Dispatches from the Wrestling Underground: Gender Inequality

Currently, you can find hundreds upon hundreds of independent wrestling organizations in the United States. In the Tristate alone the number is staggering. It seems as if a new company is springing up every few weeks to claim the hype and hyperbole associated with being the next great indy promotion, whether that attention is warranted or not. While most, if not all, of these promotions share an affection for a style involving fast-paced, cutting edge wrestling, there is also another common theme these promotions share: almost never are they based around women.

Unlike in Japan, where its legacy of joshi puroresu created an environment where female professional wrestlers were afforded the same respect and critical adulation as their male peers, American wrestling has been dismissive in its attitude towards female wrestlers. If not treated as a joke in divisions created specifically for them, women rarely find promotions built exclusively around them. Only one women’s promotion, SHIMMER, receives any sort of press on wrestling websites, and part of that is due to its long-standing working relationship with high-profile male organizations like Ring of Honor, which occasionally offer spots on their cards to act as a showcase for SHIMMER.

This dismissive attitude isn’t relegated solely to the industry itself but also its fans and critics. Women’s matches in major organizations like WWE are often used to “cleanse the palate” between big matches in an attempt to let the crowd cool down after a hot segment, with the idea being that few are going to become as emotionally involved with the female wrestlers as the men so they are have time to rest until the real draws are ready. Unfortunately, this seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as many do take the opportunity to tune out and use the time as an opportunity to use restrooms or hit the concession stand if only because of the lack of interest shown in the women wrestling by the very companies that promote them. Those that remain frequently seem less interested in the wrestling and more in the appearance of the performers themselves, with cat-calls frequenting many of these matches.

More troubling, though, are the critics. While the fans are often conditioned to react in expected ways, the critics typically don’t follow those same traditional expectations. They’ll be the first to cheer a heel or champion a catchphrase by turning it into a meme. But, with women’s wrestling, the critics seems to be far more vicious than even the most hostile fans.

The most prominent example would be in the critical assessment itself – women are rarely graded on the same scale as men, instead being judged on a standard set by lowered expectations. The rationale behind this being that women’s matches are inherently inferior to men’s so women shouldn’t be judged by the same standard. The idea acts as a warped play on Affirmative Action, where this time the judgment is meant to demean the female athletes by offering them an easier assessment as a reward for completing the same task as their male counterparts.

An even uglier side of the critical assessment goes back once again to the appearance of the wrestlers performing. Where there standards are lowered for women already, they become almost non-existent for more attractive females. If a woman shows any signs of beauty, she’s automatically heaped with praise by critics for even attempting a move deemed “risky,” regardless of whether she shows any actual signs of talent. If she adds a second “risky” move in the following weeks, she’s praised as showing great signs of improvement with no regard being given towards psychology or any of the other aspects by which they would normally grade a match.

In a way, though, a woman’s appearance should be an expected setback for female wrestlers in the United States. For over 20 years, the only notable female wrestling promotions have catered exactly to that – sex, even in its more demure and innocent forms. Before SHIMMER existed on a semi-national but still relatively obscure stage, the two largest female promotions were promoted by a man named David McLane.

In the mid ’80s McLane formed his first female-based promotion Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (G.L.O.W.) and then later tried to revive the idea in the early ’00s as Women of Wrestling (W.O.W.). Basing the shows around WWE’s idea of sports entertainment, little attention was actually given to the wrestling. Instead of seeking out actual female wrestlers, the promotions hired models, actresses, and stunt women to perform as outlandish characters ranging from farmer’s daughters to psychotic metalheads. They were then inserted into bizarre storylines that did little to help promote the women as athletes, the most bizarre being an incident where two women forced a third to bark like a dog and then jump through a flaming hoop.

Today, the idea seems to be getting yet another spin, as a new promotion, Wrestlicious, is seeking syndication in various TV markets, though McLane’s involvement seems to be far less prominent than before, as the new organization is being run by Jimmy Hart. The sexualized representation still exists, and has even been amped up for the new promotion, with most of the characters appearing in swimsuit vignettes to generate hype for the project.

Unfortunately, these types of promotions have been the most prominent examples of women’s wrestling in America, setting an overall tone in which women aren’t treated as serious athletes. They’re good to look at, or good to laugh at, but never to watch in the same critical manner with which we watch men wrestle. But, while these promotions set the tone for such treatment, what aspects of our culture caused these promotions to act in such a way in the first place? If a promotion like SHIMMER can find any sort of success, is that a positive sign? Or, is women’s wrestling in America always going to be overshadowed by an ugly trend of gender inequality?

A possible rebuke to this idea actually comes not from a women’s promotion, instead coming from a men’s organization, CHIKARA. At the end of its last season, a stable was formed by a group of discontent workers, two of which being prominent female indy wrestlers Sara Del Ray and Daizee Haze. In a surprising twist, the turn by the two came for the exact criticisms leveled above: they felt the organization was treating its women as a joke. The two, no longer content solely wrestling each other, joined forces because they wanted to force the promotion’s hand in providing better female competition. To that end, they’re even willing to wrestle men to prove they fight on a level playing field, and are in a position to win matches as CHIKARA is one of only a few American promotions not openly hostile to the idea that women are just as good as men.

Will this, along with SHIMMER, be enough? Organizations such as this only cover a small segment of wrestling’s audience, but such organizations also tend to be extremely influential in the progress of the industry over time. ECW’s portrayal of extreme violence eventually seeped into both of its larger competitors, and ROH’s emphasis on a more realistic, MMA-influenced style has begun to creep into both WWE and TNA. As groups like CHIKARA and SHIMMER continue to grow, will their portrayal of strong female characters eventually find their way into larger promotions?

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