On November 4th at HiFi Bar in NYC my friend and awesome writer in her own right Jennifer Baker curated the HiFi Reading Series. She invited me, Ennis Smith, Courtney Gillette, and Daniel José Older to share work.
Ennis read a moving excerpt from his memoir about a friend’s last night alive in a hospital. Courtney had everyone laughing with her take on lesbian sex positions. Daniel read from his book Shadowshaper, which is a wonderful contribution to YA literature.
And I, dear friends, read an essay that is forthcoming in Working Stiff, anthology of pro-wrestling themed literature where the Ultimate Warrior, pro-wrestling, being a writer, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and my grandmother make perfect sense. Maybe.
I never write about pro-wrestling, but something felt important about the Bayley vs Sasha Banks match at NXT Takeover Respect. Important beyond just pro-wrestling – so I watched with the intention of writing about it.
While I’m a wrestling fan, with the amount of programming WWE produces I can – at best – only call myself a casual fan. WWE is just one company. The largest and most well known, yes, but just one. There’s ROH, TNA, smaller independent promotions that all deliver products. Be it TV, live shows, online viewing. So I am amazed and slightly horrified at anyone who can keep up.
What is so special about this match then? Let’s start with the obvious. It’s two women headlining. That shit excites me as a woman who watches wrestling. It’s the whole wanting to see yourself reflected onscreen, but it’s more. A way to acknowledge your privileges in this world and do your part to balance the scales is to stand with those who have them denied. So while it’s important for young girls to see themselves as equals in male dominated spaces, it’s critical for boys to grow up seeing women fill those spaces.
In film, you may see enough movies starring women that it doesn’t make you look twice at a poster with a female lead. Granted, usually young white women. In wrestling, it’s even more of a rarity.
It’s so rare to sell women as the draw of an event that I looked at the advertising featuring Bayley and Sasha Banks and thought, it looks kind of blank. Because I am conditioned to expect their faces to be buried behind those of their popular white counterparts.
Not only were two women headlining a match, a rarity but not a first, this was an Iron Man match. Now that is a first. For the uninitiated, an Iron Man match is set for 30 to 60 minutes. The wrestler who scores the most falls within that time is the winner. An Iron Man match is of particular note when female wrestlers don’t get nearly the same airtime as the men.
Not only do they get less airtime, it has been a running joke that a women’s match is equal to intermission. The insinuation being that they’re not of a quality that deserves much attention, forget equal time. It’s a belief that’s hard to dismantle and not because it’s wrong. With few exceptions, the women’s matches are simply wack. The storylines are lazy. (The most egregious sin, in my biased opinion.) The performance or acting aspect is subpar. The athletics permeated by an air of weakness and quasi-amateurishness. I am guilty of getting up as soon as a Divas match comes on. Because most of the time WWE feeds me women wrestlers that make me want to hit them with like…a Gloria Steinem book or something. Or a subpoena. It’s abusive to make me watch.
Why NXT/WWE didn’t take the opportunity to call it an Iron Woman match, I don’t know. Before you think I’m splitting hairs, consider how effective language can be to control, manipulate, persuade, injure, and oppress. Word choice then becomes less casual a business.
I’m looking at this match, and only this match, as a fiction writer. I’ll leave the technical shit to technicians. Of course, I want feats of athleticism too, but only if they serve story. Story means distinct characters with wants and obstacles to those wants. Story means narrative arc. To begin the story in one place emotionally and end up somewhere other than where you started. Story means rising action, climax, resolution. All that.
The way a character enters a story is comparable to how a wrestler enters a ring. Consider it the introduction or exposition of a story. You can tell quite a bit about a character/wrestler: what they look like, what they’re about, a bit of who they are as a “person,” where they come from, what they want.
In Sasha and Bayley you have two different entrances. Two different characters. Sasha walks out to a pop song over a hip-hop influenced beat. She rocks stunner shades, a chain with a nameplate that says Boss, three fingered rings. Sasha is a black woman, in case you’re one of my friends who doesn’t watch wrestling and is humoring me by reading this. Her aesthetic can go oh so wrong in oh so many ways for us more “woke” viewers. It doesn’t. It never ventures into caricature. It remains organic. She walks to the ring comfortable in receiving the adoration of the crowd. She gestures to her midsection, indicating where the championship belt will return to. She’s a dethroned queen, but still part of the nobility. As such, she’s certain that power, in this case symbolized by the championship belt, is not far from her grasp.
