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.