Bleats

Australian Wrestling Companies Are Starting To Position Women To Be As Important As Men

And leading the way are Underground Wrestling and Battle Championship Wrestling.

World Wrestling Entertainment is gearing up for its first-ever all-women’s wrestling pay-per-view, Evolution, at the end of October (a week after which the company heads to Saudi Arabia where women are not permitted to wrestle, let alone attend the show without a male chaperone).

The “women’s wrestling evolution”, after which WWE has named its show, has been in full swing for several years now. But while WWE has favoured a stop-start commitment to gender equality in wrestling, local wrestling companies have been ahead of the curve, positioning women’s wrestling as an integral part of their shows.

Underworld Wrestling, based out of Elwood, Melbourne, has only had two shows so far. The second took place in August this year, and featured a main event between Vixsin and Erika Reid for the women’s championship.

Winner winner chicken dinner.

Creative and community manager of Underworld Justine Colla rejects the idea of a women’s and men’s championship, though.

“They are also both called the ‘Underworld Championship’, and the champions will always be the ‘Underworld Champion’ regardless of their gender. Removing gender from the titles removed the unconscious bias,” she says. (Full disclosure: Colla is a friend, and we used to host a wrestling podcast together.)

“The wrestling fandom has progressed a lot in the last five years… [and it] will and does recognise actions over words,” Colla says. “So if we can do everything possible to market both Championships as equals, then hopefully we are offering real, genuine representation to the fandom.”

This is gonna hurt…

Meanwhile, Battle Championship Wrestling ran a women’s championship tournament earlier this year that received top billing on their shows with international women wrestlers such as Ivelisse, Danielle Moinet (formerly WWE’s Summer Rae), Lisa Marie Varon (formerly WWE’s Victoria and TNA’s Tara), and former WWE women’s champion Melina. The event culminated in a young Melbourne wrestler with a bright future, Indy Hartwell, being crowned the inaugural BCW women’s champion.

In order to run a professional wrestling company, there needs to be a heavyweight championship, a tag team championship, a women’s championship and, in time, a mid-card championship,” say BCW owner Matt Phaedonos. (Again, full disclosure: I worked with Phaedonos in another wrestling company several years ago.)

“Each championship in my view is just as important as the other. The women’s championship is necessary as our company exhibits women’s wrestling, and there needs to be a prize to compete for.”

Fly like a butterfly, sting like a goddamn hornet.

Now, though, Melina holds the title, meaning an icon of women’s wrestling is the face of the division.

With the Championship on the shoulder of a former WWE champion, the BCW women’s championship receives recognition,” Phaedonos says. “Professional wrestling needs to be unpredictable to the fans.”

And a non-local wrestler holding a local championship is certainly unpredictable.

Melbourne also played host last weekend to an ’80s aerobica/GLOW-themed women’s wrestling show, in partnership with the city’s biggest and most well-known wrestling company, MCW (which notably doesn’t have a women’s championship).

The fledgling Social Justice Wrestling – a start-up that “welcomes performers of all backgrounds and skill levels and open to the queer and feminist communities with zero tolerance for racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia and any other bigotry” – has hosted training sessions, while Underworld also has a code of conduct to eliminate bigotry and make it a safe space for fans from all walks of life, and this is definitely reflected in the diversity of their audience. It goes to show how being upfront about inclusivity can positively affect the dynamics of a pro wrestling crowd,” Colla says.

That’s one nice belt.

Women’s wrestling fans can also find their tribes further from home, with Pro Wrestling EVE making waves in London, Shimmer representing the American contingent based out of Chicago, and Stardom emanating from Japan.

With big companies like New Japan Pro Wrestling excluding women from wrestling, Ring of Honor constantly putting its foot wrong when it comes to their new women’s division, Women of Honor and, of course, WWE’s dissatisfying marketing of women’s wrestling amidst their 10-year partnership with Saudi Arabia, fans have plenty of other independent companies that are making women’s wrestling a priority to choose from than ever before.

The André the Giant Documentary is a Revisionist History of the Wrestling Industry And A Weirdly Timed Rehabilitation of Hulk Hogan

The real story of André the Giant deserves telling. This is not it.

HBO’s much-hyped André the Giant documentary, which aired in the States in April, finally premiered in Australia on Sunday night on SBS.

Produced by Janine Marmot and Bill Simmons, it follows a somewhat stale linear biography of French wrestler André Roussimoff: his upbringing, diagnosis of gigantism in his teens, his unprecedented success in the professional wrestling industry and his cementing as a pop culture icon, largely through interviews with the white men who run wrestling and are still alive to tell the tales.

