Confessions of a Female Badass: She’s a Wrestler

Confessions of a Female Badass is an ongoing column at Curtsies and Hand Grenades where I discuss women in genre cinema.

Kimber Lee is a ballerina, a bartender, an American, and an artist, but at heart she’s a wrestler. There’s a defiance in the title of this documentary that pushes back at preconceived notions of what a woman can be when she steps inside the ring. She’s a wrestler. Not eye candy, not a prop, not a model or a valet. She’s here to kick-ass and tell a story, just like all of the men who enter into this sport of gonzo theatrics and ineffable heart.

Kimber Lee states that she’s always had to prove herself, because she’s a woman. Wrestling is still held back by lecherous ideas of the extent of what a woman can do in the sphere of the sport, and this documentary centers that understanding through narrative and framing. In the opening frames Kimber is seen as a solitary figure backstage- a lone woman in a sea of men. The images used here speak volumes of the disparity in gender in wrestling. Kimber is outnumbered in all possible frames, and director Kenny Johnson focuses on this attitude by using wide shots to truly capture the environment. Large, bulky men tower over Kimber, but she’s resolute in what she does, and she hopes to foster change and prove that women can hang with men inside the ring and out. Wrestling hit its zenith in popularity in the late 1990s where it wasn’t uncommon to see women, frequently playboy models, “compete” in lingerie pillow fight matches and even more degrading examples like mud wrestling and bra and panties matches. Wrestling earned a reputation that at the time was deserved of being barbaric, offensive, and trashy. The World Wrestling Federation plunged to the depths of good taste to compete against rival company World Championship Wrestling and in doing so saved their company and made wrestling reach a level of popularity it has not seen since again, but in doing so they severely damaged the possibilities of women who wanted to be wrestlers. Today, wrestling has dropped the easy, gutter-trash programming (mostly) in favor of competitive theater, but women in wrestling, and wrestling in general are still fighting to be seen as respectable.

Kimber Lee’s mom forbid her from watching during the late 90s, and no one can really blame her, but nonetheless Kimber fell in love, and after her career as a ballerina closed she decided it was time to become what she admired to be so much when she was younger. It’s telling that even in standing beside men who dwarf her in size Kimber looks like she belongs. In wrestling acting is paramount and Kimber’s body language is of utmost confidence. She stands right in the face of her competitors and knows she can take their best shot and give it back to them tenfold. Kimber is an independent wrestler and sometimes competes in matches against men, called Intergender Wrestling. As Wrestling is theater and predetermined it can skirt a lot of the more troublesome implications of seeing a man hit another woman. In wrestling equality can be found through combat, and women can fight back and win. Intergender wrestling is complicated, because it so frequently can falter and merely reaffirms gendered notions of men and women, but when it is merely treated as wrestling and the competitors are equal it can be divine.

She’s a Wrestler utilizes implications made famous in the television drama Friday Night Lights. Wrestling is made special by showing it as a gathering. Fans are seen climbing into seats, the lights are being set up, the wrestlers linger around stretching and later putting on their gear. It’s a production, but it has the vibe of a small town bonding over sports. The Independent wrestling scene offers something unique in the ability to showcase what younger fans see as superheroes with a real chance to feel them up close. Not fifteen or twenty feet away you can see Kimber’s determination, her pain, her grace and her strength as she fights back. She’s wrestling for herself, but every other little girl (or little boy) who needs to see someone be strong in the face of bullying or aggression.

The film eventually eschews its ground-level filming of the action and the vibe of the independent wrestling show in favor of documentary techniques like talking heads, but Kimber’s words inform the strength behind these original images and give them more context. Kimber distinctly understands that she’s more than just a wrestler, but also an activist. There is no untangling the political from women’s wrestling and she knows that she’s on the front-lines of an evolving business as not just an independent wrestler, but a figure for little girls everywhere to enact change within an industry so dominated by men that it isn’t rare to see independent shows hold one women’s wrestling match for every six or seven by men.

