Tom Phillips on Netflix’s GLOW

Britain’s real female wrestler activists are better and badder than GLOW’s could ever be

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A GLOWing performance.
Erica Parise/Netflix

Tom Phillips, University of East Anglia

Professional wrestling is a man’s game – or at least that’s what you may be led to believe, thanks to popular favourites such as former WWE wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who made an easy transition from wrestling to super-stardom after appearing in a number of blockbuster films.

The “masculine melodrama” presented by modern professional wrestling programmes such as WWE represents the epitome of masculinity, fighting in epic showdowns for a mostly male audience. Of course, there are female wrestlers – as there are female viewers – but WWE has in the past been criticised for its poor portrayal of women. There are those who say WWE aims its coverage at “15-year-old boys who will cheer for any woman so long as she looks sexy”.

Against this backdrop, Netflix’s new hit series GLOW has entered the ring. The show gives a fictional account of the real-life 1980s wrestling television series “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling”, which featured exclusively female performers. Starring Alison Brie as Ruth, a struggling actress who needs a new role in order to make a living, GLOW follows a group of women from Los Angeles who, with no prior experience, get involved in a new televised wrestling venture.

GLOW’s feminism is made explicit from the outset. Despite the proposed show ostensibly being about “gorgeous ladies”, the women are literally fighting the male gaze. The nuances of feminism within the show can be seen at first by the replacement of the white male trainer with Cherry Bang, a black woman. With Cherry in charge, the women find their way together, relying only on themselves to figure out how to wrestle.

As the series progresses, the female wrestlers become more confident in using their bodies as part of their performance, ultimately triumphing in the ring and winning over fans with their physical prowess rather than their looks. As Cherry says to her fellow wrestlers: “We’re empowered, we’re the heroes”.

Sydelle Noel as Cherry Bang.
Erica Parise/Netflix

At first glance, GLOW’s strong portrayal overtakes even the newer ideals of WWE, which has recently made small steps to embrace more explicit feminist politics. It has rebranded its “Divas” division as the “Women’s Revolution”, for example, now showcasing female performers who have historically been marginalised at the expense of their male counterparts.

Yet academics have observed that, despite lauding a catalogue of “powerful” women in their promotional materials, WWE still have not outright addressed issues such as “sexism” or “feminism”. Instead, researchers say, they fall back on the fact that “although feminism may be fashionable in many areas of popular culture, it is still too risky to be named outright by a company with legions of male fans”.

Girl gang

So is there any room in the ring for female wrestlers, outside a fictional context? Definitely. London-based Pro-Wrestling:EVE sells itself as “a secret underground feminist, political, socialist, humanist, punk rock wrestling promotion, for those who identify as women and non-binary folk”.

Though it is aimed at fans of all genders, EVE uses wrestling to help women feel empowered. Its founder Emily Read has noted that: “It’s so conditioned in women to be quiet and small, it’s a real hindrance when it comes to wrestling. And I see women learn to be big and loud and take up space”. EVE gives women a place to enjoy being physical: promotional material shows images of bloodied faces and hard-hitting manoeuvres, adorned with slogans such as “fight like a girl”, “support your local girl gang”, and “follow your fucking dreams”.

 

EVE goes further than the scripts of GLOW and political restraints of WWE could ever allow. It encourages taking the feminist physicality outside the ring and into the real world, explicitly endorsing and encouraging political activism. Not only do the official social media feeds for EVE promote their wrestling brand, merchandise and events – but they are also used as a means for political communication.

The company posted material firmly in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign during the June 2017 general election, for example. And when Donald Trump recently used his involvement in wrestling to hint at his own brand of masculinity, EVE printed a Donald Trump-a-like figure on their “piledrive a fascist” t-shirt design.

For EVE and its supporters, women’s wrestling acts as a training ground for feminist practice and a way to build confidence to take political activism into the public arena.

The ConversationWith GLOW being such a big hit, WWE taking small but progressive steps in the right direction and EVE smashing through with a thoroughly empowered ideal, it’s about time that wrestling’s masculine image was redressed. After all, there’s no shame in fighting for your rights like a girl.

Tom Phillips, Lecturer in Humanities, University of East Anglia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Online Relationships with Wrestlers

This piece goes to the work I am doing on convergent wrestling.

