Monday, February 19, 2007

Wrestling's for Everybody

The documentary Lipstick & Dynamite really opened up my eyes to the role of women in wrestling throughout history. What surprised me most was the large culture of female wrestlers that was forged around mid-century. Some of the readings we've read thus far have suggested that female wrestlers were simply sideshow attractions whose matches did not occur very often. During the postwar era, I wouldn't have guessed that female wrestling had such a sizable following. The female program was an organized affair in its own right with its share of villains and heroes, scandals and triumphs. At a time when society was dominated by the patriarchical majority female wrestlers such as the Fabulous Moolah and Great Mae Young dared to become pioneers in what was considered an already controversial entertainment sport.
What was equally as important as the rise of female wrestling personalities was the role of the female wrestling fan.

From the piece by Dell, we begin to understand how professional wrestling was truly a social and cultural phenomenon by focusing on wrestling's female fan base. Women during this era were expected to be very conservative and almost subservient members of a largely patriarchal society. It was a surprise to many, then, to see women go "berserk" over wrestling matches both at arenas and at home. Wrestling provided a common ground for women across the country to, for moments at a time, free themselves from social strictures and voice their opinions, complaints, and desires within the context of the wrestling community. As an inherently participatory form of entertainment, wrestling allowed women to share a common and equal space with men where they could easily express themselves verbally and physically. This, if nothing else, serves as a testament to wrestling's ability to garner a large and diverse following.

Wrestling would not fall into what Dell defined as a higher art form (though I'm sure Lou Thesz would disagree) that appreciated form over function. But for this very reason, wrestling has been able to reach so many social and cultural groups.


luistenorio said...

I was just surprised by how badly women were treated. It made sense that they were a sideshow, a sort of novelty, but the tough lives some had was shocking. I also agree that the way women like Moolah and Mae Young contributed to wrestling and the directions it took.

Sam Ford said...

Omar, I think the disconnect comes in looking at a particular territory versus looking at the whole country. For the people writing about men's wrestling in the era, they would often focus on a particular place, and the women would only come around twice a year, so they were infrequent. But, when you look at the Moolah operation, these women were wrestling all the time, just not in the same place very often. They were touring nationally in a way the men weren't until the 80s, because they were a "novelty" act that would pop up one place or the other a few times a year.

But I think that Lipstick and Dynamite and Dell's work brings up that alternate perspective of wrestling history. You have the historians' perspective, the WWE's perspective (we'll start dealing with that today with the AWA documentary), the retired wrestlers' perspectives, etc., but the women's story tells yet another angle to what wrestling history really was.

And, in the women's version, it wasn't nearly as much about which classic match took place where, etc. You have a history that was more about the personal experiences--that's meant about the documentary itself, not necessarily how the women think. The point is the women's history of wrestling is presented quite differently and is about personal relationships and struggles more than specific gates and matches and historical authenticity, etc.