There is one final image that brings together the thesis of why Kimber wrestles and it is Kimber signing a balloon in front of a girl who attended the show. In voice-over Kimber states “I’m this girl who just stood up to this guy, and she thinks “oh my gosh I can do this too”. I’ve always said, like, if I have one little girl somewhere, or little boy, I don’t care, that says “I want to be like Kimber Lee”. If I inspire somebody I’ve really done my job.” She’s a Wrestler.

When I was growing up I was yearning for a figure like Wonder Woman to come by and sweep me off my feet and give me something resembling confidence and strength to make it through day to day life. But Wonder Woman wasn’t around. I was forced to try and understand Batman and Robin or the Power Rangers and that feeling of identification was never present in my childhood until I found Sailor Moon. I thought I was over finding strength through characters when I was in my twenties, but something curious happened when I found professional wrestling. I started watching Shimmer Women Athletes right around the time when I came out as a transgender woman, and here were these women who were so profoundly strong and confident and they were all different from one another. I realized that my body type wasn’t all that different and I could be whoever the fuck I wanted to be with conviction. I found my own Wonder Woman in Sara Del Rey, but the great thing about wrestling, and the great thing about Kimber Lee is that she’s making it so that you don’t have to be in your twenties to see that you can be strong. It’s for kids and adults, and in her own small way she’s making it okay for little girls and even young women to say I want to be a wrestler. I want to be like Kimber Lee. I can do this. I can do anything.

Best for Busines: WWE in 2004

Best for Business will be a recurring series at Curtsies and Hand Grenades discussing one year of pay per views currently available on the WWE Network through general overiews, a ranked list of matches, shows, a most valuable player, worst wrestler and final thoughts. 

I came upon the idea to feature a column called Best for Business when I attained access to the WWE Network, and considering my wrestling fandom was spinning out of control into full blown obsession I thought it’d be interesting to navigate an entire calender year of wrestling through the special events that were held. Now, I don’t have the capabilities to research or go through every great match on Raw so those matches will be absent from any discussion, even if I so badly want to talk about the revolutionary status of the Monday Night Raw headlining match featuring Lita and Trish. I do however, want to get into why 2004 would be my first year. I long since got into wrestling and recounted that story in various places on tumblr, here and my creaky “I swear we’ll get back to it” blog over at Push-Cesaro, but for something less serious and more fun I wanted to diagnose a year, and my boyfriend was the main factor for choosing 2004, because that was the year he became a fan. His favourite wrestlers were Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero. You can already see why he’d quit watching in 2007, because when discussing 2004 there is a giant elephant in the room. Chris Benoit is one of the greatest workers to have ever stepped into the ring, but I can’t dismiss his personal life when bringing him up. I’m going to talk about his matches here and some of his biggest moments, but it should be noted that I do not in any way condone, dismiss or sweep aside his actions that are entirely reprehensible. His matches are hard to watch, because his in ring style seemed to contribute to his brain condition. Wrestling isn’t a pretty medium, and tragedy seems to follow it around constantly, and even when matches are beautiful (and Chris Benoit has a lot of matches that are) it’s often trailed by something far sinister, and in Benoit’s case I hope never happens again.