Writing back in 2006, Henry Jenkins discussed how convergence culture was allowing more fans to have more power. Basically, in this context, convergence culture is this idea that digital technologies like smartphones and the internet have blurred the lines between audiences and producers.

In the past, television and movies would separate out those who produce the media and those who consume the media; in other words, audiences would simply have to take what they were given, and they did not have much say over production. Since the rise of the internet, and especially social media, audiences do have more say: they can talk to producers before, during, and after a television show, or movie, or game, or whatever is produced. As Jenkins (2006) said, “Shows which attract strong fan interests have a somewhat stronger chance of surviving.” That means, if the producers listen to what the fans want, then their productions will do better. Or, at least, that is the idea.

Ten years later, Kresnicka’s (2016) writing reiterates this power of fans by relating it to the “digital empowerment” that has been happening in various areas of life since Web 2.0 and the emergence of social media. With social media, people can connect to one another, control what they consume, create their own content (and thus have their own voices heard), collaborate with others, and curate the information that is out there (dictating what is good and bad in the process). These 5 Cs (Pavlik & McIntosh, 2011) represent some pretty amazing powers given to “ordinary” people, taking away some of the power that had before just been in the hands of producers, politicians, librarians, teachers, and so forth. And this fundamental shift that has led to digital empowerment has been impacting the relationship between media producers, celebrities, and athletes, and their fans.

Let’s look at this in terms of sports – well, sports entertainment, or professional wrestling.

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Before They Were Superstars: Daniel Bryan and Dean Ambrose

Daniel Bryan and Dean Ambrose spent a good portion of 2013 wrestling each other. They either fought in tag matches or a few singles matches on Raw or Smackdown. None of these matches were as hard hitting as their No-Disqualification war for Dragon Gate USA in 2010.

Daniel Bryan found himself without a job after being a little too brutal during the initial attack of The Nexus. During this time, he ended up going back on the independent circuit and wrestling under his real name again, Bryan Danielson.  He had a few matches for Dragon Gate USA where he wrestled the Japanese talent, YAMATO and Shingo Takagi.  For his final match, he wrestled the unstable Jon Moxley.

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Breaking the Fourth Wall in Reverse

Mr_CanadaWithout a doubt, one of the proudest moments of my life occurred on January 29, 2013, when I made my professional wrestling debut in a tag-team match in a show co-hosted by American Pro Wrestling, an upstate South Carolina based promotion, and Wofford College, the institution that made me a tenured professor the year before. I wrestled that night as Mr. Canada, a masked, French-Canadian heel; my partner was Ben Wright, whom APW had named its 2012 “Heel of the Year.” We lost our match in fantastic fashion: after I “accidentally” broke my hockey stick across my partner’s chest, he was then demolished through a ringside table, while I was shamefully de-masked – and then powerslammed, superfly splashed, and pinned.

Mr Canada1I was 39 when Mr. Canada made his debut – not exactly in the springtime of my youth – and I often get asked how in the world I ended up in the wrestling ring and why I thought it would be a good idea to do so. After all, the career trajectory of graduate school to tenure track job to tenure to professional wrestler is not exactly the most common one in the world of academia.

I’ll begin this blog entry answering these how and why questions, and then I’ll move to the questions I pondered for months after my 2013 wrestling debut: what new lessons about pro wrestling did I learn when I moved from careful observer of professional wrestling to actual professional wrestler – when I broke the fourth wall in reverse (so to speak)? Did this experience give me new insights into a cultural form that I previously appreciated only as a fan and a scholar?

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Before They Were Superstars: CM Punk and Samoa Joe

One would become the “Best in the World” and the other the “Samoan Submission Machine,” but before all of their nicknames and accolades, they were simply CM Punk and Samoa Joe. In 2004 they had a trilogy of matches that would make them legends and help make Ring of Honor one of the best independent wrestling promotions in the world.

Samoa Joe was in the midst of a dominating run as the world champ of ROH that spanned most of 2003 and showed no signs of stopping in 2004. He had turned away such challengers as Christopher Daniels, Jay & Mark Briscoe, Homicide, AJ Styles, and many others.

