On April 15, 2018, Smash Wrestling — a small independent professional wrestling promotion — staged an event called It’s All Fun and Games. As has become increasingly common within North American professional wrestling, the card included an intergender match: a match that pits a woman against a man. In fact, this match included two women, Allie and Xandra Bale, who competed against each other and a male opponent, Joey Ryan. Allie ultimately emerged victorious, but it was nonetheless Ryan who addressed the crowd after the match ended: "I'm fortunate enough to get to wrestle with a lot of women – talented women – because of my character, my look, my gimmick. You know, and I really, as a performer, as a storyteller, it's one of my favorites because it gives me new opportunities to be creative, it gives me new opportunities to use my mind, to think, to tell different stories . . . I love [intergender wrestling], and I think there's a thousand ways to go with it. So thank you guys for supporting it. Thank you, Smash Wrestling, for booking it."
As paeans to intergender wrestling go, this speech is fairly typical. Perhaps more noteworthy than what Ryan said is what his two opponents were doing while he said it. Neither Allie nor Bale left the ring during this speech. Instead, they stood in the corner, signaling to the crowd that its attention should be on Ryan, not them. Whenever the cameras panned their way, they smiled, clapped, or both in apparent approval of Ryan's sentiments. They did not, however, get an opportunity to address the audience themselves.
Given the circumstances, a major incongruity exists between Ryan's words and actions here. His subject, of course, is the new possibilities that intergender wrestling creates, possibilities that are even greater than he lets on. After a recent surge in popularity, both fans and wrestlers now champion intergender as a path to increased opportunities and respect for women within the industry. In making his point, though, Ryan draws the crowd's attention to himself at the expense of two female wrestlers. What he says indicates that he welcomes a future in which promotions uniformly represent women as viable competitors for men. What he actually does, however, indicates he prefers the status quo.
Ryan's speech is representative of the current state of intergender wrestling as a whole. Like Ryan, many say that intergender matches depict female wrestlers as equal (or superior) competitors to their male counterparts and are, therefore, empowering. However, in examining how these matches are performed, we find that intergender matches are, in fact, generally ineffective at depicting women as equally capable to men for one of three reasons: 1) the female wrestler's body, and consequently her gender, is obscured; 2) the female wrestler's femininity is emphasized, but the male wrestler dominates the match; or 3) the female wrestler's femininity is emphasized, but this emphasis causes the in-ring action to become unintelligible.
Before delving into the subject, let's establish some context. As could almost go without saying by now, professional wrestling matches have predetermined outcomes. The competitors are not legitimately fighting each other, but rather simulating combat towards the end of telling a story with their bodies. Some contemporary wrestlers — Joey Ryan among them — have even come to understand wrestling as a form of performance art. This fact might raise the question of why exactly it matters whether men and women are depicted as equal competitors. Put differently, if the audience is aware that they aren't viewing legitimate bouts, what can female wrestlers gain from wrestling men that they cannot from wrestling each other?
That last question is not rhetorical. Many, including Paul "Triple H" Levesque — himself a legendary wrestler and current COO of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the world’s largest and most influential promotion — would say they have nothing to gain. But many others would suggest the matter is more complicated than that. For as long as they have existed in the United States, wrestling promotions have treated women's wrestling as an inferior product. Accordingly, fans were long conditioned to neither respect nor emotionally invest in it. While the tide is to some extent turning, women's wrestling still lags behind men's wrestling in terms of national recognition and prestige. For its proponents, then, intergender wrestling has the potential to narrow this gap and change long-held perceptions about female wrestlers. A summary of women's and intergender wrestling in WWE over the past two decades should illuminate some of these points. It will also demonstrate that there are consequences to how intergender wrestling is performed, and that these consequences may escalate in the not-too-distant future.
On a broad level, one can trace the origins of intergender wrestling's cultural relevance to the 1980s, when comedian Andy Kaufman began wrestling women in nightclubs. It is perhaps telling, then, that WWE did not stage an intergender match on its flagship television program, Raw, until 1998. However, this single match portended an increased focus on intergender within the company. By 1999, such matches were no longer novelties (although it would be a stretch to say that they were frequent).
During this period, WWE's intergender ace was Chyna, a muscular female wrestler billed as "The Ninth Wonder of the World." As this moniker implies, her physique was striking, even by professional wrestling's standards. Carrie Dunn opines that she was "almost androgynously presented"; WWE legend Bret "the Hitman" Hart describes her as "built better than most of the boys." Neither Dunn nor Hart say it outright, but they end up implying the same thing: Chyna's body differed in massive ways from a normative female body. Or, put differently, Chyna's muscularity obscured the typically feminine aspects of her body. Christiana Molldrem Harkulich perhaps understates it when she writes that "Chyna's aesthetic did not match the femininity of other women featured [in WWE]."
