Like high heels are an integral part of the stereotypical image of femininity, heels are a necessity for wrestling.
Sports entertainment is the name of the game; entertainment needs a story, and a story isn’t a story without conflict.
Unfortunately for us, the conflicts in most female feuds tend to stem from madness and melodrama rather than ambition and the will to prove themselves. There are definite “genres” of female heels and all come with their own problems which avoid admitting the value and quality of the athletes behind the gimmicks. Recently, with the Women’s Revolution, we’ve seen a change, and it’s one I like.
One “genre” that spans wrestling across all time is the female hoss: athletes like Nia Jax or Bull Nakano. (For an excellent view on the possibly harmful nature of Jax’s gimmick, click here.) These women are powerhouses of strength and technical ability, set apart by their size from the normal build favoured by Vince McMahon.
Jax and Nakano are intimidating, no doubt about it. But in terms of the fallacy of the strong female wrestler, they’re the safest. Bull Nakano, especially, with her futuristic look and gravity defying mullet obviously diverges from the stereotypical feminine look. In fact, everything about these women screams: “It’s OK! Don’t panic! I’m not really a strong woman, I promise! Look, I’m not even feminine!”
These athletes seem to me like a safe middle ground. They are presented as other worldly or un-feminine because strong feminine women aren’t realistic, right? Their talent and presence, although impressive, is disregarded by their being presented as non-women. Their gimmick pays homage to their skill and strength but still avoids announcing them as strong women.
A “genre” that seems to be reserved for the slimmer lady wrestler is the bitchy heel. Often unpredictable, due to their regularly melodramatic character choices, these characters smack of “I’m doing a stereotypically bitchy thing associated with women because Vince wants a male face turn”. Other times, female heels can be truly unpredictable: let’s consider Mickie James. She’s gone down in history after her feud with Trish Stratus in the mid-00s as one of the WWE’s most memorable heels, but is it for the right reasons?
Gimmicks aside, Stratus and James worked fantastically together. Their matches are clean and believable, and both ladies’ acting abilities make for a compelling feud. But what else can we say? James is forced into the image of the “mental lesbian” and her talent totally disregarded – any omission is closely followed by “yeah, but she learnt it all from Trish.” The lesbian angle could have been treated sensitively but, (come on, this is the 00s WWE) James is presented as every small minded man’s wet dream. It’s abundantly clear that this feud was set up so that fans can see a sexual fantasy unfold rather than to showcase the athleticism of the two ladies. Yet again, the bitter pill of the strong lady has to be swallowed with the spoonful of, in this case, offensively portrayed lesbianism and mental illness.
“Don’t worry! She’s not really talented, she’s mentally ill and delusional!”
Watching Mickie James’ obsession with Trish Stratus play out must be distressing for those who really struggle with mental illness. In their Backlash 2006 match the commentary team wrongly brand what they imply is split personality disorder as schizophrenia and make lewd jokes about threesomes, without calling a single spot. And there are some good ones. We’ve seen again how strong talent is bogged down and fogged over by offensive gimmicks and storylines.
Of course, as I’ve said, the aim is entertainment, but not necessarily realism. So maybe I should lighten up and let them have their dramatic creativity. That’s what the audience wanted, right?
Today’s audience, on the other hand, is far smarter to the business, and they’re demanding more wrestling and less melodrama.
Nowadays, the main eventing female heels are driven by the only thing I’ll accept as realistic: ambition. The Women’s Revolution has brought about that much – and now it’s cool to be a strong woman in the WWE. Sasha Banks, Charlotte, and Becky Lynch are all celebrated for their talent, heels or no. Any heel moves they do make are motivated by their desire to be the best and prove themselves.
Charlotte is my prime example. She originally gained heat by being spiteful, then by using her father to cheat to win matches. Some were asking: but she’s talented enough to hold her own, why does she need Ric Flair there? I was one of them. So Charlotte breaks ties with Ric Flair, yet gains heat for that as well. Here, Charlotte’s heat is somewhat paradoxical. Flair’s interferences were getting to the inappropriate (see: kissing Becky Lynch), so by all accounts, Charlotte going it alone should have been a face turn. But again, she was spiteful, and this time, toward a historic crowd favourite, let alone her dad. Charlotte throws off the oppression of her father and gains heat from it – sound familiar?
Charlotte’s heel moves entirely stem from her desire to be the best at what she does, unequivocally, and by herself. No smoke and mirrors, no offensive gimmick to hide behind, and she has our respect as a performer. Happily, we’re seeing heels like Charlotte more and more, not only at the top levels but at indie, as well – Jinny in Progress, for starters – obviously, not right across the whole roster, but we’re miles ahead of where we were. The path that Chyna, Ivory, and Molly Holly started down in the past has been reclaimed: strong women in wrestling are no longer a fallacy in our heads.