Weaponizing Masculinity Against Women

Nicole Bass in 1999, in a white cropped tank top and jeans, standing in the ring

Last week I talked about how the implicit “not like the other girls” trope sticks in my craw, and there’s an extension of the train of thought that actually interests me more: the notion of who is allowed to be pretty.

I think about a lot because it hits personally for me — I spent a long time not feeling able to be pretty and feminine1, and I wanted to be both those things. I had many intense feelings during last year’s feud between Alexa Bliss and Nia Jax. As an adult who understands that “pretty” is a skill rather than a thing one is, it fascinates me how we-as-a-culture police beauty and sex appeal, and how it shifts and changes.

Wrestling, especially in the Attitude Era, is an almost perfect microcosm of this.

The WWE website has a slideshow entitled “Every Diva Ever,” which I’ve been through a few times in the past few weeks. August expressed an interest when I told him about it, so we laid in bed one night and he went through the photos one-by-one.

“Never heard of her. She’s fine, she wrestled in the 90’s. Oof, yeah, I know her — bleak story there,” this one getting said more than once. There are a lot of bleak endings for wrestlers, men and women alike. “She wrestled once. She was a valet.”

We got to a picture that had stood out to me on my first viewing, and he said pretty much what I’d expected: “She worked in the 90’s, mostly got made fun of for looking like a man.”

So, folks, we’re gonna talk about Nicole Bass, swing on by Chyna, and talk (not for the last time) about how wrestling has stomped on women who don’t look fit into their current culture aesthetic of attractiveness.

A Brief History of Nicole Bass

Nicole Bass worked for WWE for four months, during a time where I barely paid wrestling any mind.2 Which is why I’m just now learning that Debra’s breasts were nicknamed “the puppies.”

I decided that the best way to get a feel for how Nicole Bass was presented in her era is to watch her in action. Her introduction in April 1999 is complete with one of the commentary dudes going, “She’s a monster!” And y’all, it ain’t getting better from there.

In May 1999 she stands in for Sable in an evening gown match3, and this time commentary offers a more succinct “Yikes!” as she emerges in a gown. “Debra looks like she’s just seen a monster — and by the way, she has!” Or somehow less tastefully, “We wanted to see puppies, but instead we got a dog!” When it looks like Nicole might actually get to do some wrestling, some dude runs in and hits her over the head with a guitar. (My complex thoughts on inter-gender wrestling are going to have to wait, so for now, I’ll just say that I’ve watched this clip three times now, and I cringe at this point every time.)

A week later, the men on commentary can’t stop talking about how repulsive Nicole Bass is; as she walks out with Sable, jokes are made about “Beauty and the Beast.” One guy4 comes right out and says, “That Nicole Bass sure is one big dude,” alongside jokes about how “highly accessible” Sable is. When Shaun Michaels comes out, he points at Nicole and says, “First of all, step off, mister.”

But in June 1999, they have Nicole Bass in a bikini match on her own, rather than as a bait-and-switch surprise. It’s a dubious honor, especially as she’s the butt of the joke the whole time. Her music starts and the crowd is not into it; every time they say her name, she gets more audible boos than cheers.

I always feel bad for wrestlers who get boo’d universally (yes, even him) but especially so here when it’s at a woman who has, as far as I can tell, has done nothing wrong. The audience just doesn’t want to fuck her, and the commentary reinforces that they shouldn’t want to. Lawler says in a bit of shock, “I have to say, I’m impressed,” when Nicole struts in her bikini and shows off her impressive physique.

This all ends with Lawler having the crowd vote for “Debra and her puppies” or “Nicole and her Cujos.” Then the man with Nicole tells her she’s a screw-up and he’s tired of her messing everything up. I was so relieved when the video ended with her yelling back in his face, “Screw you!” and then storming away in her sparkly green bikini, her shoulders square.

I got curious about how the commentary treated Chyna, who I do remember from when I was a teenager and heard many a “she’s a dude” joke about. At her debut, the commentary at least acknowledges her womanhood: “that huge woman,” “that Amazon!” I skimmed a few more clips on YouTube, and she seems to have done pretty well considering her era. She got to be both sexy and capable. But then again, the WWE chewed her up and spit her out, so it’s not like it did her any favors.

Treated Differently for Looking Different

Look, if you’re reading this and no one has ever made you feel weird and different about how you look, I am genuinely happy for you and also don’t know how I can explain the way it can under your skin and sticks around.

The women in this era clearly aren’t coming out all roses about it. Nicole Bass filed a sexual harassment lawsuit, wherein she says she was “horrified and disgusted” by Shaun Michael’s behavior toward her. And Chyna, when asked if she’d do it again,5 cried. “Just don’t get famous, because they will destroy you.”

Concurrent to the Attitude Era of wrestling, the desirable aesthetic for a woman was transitioning from the waif look to the “flat stomach, but also tits and ass” look. That’s evident in the women who worked for WWE in the time, both the ones who got popular for fitting that mold and those who didn’t. Nicole Bass and Chyna were physically intimidating while breaking that mold. They were both bodybuilders, which both lends itself to a certain look6 and isn’t often appreciated on women, because it doesn’t lean into the slim hourglass shape. Commentators and fans alike wielded some perceived masculinity against them rather than admiring it.

One of the things that makes me so angry for them is that this wasn’t an intentional character choice — this was just about WWE leaning into sexist bullshit, because writers, commentators, and fans felt like a woman’s first value was fuckability.

It would be one thing if a wrestler’s character is about being hypermasculine or leaning into androgyny, but in both cases, they were clearly trying to fit in in some way. Nicole Bass is wearing a crop top. Chyna’s aesthetic is clearly feminine, even if not all evening gowns and strapless bras and towering heels. Everything I’ve ever found about Chyna indicates that she wanted to be considered beautiful and sexy and felt like she couldn’t. I ache for her that she worked in an era that made her feel so out of place.

Right now our cultural aesthetic is very health-conscious, and being lithe and muscular and strong are all seen as attractive qualities. Current women in wrestling fit this aesthetic to a tee, and it makes perfect sense. They’re athletes, they train, and it is literally their job to be both strong and attractive — and that’s largely true for men as well. I do feel like there’s a greater diversity of body type and aesthetic among men. Maybe that’s just because there are twice as many of them, and it’ll change as more women get into wrestling.

All said I suspect Nicole Bass would still get called “gross” by the average dude. And if I’m wholly honest, I’m not attracted to heavily muscular men — and I think it’s fine if a man isn’t attracted to a heavily muscular woman. But there’s a difference between not being attracted to someone and disparaging them because they don’t look like someone you want to have sex with.

  1. Not because I was tough or muscular. I’m short, fat, and awkward.
  2. My family had just moved to Japan at the time, and we did not have timely access to television airing in the US. I have no actual idea how people around me who watched wrestling kept up with it.
  3. For fuck’s sake. If you don’t know what’s up with this, like I didn’t, the goal is to tear off the other woman’s evening gown, stripping her down to bra and panties. I watched a clip where an evening gown match was used to determine the women’s champion. I remain aghast at the whole thing.
  4. I can very rarely tell commentary speakers apart, but especially when I hate them.
  5. I highly recommend this article on Chyna — it was fascinating and heartbreaking.
  6. I ended up at this interesting piece on the way that bodybuilding aesthetics have changed in men over the last century, and I suspect that we’d see a similar trend in women bodybuilders.