If You Can’t See It, You Can’t Be It: The Importance Of Representation In Modern Day Wrestling

There’s a joke from an old SNL Weekend Update that I laugh to myself over at least once a week. It wasn’t the main punchline, just a brief aside after a news bit about the cop drama The Shield. Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler leaned in close and said:

Amy: Ooo, The Shield, good show.
Tina: Do you watch it?
Amy: No. Do you?
Tina: No!

Even typing it out, it’s really not that funny. But years later, the delivery sticks in my head because it struck a chord somewhere deep inside of me. I had watched SNL a lot growing up, as almost all of us did, but it wasn’t until these two ladies took over the anchor desk that I really thought, “Hey, maybe I should start making all of those jokes I hold back and keep inside of me.” Back then, I didn’t know that meant one day getting paid to write entire paragraphs of boner jokes, but life takes us down some unexpected paths.

When I was a kid, I read a lot of Nancy Drew novels. I was frustrated with a lot of time-period-driven sexism, but the idea of a girl and her friends having adventures and solving mysteries thrilled me. I loved The Golden Girls and Ruth Buzzi and Lily Tomlin and Jo Anne Worley (oh, her hair and that laugh!) and all of these whip-smart funny ladies who got much funnier the more age-appropriate I got for the jokes. I memorized entire Canadian Heritage Moments, and I’m like 90 percent sure they were the biggest catalyst in my burgeoning feminism. Well, that and not being a f*cking idiot. While I went through a long period of internalized misogyny in various ways — I think we all do, for one societal reason or another — I have these touchstones spread throughout most of my life that changed me.

They weren’t always big things. Dolly Parton cracking jokes in Steel Magnolias? Click. Discovering the majestic wit of Brett Somers? Click. Gilda Radner’s existence? Click. Jessica Fletcher sticking it to a misogynist dickwad? Click! Click! Click! Little moments that made something click further into place, shaping me into a person I didn’t even know I wanted to be. The funny thing is, it still happens. That’s the amazing thing about life. You’re never stuck as just one thing. Every day, you can be inspired to do better, to be better, or just keep moving forward in a direction you might be scared to go in.

Being a woman on the internet is, quite frankly, exhausting. If you haven’t personally been on the end of one written attack or another, you know someone who has. Daring to have opinions, especially in something widely regarded as a “male space,” means that, at some point, your perspective goes a little wonky. Rape and death threats, threats of physical assault, gaslighting and slurs and doxxing, they enter this wackadoodle scale where the most abhorrent things you could think of become “welp, it’s not that bad,” or “that sucked, but it could definitely have been worse.” It becomes less about having a thick skin and more girding yourself in this emotional armor, so you can wave off dumb comments and keep going because there’s a thing you love on the outside of it, and if you want to keep that thing, it’s just what you have to do. You can’t just “lighten up” because there’s a constant weight to bear that gets heavier and heavier as anti-female sentiments become more and more acceptable. Because it could be way worse, right? If you’re a POC, anything other than cisgender, or any number of “and also-“s that people view as targets, it gets so much worse.

On the flip side, seeing and experiencing all of these things makes you recognize when someone is doing something right. As the odds stack against you, you find new allies and new inspirations, sometimes in the most unexpected places. As much as I love and cherish my very best male friends and wrestling boys I adore, making the conscious decision to surround myself with confident, positive female (or otherwise identified) influences changes me every day. My comic pull list is almost entirely comprised of strong female leads because there are so many available to me and that is amazing. I can read Joe Keatinge or Becky Cloonan or literally any number of works by female creators and my spirit is bolstered, even if it’s just for a few minutes. I can have serious conversations about making sure that what I’m writing in this very article doesn’t come across as specifically gendered because, while the subject may be female representation, their sphere of influence is much greater than a she/her label. I can watch Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Jane Curtain anchor the Weekend Update desk, and my heart can burst, but I can also be upset that everyone presented to me in my formative years was so incredibly white because intersectional representation is really goddamn important. Click! Click! Click!

