Professional wrestling is a man’s game – or at least that’s what you may be led to believe, thanks to popular favourites such as former WWE wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who made an easy transition from wrestling to super-stardom after appearing in a number of blockbuster films.
The “masculine melodrama” presented by modern professional wrestling programmes such as WWE represents the epitome of masculinity, fighting in epic showdowns for a mostly male audience. Of course, there are female wrestlers – as there are female viewers – but WWE has in the past been criticised for its poor portrayal of women. There are those who say WWE aims its coverage at “15-year-old boys who will cheer for any woman so long as she looks sexy”.
Against this backdrop, Netflix’s new hit series GLOW has entered the ring. The show gives a fictional account of the real-life 1980s wrestling television series “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling”, which featured exclusively female performers. Starring Alison Brie as Ruth, a struggling actress who needs a new role in order to make a living, GLOW follows a group of women from Los Angeles who, with no prior experience, get involved in a new televised wrestling venture.
GLOW’s feminism is made explicit from the outset. Despite the proposed show ostensibly being about “gorgeous ladies”, the women are literally fighting the male gaze. The nuances of feminism within the show can be seen at first by the replacement of the white male trainer with Cherry Bang, a black woman. With Cherry in charge, the women find their way together, relying only on themselves to figure out how to wrestle.
As the series progresses, the female wrestlers become more confident in using their bodies as part of their performance, ultimately triumphing in the ring and winning over fans with their physical prowess rather than their looks. As Cherry says to her fellow wrestlers: “We’re empowered, we’re the heroes”.
At first glance, GLOW’s strong portrayal overtakes even the newer ideals of WWE, which has recently made small steps to embrace more explicit feminist politics. It has rebranded its “Divas” division as the “Women’s Revolution”, for example, now showcasing female performers who have historically been marginalised at the expense of their male counterparts.
Yet academics have observed that, despite lauding a catalogue of “powerful” women in their promotional materials, WWE still have not outright addressed issues such as “sexism” or “feminism”. Instead, researchers say, they fall back on the fact that “although feminism may be fashionable in many areas of popular culture, it is still too risky to be named outright by a company with legions of male fans”.
So is there any room in the ring for female wrestlers, outside a fictional context? Definitely. London-based Pro-Wrestling:EVE sells itself as “a secret underground feminist, political, socialist, humanist, punk rock wrestling promotion, for those who identify as women and non-binary folk”.
Though it is aimed at fans of all genders, EVE uses wrestling to help women feel empowered. Its founder Emily Read has noted that: “It’s so conditioned in women to be quiet and small, it’s a real hindrance when it comes to wrestling. And I see women learn to be big and loud and take up space”. EVE gives women a place to enjoy being physical: promotional material shows images of bloodied faces and hard-hitting manoeuvres, adorned with slogans such as “fight like a girl”, “support your local girl gang”, and “follow your fucking dreams”.
EVE goes further than the scripts of GLOW and political restraints of WWE could ever allow. It encourages taking the feminist physicality outside the ring and into the real world, explicitly endorsing and encouraging political activism. Not only do the official social media feeds for EVE promote their wrestling brand, merchandise and events – but they are also used as a means for political communication.
The company posted material firmly in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign during the June 2017 general election, for example. And when Donald Trump recently used his involvement in wrestling to hint at his own brand of masculinity, EVE printed a Donald Trump-a-like figure on their “piledrive a fascist” t-shirt design.
For EVE and its supporters, women’s wrestling acts as a training ground for feminist practice and a way to build confidence to take political activism into the public arena.
With GLOW being such a big hit, WWE taking small but progressive steps in the right direction and EVE smashing through with a thoroughly empowered ideal, it’s about time that wrestling’s masculine image was redressed. After all, there’s no shame in fighting for your rights like a girl.
Tom Phillips does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.