Women Wrestle to Reshape Sport’s Written Narrative
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
For years, men have had a monopoly on writing about wrestling — even about female fighters. Now that’s finally changing.
Female fighters in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) — the largest wrestling company in the world — were once called Divas and had 30-second sideshow matches. This past April, they main-evented wrestling’s biggest show, WrestleMania, and are increasingly the talk of the industry. But women’s wrestling itself isn’t the only thing that’s evolving. Writing about women’s wrestling is now changing too — with women beginning to finally grab control of their narrative.
Traditionally, men — who still make up the majority of wrestling journalists and writers — were entrusted with women’s stories from within the business. While books from male industry legends like Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mick Foley and Chris Jericho litter the professional wrestling shelf in the sports section of the bookstore or library, women’s wrestling autobiographies are few and far between. I use the term “autobiography” loosely as most of these are ghostwritten by men. Larry Platt wrote the 2002 “memoirs” of Mary Ellison — better known as The Fabulous Moolah — who was arguably the most famous female wrestler in history. Chyna’s If They Only Knew in 2001 was ghostwritten by Michael Angeli, and 2017’s father-daughter memoir by Ric and Charlotte Flair, Second Nature, was actually written by Brian Shields.
But a growing band of female writers, many of them wrestlers themselves, are now transforming the industry. Former wrestler AJ Mendez Brooks wrote her memoir Crazy Is My Superpower in 2017 and has recently been announced as the author of a new GLOW comic book. Current wrestler Jordynne Grace has an ongoing cine-series called DMs of a Female Indy Wrestler which chronicles the online harassment she is subjected to.
The lack of a female voice in wrestling journalism is what made me start writing.
Heather Bandenburg, wrestler and author
Wrestling journalist LaToya Ferguson’s An Encyclopedia of Women’s Wrestling, published this year, demonstrates that women are just as knowledgeable about the sport as men. And wrestler Heather Bandenburg’s 2019 memoir Unladylike: A Grrrl’s Guide to Wrestling talks about how she discovered the sport seven years ago as a way to feel connected to and in control of her body after a sexual assault.
They’re riding on a rare moment in the industry: Wrestling, and especially WWE, which earns annual revenue of around $1 billion, is increasingly targeting a female audience, and publications need feminist writers to make sense of it.
“The lack of a female voice in wrestling journalism is what made me start writing in the first place,” Bandenburg says. “Even though there are more women than ever in the ring … those who make decisions about what actually goes out to the public [are] all men.”
For some wrestlers, the writing is almost a form of healing. “Wrestling made me realize, much later, that I had been raped,” Bandenburg writes in Unladylike. “Aged nineteen, whatever self-esteem I’d managed to muster was stripped away. I didn’t get it back until I was a wrestler.” But Bandenburg also writes about how long-term, undiagnosed reproductive health issues affected her work in the ring and eventually caused her early retirement — introducing readers and followers of women’s wrestling to health challenges they might not otherwise naturally associate with a sportsperson’s career. “I wanted this book to be for everyone,” she says.
Meanwhile, Ferguson’s Encyclopedia features 100 of the most influential women in wrestling, which she acknowledges is nonexhaustive. Ferguson had initially wanted to profile 200 women. “It was just a matter of finding the best balance of people wanting to read this book and learning something that they might not have known,” she says.
Though Ferguson would love to be the one to pen further editions of the Encyclopedia, she’s hoping for still greater diversity in wrestling writing, whether that be more women, people of color or more queer-identified writers, and the varied experiences they bring to the medium.
“I think women wrestling writers should pour [their] guts and heart into the narrative just to show that there is a way to insert yourself into this world as men have inserted themselves into this world,” she says. “It shouldn’t be all they do, but if you can find a way to connect it to your personal life, then you should.” Ferguson has also written for the WWE 2K video game series and manages professional wrestler Ronda Rousey’s website.
To be sure, it’s still an uphill struggle for female wrestling writers in an industry heavily dominated by men. During the writing of this article, Kristen Ashly, who has edited for platforms such as Daily DDT, Diva Dirt and Bell to Belles, decided to leave the wrestling journalism industry. “I don’t believe that I’m able to advance in this field like I once hoped I would,” she tells me. “It seems to be harder for women in this industry to really break the mold and move forward.”
Indeed, “wrestling on the whole is written by one group of people: White men,” Bandenburg writes in Unladylike. “The only way to change the problematic bits is to give someone else a go at deciding what the story is about.”
But Ashly hopes others will fill in for her. “I hope some small thing I did sparked change in a woman’s mind, and they are on their way to replace me,” she says. With their emergence, Bandenburg, Ferguson and others are already beginning to do that.