Unladylike by Heather Bandenburg
Unladylike is narrative non fiction that tells the story of women within wrestling from the perspective of my own journey. And I am a very unlikely candidate. When I started to wrestle six years ago the word feminism was hated like a panto villain. Through a lot of determined misbehaving, I've been part of a movement to create a punk, humanist space away from the steroid-upped, macho-capitalist world of the WWE. This book is about that world. It aims to be funny and honest, rooted in making wrestling accessible. About resilience and community. And lycra.
We need to talk about stereotypes (an extract)
Characters in wrestling are never subtle. They require a hundred percent commitment from the performer to not only tell a story of good versus evil, but to portray this while doing something considerably dangerous. The wrestling ring is a performance arena, where a violent panto is carried out, the frustrations and joys of the audience mapped on to it, a spectacle that suspends disbelief. In the same way that we can accept that the violence in wrestling is fake if it entertains us, we will believe a character is a person's real nature if they act engagingly enough.
Before you add the death defying moves and the pomp of rippling muscle, the battle between 'good' and 'bad' is what is most integral to the performance. The audience must know which wrestler corresponds with either side of their moral compass, one that is intrinsically linked to the society around them. A wrestler portrays their goodness or badness through their costume, their music, their facial expressions, even the way they enter the ring. They then have roughly fifteen minutes to tell a whole story so exciting that the audience are out of their seats. There is no script, there is no time to rehearse, there is no editing suite. There is no time for the audience to reflect on the bad guy’s abusive childhood and how this relates to him carrying the head of a bear into the ring. Nor is there time to explore the self-image of the woman in the gold bikini who hi fives the kids in the front row. One is good, because she's pretty and happy; and one is bad, because he's tortured and deranged.
We need to talk about stereotypes - because as soon as you accept their use to indicate good and evil, it becomes a slippery slope.
Let's take an example – the voodoo witch doctor. This a character that re-occurs again and again in wrestling – evil, mysterious, powerful. In the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW), a women's only promotion in the 1980s every character had gimmicks like porn monikers. The character Black Magic blew dust in opponents faces. In the 1990’s the WWE bought in Papa Shango. This character is widely considered to be one of the most racist characters in wrestling industry, though still remembered fondly by fans. Why? Because Papa Shango with his skull make-up and top hat is a 'relateable' steretype of a black person written by and for a white, male audience.
However, using these past examples is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. What about now, in the lovely, leftwing, co-dependent UK wrestling circuit I inhabit? Well, to date I've seen three 'witch doctor' gimmicks:
1. Baloo the Aborignal Witch Doctor . At a show with 20 people where I sold t shirts for free entry, a white, skinny boy walked to the ring to the sound of didgeridoos. He talked nonsense and pointed at the audience with what appeared to be a curtain rail with some fake fur stuck to the top (the kind that you get for a pound a metre on the market). His entire body was painted blue. He didn't wrestle particularly well and I never saw him again. Throughout the match I was thinking about what would happen if he walked out the door, a few feet away, to Croydon High Street?
2. Santaria. Outside of his gimmick, a very quiet, cynical, man, who drove a van for Asda and had a huge selection of Christmas jumpers. He would put on a ripped white suit, paint his face like a skull, and suddenly would then just smile, terrifyingly, instead of speaking. If you wanted to talk to him you had to do it before the make up was on because then he became someone else. He would walk along the top rope and do flips, which considering he was almost seven foot tall was impressive to see. He was something undead, like a zombie. Sanataria, seemed to be an outlet for his otherwise very normal life.
3. Amarah, the Voodoo queen. I met Amarah when she was on a show I was presenting. Backstage she was a bubbly delight but she transformed, fully, in the ring. Covered in white make up, talc, her tongue pierced, white contact lenses, screaming in to the faces of the terrified audience – the whole shebang. I never asked her directly, but she told Italian Vanity Fair in an interview, “Amarah is not a racial stereotype, I wear the make up of my Mother's matriarchal village in Nigeria where women are revered. If people think that me representing this element of my cultural past is offensive they need to think about what they're saying.”
Amarah has created her own character based on something she deems to be a powerful reflection of herself. I also think a woman crafting a character is very different than a person being given a character because of the colour of their skin, or a white person deciding to just 'try on' voodoo for a cheap boo. Yet these are still how some gimmicks are created in wrestling. I know two promotions in the UK run by a woman. I know of none run by a person of colour. Wrestling is written by one group of people, white men. The only way to change the problematic bits is to give someone else a go at deciding who the story is about.
This is why we need to talk about stereotypes. There is of course, the extremes of racial stereotyping within wrestling, but then there's also gender stereotyping. If you are a woman in this industry you will always be a 'female wrestler', never just a wrestler. The stereotypes that befit a woman follow us as we try and create characters. The ditzy manic pixie dream girl who the audience root for. The slut who cheats to win. Women are encouraged to remain in these boxes to 'get more bookings'. In other words, to fit neatly in to a storyline written by and for men.
But what happens when you create a spectacle in the ring that is not made by and for men? In those early days of my wrestling career, this idea was so radical it was unthinkable. That's why I decided that if I was going to be a wrestler, I would claim this in a way that was radically female. That is why my first wrestling gimmick was an oversexed frog who used a vaginal-based signature move. I wanted to do everything within my power to make women love me and make men’s dicks scared.
As I said, we need to talk about stereotypes. Not just in order to reveal them, but to use them as a weapon.
Heather Bandenburg (@ranabitesback) is a wrestling journalist and feminism scholar. She is is involved with the London wrestling scene and runs a Cher-themed cabaret night.
Unladylike is less than 10% from being fully crowdfunded for publication and the deadline is the 2nd of November. To support this project please visit: www.unbound.com/books/unladylike
(Photo credit: Head Drop Photography: www.robbrazierphoto.com)