2004 is characterized by two opposing ideologies that split up the year rather neatly. The idea of rewarding the hardcore wrestling fans who care about workrate, match consistency, underdog mentality and formal brilliance is the first of these narratives, and it culminated at Wrestlemania 20 with the crowning of Chris Benoit (and one month prior Eddie Guerrero for the SmackDown brand) as champion of the Raw brand. Benoit and Guerrero toiled away for years and years in different companies, most notably WCW and ECW, before making the trek to WWE and finally capturing the biggest titles, and in Benoit’s case on the grandest of all possible stages. They did this by beating men who seemed more company approved in Triple H, Shawn Michaels and Brock Lesnar. In Benoit’s case he would beat both Triple H and Shawn Michaels clean in consecutive months at the Wrestlemania and Backlash pay per views. You cannot put someone over more strongly than they did here, and for the most part Benoit’s reign as champion was strong and only ran into issues when matches became overbooked (a common trend after mid-year’s SummerSlam). His title defense against Triple H at Vengeance is especially great until Eugene’s narrative of friendship or betrayal overshadows a near 5 star match that would have easily been a notch in the belt of both men and quite possibly the greatest pay per view match of 2004. Benoit would drop the belt to Randy Orton, but I’ll get to that shortly. The other champion, Eddie Guerrero defeated Kurt Angle at Mania. Both men shared in celebration to close out the ceremony at Wrestlemania 20 in tears in what would be one of the most purely joyous Mania moments of all time if not for the Benoit Murder-Suicide Tragedy. On this pay per view is my personal favourite match of the year in that title defense against Kurt Angle. Both men are technical wizards in the ring and in 2004 both were in their prime. Guerrero’s Lie-Cheat-Steal mantra proves to be true as he finds a way to get around Angle’s signature Submission finisher and eventually takes the victory. Guerrero’s matches do not suffer the consequences of overbooking like Benoit’s occasionally did, but he did run straight into the oncoming storm of JBL’s Texas Fetishist heel which disrupted an otherwise beautiful run with the belt that featured incredible matches with Lesnar (where he won the belt), Angle, and JBL twice. His rematch with Angle at SummerSlam also happened to be one of the best matches of the year. However, he’d drop the belt to JBL around the same time Benoit dropped his to Orton and the time of form over all else champions came to a close.

The other narrative of 2004’s booking is one of rewarding more typically ideal wrestlers for the WWE mold. This included HHH, Randy Orton and JBL. Evolution was one of the biggest factions of all time, and their presence clouds over every ppv, just waiting for the proper time to overwhelm a match in favour of the heel faction. Wrestling fans at the time had to have known that Benoit would be a short term champion with the strong push from Randy Orton in his legend killer days. It was all but over when he took out Cactus Jack in a tremendous hardcore match following Mania. He’d be the champion at some point this year, and while his reign was short (the belt went to Triple H almost immediately) he was set for life as he became one of the stars WWE counted on for the next ten years. HHH, oh HHH, the bane of the hardcore fan’s existence. Would it be strange of me to say that I’m a fan of his? Dropping all pretenses of context and future booking out of the way HHH is a solid ring general whose Hemingway with Muscles style of Wrestling is either perfect for the given situation or so hilariously overwrought that one can’t help but find him ludicrous in the most overdramatic ways. That was never more apparent than in his near year long feud with Shawn Michaels where both men would bleed at a stiff breeze, and lie exhausted, nearly beaten to death and telling stories with their bodies that were EPIC in all capital letters 100 percent of the time even if they never quite reached the heights they were so obviously going for. The two didn’t always deliver classics, but it’s hard for me to ever fault Shawn Michaels who has a way of pulling a decent match out of even the most average of wrestlers and Haitch is far above average. JBL is the only curiosity here, as he isn’t as typical as the men of Evolution. He has the size one would expect from a stereotypical WWE title holder, but I guess sometimes that’s all you need. It’d be dismissive of me to say that’s all he had though as his heel character was actively cowardly, detestable, and toxic to the entire SmackDown roster in a way that made me actively hate him. It’s just too bad he didn’t have much more than a Lariat as far as in ring talent goes, and his limited ability inside the ring really showed when he was asked to carry matches with Taker (who was still too reliant upon striking and spooky booking at this point) and Booker T (spinning kicks for days that never make any sort of impact). For my personal tastes I prefer the earlier title runs of the year, and find something of great merit in Eddie Guerrero especially whose in ring ability has always been second to none. He even made a cowbell on a rope match bearable and if that’s not enough to be considered the MVP of the year then I’m not sure what is…..

