer dialogue, I had no way of saying for certain (with the exception of the women I knew personally) whether any of the information that I received was true (i.e. responses could very well have come from men impersonating women, etc), and I also missed out on having the benefit of tangential information that one can acquire through personal inquiry. The questionnaires I received, however, were quite amazing, and the similarities in their responses were so prevalent that for the sake of this project (and in my own subjective opinion) I will defend their veracity.
Women are generally not expected to be fans of wrestling, let alone of sports. As one of my interviewees noted, the stereotypical view of women when it comes to watching sports is that they are usually “sitting around in the kitchen, annoyed at the boys for watching sports.” In an event that unabashedly presents misogynistic discourse and hyperbolic celebration of masculinity, it is no surprise that most people would figure that we would prefer the kitchen. But the simple fact is many of us don’t. Personally, I dig the living room couch. I have a better view. In this study, I will work through various issues in and around women and their experiences in being an otherwise neglected group in wrestling fan culture. Their deviation from the “standard sports fan” (read: male) creates their subcultural status, which gives them as much freedom as it introduces culturally imposed reminders of their supposed limitations.
Within this work, I will present issues in and around the pleasure of the wrestling text for women and why these women truly do find pleasure in it. I will also consider what I term the “Discourse of Disgust” that is present alongside the enjoyment of wrestling; a practice that I feel is singular to this particular subculture made of women. I will then account for their experiences as wrestling fans, and how others react to them, and how they deal with this interaction. Finally, I will conclude with talking about what I call “Viewing Transvestitism,” which I fell is one of the most salient aspects of professional wrestling spectatorship. Together, all these issues combine to form a community that is not only present, but also growing, and as such, deserves to be heard.
Several women at ringside, standing and reaching as if to catch something thrown by wrestler Gorgeous George who, though not visible in this image, was standing in the ring. Photographer: Stanley Kubrick Date: 1949 Call Number: LOOK – Job 49-O46, frame 12 [P&P] Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA Image from Look photographic assignment with title: Chicago city of contrasts. Frame 12 of a contact sheet. Forms part of: LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).
The Whole Package
So why do women get so much joy out of watching guys beat each other up for hours at a time, anyway? In his highly attentive account of sports spectatorship, Allen Guttman notes that “not all spectators…are sports spectators…By this apparently paradoxical remark I mean to refer, for instance, to dandies of both sexes who strut and preen about the venue and never glance at the game…to spouses dragged by spouses to an afternoon of tedium, to parents who come because someone must…and to all others whose motives are extrinsic to sports, per se.” While several of my interviewees noted this fact, the significant point in nearly all of their narratives was that they were not of this ilk and they actually enjoyed watching. The women that I interviewed genuinely love watching professional wrestling, and enjoy being part of the fan culture. One young woman stated that, “I had to get into it by myself. That is to say, I had no older brothers who were into it or anything. I saw RAW one night when I was 9 years old and I was hooked.” In addition to this idea of self-motivated watching, many responses dealt with the evolution of their relationship with wrestling. Some may have started out as the kind of spectator that Guttman describes, but they quickly evolved into an avid fan. “My younger sister, who is 19, actually got me hooked on it,” one viewer related, “I used to catch the tail end of RAW when it was on USA because I used to watch The Highlander, which was on right after it. It would happen that way every week, and eventually I began picking up with whatever storyline was going on at the end of the show. My sister had a habit of taping both RAW and Smackdown! so I watched her tapes to get caught up and eventually started watching them on my own.” What is particularly compelling about this woman’s story is that it was another female that got her “hooked.” A good number of other viewers spoke of boyfriends or uncles or fathers who they watched wrestling with, and, although not interested at first, they too became “addicted.”
But what is the actual draw? In his highly influential piece on wrestling, Roland Barthes discusses wrestling as the “spectacle of excess,” and likens it to what one might have seen in “ancient theaters.” He deconstructs the absolute pleasure (and expectation) of seeing what he calls “the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice,” and states “wrestling fans certainly experience a kind of intellectual pleasure in seeing the moral mechanism function so perfectly.” While this is inarguably one of the central themes of enjoyment of professional wrestling, the women I spoke with, added more technical aspects to their enjoyment, beyond simply an intellectual satisfaction at seeing the good guy win, and justice served. One woman, Jessica, stated it quite simply as “the whole package…good in the ring, great with the mic and not so bad to look at either.” Upon being asked about who their favorite wrestlers were, and why, most women cited this same “package,” and defined the pleasure that they got from watching these figures based on skill first, dramatic performance second, and aesthetic appeal third, if at all. Yet there was the feeling that Barthes’ concept of the theatrical playing out of good and evil applied. “The best thing about wrestling,” Catherine noted, “is the hero factor. You find a certain wrestler and they embody some hero complex in you…or your inner bad guy. It’s the classic story of bad vs. good.” One woman even referenced silent film iconography as one of the best things about wrestling. “I think [wrestling is] melodrama at its finest. Like those black & whites with the mustached [sic] bad guy that ties up the heroine.”