The obfuscation of Chyna's femininity turned out to be a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it allowed her to be presented as more masculine, and hence as a more formidable opponent for men. Beyond rising to the level of Intercontinental Champion — a major accomplishment, considering the Intercontinental Championship is often regarded as the second most important championship in the company — she was often depicted as dominating her opponents. Her wins were presented not as flukes, but as products of her strength.
On the other hand, the obfuscation of Chyna's femininity severely limited the extent to which her intergender matches suggested that women can viably compete with men because, incongruous as it sounds, Chyna was not really a woman for purposes of WWE programming. At minimum, television commentators like Jerry "The King" Lawler would call her a "monstrous Amazon," connoting a body that was freakish or mythical. At maximum, she was essentially a man; commentators had no compunction about chiding her for being "too masculine." In either case, she was never quite represented as female, and her matches therefore said little about how a female competitor might fare against a man. It is self-evident that to live up to the spirit of its name, an intergender match must depict more than a woman wrestling a man. It must also intelligibly represent a woman wrestling a man, so that the audience understands that the gender disparity is part of the match's story. Chyna's intergender matches certainly meet the first criteria. But given the relative invisibility of her sex, it seems that they would not necessarily meet the second. Consequently, these matches are viable examples of how obscuring the female body might render an intergender match an ineffective vehicle for depicting women as equally competent to men.
Chyna left WWE in 2001, creating a major hole for the promotion to fill. It is no coincidence that it is around this time the company reverted to its previous position on intergender matches. Once again, they were few and far between. And few and far between they remained until 2008, at which point WWE, seeking to make its product more family-friendly, essentially dropped them entirely.
While this impulse wasn't unreasonable, it was also indicative of WWE's lack of interest in offering complex, engaging representations of women. This lack of interest was not unique to this period. As Harkulich explains it, "For most of WWE's nationally-televised history, women have functioned primarily as objects and sex symbols in the storylines of male wrestlers." Female characters like Chyna, who competed regularly and actively sought championships, were the exception. More typical were characters like Sable, "a tall, sexy, blonde white woman with long hair, an athletic body, and enhanced breasts."
Sable, of course, was far from the first female wrestler to meet this description. That said, her ascent in popularity during the late 1990s represented a pronounced change in WWE's portrayal of women. While physical attractiveness had always been important for female wrestlers, it was now paramount. At no time was this more obvious than in the mid-2000s, when WWE made a practice of using televised talent competitions to recruit models and turn them into wrestlers. Accordingly, the women's roster was conventionally attractive, but also homogenous and quite frankly, bad at wrestling. Like Sable, these women received little character development and served mainly to draw in male viewers. During this same era, the company began devoting less and less television time to women; the poor quality of the roster correlated with a lower investment in the product.
Things finally reached a nadir in February 2015, when the one women's match on a three-hour Raw broadcast lasted less than thirty-five seconds bell-to-bell. The audience, finally, had seen enough. Taking advantage of WWE's fixation with social media, fans used the hashtag #GiveDivasaChance — at the time, "Diva" was WWE's preferred term for "women’s wrestler" — to demonstrate their discontent with how the women's division was being utilized. Put simply, they insisted that the women be accorded the same respect and opportunities that the men received.
To some extent, WWE obliged. Instead of being called "Divas," women wrestlers are now branded as "Superstars," just as male wrestlers have been. Beyond that, the company has made a larger effort than ever to (finally) convince its audience that women's wrestling is worth their time and attention. Among other things, WWE has increased the amount of television time it allots for women's matches; it has given the women self-contained storylines, as opposed to making them ancillary characters in storylines centered on male characters; and it has allowed women to participate in ostensibly dangerous "gimmick" matches such as "Hell in a Cell" (think a cage match, but with slightly different rules and an exceptionally large cage). Nonetheless, WWE's representation of women remains far from ideal. For example, while it is certainly noteworthy that the women's division now features self-contained storylines, these storylines tend to be simple and reinforce gender stereotypes. Moreover, while it has undeniably increased, women's wrestlers still receive a disproportionately small amount of screen time on WWE's television shows.
Given this new emphasis on the women's roster, it is significant that over the past three years, WWE has ever so slightly started to re-test the intergender waters. To begin, they have signed Kimber Lee and Candice LeRae, two women who made their name working intergender matches for independent promotions (which is where all serious intergender wrestling takes place right now). Should WWE commit to presenting intergender wrestling in the near-future — which seems far from impossible, especially considering the events discussed in the following paragraph — women like these will be headlining those matches.