So that takes me to the MVP of 2004. Based purely on statistical analysis of all main eventers Eddie Guerrero comes out on top with a baseline 3.8/5 for his matches on the year. Chris Benoit and Randy Orton come in at 2nd and 3rd with Shawn Michaels and Triple H following closely behind. In my gut and in my heart Eddie is also my MVP. His strengths as a character come through, and his ability to use loveable heel tactics combined with lightning precision created something wholly unique and in his matches with Angle specifically he was given the chance to showcase the very best of his abilities as a wrestler and as a narrative force with slight alterations on his cheating mantra while still creating matches that were textbook choreography built around either technical or physical wrestling depending on the opponent.

The Worst wrestler of the year is an easy one and it will feel like I’m going after a predictable target, but it’s John Cena. The most remarkable thing in exploring Cena in 2004 to Cena in 2015 is seeing just how much he’s improved over the years, because as he stands now he is one of the most reliable in ring hands the company has. This isn’t the case in 2004 where his gimmick was in overdrive, and the doctor of thuganomics sloppily bungled his way through matches. His presence and the seeds of the wrestler who’d become one of the most popular in the history of the medium are here, but one would be hard pressed to present a significant example of wrestling ability at this point in his career. It doesn’t help that he was saddled with Booker T and Big Show throughout 2004 and in the dungeon of SmackDown, the very obvious B-show, where everyone but Guerrero suffered. This didn’t stop Cena from getting over though, and the difference between the crowd’s reaction to his fun mid-card, hokey gimmick into main event level pops by the end of the year is interesting to chart, because by the time Survivor Series rolled around in November he was a member of Team Guerrero, but easily the most over member of that squad so I cannot fault them for booking him the way they would following his earliest years. Luckily he proved to be an ace hand with years of improvement later on.

My final thoughts are those of both exhausting and appreciation. I wouldn’t have watched wrestling in 2004 in WWE consistently for one specific reason I haven’t brought up yet. The rampant sexism of both Raw and SmackDown is extremely offputting. It would take me far too long to list all the examples of shitty actions towards women, but a few that easily stand out are playboy evening gown matches, Lita’s lack of choice in the Kane/Matt Hardy feud that leans towards rape narratives, and Tyson Tomko versus Steve Richards at Unforgiven echoes queerphobia and transphobia as one wrestler beats another in drag for what feels like half an hour as the crowd laughs. These things don’t make the otherwise solid wrestling year passable. I wouldn’t necessarily wish I had my time back, because almost every show delivered a match that was commendable, but WWE in 2004 was not for me, and I guess wrestling still isn’t because these problems still persist, but I love the fake punch sport and I’m willing to step on these land mines if it means I get things like Kurt Angle versus Eddie Guerrero, even if I question if it’s worth it almost constantly.

Finally the 20 best ppv matches of 2004
1. Kurt Angle vs. Eddie Guerrero (WMXX, *****)
2. Cactus Jack vs. Randy Orton (Backlash *****)
3. Chris Benoit vs. Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels (WMXX *****)
4. Chris Benoit vs. Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels (Backlash **** 3/4)
5. The Royal Rumble Match (Royal Rumble **** 1/2)
6. Kurt Angle vs. Eddie Guerrero (SummerSlam **** 1/4)
7. Billy Kidman vs. Paul London (No Mercy ****)
8. Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels (Royal Rumble ****)
9. Eddie Guerrero vs. Brock Lesnar (No Way Out ****)
10. Eddie Guerrero vs. JBL (Judgment Day ****)
11. Chris Jericho vs. Christian (Unforgiven ****)
12. Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels (Bad Blood ****)
13. Rock N’ Sock Connection vs. Evolution (WMXX ****)
14. Billy Kidman vs. Rey Mysterio vs. Chavo Guerrero vs. Spike Dudley (Survivor Series ****)
15. Chris Benoit vs. Triple H (Vengeance *** 3/4)
16. Shelton Benjamin vs. Christian (Survivor Series *** 3/4)
17. Eddie Guerrero vs. Chavo Guerrero (Royal Rumble *** 3/4)
18. Victoria vs. Lita (Backlash *** 3/4)
19. Chris Benoit vs. Randy Orton (SummerSlam *** 3/4)
20. Chris Jericho vs. Christian (WMXX *** 3/4)

