The first ‘What you see when you’re not looking’ post was originally going to include this topic. Then the first turned out to be longer than I expected and I didn’t want to do this point a disservice by tagging it onto the end of something else. So, this is part two – on why wrestling has to stop clinging to the sex industry.
When we took a step back from blogging and observed without commenting, it became clearer to me just how much the sex industry remains unnecessarily intertwined with the wrestling business. The truth is, we should have cut those apron strings years ago. It’s outdated. It’s harmful to the business as it moves forward and becomes more popular – especially with children – and it’s damaging to the position of women in the industry. WWE is probably cleaner than it’s ever been, but on the independent scene, wrestling’s fixation with the sleazier side is reigning in its potential to be a legitimate and credible form of entertainment. It’s not good enough to say that wrestling is sleazy and always will be. It can change, if promotions are inclined to put the wheels in motion.
For all the rose-tinted harping back to the late 1990s and the 2000s, it was murky. When the American government feel the need to intervene, you know you’re getting something wrong. It was time to start cleaning up wrestling. The government’s concerns largely surrounded health, but wrestling needed an overhaul in every way. The landscape has changed dramatically since I first became a wrestling fan in 1997. It’s changed since we started this blog in 2009. But it’s hit a stumbling block, particularly when it comes to women.
I’m confident we’ll never see a repeat of Trish Stratus barking like a dog on her hands and knees on worldwide television again. I sincerely hope that bra and panties matches have been left in the ‘what were we thinking?’ category of wrestling history. But the connection to the porn industry that hangs around wrestling like a stale smell the day after a party is just one of the reasons I sometimes find it embarrassing to plug it as entertainment to my friends and family and to the young children in my life.
I fully appreciate that not all promotions are looking to be family friendly, although I think they could do a better job at letting families know when a show won’t be for kids. I also acknowledge that being a woman in my early thirties, I’m looking for something very different to what I was searching for when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Your tastes change. You become more discerning. You have a clearer view of what you will and won’t let slide without comment. When I was much younger, when hormones were raging, I was terribly unsure of myself and every conversation felt like it had to be loaded with sniggering innuendo and sexuality. I wasn’t as concerned with women’s place in wrestling. I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t really know how to protest it. I have changed, the world has changed and wrestling has changed. It just needs one last, very easy push to make itself properly current.
Outside the CHIKARA and Shimmer bubble, wrestling still feels sexist. It makes me sad when fans at British wrestling shows are genuinely surprised when the couple of women on the card put on a great match. It’s especially disappointing when they feel the need to point out that they’re ‘Really good, and not just good for girls, either’. WWE has to take some of the responsibility here. For almost everyone it’s the first wrestling they’re exposed to. If their promotion of women involves nothing but one-minute matches and boyfriend or beauty stories, we’re not telling the young people and children watching that women have more to offer. It should be a given, but it isn’t. It just feeds the notion that the female purpose in wrestling is merely decorative. The rest of the responsibility lies with anyone who doesn’t make an effort correct these archaic views.
Women already struggle to get their names on the card in both mainstream and indie wrestling (British and overseas) simply because the impression is that crowds won’t get behind them. When, for example, porn stars or exotic dancers are hired to act as valets, interval entertainment or even makeshift wrestlers, the female wrestlers find themselves competing with both the male talent and the additional bookings. Very rarely are men hired in wrestling because they’ve had a career in the sex industry. You’ll never see a man on the roster overshadowed by someone who works in porn. It’s blatant pandering to dinosaurs of the game and hormone infested young men who have money to burn. Just because the lowest common denominator sells, it doesn’t mean you should sell it. If your wrestling and your stories are good you shouldn’t need porn, and a little social conscience goes an awful long way.
I’m not on a crusade against sex. We’re all grown-ups and we all enjoy our sex lives. I’m not even trying to banish pornography. It’s not my cup of tea, but as long as it isn’t hurting anyone, I don’t subscribe to the idea that it’s universally a terrible thing. Most crucially, I’m not suggesting we rid wrestling of ‘attraction’. It’s a highly visual medium and aesthetics are crucial. Wrestlers, particularly in the mainstream, are hired for their good (or less so) looks to fit who the company wants them to be; just like actors in a TV show. It’s obviously not the only reason talent are hired, but having ‘a look’ that you then shape the stories around – whether appealing to the eye or not – is a fundamental part of wrestling. The irony that I’m writing this post on a website called Wrestlegasm isn’t lost on me. And I’m definitely not ignoring that ultimately wrestling is a load of oiled, half-naked folk rolling around with each other with a story as its backdrop. But there is a stark difference between Dolph Ziggler and AJ Lee kissing on camera to sell their relationship, for example, and sex for the sake of selling sex. The latter is what we need to move away from.
Wrestling, and indie wrestling especially, needs to think carefully about the language it uses, too. You can only pull the Jack Swagger/Zeb Colter trick of being outlandishly politically incorrect if you’re making it absolutely clear that the views your ‘characters’ are peddling are completely unacceptable. Without the caveat of million-dollar TV contracts hanging over your head, there’s little incentive to get that balance right every single time. It’s not enough just to book women on shows. How they’re treated is important too. On the unregulated and non-televised circuit, women are sometimes on the receiving end of unsavoury sexual banter. Eva Wiseman recently wrote an excellent column in the Observer on lad culture in universities. She talked about how you can find it difficult to remove yourself from derogatory behaviour and language because when you’re in a group where it’s expected, you play along to fit in. It’s the only option. There is an awful lot of that in wrestling. I believe it’s one of the reasons so many people leave wrestling as they grow older.
There’s a great deal of tolerating what was once acceptable and it’s very disappointing. I’d like to see braver booking, cleverer stories and less reliance on the sex industry to raise interest in wrestling products. The gap between the two needs to grow larger. Fans will follow where promoters lead. They just need to have the courage to move forward.