Many of these tales are relayed with a laugh and smile, redolent of the boys’ club mentality and hard partying mindset of the time. Roussimoff’s pain and self-medicating with alcohol is downplayed in favour of solidifying his legendary drinking – “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair marvels at his former opponent’s ability to drink over 100 beers in one sitting.

The only person interviewed to really express sympathy for Roussimoff’s disability and addictions is his co-star in The Princess Bride, Cary Elwes.

While professional wrestling has changed a lot in the last decade or so, with younger wrestlers being more interested in video games and geekdom as opposed to hard partying in the age of social media, wrestling has a very dark past.

Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, who is shown in André the Giant diving off the shoulders of Roussimoff, was deemed unfit to stand trial in the reopened 1983 murder trial of his girlfriend Nancy Argentino shortly before his death in early 2017. Jerry “The King” Lawler, whose interviews are used heavily in André the Giant, has been arrested multiple times for gendered violence and has allegations of statutory rape against him.

Vince McMahon, overlord of the industry and chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment who has also been the subject of sexual assault allegations, is largely responsible for the culture that spilled outside of the ring and helped protect the men involved.

André the Giant doesn’t outright condemn McMahon’s involvement in its chronicling of Roussimoff’s decline – rather it lets his words speak for themselves. “When his career was over, he had no value…” McMahon says, trailing off and quickly adding: “You know, to himself.”

A documentary more critical of WWE’s contributions to Roussimoff’s ill health, and that of many of his contemporaries, is unlikely to be made given that WWE is in possession of much of the archival footage of professional wrestling in the U.S.

The timing of the documentary is uncanny. In July, after three years of exile during which he helped bring down media conglomerate Gawker and proudly identified as a racist, Hulk Hogan was reinstated to WWE.

Granted, Hogan and Roussimoff’s wrestling legacies are inextricable – which explains André the Giant’s outsize focus on Hogan, who is certainly turning on the charm in an effort to rehabilitate his image in the wake of recordings of Hogan spouting the n-word being made public.

But with WWE’s approval of the doco and the company welcoming Hogan back into the fold three months after it aired, it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that André the Giant is as much a PR move to change the perception of Hogan than it is a celebration and documentation of André’s short but impactful life.

Though many of Roussimoff’s contemporaries mentioned in André the Giant are dead – many casualties of an industry for which the life expectancy is quite low – for the reasons stated above the doco does not dwell on their absence. Rather the producers again let McMahon indict himself and the wrestling business for failing so many of its workers.

“Did Andre’s passing affect you more than other passings you’ve experienced?” the interviewer asks, the 73-year-old McMahon barking at them to repeat the question.

He never actually answers, though, instead letting a tear or two well in his eyes.

This is perhaps the lone, perhaps unintentional condemnation of the man who is largely responsible for the professional wrestling industry as we know it, and all its faults. An industry in which the death toll is so high that the passing of Roussimoff seems to McMahon as just another drop in the bucket.

UnREAL's Picture Of Women With Power Is Far From Revolutionary, And In Season 4, It's Downright Ugly

The Bachelor-riffing dramedy started as a women-driven guilty pleasure with an raw, emotional feminist streak - but its promise has decayed into a nasty trainwreck where the only lesson is that women will always screw each other over for the slightest bit of power.

“Money, Dick, Power” – the phrase UnREAL’s protagonists Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) get tattooed on their wrists at the beginning of the show’s second season – could also double as its mission statement: women can work, party and fuck just as hard as men. And for a while Quinn, Rachel and the other women of Everlasting, the dating reality show within UnREAL, did just that.

MDP energy.

But given the events of the preceding two seasons of UnREAL, which were met with critical and commercial antipathy and culminated with this week’s drop on Stan, it would seem that that tattoo was missing a few words: (the abuse of) power.

This corruption was evident as early as season one, with Rachel covering up a rape and another producer catalysing the suicide of a contestant on Everlasting. In the ill-received second season, when Rachel called the cops on Everlasting’s first black suitor (their equivalent of the titular Bachelor, the franchise they’re ostensibly spoofing), it resulted in his black friend getting shot, speaking to the larger complicity of white women in powerful positions.

Also in season two, Quinn, Rachel, Jeremy (Josh Kelly) and Chet (Craig Bierko) covered up Jeremy’s murder of two people involved with the show – an undercover journalist posing as a contestant and a producer with whom Rachel had a fling – committed in the belief that he was doing what Rachel wanted.

