Owning, Loving, and Hating Wrestling by Heather Hickey

When the movie “Straight Outta Compton” dominated the box office in its opening weekend, most people celebrated. At a time when American headlines are terrifyingly familiar, the masses came out to support a film depicting the story of rappers using their art to rise up against racial/socioeconomic oppression. But not everyone saw the film as a straight-up victory. For as with any film based on a true story (particularly when the stakeholders helped write the film), revisionist history will come into play. And many people cried foul that “Straight Outta Compton” failed to address the misogyny and abuse at the hands of its key players. On one hand, the world needed a film that paid tribute to the efforts of rappers in that time and place. On the other hand, it does a disservice to the victims, whose abusers were only glorified.

While people weighed the pros and cons of this scenario, esteemed African-American filmmaker Ava DuVernay said it best.

It made me think about my own internal struggle (clearly on a MUCH smaller scale) as a woman who loves professional wrestling. Being a wrestling fan has long been a cherished form of escape for me, but also a source of shame. How can I – an adult woman with a daughter – support the efforts of a company that depicts women this way? You can point to the exceptions, but as a rule, the women of WWE are presented as one-dimensional sex objects of questionable sanity. Women’s matches either under-represent their talent, or prioritize the less-talented because of their sex appeal. The company knows how to do things right (see NXT), but chooses not to – so I don’t need to rant about how to revolutionize the industry. Instead, I want to explain why I so strongly identified with Any DuVernay’s comment.

I started watching wrestling when I was 11 years old. I was immediately sucked into this alternate reality, and found it easy – and addictive – to immerse myself. While my parents yelled at each other upstairs, I cranked the volume on my WWF shows in the basement. I used our VCR to meticulously record every match, to be played back whenever I needed to drown out the REAL world. I watched over and over again until I’d memorized Gorilla and Jesse’s commentary. I took great comfort in the ritualistic ring entrances, simple good vs. evil storytelling, and wild characters. My love for wrestling didn’t wane until I neared the end of university, and life got busier (and likely fulfilling enough that I didn’t seek out my regular fix of escapism).

But wrestling saved me twice, and so I am doubly grateful. In my early 30’s, I had a health problem that caused me to feel very agitated, sleepless, and weak. Reading Bret Hart’s autobiography, I became mesmerized all over again, but this time through an adult’s eyes. Now I could watch wrestling in appreciation of the magic that I believed in as a child. I read every wrestler’s autobiography, and used a DVR to record every match. When I couldn’t sleep, I turned to wrestling. When I was struggling through the day, I looked forward to the comforting rituals of a wrestling show. I embraced it all, even the parade of women being characterized as crazy sexpots or hideous villains. I didn’t need to make peace with it, because it gave me more than it took.

I also became more immersed in the online and live-event culture of wrestling fans. Solitary Heather felt a solidarity with my fellow fans. We are bound to each other by an admiration for the fearless brother (and sister) hood of pro wrestlers, and society’s belief that we all have poor taste. Every time I attend a live wrestling event, I meet friendly people. How often do you meet friendly people in the course of attending a sporting event or a concert or a play? It is my belief that wrestling fans are just so happy to be in a place with like-minded people, and feel like a participant in the show. Where you can have an enthusiastic debate with a perfect stranger in which no one takes offense to the other. Where a guy holding a sign reading, “I HATE YOU ROMAN REIGNS!” wants to make sure that his sign isn’t blocking your view of the ring.

But there is also a deeply ignorant and disrespectful side of wrestling fandom that lives in social media and the comment sections of blogs – objectifying women, demeaning the women who stand up for change, and making me feel very ashamed to count myself as a fellow fan. I’m not saying that only wrestling fans are misogynists. But since *I* am a wrestling fan, it hurts and enrages me to know that this side of my beloved wrestling culture exists. Does World Wrestling Entertainment bear the responsibility of providing content that fosters a better attitude towards women? Can we say that WWE programming validates its fans’ misogyny? It’s like saying video games and rap music are responsible for gun violence, which I don’t believe. Being a female wrestling fan is a double-edged sword: the shows that give me so much pleasure often depict women in a demeaning way, and why would I want to count myself among fans who would rather have me shut up and make a sandwich than complain about it?

If I could interpret Ava DuVernay’s words for myself, wrestling culture is complicated by nature. It is both ugly and beautiful. And once it gets in your blood, the ugly side is yours too. That doesn’t make it okay, but that sense of belonging has a very powerful effect on the human heart. We can honor the efforts of (all) women wrestlers by supporting their matches, speaking out against crappy content, and treating our fellow fans with respect. I know that I’m not the only fan who tries to make peace with wrestling. I would love to hear other people’s stories about their complicated relationship with the entertainment that we love so much.

@kickyhick