To be honest, Ring of Honor seemed to be running out of challengers for Joe. This is where CM Punk comes in. He and Joe had a non-title match on August 16th where both men were in pretty rough shape. The match ended with Joe beating Punk. Punk had yet to have a world title shot in his time in ROH and in Dayton, OH on June 12th, 2004, at World Title Classic, that would change. Punk and Joe had a match that ended in a 60 minute draw.

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Before They Were Superstars: Seth Rollins and Kevin Owens

Hello, and welcome to the first installment of Before They Were Superstars, where I’ll be discussing the matches and angles that current WWE superstars were involved in before they debuted in the WWE. Many of today’s current WWE superstars were not always in the WWE. A lot of them started on the independent wrestling circuit where they honed their craft in front of smaller crowds.

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Image credits: http://www.wwe.com/shows/raw/2017-01-02/gallery/seth-rollins-vs-kevin-owens-photos#fid-40076253

They’re currently known as Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins, but they once went by Kevin Steen and Tyler Black respectively. Before they battled each other for the WWE Universal Championship, they were both affiliated with Ring of Honor (ROH). Back in 2010, they were both involved in separate angles in ROH, and on one night in July, they crossed paths in Chicago Ridge, IL.

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The Pop Culture Lens on Prowrestling

The Pop Culture Lens is co-hosted by PWSA contributors CarrieLynn Reinhard and Christopher Olson. The podcast looks as past pop culture texts using different theoretical lens to discuss the text and its relevance. The podcast tries to translate academic concepts and theories into language everyone can understand and appreciate.

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An Autoethnography of AAW

Two men enter the ring — the “squared circle” — muscles tense, skin already glistening with sweat. They circle the ring, calling out to their fans in the crowd to let their admiration roar and shake the building. The room still reverberates with the booming baselines of their entrance music, leaving the audiences’ ears to ring for the next day or so. The crowd responds in a frenzy, engaging in dueling chants and trying  to outshout the other side as their wrestlers finally step into the middle of the ring to meet.

They size each other up, stare one another down, and give the sense that they do not like one another. Even if they show the sign of respect and shake hands, everything leading up to that handshake and following it is thick with tension and the desire and the drive to overcome the other and win. They may be friends outside of the ring — and that friendship may be completely legit and not just kayfabe (i.e. performance) — but it doesn’t matter. Each man enters the ring to win.

Thus began every single match at the AAW Windy City Classic XI.

This was my first live event. As I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, I am new to this whole professional wrestling phenomenon. In terms of time, I have only been interested in professional wrestling for two years. The 2015 Windy City Classic XI was my first live show experience.

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Defining Convergent Wrestling

Professional wrestling has been criticized for its emphasis on the fiction of its entertainment rather than the reality of its sport. My partner, Christopher Olson (Seems Obvious to Me), and I argue that professional wrestling functions as a convergent media product, representing a vital text for examining the media landscape of the 21st century.

The true nature of professional wrestling is in how it combines fiction with reality; it exists at the intersection of different identities, realities and conventions, which can seem oppositional to one another. When examined through the convergence of different identities, realities, and conventions, the true dialectical nature of professional wrestling emerges. Professional wrestling succeeds because of its ability to converge these different factors into a coherent post-modern and polysemic text with which an international polyvalent audience can identify and engage. This post will deconstruct this nature of professional wrestling by considering the various factors that are converging to construct the texts, practices and experiences of sports entertainment.

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Smarks and Convergent Wrestling

As part of the project on understanding professional wrestling through the theoretical lens of convergence (i.e. convergent wrestling), I recently wrote out an explanation for how Christopher Olson (Seems Obvious to Me) and I see this concept of convergence being able to describe various aspects of professional wrestling.

Now, being that we are academics, one way we advance our scholarship and our knowledge is by attending and presenting at academic conferences. In order to test out this idea of “convergent wrestling,” we organized two panels that would bring together different researchers whose work on professional wrestling could be considered as using this theoretical lens. We presented the first such panel at the 2015 Central States Communication Association conference. At this panel, I presented this argument for seeing professional wrestling as an example of various convergences, as presented earlier on this blog. Along with my introduction to the idea, several researchers presented their analyses of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), its fans, and its business practices. With their permission, here are these presentations.

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