Grades for Each Show
1. Royal Rumble- B+
2. No Way Out- D
3. Wrestlemania 20- B+
4. Backlash- A
5. Judgment Day- C-
6. Bad Blood- B
7. Great American Bash- D
8. Vengeance-B-
9. SummerSlam- B
10. Unforgiven- C-
11. No Mercy- C
12. Taboo Tuesday- D
13. Survivor Series- C
14. Armageddon- D-

Overall Grade for the Year: B-

Sexism within Wrestling and Problems We Need to Solve

I love professional wrestling more than almost anything in the world. It’s where I go to whenever I’m stressed and it’s easy just to sit back and enjoy the athleticism, the storytelling and the art of bodies in motion. This has been a difficult week to be a fan though due to sexism within the Internet Wrestling Community and a couple of things that happened over in the WWE. There is always a kind of “it comes with the territory” kind of attitude towards sexism within wrestling, and I don’t think that has to be the case at all. We should constantly be making things better instead of just being complicit within the actions of companies who treat women as nothing more than titillation or fodder for jokes within wrestling broadcasts while they leave all the actual wrestling to the men. We’re in need of a significant cultural change surrounding the treatment of women in both the IWC and WWE. We aren’t on an equal playing field at the moment, and the only way to get there is to start talking about what needs to be changed. This week gave us quite a few examples.

When I started getting into wrestling earlier this year my best friend told me that I’d have to learn how to start tuning Jerry Lawler out, because if I ever listened to anything he said in commentary it would just detract from my viewing experience. She was right. I took her advice and a lot of the time during matches I turn on music so I don’t have to hear what he or any other commentator is saying. I always do this during women’s matches, but I feel like that’s only putting a band aid on a larger problem. Jerry Lawler is absolutely toxic to my viewing experience. It makes me uncomfortable that he’s still employed by the company and that he’s still on my television every single week. Most of the time I just ignore what he is saying or what he does and wait patiently for him to retire, because his firing is never going to happen, but this week I couldn’t ignore his actions. On his twitter account he recently posted a photo of him staring at current Women’s Champion (I don’t like using the term Diva) Paige’s ass. I didn’t notice it during the show, but when he posted the picture with the caption “best seat in the house” and it blew up all over my twitter feed it called to my attention Lawler’s objectification of women in a way that I couldn’t just mute. Cageside Seats did the right thing in posting an article about this incident and saying that he should not be doing this as a “legend” of the company. Paige would seemingly laugh it off on twitter with the hashtag #JerryJerryJerry but really even if she was offended what could she do? If she calls out a legend she’d definitely get buried. It’s a lose-lose situation for her and a position no female wrestler should ever be put in. It makes me sick to think that this is a normalized behaviour to the point where calling out sexism is not an option because it would destroy your career. That’s dangerous to any woman working within WWE, and that has to change.