Beyond the immense pleasure that these women find in the “real athleticism and grace” of wrestling, many of them described the enjoyment that they experience as being part of a kind of “vacation” mentality. Upon being asked if wrestling has impacted their lives, one woman responded, “Wrestling gives me a way to vent…If not I think I would go crazy from the pressure of [work]. There are so many things I have to keep my composure about at work or life. Wrestling (and sports watching in general) gives me “permission” and a forum to be out of control.” Although Heather’s reasoning is slightly different, as she sees wrestling as a relaxing tool, not a cathartic one, the benefit she got from watching wrestling was “having a period of time each week where I sit down and watch TV instead of running around like a crazy person.” While other women noted that it gave them a kind of “stability” in their lives, knowing that they had a place to be on certain nights, and a program that they loved watching, others still maintained that watching it “is an escape. I work hard and I want to forget about work as fast as possible when I get home. Wrestling is perfect for that.”
In David Morley’s work, Television, Audiences & Cultural Studies, he looks at issues of leisure time and families, discussing viewing habits of men versus those of women, and the power plays that occur within that dynamic. Although it is of note that his work represents quite a different population from my own, his discussion of Janice Radway is crucial. Concerning dynamics of power and gender relations within television viewing, Morley writes that
This issue raises the further problem of how difficult it is for most women to construct any leisure-time space for themselves within the home- any space, that is, in which they can feel free of the ongoing demands…[corresponding with this issue] Radway found that many of the women she interviewed connected their reading of romance fiction with their rare moments of privacy from the endless demands of family and work life. In effect, her respondents seemed to feel that romance reading was almost a ‘declaration of independence.’
Spectators at wrestling match in Chicago. Photographer: Stanley Kubrick Year: 1949 Call Number: LOOK – Job 49-O46, frame 6 [P&P] Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA Image from Look photographic assignment with title: Chicago city of contrasts. Frame 6 of a contact sheet.
Thus, even though the social set-up is different in most cases (in my study, those who had children seemed to be single parents, and those who had significant others had no children), the need for leisure time construction of their own creation was still present, thus giving support to the socially enforced idea of a woman’s work “never being done.”
Not unlike those with marriage and familial responsibilities, these women have a necessity to make their own time, and create their own space. Thus, we can at least partially read these women’s attraction to their wrestling as a catalytic agent, giving them space from the hustle-and-bustle, and serving as the key to unlock the handcuffs they feel constrained by on a daily basis. They are their own liberators.
The bottom line is that women do find exquisite pleasure in wrestling. Whether it is through brilliant physical display or whether it is because it provides a much-needed respite from daily responsibilities, it is clear that there is an attraction to the “whole package” for these women. They love watching the performances of physical skill, and love to participate in viewing what Barthes called the “intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private.” Wrestling creates in these women a freedom that they do not have in their normal day-to-day lives. With wrestling, they have “permission” to scream at the television, or to relax with the stability of scheduled time/space for themselves, and a program they get pleasure from. As well, as female sports fans, they are given the ultimate freedom of participating in what is commonly accepted as a male viewing space, thus erasing gender role confines.
Pretty Girls In Spandex
It’s not all love and flowers and positive energy out there in the female fans of wrestling world, however. There’s plenty there that is actively denied, rejected and absolutely hated. Many of the women I interviewed had conflicting opinions about certain wrestlers (some loved Randy Orton, some thought that it was terrible that he was getting pushed  as much as he was, etc), and others still differed on which televised show they liked better (RAW or Smackdown!). However, the one thing that they all uniformly agreed on (with rare exception) was the dissatisfaction with the current status of the representation of women in the WWE.
