Wrestling fan and writer Scarlett Harris speaks to Kasey Symons about her new book on women’s wrestling history and wrestling with her own complicated fandom.
Saturday mornings in my house growing up meant three uninterrupted hours of The Simpsons on TV. We were very privileged to have Pay TV in my family, and the channel that showed The Simpsons reigned supreme on Saturday. From 9am to midday, we parked ourselves in front of the telly and lazed around laughing at the latest goings on in Springfield. Then noon rolled around, and my sister and I would leave the room as the WWE came on and my brother commandeered the remote. I couldn’t stand it. I tried to watch it a few times, sometimes out of laziness, not wanting to move when The Simpsons ended, sometimes genuine intrigue to try to understand why my brother was so into it, and occasionally, I watched interested when I saw women appear on screen. But this is what ultimately drove me away from it.
The women I saw in the ring weren’t fighting like the men. They were ripping evening dresses off each other. They were being laughed at. They were being kidnapped and forced to marry their sworn enemies.
It’s been a long time since I’ve really thought about the world of wrestling entertainment, and then a new book came across my desk and brought me back into this world I’d forgotten and really didn’t understand, but was something, as it turns out, I was still genuinely intrigued by.
That book was A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler: An Abbreviated Herstory of World Wrestling Entertainment by Scarlett Harris.
I’m no wrestling expert, or fan, but those who know me know I don’t often pass up the opportunity to read something about the history of women’s sport, of any sport. But I was unsure about how I would respond to a book on a sport I knew I’d never been able to connect with.
But that’s the beauty of this book.
“Obviously, the book is going to be mostly of interest to wrestling fans and women wrestling fans. But I didn’t want to have that be like a barrier to entry. I did want to make it so that anyone who was interested in women in sports more broadly, or even feminist cultural criticism, could get enjoy the book as well.” Harris says.
That’s why I always read books about women’s sports history, and why Harris’ addition to this field is so exciting. Not only do we get an in-depth look at some key moments in women’s wrestling and wrestling entertainment history and learn about some of the powerful, and problematic figures that built it to what it is today, we get Harris’ razor-sharp cultural critique. Harris places what was, or perhaps more apt, wasn’t, happening in the ring in a broader social context through an evolving feminist lens, and at the book’s core, is Harris herself, grappling with her own fandom with the sport she loves but knows has its problems.
“A lot of the feedback has been, ‘I’d never thought about it in that way’. And that’s all I can really ask. I don’t have the answers. And some of the chapters, I started out writing one way and then it evolved as writing is wont to do, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’d never thought of it that way. That’s cool.’ So yeah, if anything, I would love this book to be the beginning of a conversation. Because I think this is probably the first kind of book of its kind, in that it’s not just taking facts about wrestling and presenting them. I’m trying to lend some credence to a sport or a facet of entertainment, and specifically women in that realm, that has just been dismissed.”
And it’s this approach that makes Diva such an engaging and interesting read, especially for a wrestling novice like me. Wrestling has this unique position in sports where the sport itself is only part of the event, so much is also focussed on the entertainment, the stories and fabricated drama that surrounds the also scripted action in the ring. Diva is able to break down how complicated this then becomes for women wrestlers as they not only fight for their rightful place as legitimate athletes in the ring and equitable billing, they also have to fight for storylines that don’t oversexualise them, engender violence against women, make them a pawn in a rivalry of male wrestlers’ storylines, or become catfights with other women. And for a sport that is already built on fighting, that is so many fights these women have to fight.
It’s called kayfabe, which means the portrayal of staged events within the wrestling entertainment industry as ‘real’ or ‘true’, specifically the portrayal of competition, rivalries, and relationships between participants as being genuine and not staged. But of course, they are, and this concept is fascinating when Harris explores how this layer adds more to the discussion of women in wrestling.
“I’ve tried to bring in some other frameworks of looking at women’s wrestling, because it’s not just a straight sport, it is entertainment, as well. Those storylines and the hits, those can be problematic. And it’s only really been in the last five, six years when women have been seen or portrayed by WWE as athletes. But there’s fifty years’ worth of history that didn’t necessarily portray them as that so in framing some of those chapters through using the idea of ‘the cool girl’ or the internalised misogyny, I’ve tried to kind of shine a different light on aspects that of wrestling that may have been dismissed.“
Alongside this recent emergence of women claiming their rightful place in the ring, is the growth of these athletes using their powerful platforms to voice their passion for feminist causes, calling for more gender equality and spruiking inspirational messages for the next generation of empowered women wrestlers. It’s this developing feminism that Harris is excellent at commentating on as, while this is all positive, there are still problematic elements to how these women are shouting, and sometimes selling, their brands of feminism. While Harris criticises some approaches, she opens up a broader discussion on this highly complicated space. It’s refreshing to read as while we can be quick to criticise, looking at the environment, history, and our own developing understanding of feminism and intersectionality is always productive.
“I think because women’s wrestling has been portrayed in such a way for such a long time. It’s almost like, I don’t want to say that, I guess I do say in the book that they’re doing feminism wrong! But you know, they’re doing it, it’s baby steps, and I think some of these ideas might be very near to some of the people that I talked about in the book, even some of the readers of the book or consumers of women’s wrestling in general. It’s reconsidering how we look at women in a sport that for so long has just pushed them to the sidelines. I tried to use my own understanding of feminism, and I do touch on a little bit of my own journey with understanding feminism and using those tools to kind of be able to name my own value system.”
There’s just so much to unpack in this book, and I’m thrilled that not only did I have the chance to read it, but that I can speak to Scarlett about it because now I’m thinking, it might be time to turn the TV back on Saturday afternoons…
“I think the women are at the forefront of the industry now, whether it’s because WWE says they are or whether it’s because fans are responding really well to them. And I personally think at this point, it’s the latter. But the most exciting thing happening in wrestling now is women and, obviously I’m biased! I don’t really watch a lot of men’s wrestling anymore. But I think most people would agree that [athletes like] Sasha Banks, who I write a lot about in the book and is like my favourite wrestler, she was named by Sports Illustrated as the top wrestler last year.
“Bailey, who is her counterpart, was named number one on the Top 500 by Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine, and that’s both men and women, which was the first year that it wasn’t gender segregated.
“I really think that the time is now. And I think that most people, whether it’s through WWE through the Indies, through shows like GLOW, that’s what’s connecting with audiences. I think there’s probably something for everyone. And it’s not just like we can appreciate them for their athleticism now, rather than being made to feel some type of way, as I think a lot of people who watched wrestling throughout the 90s, and 2000s may have felt. So, you know, maybe give it another try, or at least give my book a try and see. Some of the topics that I discuss in [the book] might make you think about wrestling in a different way.’
Thanks to your book Scarlett, I’m reaching for the remote.
A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler: An Abbreviated Herstory of World Wrestling Entertainment is available now.