When I look at the things in my life I am the most passionate about, obviously wrestling is at the forefront. It’s my happy place. It’s where I’ve met most of my friends. It’s my job. It’s what I do for fun. Every aspect of my life is influenced in one way or another by my relationship with wrestling. When I think back to wee little Danielle’s favorite wrestlers, or all of the reasons I fell in love with wrestling for the first time, you know how many of those people were ladies? Exactly zero. I could love Yokozuna and hate Ric Flair (he was such a jerk), but my distinct memories are all just dudes. When I really fell out of wrestling, it was because the height of wrestling’s mainstream popularity was also the height of wrestling telling me, “Hey, you, little girl. This isn’t for you anymore. If you don’t like it, you can suck it.” Women are objects to be humiliated or sexualized and not much in between. And that’s the bottom line because wrestling says so.

The saddest part is that all of the things that make me uncomfortable about those years in wrestling haven’t changed much. While we have a much more toned-down version (bless the eradication of the bra and panties match), the respect and effort put into making modern WWE Divas as important as their male counterparts is virtually nonexistent. While Jerry Lawler might not be crying out to see puppies every Monday night, commentary ranges from a wet fart of not caring, reiterating that bitches be crazy/sluts/crazy sluts, or that their only worth is what they mean in relation to their male partners. Babyfaces are there to deride women, to remind them that their agency and power don’t matter because they’re ugly/a ho/please see every interaction John Cena and The Rock have had with a woman in the past [all of them] years.

Just as there’s a shift in comics that gives me hope, there’s a quiet, subtle change happening in wrestling that needs to be discussed.

The moment I well and truly fell in love with Bayley as a wrestler — and I mean well and truly, irreversibly in love — was after her title match against Charlotte at NXT TakeOver: Fatal 4-Way. The match was incredible by anyone’s standards, fraught with emotion and engaging from start to finish. I wasn’t expecting to become as emotionally invested in the match as I was, but that’s just what wrestling does when it’s at its best. The moment I’m talking about happened during the NXT post-show. A dejected Bayley is being interviewed by Renee Young, and she wavers back and forth between genuine disappointment and hitting her important talking points, like trying again and wining in front of FULL SAIL UNIVERSITY. Renee then asked what it’s like to represent all of the women and little girls watching at home and calls her a role model, and Bayley is speechless. She fights back tears, barely able to breathe, like that’s the first time she’s ever comprehended just how much she can and has affected the lives of others. Renee quickly moved on to ask about her mother being in attendance that night (like that’s somehow the levity that conversation suddenly required), giving Bayley a moment to compose herself. They move on, but that moment of humanity, and understanding the importance of just what she does for other people? Forever, man. My love for Bayley is forever.

If you follow Bayley on Twitter, or Sasha Banks, or even “crazy chick” A.J. Lee, there’s a trend that’s very easy to spot. Between obligatory promotional tweets, there is a wealth of retweets of women and parents of little girls showing their admiration for these female performers. You look through A.J.’s feed, and there are hundreds of girls cosplaying her at shows and conventions or just being happy to wear her shirt and represent their fandom at school. Little girls toting signs while wearing side ponytails and Bayley bracelets. Vines of girls in shutter shades reenacting Sasha Banks’s entrance. The women of NXT are fully formed individual characters whose matches and interactions with each other are driven by their own motivations, and not because there’s a boy in the middle to fight over or instigate. They’re their own women with their own agency, and it’s okay to be athletic, or affectionate and excitable, or a stone cold BOSS. Bayley’s struggles with The Cool Girls, Sasha’s 180 in an attempt to fit in, and Charlotte’s weariness of superficial friendships are all real issues that girls go through, but on an amplified stage with way more suplexes.

We can watch and enjoy wrestling as this fantastic world of escapism, with larger than life heroes and villains reenacting the same classic stories of hubris and conflict that reach all the way back into the greatest of the Greek tragedies, but when it really means something is when we can see a little bit of our own experiences reflected in what’s in front of us. We may not be able to relate to being undead for decades, or being able to summon fire at will, but we can know the cutting pain of the loss of a loved one. Jealousy, nepotism, pride, and triumph. We can love what we see because we know what it’s like to feel the brunt of those things. To get screwed over by a manipulative boss, to be betrayed by someone we once cared for. The emotional resonance is what elevates what we’re watching from just simple physical choreography and some pyrotechnics.

When young girls watching people dismiss Bayley’s enthusiasm and excitement, only to then see her shake it off and continue to love what she loves with unmitigated passion, it means something. All too often, we as girls are taught to temper our passions and desires. Don’t be too loud, don’t react, shrug it off, know your place, dress with modesty, don’t instigate, be careful, and don’t go where you don’t belong. There’s an envelope of silence we’re taught to fold ourselves into when it comes to what we truly think and feel, and watching a positive, successful, joyful woman say, “You know what? F*ck it, I’m gonna hug Dusty Rhodes and be excited to meet Ric Flair because these things are important to me. OH, MAN.” I am an actual adult, and her confidence strengthens mine. Can you imagine what it does for an impressionable child?