Bayley bites her lip backstage, takes deep breaths. Her entrance song is high-energy pop, Crayola colors splashed on screens, her hair in a side ponytail. A lot more juvenile. She hugs her family in the front row. She wears a short red cape and reminds me of a girl pretending to be a superhero. Her character is the fan who grew up to be a wrestler. She faces proving that she did indeed, grow up. That she’s a worthy champion.
They’re beyond the classic definitions of good vs bad. After all, you don’t really hate Sasha. You might even be rooting for her. She’s someone who believes her place is at the top. And her belief is not unfounded – it’s backed up by her past performances. So all Sasha’s actions align with getting her championship back. It’s relatable. Who among us hasn’t been toppled and said, I need to get back where I was. Bayley is the classic fairy tale heroine who isn’t fully realized. A champion in name, but with as much to prove as when she was a contender. Perhaps more. Hers is the familiar story of how to stay on top once you get there.
The first ten minutes are what matches can tend to be. A quick succession of attempts to get a pin. It’s the interchange between two characters in a story. One character does something to get what they want, the other character stops them. Consider it the propelling events.
If all these parts sound conventional, it’s because they are. We are essentially telling variations of the same few archetypal stories. Over and over again through different artistic mediums. I will tell you where the sense of freshness comes in. Suspension of disbelief. Remember, wrestling is a form of entertainment that is confoundingly plagued by criticism of its fakeness. More so than literature, film, or theater. So it climbs over a more insurmountable wall of disbelief than those other forms.
I often watch wrestling with my bro, a real fan, whose major complaint is believability. When moves don’t look believable. When kicks don’t connect. When punches are thrown sloppily. When it doesn’t look like it hurts. The art lies in making something look one way, but doing the opposite. Just like writing, the artfulness is in how well you sell this pack of lies. Executing a kick that looks like it knocked the air out of you, but was barely felt. Spending 30 minutes looking like you’re beating the shit out of someone while making sure you don’t hurt them. Bayley and Sasha’s moves are fluid, crisp, and executed with seeming force. Their pain and so the match and the journey of story are believable.
Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth! – Ursula K. Le Guin
Somewhere in the series of propelling events is where we suspend our disbelief, but it has a ping pong nature. That can’t go on forever. In this match, it’s broken by a moment where Bayley extends her hand to Sasha who has been sat down in the corner by a move. Sasha accepts her hand, but uses this moment of Bayley letting down her guard, of good sportsmanship, to fling Bayley to the ground. A character’s strength (or weakness) does them in. It marks the start of Bayley dominating the match for a bit.
One character pounding on another can’t go on forever either.
[I call it] the rule of replacing “ands” with either “buts” or “therefores.” And so it’s always like: This happens and then this happens and then this happens. Whenever I can go back in the writing and change that to: This happens, therefore this happens, but this happened; whenever you can replace your “ands” with “buts” or “therefores,” it makes for better writing. – Trey Parker
In comes the referee not seeing cheating going on. A trope, but well executed. Sasha backs the referee against the ropes. While she’s standing on the middle ropes, her back obscures his sight. The ref doesn’t see her poke Bayley in the eyes. The first third of the match (or first act) closes with Sasha getting the first pin.
Bayley gets her first pin a few minutes later. And here is where the women begin to show signs of wear and tear. The tolls the story is taking on the characters. Hair is sliding out of ponytails, breathing gets ragged, no one is as quick anymore. They need longer moments to recover between moves. Doubt creeps in. Desperation perhaps.
You reveal who your characters are by how they act under pressure. With half the match done, Sasha gets mean. She throws Bayley into the clock and makes one of Bayley’s fans, a little girl, cry. It’s great. I mean, it’s terrible! Bayley gets counted out, making it Sasha vs Bayley 2 to 1.
Sasha continues beating on Bayley. Bayley at this point is looking like she got jumped after school.
She manages to tie it up with a pin so its 2-2. There’s about 12 minutes left. They get increasingly vicious. Using stairs, the ropes, you know the whole nine. With 3 1/2 minutes left, Bayley almost gets another pin, but she inadvertently pushes Sasha’s foot onto the ropes. The ref actually sees it.
The last two minutes begin the climax. Sasha locks in a submission maneuver, Bank Statement (finishing move names are writers’ wet dreams). Bayley tries to go for the ropes, tries to reverse, and gets hemmed the fuck up again. Everyone is going nuts. The crowd, the announcers. With 40 seconds left, Bayley pries Sasha’s fingers off and spikes her hand which she worked over earlier. With 15 seconds left, Bayley puts on her own submission maneuver. Everyone looks like they’re gonna piss themselves or cry or both. She kicks Sasha in the head to hold on and gets the last pin when Sasha taps out right before the clock runs out. A resolution.
