Vintage newspaper photograph of women wrestlers.
“The virtue of wrestling is to be a spectacle of excess,” Roland Barthes begins—but we are wary of excess in women, wary of too much flesh, too much blood, too much lust or power. Too much knowledge: Eve was tossed out of the garden, over the ropes. Too much beauty: Helen slaughtered two nations. Too much faith: Joan was burned at the stake. Excess in women is criminal, and the punishment is debasement or death.
What becomes of wrestling’s virtue, then, when the wrestlers are women? The art itself risks diminishment, limited not by the action nor its performers but by the world outside the ring. The expectations of the audience play as great a role as the action itself; our participation is not optional. “A light without shadow elaborates an emotion without secrets,” Barthes says of the ring’s floodlights, but we aren’t used to seeing the emotions of women so bared. We think we are—the woman hysterical, the woman scorned—but such displays are the wave, the crest and the trough, and the ocean goes on below.
“Wrestling is not a sport,” Barthes scolds, “it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to watch a wrestled performance of Suffering than the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque.” But we have seen plenty of Molière’s bumbling misogynists and not nearly enough of Hector’s wife, sans Hector. For centuries and still, the suffering of women (like the pleasure thereof) has been hidden, kept secret, unseen—rape, abuse, illnesses subsumed, ambitions shuttered—while the suffering of a single man is seen for miles and millennia, broad enough to build religions on. The wrestler is “like a primitive Pietà,” notes Barthes, the wrestler “is somehow crucified in broad daylight, all eyes watching … the deep roots of a spectacle which performed the same gestures of the most ancient purifications.”
Are these purifications unique to men? Have we forgotten Antigone, Cassandra? Let the female wrestler be Christ in this passion play; let her wear the mantle of suffering with writhing pride and endless purpose (because Lord knows she does outside the ring).
But she writhes, and we see not an archetype of suffering but simple weakness; she stomps viciously upon her enemy, and we see not righteous anger but pettiness or, worse, cattiness (her violence declawed). “The wrestler’s function is not to win,” Barthes writes, “but to perform exactly the gestures expected of him.” And what gestures do we expect women to perform? Hands met in prayer and clasped in pleading, garments rended and caresses offered, adoration and mourning and support. We expect the wife and mother, the nurse and maid: When she weeps, it is because her beloved suffers. When she rejoices, it is for his victory. No matter how heartily she feels, these experiences are not too much, they can never be too much, because his are more; his excess circles hers and contains it.
Even when the woman is also the wrestler, even when she’s tasked with “filling the spectators’ entire field of vision with the intolerable spectacle,” she is—she has been—contained. The spectacle is merely tolerable. Where he is righteous, she is only right; where he is vengeful, she is jealous; where he is cruel, she is catty. He is more than human, and she less. The audience assumes so; the (male) announcers tasked with annotating the match like a Greek chorus confirm it. Minor characters, fighting minor fights.
Why is this? The body of the female wrestler is no hindrance in this ancient arena: though smaller than her male counterpart’s, it carries the same vast, irreducible quantities of rage and pride and longing. Her character is no less intricate, her suffering no less iconic. No, it is the story itself that has limited and hindered her: “In wrestling,” Barthes writes, “as on the stage in antiquity, one is not ashamed of one’s suffering, one knows how to cry, one has a taste for tears.” This line reveals the masculine underpinnings of our mythologies, the assumption—not made of women—that one wouldn’t otherwise know how to cry. “Wrestling presents human suffering with all the amplification of the tragic masks,” Barthes reminds us, but the amplifications of women are not recognized as such. If we expect hysterics of all women, why would we be impressed by the performance thereof? And if we are taught to see women’s sorrow as softness, women’s rage as hormonal, women’s pride as childish—no wonder even the most articulate enactment of these emotions doesn’t seem to us an accomplishment worth watching.
Professional wrestling has often and rightly been compared to drag: the costuming, the posturing, the slang. The (male) wrestlers make a performance of masculinity; they are men dressed up as men. How female wrestlers fit into this formulation is a question I am interested in answering.
The women emphasize the traditional trappings of their gender: streaming hair, saturated makeup, glittering and girlish outfits. The effort is concerted: despite the slams and spears, the dropkicks and flying elbows, despite making their livelihoods in the arenas of athleticism and combat, don’t for a second (Don’t you dare, those lithe, glittering midriffs say) think these women are playing at being men.
But they aren’t women playing women, either, or at least they’re not playing the part any more than starlets walking the red carpet or pop singers slinging a down-home vision of the girl next door. They aren’t performing femininity any better or more intensely than young mothers jogging, made-up and ponytailed, behind a stroller, than pretty waitresses feigning interest in the witticisms of their customers, than teenage girls giggling at a boy’s mediocre joke and biting down on the better ones they might have told.
