“How The Power Of Women’s Wrestling Helped Me Navigate My Gender Journey”
As a trans woman, people are often surprised that I’m a devoted fan of professional wrestling. Yes, it’s a world that’s traditionally perceived as macho, but my love for it has been key to my gender journey. There’s an inherent queerness to wrestling, both in the physical intimacy between performers of the same gender and the sense of camp. Wrestling has always felt very trans to me. It’s an art form where the human body is the canvas; your physical form can be remade to better reflect your identity. What are steroids if not a kind of hormone replacement therapy? There’s something especially empowering about the tough-as-nails participants of women’s wrestling: when I’m going through hard times, I think about the incredible pain and punishment I’ve seen them endure, and I feel like I can endure, too.
For decades in the US, the notion of women in the ring was considered a ‘special attraction’, not serious business. Often, women were relegated to the ‘valet’ position, accompanying male wrestlers to the ring, acting as eye-candy or maybe as villains to get under the audience’s skin. In spite of this, in the 1980s, as the then-WWF (now WWE) was exploding to national attention, female wrestler Wendi Richter was briefly as popular with audiences as Hulk Hogan, until the company effectively shut down its women’s division. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, women became more prominent, but still as a sideshow, wrestling in lingerie or doing degrading stunts for the male gaze. Wrestlers of this era, such as Mickie James, Lita and Trish Stratus, were rarely allowed to work with the pure athleticism of their male peers.
Outside of WWE, women such as Mercedes Martinez and Sara Del Rey, working for all-female independent promotions such as Shimmer and Shine, pioneered a harder-hitting style, inspired by the physical intensity of Japanese women’s wrestling, joshi. In the 1980s and ’90s, joshi stars Bull Nakano, Aja Kong and The Crush Gals were pop-culture icons in Japan, as successful as their male counterparts and taken just as seriously. For fans and historians, the golden age of joshi is considered some of the highest-quality wrestling ever, because of the athletic prowess of women including Chigusa Nagayo, Lioness Asuka and Noriyo Tateno, who moved at lightning speed, twisting their bodies into impossible combinations and destroying each other with monstrous suplexes and body slams.
Over the past decade, there’s been a worldwide surge in the visibility of women’s wrestling. By the 2010s, the WWE finally gave into growing demand for inclusion, and performers such as Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, Bayley and Bianca Belair became some of its most beloved superstars. New companies including All Elite Wrestling have platformed incredible talents such as Dr Britt Baker, DMD – a full-time dentist and main-event wrestler – badass British brawler Jamie Hayter and the effervescent Willow Nightingale. Phenomenal Japanese talents including Emi Sakura (a joshi veteran whose in-ring look is inspired by Freddie Mercury), and Maki Itoh, who parodies the ‘kawaii’ J-Pop aesthetic while kicking ass, have also risen in popularity. Streaming means that joshi now attracts cult audiences worldwide as well as within Japan, and women’s wrestling regularly draws just as many, if not more, viewers as men’s.
At a time when women’s autonomy over our bodies is under threat, I find women’s wrestling so inspiring because it’s all about agency. Wrestling is ‘fake’, with matches planned out in advance, so performers can choose how much punishment they take. Seeing women kicking ass and bleeding on screen is genuinely empowering to me; it’s the embodiment of our right to choose what we do with our own bodies. When I watch these wrestlers take punishment in the ring – and dish it out in equal measure – it makes it a little easier for me to endure the injustices and challenges I face as a trans woman. Women wrestlers can fight and survive in spite of the pain, so maybe I can too.
5 Iconic Women’s Wrestling Matches To Watch
Nadine Smith is a writer and critic based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in publications including The Fader, Pitchfork, Texas Monthly and Los Angeles Times
Bianca Belair; Session Moth Martina vs. Maki Itoh; Sasha Banks vs Alexa Bliss; Jamie Hayter; Dakota Kai, Iyo Sky and Bayley, Alamy