The Narrative Trope Implicit in “The Man”

So, here’s a thing I have mixed feelings about: Becky Lynch’s current run as “The Man.”

I’m a huge fan of the moment in “Return of the King” where Éowyn whips off her helm and declares, “I am no man!” before killing the Witch King. It gets me every time. Her strength is not in spite of her sex, but inherent to it. I’m also not into the “I’m just one of the boys” phase that many a girl goes through in her young adulthood and clings to like a shield.1 I have no patience for the trope in my fiction.

I talked the storyline over with August2 because I had missed the transition from steampunk Becky Lynch to “The Man,” so he broke it down for me. I’d hoped knowing context and history about when this started would help me develop a stronger stance one way or the other.

It did not.

I said last week that I think that women breaking into a male-dominated industry are in a complex situation, and that’s a theme that runs through my feelings on wrestling. But this doesn’t feel like that to me. For one, Becky Lynch owns “The Man” with pride and finds it empowering. That’s great! I think a person is the sole arbiter of how they experience their own empowerment and life, and I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I know better than Becky Lynch about her career and life.

But this does not work quell my feelings about it. So while I’m not going to pretend that Lynch is being harmed or her career isn’t being taken seriously by the moniker, I’m also not sold on it either.

First off: Becky Lynch is Amazing

Let’s not misunderstand me — Becky Lynch is a bonafide bad-ass.

What Becky Lynch and her current run of competition are doing right now is pretty much everything I want to see in women’s wrestling. They’re not fighting over men. They’re not being catty because some writer thinks that’s how women “naturally” interact. They’re not wrestling in their underwear to titillate the audience. They’re absolutely not pulling their punches.

When I read write-ups on Becky Lynch, I’m seeing her compared to a lot of the “cool” guys from the past twenty years or so. This piece by Trace Johnson likens her current run to CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, and I can certainly see the parallels. I’m thrilled to imagine that Becky Lynch will, for some future wrestler, be the bad-ass that they aspire to be.

I genuinely do see how the more popular a bad-ass Becky Lynch is, and the more great matches she has, the better it is for every woman in the WWE. Her work is doing nothing but good — it’s just the damn name.

It feels entirely petty to quibble over a nickname claimed in boast when everything else I like is right there. But I can’t quite excape how it makes me cringe. There’s quotes like this that sent my teeth on edge:

That notion is starting to change a bit with The Man, who is doing more for the women’s evolution and the wrestling industry than most would truly grasp.

Or headlines that look like this:

Both of these articles are complimentary. Both of them acknowledge that what Becky Lynch is doing right now is utterly unprecedented and amazing. But they’re focused on her being called “The Man,” and it irks me.

What Men Can Do for Women

While I was trying to parse out my feelings on “The Man” with August, it did not help to learn that it’s origins are in a famous Ric Flair quote: “To be the man, you gotta beat the man!” Charlotte apparently liked to trot out the familiar phrase from time-to-time, and upon beating her, Becky Lynch became “The Man.” So, it highlights Charlotte’s relation to her father (again), and also does this whole “Ric Flair was the pinnacle of wrestling” thing I don’t like.

When I first started watching wrestling with August, it felt like women’s stories were always about men. And while this one isn’t about a man, at least, he’s still there. To be plain: I give zero shits about Ric Flair. I understand that he was a great showman and wrestler. He makes the kids yell “Woo!” with great enthusiasm. But I’m not into him, he gives me the wicked creeper vibes, and I’m utterly bored with being reminded of him in the context more interesting women3.

To be clear: what Becky Lynch is doing now with the name is all her own. I don’t think she’s propping herself up on Flair. God no. The audience isn’t thinking about anyone else when they’re watching Becky Lynch in the ring. It’s just a thing that nettles me: women’s origin stories being evolved from a famous man’s to give them weight.

Another thing that doesn’t quite sit right with me is that it feels a bit like separating her from the women’s division. I understand why that feels like progress to a lot of people — as she has said, she’s letting people know that man or woman, it doesn’t matter, she’s the goddamn best wrestler out there. And she isn’t physically separated from the women’s division. She’s fighting women, she’s working with them, and like I already said: this is good for everyone.

But headlines call her “The Man” while they use a famous man’s name.4 Women’s wrestling is certainly going through a period of growth and wonderful change, but the idea that Becky Lynch is a bad-ass for the entire roster while calling herself “The Man” feels like an enforcement of the idea that women and men are on different levels. Becky Lynch has been “raised up” to the men’s level.

Wrestling is a narrative — it’s a tale told in armbars and dropkicks. Like with any narrative work, calling on tropes that the viewer recognizes is a shortcut in character growth. This is what bothers me, I guess. It calls on the trope that tells the viewers, “Becky Lynch isn’t like the other girls. She’s cool.”

But maybe that doesn’t matter, when the rest of the women are also kicking ass, taking names, and being show-stoppers in their own right. I just don’t know.

  1. You can Google this and find enough reading to last you all day, but the short-version, quoted from The Villainess: “The problem with that dichotomy? It suggests that being ‘girly’ or feminine is bad, lame, and deserving of derision. Stereotypically masculine traits are rewarded, while stereotypically feminine traits are scorned.” I am not critical of tomboyishness or one not relating to feminine roles/aesthetic — only when it is made a point of superiority, of being better than those other girls, or used against men/non-binary folks whose interests are considered “feminine” and thus worthy of mockery. Lest I sound like a preachy asshole, I absolutely went through this phase — but that’s not a topic for this blog.
  2. I often bounce my wrestling thoughts off August, usually to check if I’m wrong. He keeps an encyclopedic knowledge of wrestling in his head and will recount it with great academic enthusiasm when engaged. I will admit to you here in the footnotes that I find it both fascinating and incredibly endearing. Don’t tell him.
  3. I am willing to concede that I’m predisposed to finding women more interesting than a guy not that much younger than my grandparents who has a long, long history of sexual assault.
  4. It’s not the same situation, but Tabitha King talked about how women don’t get names in headlines and I thought it was great.