Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Chyna v. writer's block

In the course of sifting through sources for my project, I came across an article entitled "No Cage Can Hold Her Rage? Gender, Transgression, and the World Wrestling Federation's Chyna," by Dawn Heinecken, and thought I'd try to work with it a bit. The author divides Chyna's career into three stages:

"When she first emerged, she was a reviled, contested figure because of her muscular body and the way she transgressed gender norms. She was described as a monster and not a "real" woman. Her marginalization continued when she was demonized as a feminist who challenged male dominace. Her latest, and most popular incarnation, was that of a sex symbol, a role that required substantial body modification. The different framing of of her various incarnations is telling. While Chyna ostensibly projects an image of rebellion, a figure that threatens to melt down the male-dominated world of professional wrestling, her popularity, may, in fact, be due more to a process of normalization than to her transgressive qualities. Thus, her case is useful for what it has to tell us about the ways in which female unruliness is framed by popular media." (183)

I can make no claims as to the factual or thematic accuracy of these claims, not having been watching at the time, and I've read enough pop theory to know that some people don't let the actual text get in the way of a good reading. But there seems to be a pretty well-defined split among female wrestlers, in terms of fan perception, between "real" wrestlers and models affecting catfights. By her third incarnation, Chyna is noticeably less muscular than before, more obviously identifiable as "feminine" (as opposed to merely "female"). I'm not sure if this made her less effective as a wrestler or not.

In fact, my ignorance of the actual mechanics of wrestling makes this difficult to read. You need to be in good shape to put on a good show, obviously, and you need a certain amount of raw muscle to throw your opponent around, since (as noted before) you can't fake gravity. But I remember the clips we watched from the 50s, how slow the action generally was, and how flabby some of the performers looked. (Granted, flabby by modern wrestler standards is still light years ahead of the average American, but I digress.) The Mick Foleys of the world aside, WWE seems to work with a pretty specific body type that's both lean and ridiculously muscular. How much of that muscle is necessary for categorical criteria (stamina, endurance, speed), and how much of it is mostly for hypothetical criteria (i.e. lifting one's opponent's weight)? Does a woman need significantly more muscle to wrestle men than to wrestle other women? Do women need to be particularly muscular to wrestle in the style currently popular in the WWE?

These aren't rhetorical questions, I actually don't know. I wonder, though, about something a fellow student whose name I've forgotten asked after a colloquium: what is Buffy vs. Faith if not a women's wrestling match? (The answer, of course, is a rigged MMA.) Videogames and movies are filled with women warriors, of course, and I wonder if that plays into the issue. Sarah Michelle Gellar is not much of an athlete. I could probably take her in a fight, although I cannot at the moment imagine a plausible scenario in which it would be ethically appropriate to do so. She doesn't have to be: she has a plot device that explicitly divorces her physical mass from her fighting prowess, and all the tricks in Hollywood to fake it for her. Videogame women also have no necessary relation between how their bodies look and what they can do. I wonder if part of the reason for a downturn in the popularity of women's wrestling that isn't sexualized to a ridiculous degree is that other media have given a subset of fans the ability to have their cake and eat it too: women who engage in a form of violence coded as explicitly masculine, while maintaining bodies coded as explicitly feminine, to a degree that would not be physically possible in a live event.


Laury Silvers said...

I visited a DiBiase wrestling camp. He said the women's wrestling matches have typically been used as down time for the audience to rest after and before more important matches.

I'm going to ask on a message board I frequent if they think there has ever been a female wrestler with the precise skills and presence of Lou Thesz.

Given what I read on that message board, many of the guys respect Mickie James. Quite a few tuned in to watch her psycho girl angle when they were not watching any other matches on any WWE product.

No actual point to anything I am saying here, just tossing thoughts into the hopper.

Carolina said...

"I wonder if part of the reason for a downturn in the popularity of women's wrestling that isn't sexualized to a ridiculous degree is that other media have given a subset of fans the ability to have their cake and eat it too: women who engage in a form of violence coded as explicitly masculine, while maintaining bodies coded as explicitly feminine, to a degree that would not be physically possible in a live event."