Both women are in tears. The whole roster comes out to applaud them. Their mentors place huge bouquets in their arms, like thespians after a big performance. Resolution leaves the realm of the ring and takes place more in the “real.” Because it’s all real, isn’t it?
My instinct that this match was about more than pro-wrestling was rewarded. It deserved witness. To more than the fact that women are worthy of an audience. To more than proof they can hold an audience’s attention for prolonged periods of time. To more than confirmation that audiences are ready and waiting to see matches like these. But that they can deliver story. That they always could.
Rather than stopping to applaud themselves for showing up to the struggle later than the Lannister’s to Robert’s Rebellion, my hope is that NXT/WWE keep pushing. I watched an ROH episode last week where half the opponents were Japanese. Considering what a hub for wrestling Japan is, Japanese wrestlers are lacking in American promotions. You could say the same for Mexican. If you feel the impulse to point out one or two or three names, have a seat on your needle once you’ve plucked it from the haystack. I watched a TNA episode last week where a wrestler with a prosthetic leg swept into the ring. I damn near fell off my chair I was so surprised. I’m waiting to watch gay and transgendered characters that aren’t punchlines. Lesbian and bisexual characters that aren’t exploited sexually. Remember, we’re always telling the same stories. The freshness comes from the variety of storytellers.
“To every woman who gave birth to every tax payer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” -Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech
I’m gonna set aside the problematic parts of Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech and her post-Oscar comments for the sake of getting to a point. In response to her speech, WWE’s Stephanie McMahon tweeted: “Thank You @PattyArquette for having the courage to fight for #WomensRights on such a grand platform. #UseYourVoice.”
To which AJ Lee tweets to Stephanie McMahon: “Your female wrestlers have record selling merchandise & have starred in the highest rated segment of the show several times, And yet they receive a fraction of the wages & screen time of the majority of the male roster. #UseYourVoice”
I have been waiting for this moment of badassery from the women of WWE since I started casually watching again as a semi-conscious adult. Maybe I have been waiting for this moment subconsciously since I was a little girl watching Ultimate Warrior or Jake “the Snake” Roberts be badass. Only in hindsight have I gained a fuller appreciation for women like Luna Vachon, Sherri Martel, Chyna, Lita. So why does this make me want to invite these women to have several fucking seats? I should be Meryl Streeping out, I wanna Streep out. As a work, this gender inequality angle makes a product out of a movement, a struggle with real ramifications in the real world for real people. It’s a hashtag, a marketing ploy, something destined to be churned into merchandise or publicity. They’ve already garnered attention from the Washington Post, Fox Sports and Time. It’s a storyline sold to fans with none of the thought, consideration, and risk required for anything meaningful with lasting impact.
It makes for a strange pantomime as a storyline too. It’s like hey, we have this real issue – gender inequality – but we’re not gonna address that, let’s just put on a public show to pretend we are. And I’ve been getting beaten over the head with people saying this is real and not a work but I remain unconvinced. No one hopes I’m wrong more than me. And listen it’s a great work, it capitalizes on something from the larger world around it, but if you’re not doing the work backstage too, it’s just a mockery.
You might ask, well, isn’t more screen time for female wrestlers a direct, immediately visible way to address the problem? Imagine a choice between two movies in front of you. One movie is about these two guys competing to be the fastest swimmer in the world. The other movie is about two guys and two girls competing to be the best swimmer in the world. The women have half the screen time. So fucking what? Giving certain characters visibility doesn’t necessarily deliver a better story on its own – it just creates a clusterfuck or even worse, a bunch of lazy caricatures. It’s not enough.
More screen time for female wrestlers will only help balance gender inequality insofar as they are supported and pushed creatively. It’s not more of the same that’s necessary. It’s better and new.
The time of caricature in wrestling should have long passed. But it hasn’t. Nuanced and fully fleshed characters, especially women, remain long overdue. Booking women with the same demonstrated effort and attention as the men is what’s required. It’s applying that same effort and attention into recruitment and development. And you can argue that some of the male wrestler’s storylines or gimmicks don’t get handled properly either, but can you say that the male and female champions, or the most popular stars, get booked equally?
An imbalance is righted when the conditions are created for whatever is deficient not only to exist, but to thrive. It calls for comprehensive changes and consistent long-term work.
WWE probably employs a writing staff of mostly hetero white males unless they miraculously buck the trend that holds up almost everywhere you find a team of writers. It’s an assumption on my part that the creative department is mostly male, but it’s a safe one. And with storylines that feed off of homophobia, Islamophobia, and a shitload of other isms and phobias, I would be surprised if any of the writers or decision makers have a vested interest in social or gender issues.
