Monday, October 17, 2016

The Whole Thing Smacks (Down) of Gender: The Case for Intergender Wrestling

Intergender wrestling like this between Kimber Lee and Drew Gulak is stigmatized, but it shouldn't be
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
Contrary to what some might have one to believe, intergender wrestling is not inherently bad. Intergender wrestling is not inherently good either. It is, at its heart, just wrestling. When it is good, it is good. When it is bad, it is bad. Having to spell things out in such simplistic terms feels like something that shouldn't have to be done in this day and age of easy communication, but critics still like trotting out blanket descriptions of huge swaths of wrestling matches because of the genders of the competitors.

Then again, wrestling isn't the only medium that suffers from gender controversies. Society at large still doesn't know how to come to grips with the politics and even physiology of gender. A revolution is bubbling that seeks to shatter perceptions of a gender binary. The reaction to transgender people demanding rights and genderfluid people wanting recognition for their unwillingness to be put in a neat box has been for the conservative people to pass restrictive and asinine bathroom laws, which is funny because as many trans women have assaulted cisgender women in bathrooms as unicorns have been spotted in the wild. But irrational fear of things that aren't in the Bible are a bedrock of right wing thought in this country.

Anyway, critics will offer scientific argument as to why the genders are different. However, with the exception of the function of the reproductive organs assigned to physiologically male and female persons at birth, what difference exists between the static genders? Women can and have taken the path of the career athlete to different degrees, some of them garnering chances to compete against male athletes. Babe Didrikson Zaharias, for example, was a standout athlete in the early 20th Century who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition. Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in a tennis match in the '70s. Manon Rheaume played goalie for the Tampa Bay Lightning in the preseason in the '90s, although her results weren't nearly as successful as the others. But even in the absence of successes or failures, women have become career athletes. However, outside of Ronda Rousey and scant others, these women haven't gotten the mainstream plaudits to be able to sustain successful professional ventures like men. Therefore, having crossover in legitimate sport has been difficult to pitch, let alone sustain.

That being said, theoretical physiological equality between the traditional binary genders is not impossible, no matter what Joe Rogan pseudoscientific types might say. It's not likely right now, but it's certainly not impossible. Then again, what is professional wrestling if not a theater where the impossible, let alone the improbable, becomes reality? Forget Chikara or Dramatic Dream Team Wrestling or Kaiju Big Battel; WWE, the most mainstream wrestling promotion in the artform's history, has had in its canon an undead competitor who has been able to survive being buried alive, can conjure demon lightning, and pop up from certain death like nothing was wrong. If fans can accept the Undertaker, then why shouldn't they be able to accept John Cena selling for Sasha Banks?

The copout answer given by too many people to rebut this scenario is that man-on-woman violence, regardless of context, is domestic violence. This comparison is problematic for several reasons. One, domestic violence knows no gender boundaries. Women have abused men. Men have abused men. Women have abused women. Two, this accusation has been made resoundingly by men trying to play the role of "good ally" without at times consulting women fans who watch promotions like Chikara or Lucha Underground or other name indies around the country who have no qualms about letting women and men wrestle. Bryan Alvarez can and will cite that any wrestling where a woman has to be hit by a man is too much like domestic violence, but how many women has he polled, especially if he's framing it as exclusively a man-on-woman problem?

Now, one would be foolish to think that EVERY woman finds man-on-woman violence, regardless of context, copacetic. However, if one would poll the audiences of these promotions, those who watch these companies, they might that many of them are in favor of men and women being on an equal footing, that a woman selling for man in a vacuum isn't a trigger. Some of those women might be domestic violence survivors. Does their experience trump those who are triggered? Absolutely not, but it should be emphasized that their voices should be given equal if not greater weight in the conversation. That is not even getting into the seedy underbelly of characters and matches that play into the trope of domestic violence for easy, cheap, and in my opinion vile heat.

But using the bad examples, like the Resistance Pro match at the first National Pro Wrestling Day or Nutrious X, Mike Verna, and Tony Nese going full "GET BACK INTO THE KITCHEN" at various Chikara shows this year, as lock stock examples of not doing intergender wrestling is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, especially after the baby's taken a giant shit in it. Imagine if the people using racists and bigots as reason why interracial wrestling shouldn't have happened in the '50s had won out. Again, the pseudoscientific bullshit arguments now hold no weight because one, wrestling is pure fantasy at its heart, and two, because Black wrestlers had similar pseudoscientific arguments levied against them. The wheel will continue to turn.

If anything, those examples should make critics and supporters of intergender alike stand up to the performers and the promotions not to present that kind of rank storytelling. It shouldn't be to keep men and women segregated, especially since the boundaries between the two genders are thin if not nonexistent. Using a gender binary that is eroding, slowly if anything but still eroding, to keep a whole group of wrestlers away from the biggest spotlights, the most prestigious slots in a given company, and the richest purses on a given show is a flimsy pretense at best. It's also a business decision that is questionable at best.

Women are a growing demographic in wrestling fandom, and growing demographics need catering, not pandering. The only way to grow the female demographic is put them in a position of equal importance in any given company. One way to try and achieve that is through elevation of gender-specific championship belts, but again, when trans women and trans men can completely embrace their preferred or "correct" (in quotes because I have no better way to put it, not because I doubt the veracity) gender identities from the ones with which they were born, and when gender fluidity exists, why even have the barriers in the first place?

I can't think of a single reason why intergender wrestling should be controversial. At its core, it's not a fetish brand of wrestling, nor should it be unless it is presented as such. I see no reason why women, men, and peoples of any other gender not listed here shouldn't be presented based on their physical attributes or their talents rather than what label society puts on them based on what sex organs they possess. For once, maybe wrestling should be on the forefront of social change instead of lagging behind. That goes for all levels. A man hitting a woman when presented as equals should not be scandalous, and the fact that it is means the road ahead is still long. However, it is well-worth traversing.