These women seem to be operating with what I have termed the “Discourse of Disgust,” which centers upon three crucial features. The first feature is what I call the “T&A/Catfight Display,” which references the idea that almost all of the female wrestlers in use today are there solely for the purpose of titillating the males in the audience, and not to demonstrate any wrestling skill. The second feature is something that I term the “Humiliation/Degradation Game,” which involves the constant positioning of female wrestlers into positions of powerlessness or subjugation. The final feature of this discourse is the “Paucity of the Protagonist,” which deals with the oft-mentioned complaint about there being a lack of high-caliber female wrestlers available, and the strong desire to have somebody to pick from, instead of just making do with who is offered.
In their perceptive account of the mass media and its representation of female athletes, Mary Jo Kane and Susan L. Greendorfer write about the hyper-feminization and the hyper-sexualization of sportswomen. They discuss that, after struggling for so long just to get into this arena (sports), the images that the media uses of different female athletes
Represent a modernized attempt to reinforce traditional stereotypical images of femininity and female sexuality…these feminized and sexualized portrayals are simply new variations on very old themes: media images as a product or tool of patriarchal oppression of women-and their bodies-through an institutionalized socially constructed system of gender roles and values.
The female imagery that the WWE has used in the last 10 to 15 years ideologically supports this theory. As noted in the book, Sex, Lies and Headlocks, the late ‘90’s was when sex in the WWE (then known as the WWF) became used as a crucial selling point in order to gain viewers away from station TBS who had a competing wrestling show. As the authors note, Vince McMahon (owner and boss of the WWE) has never been much for women’s lib. They cited that “the WWF had a brief flirtation with feminism in the Cyndi Lauper years, but Vince made his feelings toward that side of the business clear when Wendy Richter, Lauper’s confederate, pushed him to expand his ladies’ division. Irritated, he stripped her of her title.” We all know that sex sells. But, in alignment with Kane and Greendorfer’s theories, it is not so much that sex sells, but that sexual representations of women sell especially well, as they reinforce hegemonic notions of male supremacy through the commodification of women’s bodies as sexual objects. Anything that might possibly disrupt the status quo is inherently dangerous, and must go. Thus Wendy Richter was stripped of her title.
Now *that* is a look that should come back into style! Putting some riot into grrl!
As for the sexual objectification of women in wrestling, Patrice Oppliger writes
Sexuality is used to exploit and subvert women…women are presented individually, as objects for consumption. Wrestling shows use many excuses to parade women around in next to nothing. Bikini contests are very popular anytime, but other events are used to get women in sexual outfits such as Halloween or Thanksgiving costume contests. Bra and panty matches were created to strip women within a wrestling competition.
Watching any amount of wrestling, one notices that there is no equivalent of the “bra and panties” or “evening gown” match for the men, nor has there been a significant change in the amount of clothing that the male wrestlers have worn over the years. Style might have changed, but the male uniform has stayed basically the same. Oppliger notes a definite change in the visual portrayal of female wrestlers over the years, stating that “many critics focus on the more recent exploitation phase, skipping over the early days of women in wrestling to a time when females began to wear fewer clothes and started getting breast implants.”
Stripping female wrestlers of their clothing, dressing them in high heels and “strongly advising” (as Vince McMahon is rumored to do) that they get breast implants, are just more ways to disempower these potentially powerful figures, and place the focus on their sexuality and what they can do for the heterosexual male viewer, rather than what they can do in the ring. The hyper-feminization of these wrestlers only serves to uphold the idea that they are there for a “T&A” display, and their wrestling talent is negligible. This is a totally ridiculous practice, for many fans, as Oppliger notes. “Fans get tired of hair-pulling and ‘fake’ falls. In real life, men and women train together in wrestling schools, so they get similar skills.”
This is a pic from a Tumblr called “Diva Dirt” of wrestler (aka WWE Diva) Torrie Wilson smacking her co-Diva Jackie with a crossbody blow at Wrestlemania 20 in a tag team Playboy Evening Gown match in 2011. One can only assume that the evening gowns were removed earlier due to being an annoyance and catching on bra straps and garter belts?