The first person's name who came to mind wasn't Chyna, but rather Trish Stratus. It's only now that she's left the wrestling world that I feel like I can appreciate her contributions so much more. It is incredibly rare that a woman wrestler comes along like Trish (who was only "eye candy" at first), who can go with any of the ladies (and a few times with the guys), but still maintains that "feminine" quality that you're referring to.

To me, Chyna always seemed like she just wanted to be one of the guys. She didn't start truly tapping into that feminine side until, correct me if I'm wrong here, her storyline with Eddie Guerrero that gave birth to his "latino heat" character. Chyna's impact on wrestling through is still profound, at least in my experiences. When I'm talking about women's wrestling to someone who isn't a fan, they have images of women who look exactly like Chyna. Nowhere does a person like Trish or Mickie James or Lita or anyone like that come to mind. Chyna seems to be the prototype of what a women's wrestler is, even years after she stopped. Now with the departure of Trish and Lita, unless the WWE gets fully behind Mickie James and Melina blossoms into something special, I see the status of women's wrestling declining drastically over the next year or so...

Laury Silvers said...

So far Mildred Burke is suggested at Thesz' counterpart.

Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...


Trish and Lita, along with a few others, seem to keep coming up in class, and might be better subjects for an examination of the interplay of gender and power in wrestling characters. I assume part of the reason for focusing on Chyna was because she was treated as kind of a circus freak by the non-wrestling media, and thus was both a high-profile subject with mainstream visibility, as well as a rather extreme perspective on gender liminality.

In short, I'd kind of like to see a better article on a phenomenon that I really didn't much know existed before I took this class. I think in the post-Chyna period, the only women's wrestling that filters out into the non-wrestling media is frat boy food (i.e. mud wrestling, etc.), attractive valets attacking from ringside, and the infamous bra-and-panties matches.

I'll be watching to see if your dire predictions pan out.

Anonymous said...

Awesome point there Peter, I may have to address that in my paper :)
Chyna was something completely different in women's wrestling, she wasn't just trying to be a tough woman, she wanted to be tough _period_, and in theory it could have been plausible for her character to go after the WWE title. That's the direction she chose, not just towards the women's title. All the other female wrestlers stayed within their gender and never actively went after the guys until Chyna came along, and it was her physique that allowed her to do pull it off. IN wrestling one doesn't have the luxury of superpowers or Slayer skillz or whatnot in the ring, it's supposed to be a mimic of real life (or close to it, let us conveniently gloss over the Undertaker and Kane for the sake of argument). In order for Chyna to be taken seriously as a intercontinental/heavyweight contender, she needed to look the part and live up to her boasts, which she did, by being the most physically imposing female ever to step foot in that ring.

Without any scripted superpowers to level the playing field, Chyna needed that 'unfeminine' physique to compete. Has the women's division been hurt by the abundance of female action heroes in other media who fight 'like the guys' but still look like wispy women? Perhaps, but I don't think the effect is as great as that. Asking JR and Mick Foely about their opinions regarding the direction of the women's division, it seems to be a self-imposed WWE directive to tone down the 'male-style fighting' and to bring up the sex appeal, because that's what they think the audience wants. If that's what the audience wants, then why are shows like Buffy, Alias, etc and movies like Tomb Raider and Resident Evil so popular? Ah, again, notice the trend. All those heroines are: skinny pretty girls! They are far from the muscle-bound women who are serious competitors in the ring, ladies like Victoria, Lita, even Melina and Mickie James. These women have at least 20-30+ lbs of muscle on Angelina Jolie. Because they _need_ it, they need it to actually wrestle, and they need it to convincingly play strong, tough and capable female characters on television. But they are still beautiful women, and the women's division had the highest ratings when they had strong technical wrestlers, and not just eye candy.