How many of the refs, trainers, doctors, writers, commentators, managers, executives, production crew are women? And if you give me one name out of a hundred, I’m gonna ask you to go have a seat somewhere until you figure out 1 is not a proportionately equal number.
How many of the female wrestlers were recruited from independent wrestling promotions as opposed to being models or actresses? (Granted, acting experience would help any wrestler perform.) But how many of the men were models as opposed to athletes before signing with the WWE? That tells you what the company’s priorities are for each.
My timeline on twitter usually fills up with calls for a bathroom break when a Divas match comes on. Is it the predominantly male fans themselves who don’t want to see women wrestle? Maybe if fans lent more support, WWE would, in turn, book them better. A well-intentioned, thoughtful suggestion, no doubt, but it reminds me a little of the debate people of color have about going to see movies by/about people of color even if it’s a crap movie. Does supporting them at all costs really lead to more and better movies by/about people of color or does it convince studios to keep churning out the same crap because it’s making money? How then do we explain WWE’s developmental program, NXT, doing a better job with its female wrestlers?
Because sometimes twitter is a thermometer of the people, here is a sampling of top recent tweets about WWE Diva Nikki Bella (at the time I wrote this):
“John Cena Surprises Girlfriend NikkiBella With Designer Bag Worth Thousands—See the Total Divas.”
“NikkiBella Showing Off Her Cleavage.”
“NikkiBella is a heel, so of course she’s going to win by cheating sometimes.”
Only one of those tweets is related to her work as a wrestler. And she does some pretty impressive shit.
Here, in contrast, are the top recent tweets about NXT champ Sasha Banks (at the time I wrote this):
“AJ Lee. Paige. SashaBanks. Titus O’Neill. The Bella Twins. Cameron. The real shooters. The New Bullet Club.”
All of these tweets, and the majority I scrolled through, were about Sasha’s wrestling or her wrestling persona. So WWE (through NXT) is capable of delivering more gender balanced programming. While WWE can be accused of not leading in that direction, some of the female roster is complicit by following. True, it’s an uneven exchange – trading the opportunity to wrestle on the largest of its platforms for control of how they’re portrayed as women and wrestlers – but it’s one they make and we can’t completely look away from that. And with WWE’s history, it’s a choice they make with some knowledge about the shit they’re gonna be asked to do. The argument could be made that change can best be affected from within. May that be what’s happening here. I’m just saying some of the women are active participants in the portrayal that wrestling is a secondary concern for them. Fame being the first.
Let’s look at why so many fans (self-included) re-up on snacks or do a chore whenever the Divas come on. I can tell you why I do. Their characters are homogenous and lack nuance. From entrance music to attire to physique to personality. The variation is only in degrees. A quick word association game when I take a cursory glance at the male roster: evil exec, vigilante, arrogant actor, cult leader, cosmic tag team, underdog, Samoan twins. The same game with the female roster gives me: punk goth girl, twins, sorta rebel.
And if you’re asking me if I, casual fan that I am, would watch more if the Divas were on more, I’ll say no. Because they’re going to give me grown women skipping, batting their eyelashes, relying on their cleavage for popularity in some infantilized version of womanhood that isn’t the reflection I know or care to see. And don’t get me wrong, sexuality/sensuality are fucking badass places in which to be totally in your power, but once you put that on a stage for the regular consumption of an audience, how much autonomy do you still have? I can watch one Diva with a sexy gimmick, (male wrestlers have always had a narcissistic pretty boy archetype) but seven or eight bitches doing the same thing? Why? Where are the other archetypes that the men have? The snob, the smart-ass, the dark one, the technician, the loose cannon, the monster heel, the comic relief even.
You might say, who watches this shit anyway? Why are you attributing so much power to this one medium of entertainment? Who is looking to professional wrestling to align their social issue compass anyway? A fuckton of people watch it. Just one of their weekly shows, RAW, drew 4.12 viewers this past Sunday. With a mix of performance art, theater, sports, soap opera, and story-telling I don’t know how more people aren’t watching this, especially artists. And approve of it or not, the masses have always had their socio-political-economic views heavily influenced by entertainment, from the first person to ever tell a myth around a fire.
Entertainment is a reflection of collective consciousness, but it can take a more active role and steer some of that collective as well. And that can be for the benefit of an encompassing, more humane world or a divisive, detached one. So why am I not totally sold on some big change in gender equality from WWE? Simply because I don’t trust the sincerity of it, and it’s a sincerity that would still make it good TV.