The women I interviewed felt very strongly on this issue. Due to their adoration of watching a good physical display, and feeling that the WWE was concentrating too much on this “T&A/Catfight Display,” they almost uniformly preferred to watch the men wrestle rather than the women. One viewer, Maggie, expressly stated, “I think the state of the women’s division is…pretty bad. They really have been demoted to just ‘pretty girls in spandex.’…Women [in wrestling] today also wear significantly less clothing than did the women of just 10 years ago. I don’t know how these things would impact younger viewers, but they certainly disgust me, even now.” Joy stated simply, “Not that I don’t like women, but so much of women’s wrestling is just T&A. They lack skill, but can flip their hair or swaggle their hips at the drop of a hat,” while still another took offense to this display, saying that she doesn’t “appreciate that some of the female wrestlers have no skill and are strictly used as eye candy. It’s a waste of time…” One viewer even cited the “bra-and-panties/evening gown” matches as offensive, saying that having these women come up there “mostly to show off their tits and ass” in a match that generally involves them “stripping each other’s clothes off, and whatnot,” actually is direct incentive to watch the men wrestle.
The “Humiliation/Degradation Game” is also offensive to these women. One fan, upon being asked what the worst aspects of wrestling are to her, strongly responded, “some of the God awful storylines involving the girls on occasion. Things like Dawn Marie/Torrie Wilson and Torrie’s dad Vince McMahon making Trish Stratus bark like a dog, etc.” . Yet another complained “these days, the WWE features women like Torrie Wilson and Lita, who cower in the presence of large angry men. It’s insulting…I hope the young fans don’t look up to these weak women, as I looked up to Madusa [older generation female wrestler], and I wish there were stronger female figures in wrestling.”
Former female WWE Champ Madusa aka Madusa Miceli aka Alundra Blayze. Pictured here in her famed feud with Bull Nakano, circa mid-90s
In answer to my question about how watching wrestling impacts the female viewer, Jessica wrote, “I think its bad when they have storylines that degrade women. To me, that’s the biggest insult you can give a female viewer.” These women’s rejection of the subjugation of women is a strong facet of their presence within the female wrestling fan subculture. In order to maintain their fanship, they must be able to watch and experience these segments, yet negotiate their own feelings of offense, in order to continue to participate in wrestling culture. To continue to watch a program that you find alternatively pleasing and insulting is to be placed in a continual location of ambivalence, and takes much dedication and desire to persevere.
Looking at the first two categories of the Discourse of Disgust, it is not a far leap to see the conclusion of this issue, the “Paucity of Protagonists.” While working through the T&A/Catfight Display and the Degradation/Humiliation Game, one can see the development of the third feature. By the WWE’s insistence upon women displaying their bodies over their talent, and performing roles of subordination to male wrestlers through humiliation and degradation, female fans are not left with much in the way of “favorite female wrestlers.” As a result of the first two categories, there is clearly a dearth in strong female iconography for the female consumer to a) identify with, and b) enjoy. The women in my study noticed this, and actively stated that they wanted this situation to change. One woman stated, frankly,
I prefer watching men wrestle, because there don’t seem to be all that many good female wrestlers around today…Too many of them are fitness-model-gone-wrestler…the women’s division was better [in the past]. Those women could really wrestle and they were entertaining to watch. Today, a woman’s wrestling match has been stripped down to a “Puppies!” comment from Lawler [Jerry “the King” Lawler, wrestling announcer] every thirty seconds…Unfortunately, with such a small pool of talent, the women can’t consistently put on good matches.
Her dissatisfaction was echoed by another woman’s sentiment. When this fan answered my question about whether or not viewing wrestling/being a wrestling fan can formulate a kind of feminism, she remarked that wrestling has “helped people see that women can get in there and mix it up just like the men, [but] when you have the Stacy Keiblers [female wrestler] getting in there who can’t wrestle, I think it takes it all back a step.”
Her dislike of Stacy Keibler came from the fact that, in her opinion, Keibler was a participant in the T&A/Catfight Display, and had very little wrestling talent, and was there based upon looks alone. As a result of the compromised location that most female wrestlers occupy, there are very few available for women who appreciate the actual physical display of wrestling to choose from. Some fans noted that there are certain female wrestlers who they will watch, as they appreciate their wrestling ability, but unless those wrestlers are on, they choose to watch the men, as the men exhibit a more consistent display of entertainment and high wrestling caliber. As well, the low number of female matches also seems to play a part in this, as one woman criticized the WWE, saying that she would really “prefer if women’s matches got more air time, rather than RAW going to a commercial during the only women’s match of the night!”
In the formulation of a female wrestling fan subculture, you clearly have the features that give them immediate pleasure and satisfaction in viewing, but I would argue that to a certain extent, the participatory nature of negotiating their displeasure, and their identity as players within the Discourse of Disgust, also formulates a large part of their pleasure as fans.