*slaps VILLAIN sign on entire show*

Since then, a spate of other prestige and prestige-adjacent shows about complicated and compromised (white) women have aired and gone into production, such as Big Little Lies, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Killing Eve and Sharp Objects. (Season three of UnREAL didn’t air until earlier this year, almost two years after season two ended.) Perhaps latching onto a moment, season three reverted somewhat to original-flavour UnREAL, portraying Rachel and Quinn as products of the human condition, not outright evil caricatures.

However, perhaps sensing cancellation was on the cusp (which was confirmed this week), season four went all out in attempting to join the club of conflicted women, but instead it just made them complicit in their own power struggle.

UnREAL has long positioned Rachel’s childhood sexual and emotional abuse as the root of her self-loathing and manipulation. Her encouragement of Maya (Natasha Wilson), who was assaulted on season one of UnREAL by Roger (Tom Brittney), to return to season four’s show Everlasting All-Stars to set up a rape revenge fantasy is, while still a reach, somewhat understandable.

Rachel not telling Maya that Roger would also be returning in the hopes that she would snap and reveal his sexual assault on national television, less so. In a writer’s room full of people whose strong suit is not subtlety, UnREAL again stumbled in trying to address the global conversation around sexual assault, as they attempted with police violence in season two. The disjointed writing that drags this storyline throughout most of the season is a grab bag of irresponsible and retraumatising responses to rape – victim blaming, the silencing and imprisonment of survivors, survivors resorting to violence against their abusers – which perpetuate the notion that #MeToo has gone too far, whether intentional or not.

At the very least, it’s in extremely poor taste to put the words “maybe you wanted it” and “maybe it was your fault” in a rape survivor’s mouth given the current cultural climate.

This is UnREAL’s clearest and grossest abuse of power—“betraying the sisterhood” as Roger would call it, having been painted by Everlasting as a feminist icon that is the rotten cherry on top of an increasingly stale season. To varying degrees, the women surrounding Roger are complicit in his reframing as a good guy who couldn’t read Maya’s—and then Noelle’s—very clear rejection of his advances to save their own asses.

By not outright condemning Roger’s actions and having his co-stars empathise with him, UnREAL gives credence to the notion that survivors coming forward about their experiences is tantamount to a “witch hunt” of “good guys” who might get caught in the crossfire. But hey, Roger got his dick cut off and will never be able to do that to another person again, so what even is justice?

Quinn setting up Rachel’s latest love interest and basically the male version of her, Tommy (François Arnaud), to take the fall for everything Rachel’s done further solidifies that theory. He might have worked in tandem with Rachel, but Tommy’s shock at having been set up doesn’t do enough to separate him from those aforementioned “good guys” who got taken for a ride by a fame-hungry woman.

There’s also empty chatter about “woman on woman crime” and honouring the “sisterhood” in some of the show’s worst writing, which is no mean feat. The introduction of Candy Coco (Natalie Hall), a sex worker planted in the Everlasting All-Stars cast to secure Quinn and Chet a spin-off series, Stripper Queens, is a cynical yet welcome (thanks to Hall’s effervescence) offset to UnREAL’s other feminist blunders. Several times Candy espouses empty screeds about women’s empowerment which is coded as funny because, you know, she’s a stripper. But she’s also the clearest embodiment of the beautiful bachelorettes Everlasting attracts and that Rachel can never be.

That doesn’t stop her trying this season, donning the fake eyelashes and blonde highlights of the women she’s always positioned herself as being better than. (Interestingly, original promotion for the season suggested clumsily that Rachel herself would actually be the Suitress, but she actually just uses the male contestants as her personal sexual smorgasboard.)

Now that she’s not hiding behind “This is what a feminist looks like” and “Still with her” t-shirts (though she is wearing the latter in the final scene) and dirty hair, it’s plain to see how badly both Everlasting and UnREAL have broken Rachel, her descent from conflicted but brilliant into one-dimensional vindictiveness reducing her to the conveniently damaged architect and scapegoat of both shows’ toxic politics.

In an eerily prescient scene (season three of UnREAL was filmed in July last year, prior to #MeToo), desperate production assistant Madison (Genevieve Buechner) “pitches” a TV show to new network head Fiona (Tracie Thoms) in the back of a limo, which Madison believes entails taking off her clothes. When Fiona expresses surprise, Madison asks Fiona if she wants her to stop. “Not yet,” Fiona says. It was the perfect set up for a nuanced exploration of women in positions at the upper echelons of entertainment, and how they might reshape conceptions of power after decades of men wielding it with their dicks in the other hand – however UnREAL’s curtain call consisted of cheap thrills at the expense of women on the other end of of this power dynamic.

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