In short, women playing women is nothing new and nothing special, nor does such a succinct ratio entirely describe the complicated presentation enacted by female wrestlers. They are part of a lineage that has always been defined by distinction from the more acceptable gestures of womanhood; they are descended from warlike Athena and man-scorning Artemis, from goddesses and tomboys and Amazons. A young Lillian Ellison (later and better known as the Fabulous Moolah) recalled her first vision of her predecessor Mildred Burke, the long-reigning women’s champion of the 1940s: “She carried herself the way a champion should. She strutted. I could just tell that here was someone—a lady—who kicked ass and took names … Here was a woman like Amelia Earhart who I could model myself after.”
In recent popular culture, the strong female character has shifted from archetype to stereotype, but professional wrestling has always been a little behind the times. This is the costume female wrestlers put on like drag: “a lady—who kicked ass and took names.” “The girls dress backstage like actresses,” a magazine article from Mildred Burke’s era reports. “The makeup kit is brought out and the face is adjusted perfectly before it gets the subsequent terrific beating. No self-respecting lady wrestler would think of climbing into the ring unless her hair were properly set and her nails newly manicured.”
These demands of ladyhood remain, but so does the ass-kicking, the name-taking. The broad strokes of the illusory world in which wrestling operates—in which men are strong and women beautiful—are blended to create a new color when it comes to female wrestlers. (And—to a lesser extent—when it comes to male wrestlers, who also tend to be beautiful.) Reductionism adds up, and the whole is greater than the sum. Female wrestlers both take part in and toy with this age-old combination of strength and beauty—goddess, superhero, Amazon—and the performance, perhaps, is less a drag show than a glimpse behind the curtain, less a putting on of character than a revelation of the self.
Because the woman strutting to the ring might as well be an Amazon: as strange, as enthralling, as fierce. She has fought many battles to get here—and I don’t mean the intricate, demanding dances she performs between (and on and around and flying over) the ropes. No, her war has been won outside it: backstage and down back roads, in meetings and in tiny poorly lit gymnasiums. She has imagined, created, and enacted her own mythology, and she has convinced us to buy in. She has turned skeptics into believers and believers into disciples, spreading the good word. I write at a time when the minutes devoted to women on our country’s televised wrestling shows have increased fivefold from those of a few years ago, at a time when undeniable practitioners of the craft have altered the field so surely that the first section of this essay is already out of date. The female wrestler has left behind Eve and Delilah—and the second-class standing of those roles, defined by loving or betraying or manipulating men—for Lilith and Elizabeth and Joan of Arc, main characters all.
So when she reaches the ring to the roars of a crowd convinced, when she stomps and scoffs and hurls down her opponent therein, her victory is twofold—and no less victorious, of course, if she doesn’t win. The force of emotions her performance engenders is doubled by the audience’s knowledge of all that lies behind that performance: the wrestler’s dedication, the struggle overcome, and the many decades before in which the struggle, not the women, won. The real storyline undergirds the scripted one. “What wrestling is especially supposed to imitate,” Barthes claims, “is a purely moral concept: justice.” And while justice is a woman in our mythology, the scales have never hung in her favor. Now, at last, in the ring: a groaning of those golden chains. To see that justice, the punishment meted out not to the wrestler herself but to the strictures in which she has been held for so long, is a sight, as Barthes would have said, that “possesses that power of transmutation proper to Spectacle and to Worship.” Or in the words of the crowd now coming to its feet: “Holy shit! Holy shit!”
What are her gestures? The back unbowed? The fist upraised? The arms hurled back, head lifted, voice roaring toward the heavens, threatening to bring them down? This is no nurse, no maid: she is a vision we once had and almost forgot, a dream just barely recalled; she is the hero we would have crafted for ourselves, as children, had we known how to articulate her. She is the hero we would have still. I’m sorry, Roland: we didn’t expect these gestures—though we wished for them—and yet she performs them exactly, enormously. We are startled anew; we are roused from our seats by the sight—the woman glorious, the woman triumphant—as a signification both ancient and new is perfected before us.
“What matters to this public,” Barthes says, “is not what it believes but what it sees.” So let’s show the public something better. If the narrative is manipulated, why can’t its characters play any role imaginable? Why apply the man-made limits of our own sorry world to this world of make-believe? But you know this already, Roland. “In the Ring,” you conclude, “and in the very depths of their voluntary ignominy, the wrestlers remain gods, for they are, for a few minutes, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good and Evil and unveils the figure of a finally intelligible Justice.”
Finally indeed. In this century you didn’t live to see, the words ring true and truer, sounding like the bells of a distant steeple: a proclamation, an announcement, or simply a reminder of the time, which passes and persists and remains.
Mairead Small Staid is a poet, critic, and essayist living in Minnesota.
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