We here at With Spandex will tell you to watch Lucha Underground until we’re blue in the face, and then we’ll muster up just enough oxygen to tell you one more time, and with good reason: They’re getting it right. Sexy Star is treated like any other wrestler because she’s just that, a wrestler. But look at this image, tweeted out this past weekend for Valentine’s Day:

Pimpinela isn’t a joke. It’s not a punishment to be a male presenting traditional female attributes. They literally say they are challenging gender norms, and do you even understand how happy this made me? And if it made me this happy, consider how happy it made someone for whom gender is also fluid. It may not seem like a big deal, but wrestling’s M.O. is to constantly rib and insult those who have any ounce of marginalization. The hierarchy of “acceptable” traits begins and ends with white heterosexual males, and then it’s just a sliding scale after that. Racism, sexism, homophobia, all of these things are embraced at every level of the business, from the New Day all the way down to the local indie douchebag who thinks degrading women is a great and acceptable way to get heel heat.

Lucha Underground celebrates minis, exoticos, and women, and the reason is the same statement constantly used by the ignorant to diminish any and all criticism: It’s just wrestling. Hell, the whole damn show is a joyful celebration of Latin culture, instead of one or two exploitative tropes paraded out and played for a laugh. Is Catrina involved in an angle driven by two men? Yeah. Is the story of her being an agent of death inextricably tied to a man of a thousand deaths yet intrigued and attracted to a man who cannot die enough to elevate it beyond “I like two boys because I’m a crazy slut?” Yes. In every way, yes. It’s a compelling story, sure, but it’s also something she’s doing of her own volition. The story is being told in such a way that you want to see where it goes, and not in a way where the endgame is to simply shame her, brand a scarlet A on her chest and demean her well into the future. You never have to wait for the other shoe to drop because it’s not coming, and it is unbelievably relieving.

Every time I’m in an audience for an indie show and there’s a women’s match, I have to steel my nerves because invariably something will happen. If it’s presented as a “respect” match, where a woman has to prove herself, there’s already a problem. Reinforcing the notion that women begin at zero (or less-than) and creating that false sense of empowerment is exasperating and needs to be done away with. It doesn’t challenge anything, and it doesn’t make anyone look strong because as soon as you take that lady out of that context she immediately starts back at zero and has to prove herself all over again. It removes the possibility of an upwards trajectory because if she keeps being put into these matches, instead of being a consummate underdog she becomes the wrestler equivalent of Sisyphus, reaching that high and then falling back to zero over and over, ad infinitum. The dude gets made fun of for being beaten by a girl, again reiterating that a women is lesser and he should be shamed, and then he can go right back to where he was, his previous “humiliation” never affecting him again.

If I’m lucky, that’s the best case scenario. There are rape chants, chants of whore and slut and bitch and whatever else the crowd thinks is funny. I can watch a show with a beautiful, talented, ungodly smart friend of mine, but it also means I have to watch someone call her a cunt before she can even step into the ring. Sexual comments, wondering how much for a lapdance or a blowjob, or the rundown of a long list of all the things the guy in front of me would do to her whether she wanted it or not, while growing increasingly excited by the idea that she would not, are just par for the course. I have seen incredible matches that have shoot brought me to tears, and I have screamed at men while holding tears back because their comments at female wrestlers and then me were so repugnant, I’m not even going to repeat them here. The idea that the anonymity of the internet is the only space where these problems exist is foolish. The acceptance of that online banter, dismissing the experiences of others because they’re not that of our own, the portrayal of females on screen, all of it normalizes this behaviour in a real-life wrestling audience. I’ve been told you can’t police a crowd, but you also can’t ignore that when you open the door for an audience to act like that, completely free of consequence, you open the door for them to act like that to anyone in any context. That’s unacceptable. And that’s not even the half of it.

Just as there are moments where I seriously wonder what the hell I’m even doing trying to butt-up against decades of nonsense, there are others who exemplify everything I love about pro wrestling. I don’t bristle at the idea of showing people King of Trios 2012 because I know that the Sendai Girls are never reduced to anything other than well-respected forces to be reckoned with. Manami Toyota is revered, and the ladies of JWP are just as over as the beloved male Chikara wrestlers. It’s not a novelty, they’re never fetishized. It’s just wrestling.