John Fiske writes, “the meanings found in the text shift towards the subject position of the reader more than the reader’s subjectivity is subjected to the ideological power of the text.” Fiske’s conception of an active audience fits the population of female wrestling fans to a tee. These women, through their rejection of the ideologies that the WWE is putting forth, are tailoring the program to fit their own subject positions. Their choice and preference of watching men wrestle over women, is a dynamic location of spectatorship, where they are given the freedom to pursue their own pleasure in the program. The disgust that they show in their consideration of the representation of women wrestlers should not be taken lightly, as their protests are valid. However, they do not let these misogynist ideologies rule their personal viewing pleasure. In his deconstruction of Stuart Hall’s theory of preferred reading, Fiske notes that the “value of the theory lies in its freeing the text from complete ideological closure, and in its shift away from the text and towards the reader as the site of meaning.” These women, therefore, have stripped the text of the offensive elements, freed wrestling from its “ideological closure,” and brought it back to their own site of subjective textual analysis.
Many of these women did re-read the texts given, placing them in an ideological space that was more pleasing and gratifying to their own subject positions. One woman wrote, of the aspects involved in the Degradation/Humiliation Game, “we’ve seen storylines where females are mishandled or emotionally abused by the males and they overcome it and get out of it. And while it may be just a storyline to some, to others it is reality and it gives them the courage to be like the wrestler and get out of that situation.” Sara explains that her adoration of wrestler Stephanie McMahon has affected her life greatly. “Stephanie McMahon…has done wonders for my personality and self esteem. She’s shown me that, yes, a woman can succeed with men all around her…Everyday when I get up, I can turn over and say to myself, ‘It can’t be as bad as I think, because Stephanie Marie McMahon has been through worse.’” Fiske’s discussion of Turnbull’s work with female spectators of the television program, Prisoner, is exceptionally useful in this capacity. According to Fiske, Turnbull’s results related how he found that
Images of strong, active women fighting the system, gaining minor victories (although eventually succumbing to it) give them pleasure (in the resistance) and a means of articulating a discourse of resistance to the dominant ideology that paralleled the discourse (often called rebelliousness) that they used to make sense of their social existence. The contradictions and struggle between authority and resistance to it existed in both the program and their subjectivities, and the meanings that were activated and the pleasures that were gained were the ones that made social sense to the subordinate and powerless.
These women expressed feelings of marginalization, periodically, whether it was as a result of being one of the very few female fans that they knew, as a result of working in a traditionally male field, or just as a woman in general. However, many of these women were able to combat those feelings through their reappropriation of female figures in wrestling. As Henry Jenkins has written in his seminal text on fan culture, “fans have chosen these media products from the total range of available texts precisely because they seem to hold special potential as vehicles for expressing the fans’ pre-existing social commitments and cultural interests.” Although many of the same people who wrote about how they “now have people to look up to, i.e. Lita, Trish Stratus, rather than actresses,” exhibit all three features of the Discourse of Disgust, they occupy a wonderfully free and paradoxical space where, as an active reader, they can reclaim Trish Stratus as someone they look up to, and see as a strong woman. On the other hand, because of their subject positioning, they can also reject the T&A/Catfight Display, and regret the Paucity of Protagonists.
Surprises and Eyerolls
Another way in which female wrestling fans have formulated an active subculture is in the way that they “react to their reactions.” Although some fans, like Jacky, are “usually shy to mention it anyone, it’s like I am afraid, I don’t know why,” others will go ahead and tell people of their fan status. Upon being asked how other people act in response to the revelation that they are female and a fan of wrestling, many of these women have been met with pronounced derision. Sara states, “what surprises me most about being a ‘female fan’ is when people realize that I am one. Apparently, since I’ve gone away to college and have a good job and a normal social life, there’s no way I can be all of those things and a wrestling fan. Newsflash: I am, and that’s just the way it is.” Kelly stated that the typical response she receives is “’Oh my god! You know it’s fake don’t you?’ followed by hysterical laughter,” while Jennifer reported, “They think I’m crazy and ask if I know that it is fake. They usually are shocked…like I don’t fit the profile of a wrestling fan.” Heather deconstructed the reaction in three ways. She said that when she tells someone that she is a wrestling fan, she gets one of three responses:
a) Getting laughed at/made fun of- to this day, I still get the “hey ask Heather, she watches wrestling” whenever something comes up that might be categorized as “white trash” comes up (nascar, monster truck, etc)
b) I find kindred spirits- there is a fairly large group of people I work with who are wrestling fans- mainly male Hispanic. They are always pleasantly surprised to find I like wrestling because they didn’t expect a girl, and didn’t expect me, in particular, to enjoy it.
c) I get a generic “I used to watch that” with an undertone of “but I certainly wouldn’t watch that anymore” type of response. Wrestling gets tagged as being something you watch when you’re a kid.
