The Man, the Belle, & the Narrative Backslide

Lacey Evans posing during NXT Takeover

Lacey Evans was my favorite wrestler in the first Mae Young Classic. She wasn’t the best or the toughest woman there, but I identified with her more than the other wrestlers. She’s a mother1 with an aesthetic that is both on point and my very favorite in fashion; between that and my soft spot for military women, I was hooked.

When she started showing up on the main roster shows, looking fabulous but just strutting a bit and walking away, I was equal parts thrilled and perplexed. It’s a weird decision for a debut, but wrestling is full of weird teasers, from Chris Jericho in 2011 to whatever Bray Wyatt has been doing for the past month.

On one hand, I’m glad to see that post-WrestleMania, she’s getting to actually wrestle and develop her character. On the other hand, I am flummoxed by the character and story choices that WWE has chosen for Lacey Evans — especially as it relates to her feud with Becky Lynch.

Hopscotching Between Parody & Sincerity

Revile in Unequal Measure

An image of the Bennet Sisters, cropped to their legs and feet in a wrestling hold. It includes the titled and subtitle of this blog: "Performance & Pageantry: an exploration of women's wrestling"

While I’m happy to highlight the flaws of our problematic fav male wrestlers, this week I had wanted to note that women wrestlers are not without dicey pasts and cringy beliefs. Canonization of noteworthy but problematic women in wrestling for the sake of their scarcity doesn’t actually benefit the whole. But when I sat down to actually do this, I kept finding that most of the scandalous history of women’s wrestling was the history of things done to women.

I suspect this is less because women in wrestling are paragons of virtue and is instead a reflection of their numbers. Within an already small minority, an even smaller number of women have historically been popular enough to have their antics committed to social memory. When Ric Flair pulled some shit in the 80’s, and Hulk Hogan in the 90’s, people kept receipts. When women got into some ugly behavior, it probably just didn’t get written down.

Without more history to draw from, the list of wrestlers I had any commentary on was pretty slim. I read AJ Mendez Brooks’ book a few weeks ago, and while I found some of her opinions regressive, none of it was noteworthy as bad. On the whole, I found her delightful and refreshingly herself. I think Ronda Rousey’s public opinions are repulsive, but there’s not a whole post’s worth of information there: she’s ignorant and gross, but doesn’t seem to be actively abusing anyone.

The only name that came up over and over again was The Fabulous Moolah. Whether or not her history of abuse was popular knowledge before WWE tried to honor her at WrestleMania 34 is an unknown to me, but the hatred is certainly earned and deserved.

This is someone who reportedly pressured wrestlers to use drugs, engaged in unfair wage tactics, kept wrestlers from career independence, promoted a gendered and sexist style of women’s wrestling, and pimped her the women in her stable without their consent (or even knowledge).

Parsing the (Likely) Pay Gap for Women in WWE

With the main event of WrestleMania coming for us in less than 24 hours, I’ve been thinking a lot about the work women are doing in wrestling. Couple that with my friend Andy (a huge fan of Cody Rhodes) telling me that AEW plans to have equal pay for their male and female talent, and it’s a perfect storm of wondering: what is the pay gap in wrestling between men and women? Can it be quantified?

Trying to find this out has been a hole with no bottom. For one thing, the topic of the gender pay gap in the United States is already divisive — there are people who flat out believe it doesn’t exist, or that it’s a matter of choice that’s not at all impacted by a larger culture of sexism. In some respects, I thought that trying to suss out the pay gap between male and female wrestlers would be easier — they’re all doing the same job for the same company. You could even try to limit comparisons to wrestlers who work about the same amount, who appear on the same shows.

Spoilers: it is not easier.

Secrecy Surrounding Incomes

A Cautious Optimism on WrestleMania 35

Ronda Rousey, Becky Lynch, and Charlotte Flair - promotional image for WrestleMania 35 main event

A womens‘ match is the main event WrestleMania 35 and it is cool as hell. It’s the biggest news about WrestleMania as far as I can tell, and if we were writing a novel about womens’ wrestling, this would be the climax. We started with bikini matches, and now we’re here!

Even better, I’m seeing remarkably little backlash about it. Everyone seems to agree that these women have been working hard, that they’re good wrestlers, and that it has a lot of potential to be a great match.

Honestly, I think the real things to be said about this match have to wait for after WrestleMania. Right now it’s a lot of talk and hype, but how it’s handled in the heat of that “WrestleMania Moment” is what’s going to determine what it means to the trajectory of women’s wrestling. We’ll have to wait on that front, so in the meantime, I have a scattered handful of thoughts on the topic of Becky Lynch vs. Ronda Rousey vs. Charlotte Flair.

The Culmination of a Revolution

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.”

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

Women’s Ambition Through the Lens of Sex Appeal

Bennet Sisters, vaudeville womens' wrestling
Bennet Sisters, vaudeville womens' wrestling
via The Library of Congress on Flickr

My interest in women’s wrestling can be summed up by this one image. It’s bad-ass. Those women look fierce — and their photo on Wikimedia Commons is titled “Bennett Sisters catfighting.

Catfighting! Catfighting is the kind of hair-pulling and verbal sniping that we did in Girl Scouts. Someone saw this photo on the Internet and decided that the best way to describe what they saw was “catfighting.” Nevermind that one of those women may be one of the notable champions of women’s wrestling in the early 1900’s. It’s an image of two women fighting, so what could they be doing other than “catfighting?”

But let’s back up a bit.

Who Were the Bennet Sisters?