The first time Paige used the scorpion crosslock, it wasn’t just some cool move. It was a callback to Bull Nakano, a nod to the strength and talent of someone who helped pave the way for her to be more than eye candy. To be what her mother is. To do what she was born to do. To be totally candid, the first time I met Sara Del Rey, I was a mess, and all I could do was thank her for being someone I could point to and say, “Look, women are great at this thing, too. Don’t count them out.” Knowing that she’s training a new generation at NXT means so much to me. Seeing people buzz about the four-way match for the NXT Women’s Championship all over social media makes me proud of those girls because I know the joy that I feel is the same as other fans of all ages. It’s the joy in seeing something amazing performed by people just like us. At the end of the day, we all want what they want, and matches like that affirm that we can have what they have. Not a belt, but respect. Equal footing. We can be people who matter just as much.

I might look at Pimpinela Escarlata and love them because to me, they look like my nanny if she decided to become a wrestler, but others may look and think, “I’m not one rigid definition of gender, that’s me up there.” I can look at Sasha Banks and think, “Man, I really haven’t ever been cool my entire life, but a little girl watching could be thinking, ‘Wow, she looks like me. She has skin like mine. And look what she just did. I can do that too.'” Others can look at someone like former indie wrestler Rachel Summerlyn and think, “Huh, she beat up a lot of dudes. That’s pretty cool.” But I can look at her and think, “Wow, she overcame so much to get to where she is, and she is one of the most talented, gracious, kind-hearted, genuine people I’ve ever met in wrestling.” I hope I can be even a little of what she is one day. These reactions are valuable. Click! Click! Click!

We all need someone to look up to, but we shouldn’t have to spend so much time searching.

These things are a great start, but it’s not enough. See, I love wrestling. I want to watch all of the wrestling. I want to talk about wrestling. I want to write dumb jokes about it. I want to travel all over two countries to sit in legions and gymnasiums and cheer for people you’ve never heard of (before I try to force you to love them as well). I want to get excited emails from people looking to learn about Joshi and connect them with other people who are just as excited to teach them. I love the community I’ve been lucky enough to build around myself, and I want them to feel all of the same joys that wrestling brings me. What I really want, though, is for wrestling to be something I can be proud of. I want to know that this thing that crept in and took over my life is no longer a thing that hates me and tries to tear me down at every turn simply because of my gender. I want it to be something that not only has future, but a bright one. One where people aren’t embarrassed by it because it’s just a base, carny cesspool run by people who can’t separate a celebration of the past from getting stuck in it. I want some little girl to find her own Gilda Radner, and never leave wrestling behind.

These are lofty goals, yes, but they really don’t have to be.

What I said on the first page about life can also apply to wrestling: You’re never stuck as just one thing. Every day, you can be inspired to do better, to be better, or just keep moving forward in a direction you might be scared to go in. If you don’t use positive representation to speak to new fans who look different, who act different, who have new ideas, you’ll never have new fans at all. It’s hard to look at something you’ve done and say, “Man, I really f*cked that one up.” But it can be done. Change isn’t easy, but evaluating diversity (or the lack thereof) and celebrating it instead of treating it as the butt of a joke is shockingly simple.

There have been times, as recently as a few days ago, where I have been afraid to write something because I know what kind of reaction I’ll get. I’m not proud of that, but I am disappointed that trivial things like male entitlement-driven comments have stopped me from doing something I believe in. But man, I’m done. I am well and truly finished with the assertion that wrestling somehow belongs to someone that isn’t me. Because it doesn’t. That’s stupid. Of course wrestling belongs to me. Wrestling belongs to Evie and Mascarita Sagrada and Big E and all those dumb indie wrestlers I love with my whole heart. It belongs to that little girl with the Bayley band, and that guy who just signed up for New Japan World, even though he’s overwhelmed and intimidated by trying something new.

Wrestling belongs to everyone who’s willing to love it, and those of us who do are as widely diverse as you can imagine. If we can see it, we can be it. If we can see ourselves, we can believe in ourselves. If we can love ourselves, we can do anything. Yes, even grow up to make boner jokes on the internet about wrestling for real money.

And who doesn’t want that?