Joy said that her general reaction “varies between surprise and eyerolls,” while Jessica actively marked the response up to gender. She said, “I usually get a ‘Really?’ and I think the reason is because I’m female.” All of these women exhibited similar conditions of reception to their fandom. While many of them accounted for the response as a result of gender deviance (girls aren’t supposed to like wrestling), academic/social status (“you’re too smart to like that!”), or underestimation of their intelligence (“you know it’s fake, right?”)others, like Heather, did report a positivity that they encountered, when they found “kindred spirits.” In fact, more than one of the women I interviewed said that they had met their significant others through their wrestling fanship, as well as many good friends.
These women seemed to encounter criticism from every section of people they told, except for the “in group”- other wrestling fans. Jessica said “some of the guys I know are actually impressed, especially when we start talking about wrestlers or shows. They like to have someone different to talk to about what’s going on in the world of wrestling,” while Maggie stated that her “liking of wrestling is met with a sense of wonder and awe by other wrestling fans [but] meeting other wrestling fans seems hard to do, these days.” Within this section of responses, it seems that women occupy an almost revered position, as unusual fans. Their narratives seem to account for a certain glory that they take in being a subculture within a subculture. As these women are straying from gender convention within the fan culture of wrestling, which is made up primarily of men, these women are given respect and admiration for their fanship. Their own personal gain is that they find other “kindred spirits,” which, as Maggie related, is not a simple task. Within other fans’ responses they are given support and recognition, while in mainstream society, their tastes are infantilized (wrestling is only watched as a child), their intellect devalued (don’t they know it’s not real?), or their academic accomplishments used as weapons (you’re too smart to watch wrestling).
Jenkins maintains, “sports fans (who are mostly male and who attach great significance to “real” events rather than fictions) enjoy very different status than media fans (who are mostly female and who attach great interest in debased forms of fiction).” I would like to address the issue of the problematic nature of being a sports entertainment fan, and discuss the fact that wrestling (which many consider to be a sport) fans do not enjoy the same status as “regular” sports fans. While Jenkins’ point is, on the whole, probably an accurate one, the idea of sports entertainment brings out a whole new way of looking at that statement. While the matches are fixed, and there are writers and fictional storylines, wrestling is a conundrum in its sports identity. Not only do these women experience discrimination because of their pleasure in wrestling, but so do the men. Wrestling fan culture is not a far cry from any other fan culture, where the participants are continually mocked for their affiliation. What makes wrestling particularly fascinating, however, is its conflation of sports (real) and “media”(fiction). Lori brings up a crucial point when she says, “the worst thing about wrestling is mostly the general public’s attitude towards it (ESPN’s 2nd most hated sport, I believe the poll said). Just because there is an element of choreography doesn’t mean that all of it is ‘fake.’ You can’t exactly fake getting thrown through a table, can you?” The fact that ESPN, a major sports channel, classifies wrestling as a sport, yet everyone feels the undying need to remind wrestling fans that what they are watching is fictional, locates this program in a liminal space, haphazardly jumping between elements of reality and fiction, without a fixed identity, causing critics left and right continual frustration. Wrestling’s fiction/non-fiction identity causes its fans unending strife as well, because they must deal with having to defend their fanship, as well as the authenticity of their program. Sara says, about having to stand up for her love of wrestling, that she has learned to “take it with a grain of salt, people just ‘don’t get it,’ and I brush it off as much as I can.”