As far as I can tell, the strong wrestling focus of the women's division may be slowly coming back despite the Diva Search and the plethora of Playboy bunnies in the locker room, as long as they give the aforementioned women a good push, they can bring the women's division back to respectable level. I don't think that is going to turn away wrestling viewers, I mean, who is going to argue that Melina isn't gorgeous, even if she does happen to have respectable muscular physique?

Sam Ford said...

Trish Stratus has always interested me as a character/performer clearly brought in for sexual appeal who turned out to be a really good athlete and was, for the most part, written in a consistently respectable way, including a well-promoted retirement match that was promoted heavily and seriously. Unfortunately, with her retirement died much serious treatment of women's wrestling.

As for Chyna, it's interesting that she was defined as a pro-feminist wrestler who didn't wrestle women. She wrestled men. When they put her into the women's division, it coincided with this increasing feminization, but her having wrestled men made her a poor fit for the division, since she didn't want to wrestle women.

The women's division heated up only after Chyna was champion and there was a whole crop of talented women's wrestlers (Trish as the star, joined by Lita and two great heels in Molly Holly and Jazz, as well as Gail Kim and Victoria).

Ismael said...

I think Chyna opened a new door for women's wrestling. Growing up I never really saw women's matches and I'm pretty sure I would've been bored out of my mind if I did watch one. When Chyna first started in the WWE she wasn't just a valet that walked Triple H to the ring, she was a bodyguard that was feared as much as any other male athlete. I saw her as one of the guys, but backstage I'm sure she probably had more in common with the women (since she does claim to be the girliest of girls). I think that her muscular body was her key to success. I can't see any other woman commanding as much respect as she did unless they did have a similar physique. I would much rather watch a match between Chyna and a male wrestler than a female one. I do respect women wrestlers but I have to admit, those are usually the matches that I skip during viewings.

Sue Clerc said...

Dawn Heinecken, the author of the article, was my housemate in Bowling Green for 3 years. Her dissertation involved female warriors--Xena, Buffy, Aeon Flux. Because I was watching wrestling all the time, she saw Chyna and I dubbed her copies of every Chyna performance (at one point, I had over 200 tapes).
When I saw Peter's post, I emailed Dawn for comment. I'm paraphrasing: The point is not whether her musculature helped her fight or not but reading her body as a text. Also, the way she was coded when she first appeared, as a monster who was mocked by Ross and fans, but also loved or loved-to-hate by the fans. It might be interesting to look at Laurer's later incarnations and how she's gone overboard to be "girlie" and neurotic.
For my part, I loved Chyna when she first showed up. Specifically, I loved the HHH/Chyna relationship. If HHH hadn't already been one of my favorites, their interaction would've done it. I was also fascinated by the Chyna/HHH v. Goldust/Marlena angle although I recall parts of it now. It was part of the face turn for Goldust, which meant "straightening" his character. I think Chyna was played as a greater deviant beside whom Goldust could appear more normal, eventually. At the same time, because of his "queer"ness, he was the only male who was apparently appropriate for Chyna to attack. The first time she huracaraned (you know what I mean) him, everybody in the arena marked out.

Part of the process for Goldust also involved "shoot" interviews ("" because they were of course not true shoots. For a true shoot, see HHH on Carson Daly's show) about Dustin.
I know it's partly nostalgia, but I honestly think the mid- to late 90s was the most exciting time to be a fan because the industry, or at least WWF, was struggling with how to maintain enough kayfabe to sustain some necessary illusion/suspension of disbelief while becoming a bit more open about the business.
Both Owen's death and the screwjob in Montreal came during the time and the company's reaction to both events really throws into relief how they were negotiating that line at a time when they were also facing stiff competition from WCW in the Monday Night Wars.

Sam Ford said...

That late 1990s era was definitely most fruitful for creating big stars and big profits for WWE, that's for sure, and I think that they did some superior work, particularly with those "shoot" personality profiles. Using more vignettes versus skits is something WWE was very good at during the period. While a lot of the individual stories were ridiculous, there was also a continuing emphasis during 1997 and 1998 to have everyone involved in a story of some sort.

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