This month, A Beautiful Perspective is exploring touch in all its forms and contexts. Click here to read more stories from the TOUCH Issue.
Professional wrestling is inherently a sausage fest, and the largest independent wrestling show in 25 years was no different. Held in Chicago in early September and organized by indie wrestlers The Young Bucks and former World Wrestling Entertainment wrestler Cody Rhodes, All In featured only one women’s match out of 10, and a literal parade of penis druids (don’t ask). The sole female bout, a fatal four-way featuring Chelsea Green, Britt Baker, Madison Rayne and Tessa Blanchard, who walked away the victor, was routinely left out of reviews of the event.
The moment most worthy of virality that weekend, however, came courtesy of female wrestler Jordynne Grace during the Over Budget Battle Royal. While Grace was ultimately ejected by wrestling legend Bully Ray, it was not before she stunned the 10,000 fans in attendance and at least 20,000 streaming the event at home by hoisting the 268-pound Brian Cage onto her shoulders, squatting him and eliminating him from the match.
If it were up to All In promoter Rhodes, that moment might never have happened. “Just the concept of a man touching a woman. I don’t know. I’m very conservative … I’m from the South, so, like, you can’t put your hands on women,” Rhodes said on The Sam Roberts Show podcast last year.
Intergender wrestling, when wrestlers of different genders meet in the ring, has experienced a renaissance of sorts in the last few years. WWE has flirted with intergender interactions in their Mixed Match Challenge—which involves male-female teams, but each competitor still wrestles their own, gender—and at this year’s WrestleMania, where Ronda Rousey, the UFC champ turned wrestler, (wo)manhandled Triple H. Still, after a period of mainstream popularity in the late ’90s and early ’00s, they have yet to really recommit to it the way independent companies have.
Perhaps that’s because intergender wrestling has vocal critics who dislike the optics of a 200+-pound man body-slamming a female opponent. Though the brutality of the wrestling is consensual and choreographed, some in the industry feel intergender wrestling evokes domestic violence, never mind that women who participate in the matches say they feel empowered taking on—and beating—the men.
An in-depth report in espnW called the optics [of intergender wrestling] shocking” and “chilling”: “It is hard and it is complicated and it is fraught because two things can be true at once,” Hallie Grossman wrote. “It can be true that these women and men consent to be in a ring together and agree to inflict damage on one another’s bodies. It can also be true that it is unsettling to see and hear it happen. Especially with children looking on, young people who are still forming their world views. Especially with potential survivors of domestic violence looking on, people whose worldviews already know abuse.”
Mia Yim (also known as Jade) is a noted intergender competitor who has also been vocal about surviving domestic violence. She’s particularly adamant that simulated violence between men and women in the wrestling ring does not excuse or invite actual violence between romantic partners.
“We choose to get in the ring. We’re trained to keep ourselves and our opponents safe. But when someone brings it back home, that’s not wrestling anymore. That is not entertainment. That is just straight abuse,” Yim, who is an ambassador for intimate partner violence organization Safe Horizon, told The Huffington Post in 2016.
“Anyone [who] believes intergender wrestling and domestic violence are in any way similar is ignorant in the worst way,” Grace told ABP via email.
The difference comes down to the concept of kayfabe. In wrestling parlance, kayfabe refers to the fictional reality where wrestling exists. In other words, it’s fake. All the violence that takes place in the ring has been agreed upon by the wrestlers beforehand. There are no victims, only heros and heels.
In fact, some female wrestlers say battling men makes them stronger. Third-generation wrestler Tessa Blanchard, who won the All In women’s match, told VICE Sports she likes intergender wrestling “because I could show that I could go toe-to-toe with one of the guys. I don’t think that I would be the athlete or the wrestler that I am today if I didn’t have some of the intergender matches that I’ve had … The way that [men] think, the way that they act in the ring, the way that they move, their timing, their position … It forced me to step my game up and start thinking that way … so now I’m able to do that in my [women’s] matches.”
“[W]hen someone brings it back home, that’s not wrestling anymore. That is not entertainment. That is just straight abuse.”
This isn’t to insinuate that male wrestlers are inherently “better” at wrestling, but that perhaps they’ve been trained and conditioned to go no-holds-barred in the ring. Whereas women wrestlers were long taught to go heavy on the slapping and hair pulling, “[n]ow we’re able to go out there and hang with the boys; show them that we’re just as tough, we’re just as mean, we’re just as strong,” Blanchard said.
“I believe [intergender wrestling is] empowering to both men and women,” Grace agrees.
Empowerment is a theme Grace carries throughout her career. She sews her own gear and has published two editions of a zine called DMs of a Female Indy Wrestler, borne out of the harassment that floods her Twitter DMs, which she keeps open so wrestling promoters can contact her for work.
Publicizing harassing messages is “something every woman, wrestler or not, has thought about doing,” Grace says. “I just happened to save messages throughout the years and finally released a collection of them, which people found amusing and enjoyable, as well as highly disturbing.”
While Grace doesn’t see any connection between the harassment and her intergender work, one has to wonder whether women wrestlers who exhibit strength over their male opponents threaten the types of men who troll women online and hurl misogynist epithets at them in public.
Since the publication of DMs of a Female Indy Wrestler, which has sold 700 copies over two editions, Grace says she’s gotten “more positive uplifting messages” on social media.
“When I put the first book out I got literally hundreds of messages of people saying, ‘I know the DMs you normally get are really bad and creepy, but I just wanted you to know that you’re an inspiration.’”