In Ien Ang’s study of Dallas watchers, she outlines the ideology of mass culture as a process where “some cultural forms- mostly very popular cultural products and practices cast in an American mould- are tout court labeled ‘bad mass culture.’ ‘Mass culture’ is a denigrating term, which arouses definitely negative associations. In opposition to ‘bad mass culture’ implicitly or explicitly something like ‘good culture’ is set up.” Female fans of professional wrestling are subjected to the same tyrannical ideology of mass culture that Ang’s Dallas fans were. In my reading of their narratives (which, like Ang, I tried to do “symptomatically,” to try to find out what the viewing pleasure in wrestling meant to these women), I encountered multiple instances where the fans either maintained a silence about their viewing habits for fear of ridicule, or, more often than not, when they expressed their love for wrestling, they were laughed at or told that what they watched was, in some way, “bad culture.” However, like Ang’s participants, many of these women were able to express to me their own ideology of populism, developed as a result of being attacked for what they liked one too many times.
As Ang defines it, the ideology of populism is “first and foremost an anti-ideology: it supplies a subject position from which any attempt to pass judgment on people’s aesthetic preferences is a priori and by definition rejected, because it is regarded as an unjustified attack on freedom.” I would like to suggest that the participants in my project have a special dualistic relationship to the ideology of populism, as they occupy a very distinct marginal space. First of all, they are already predisposed to this ideology, as they are breaking gender stereotypes by taking pleasure in a hyper-masculine product that is not generally marketed to women, and thus forming a subculture all their own. Hegemonic standards can be likened to the ideology of mass culture in their dominating structure. Thus, by breaking conventional ideas of gender propriety, these women already have a highly developed sense of the ideology of populism, requiring the freedom that conventional standards of femininity refuse to allow. Secondly, as participants of a subculture (wrestling fan culture, in general) that is consistently assailed as being exemplary of “bad culture” or “low class/bad taste,” they have had to counteract this as well, by formulating a strong sense of freedom of taste. So when I read about “taking things with a grain of salt,” or the ardent statement, “Newsflash: I am [a wrestling fan], and that’s just the way it is” I saw these responses as a strident inflection of the ideology of populism, and the “taste freedom” that it supports.
All The Soap Opera Without Any of the Stupid “I-Love-Yous”
While fan culture can be a difficult location to exist in, women and men who love wrestling are provided an opportunity at what I call “viewing transvestitism.” For men, this means participation in a genre that has historically been rendered “feminine,” while women have the chance to participate in one that has been labeled “masculine.” Through this participation, both sexes have the opportunity to shed the socially decreed gender taste conventions, and, in a sense, “see how the other half lives.”
Wrestling has repeatedly been described as a “male soap opera,” as it contains many, if not all, the essential elements that traditional soaps like Days of Our Lives, General Hospital or One Life to Live contain. First of all, it does involve a family, the McMahons. But wait- it gets better- not only is there a family, but it is the “most dysfunctional family in America,” as many of the WWE advertisements proclaimed, in the late 90’s. While currently the family is not center-stage, it was a huge focus for many years. To this day, divorce, pregnancy, miscarriage, extra-marital affairs, and other “top soap” dramatic elements are still active parts of the storyline. Not only that, but there is never any conclusion. A match may end, Eddie Guerrero might have kept his title because of a disqualification, but that does not mean that the conflict between him and John Bradshaw Layfield is over, by any sense of the word. Professional wrestling works on the same principle that Tania Modleski wrote that soap operas do: “Tune in tomorrow, not in order to find out the answers, but to see what further complications will defer the resolutions and introduce new questions.” Through wrestling’s connotation as a highly masculine form of entertainment, the feminine soap element becomes masked, and acceptable. Yet I find it utterly fascinating that this is the one instance where a male character, totally muscle-bound and alpha-male coded, can get up on stage and shed tears, as wrestler Kurt Angle did a few weeks ago, and the male spectators will not be called “weak” for feeling for the guy. I understand it however- through the diegetic narrative, men are allowed to cross that boundary, enter into the feminized world of the soap opera. In this context, because wrestling is soaked in the hyper-masculine costuming of sports, the soap opera becomes re-named a “male soap opera.”