The other incident within WWE that brings to light the sexism towards women within the industry was the pudding match between Vickie Guerrero and Stephanie McMahon. It’s true that horrible degrading acts have been done to male wrestlers in WWE before (Vince’s Kiss My Ass Club for example), but it doesn’t quite carry the weight of women wrestling in something gross. I get why Stephanie McMahon did it. She’s a heel and she wants to send Vickie off in the most humiliating way possible and that makes sense for her character, but how did we get here though? Vickie Guerrero is a trooper and a saint for putting up with everything she did while working within the WWE from jokes at her expense to being the subject of every kind of gross sketch Vince could think up. It makes sense for her character to go out this way and get comeuppance on her boss to put her in one of those situations. However, it’s unfortunate that it makes sense for her character. She’s the wife of beloved wrestler Eddie Guerrero and she carried strength through everything she ever did for the company that I’ve seen, but I hate that she was always relegated to jokes and gross out gags. She was great at her job and she could generate heat with a two word phrase all the time, and she went off strong on Monday’s Raw, because she’s always been strong, but I can’t help but feel a little distanced from the scenario itself. Cageside Seats once again outlined one woman’s problems with the sketch, and while I didn’t have as much of an issue with it as she did it’s a problem if any woman feels like a sketch is sexist, misogynist or offensive in any way. The last thing you want to do is drive away a potential audience member and if that piece is anything to go on they most certainly did on Monday. That shouldn’t be happening.

The IWC is not a male institution. Their voices are certainly louder, but as a woman who has made many friends within the IWC who are also female I know that we exist and we like wrestling just as much as anyone else. There needs to be a place where our voices are heard so things like what happened at Voices of Wrestling this week do not happen any longer. There was a comment in a recent review of WWE Main Event where one writer referred to many different women’s wrestlers that were featured throughout the show as “Whores”. This is unacceptable on every single level. The comment has since been removed from the article and the author has issued an apology. Hopefully this never happens again, but knowing the kind of boys club attitude vibe that I get from most wrestling websites I know it’s very likely I’ll be seeing those words in a post again. No woman should have to feel denigrated by an author due to his own problems with women or whatever it is they are doing with female wrestlers on a specific show. There’s also the problem of using “Whore” as a derogatory word. Sex Workers are not bad people and they deserve respect just as much as anyone else doing a job and to call a woman a “whore” as a means of trying to make her feel bad or anything else is just horrible behaviour and it shouldn’t be appearing in official reviews for wrestling shows. Women should be treated with the same respect you’d give the men in any given wrestling show, and it’s a shame that these problems both obvious and subtle seem to crop up on every wrestling site I visit. The writer is taking time off from Voices of Wrestling and says that he will not be reviewing women’s wrestling ever again. That’s probably the right course of action, because to have someone who doesn’t respect what women do within the ring or within WWE or anywhere else probably shouldn’t be writing about it in any official capacity.

I just want to talk for a minute now about why I love Women’s wrestling. In the past year I’ve found another passion in my life in wrestling, and it mostly came on the backs of two wrestlers: Daniel Bryan and Sara Del Rey. Sara Del Rey is a hero to me. She got into wrestling because she loved it and she wanted to be just as good as any man who ever stepped inside of the ring, and if you’ve seen any of her matches with people like Claudio Castagnoli and El Generico you know that she absolutely was. I have issues with self confidence all of the time, but Sara Del Rey and many other female wrestlers (Rachel Summerlyn, Manami Toyota, Aja Kong, Bull Nakano) make me feel strong and like I can do anything in the world. They let me know that there is a place for me in any profession even if it’s coded as more masculine and I can be better at it than anyone else despite what anyone tells me. They are amazing women and incredible wrestlers and it’s such a shame that these issues crop up all the time. Women in professional wrestling are role models. Girls of all ages are watching the WWE and Indie circuits and finding super heroes in women who do suplexes and piledrivers. They are part of your audience and what are you teaching them when you say that they are only valued for their looks like Jerry Lawler did or their only place in the card is to get thrown into a pit of sludge, or reading that they are “whores” because of the way they dress or act. You’re actively turning women off your shows, websites and sport by doing these things, and it’s time that things start getting better. Wrestling needs to grow up, and I think it can. I’m optimistic about the future of WWE Women’s talent with Sara Del Rey training new talent down in NXT. I think things can get better both in ring and in story lines, and fans are going to love it and women especially are going to appreciate it. It’s just up to WWE and those writing about it in the IWC to let it happen and give it the respect it deserves.