Female spectators get a chance to break free from the mold as well. As Heather said, one of the great things for her about participating in the wrestling fan culture is, as a woman, you get to “have a ‘boys night’ of sitting around, eating BBQ, and drinking beer, while not being classified as one of the women who are sitting around in the kitchen annoyed at the boys for watching sports.” Lori notes that being a female wrestling fan is “no different than a girl knowing the rules, etc. behind any other sport, like football or basketball. She then becomes more like ‘one of the guys.’” In response to my question of how wrestling impacts the female viewer, Jacky said candidly, “I think it makes them feel like they watch it and it doesn’t matter that it’s a ‘male show.’ I guess it makes them feel like they’re equal and they are not seen as ‘the female watching the show’ but ‘the fan watching the show.’ All these women exhibited strong acknowledgement of the social conventions that gender-type wrestling as “male,” and yet all of them also talked about the pleasure that they get from crossing over into that realm, while still being firmly aware that they are female. The viewing transvestitism that takes place in their engagement with the wrestling text allows them access to what would commonly not be at their beck-and-call. As we saw in the easy acceptance of female wrestling fans by male wrestling fans, this is no surprise, as it is an aspect of the fan culture. However, the ability and freedom that is involved in breaking the strict “boys watch sports/girls don’t watch sports” code is one that gives these women enormous strength, both in their fanship, and in their personal lives.
Newsflash: I Am, and That’s Just the Way It Is
I get enormous pleasure out of watching wrestling. I have my favorite wrestlers, and my favorite storylines, and I have a date every Monday and Thursday night with the television to participate in a program that alternately offends me and gives me suspense, pleasure and excitement. When I turned the questions that I asked these women back upon myself, I found that many of my responses lay along the same lines. There were differences, but overall, I found that the pleasure I received from the wrestling text came from a series of negotiations with my desire to read wrestling according to my own subject position. Just as any of the fans I was in contact with, I am, what Fiske calls, an “active reader.”
I have tried to be as fair and partial about the representation of wrestling and female spectators as I can, but I’ll admit that I can only go so far. I am certain that there is much within these pages that female fans would disagree with me about, but there are just as many people out there who would subscribe to Ang’s ideology of mass culture, and put me down for spending so much “valuable” time on an “invaluable” subject.
On the whole, I think it is crucial to recognize these women’s voices, and their active formation of a subculture within a subculture. It is not easy for a woman to break free of the things that are deemed gender-acceptable or unacceptable. These women’s active participation and intelligent deconstruction of what they watch, and why they watch it, show that not only are they remarkable examples of strength in the face of socially enforced gender restrictions, but they are also engaging in a process by which they are taking the power back, and joyfully transgressing ideas of what a woman “should be watching” or what a woman “should be enjoying.” By joining forces with the rest of the wrestling fan community, they can be seen less as a female, and more as a fan, an experience they might not receive in other areas of their lives. Yet gender is not entirely erased, as shown by these women’s pronounced activity within the discourse of disgust. They are quite aware of the ideological misogyny that the WWE exhibits, yet they make the choice to either re-read it as something that they find positive and meaningful to them, or reject it entirely, concentrating on a different part of the text that does not seem hateful to them. The operative word in this equation, however, is choice. These women know that being part of this liminal group actually affords them choice, and having a choice makes all the difference.
 Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: The Noonday Press, 1990.
 Being “good with the mic” implies the wrestler’s capacity to dramatically perform their “part” well, and display the given role’s personality in a powerful way. This may involve “cutting a good promo” which is a fictional segment designed to advance dramatic storyline.
 Morley, David. Television, Audiences & Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992.
 Giving a wrestler a “push” means that they are being given a good amount of wrestling time- many times a new wrestler will get a big “push” at the start, and if that doesn’t work out, the wrestler will either be left out until they figure out a new gimmick for them, or he’ll simply be sent packing
 Kane, Mary Jo and Susan L. Greendorfer. “The Media’s Role in Accommodating and Resisting Stereotyped Images of Women in Sport.” Women, Media and Sport. Ed. Pamela J. Creedon. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1994. 28-44.
 Assael, Shaun and Mike Mooneyham. Sex, Lies, and Headlocks: the Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002.
 Oppliger, Patrice. Wrestling and Hypermasculinity. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2003.
 These matches are similar, in the objective is to relieve your opponent of any clothing save the bra and panties. In the Evening Gown match, however, the wrestlers are dressed in evening gowns, whereas in the general Bra-and-Panties match, they might be dressed in other clothing.
 This storyline involved wrestler Dawn Marie making a romantic play for archrival Torrie Wilson’s father, then blackmailing Torrie into a sexual situation, saying she would call the wedding off. However, Dawn Marie tricked Torrie, and not only “took advantage” of Torrie sexually, but went ahead and “married” Torrie’s dad, anyway. The second storyline featured Vince as a performer in his own program, forcing wrestler Trish Stratus to bark like a dog, as punishment for her participation in a fictional relationship with Vince, when their “relationship” started to “go sour.”