Even more notably, WWE has gone so far as to include intergender segments on its national programming. Granted, many of these segments have been farcical in nature, with various women beating up James Ellsworth, a short and doughy comedy wrestler. But it has also resulted in a decidedly unfarcical moment featuring former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) star Ronda Rousey. After leaving UFC, Rousey signed with WWE, and debuted at WrestleMania 34. During this debut match, she eventually found herself face-to-face in the ring with Triple H, who Hallie Grossman describes as "WWE's sculpted, Hulk-shaped 14-time champion." Apparently undaunted by these credentials, Rousey — who is listed at five foot seven and one hundred thirty-five pounds — casually dissected him.
Moments like the Rousey-Triple H confrontation speak to the recent surge in intergender wrestling's popularity. Indeed, a sizable contingent of fans see it as not merely an enjoyable strain of the product, but the only path to true gender equality in WWE. Despite WWE's increased focus on its women wrestlers, the company has clearly not yet portrayed them as being on the same level as the men. Male wrestlers still receive the most television time, the most important storylines, and all the benefits that naturally accompany both (money, national renown, etc.).
But intergender wrestling, fans believe, can finally bridge the gap in how the two genders are presented within the company. Scarlett Harris suggests that "men and women will never be truly equal until everybody is allowed to extend themselves into the realms that were previously off-limits to them"; Jake Chambers states that "intergender wrestling is really the only fair future for professional wrestling" and "society as a whole." Female wrestlers themselves, while a bit more understated, express similar sentiments, stressing the empowering quality of intergender matches. For these wrestlers — and presumably, many others who have not had their opinions disseminated through the media — wrestling men makes them feel strong in a way that wrestling another woman cannot.
This history brings us to the present day. Although its approach remains flawed, WWE is more concerned than ever with portraying women's wrestling to be just as important as men's. Popular perception indicates that promoting intergender matches is the best, perhaps even the only, way to accomplish this feat. WWE now appears sympathetic to this line of thinking. In fact, one might reasonably argue that it's on the precipice of reincorporating intergender wrestling into its product. To make this move, it seems to many, would solve the company's current problems with gender-based disparities in representation. It might also begin to compensate for the company's history of objectifying or otherwise minimizing women; for the first time ever, the female body will have value beyond its ability to lure in male viewers.
Additionally, a change in WWE's depiction of women would not occur in a vacuum. Approximately 4.4 million women per week watch WWE on television, which is to say nothing of the millions more who encounter it through other avenues. Like any popular entertainment, WWE has undeniable potential to shape the values and perceptions of its audience. Consequently, its portrayals of female characters may influence how many of its viewers see women. If WWE were to resume promoting intergender wrestling — and in doing so, depict its women wrestlers as being at least as strong and capable as the males — it stands to reason that its viewers would become more inclined to see women in a positive light. All of this is to say that the potential ascendance of intergender wrestling is not a purely academic issue. It has meaningful consequences for a broad swath of people.
The problem with many of the ideas expressed in the preceding two paragraphs is that they're premised on a suspect assumption: that intergender wrestling matches generally do an effective job of depicting women wrestlers as capable of competing with or defeating male wrestlers. It is important to emphasize that an intergender match doesn't inherently serve this function. The woman isn't perceived as a viable competitor simply because she's willing to wrestle a male opponent. She must also be depicted as wrestling the man well. Female wrestler Tessa Blanchard affirms this much when she assesses the state of contemporary women's wrestling: "Now we're able to go out there and hang with the boys and show them that, hey, we're just as tough, we're just as mean, we're just as strong." Essentially, Blanchard emphasizes the necessity of representing herself as her male competitors' physical equal. Put another way, an intergender match fails to depict the female wrestler as the male's equal unless she is portrayed as a legitimate threat to beat him.
The importance of portraying the female wrestler as a viable competitor for the male is clear. However, contrary to popular perception, intergender matches tend to be ineffective at depicting women in this way. As a point of entry for understanding why, it is perhaps useful to discuss a major tension in intergender wrestling: professional wrestling's traditional emphasis on displaying the body versus the preference of many intergender wrestlers to obscure the female body.
For as long as professional wrestling has been studied as a form of performance, scholars have understood the wrestler's body as central to each match's meaning. Indeed, this strain of thought can be traced back to Roland Barthes's seminal essay on the French professional wrestling scene. To begin with, Barthes saw each wrestler's body type as a form of characterization. For instance, "a fifty-year-old with an obese and sagging body" clearly plays the part of the "bastard-octopus"; a "tall blond fellow with a limp body and unkempt hair" surely personifies passivity. The body, acording to Barthes, is "the first key to the contest." It "constitutes a basic sign, which like a seed contains the whole fight."
Beyond the body itself, Barthes also emphasizes the meaning discernible from how each wrestler uses his body. Continuing with his metaphor of the body as a seed, Barthes observes that "the seed proliferates, for it is at every turn during the fight, in each new situation, that the body of the wrestler casts to the public the magical entertainment of a temperament which finds its natural expression in gesture." Put less eloquently, each in-ring action is carried out with meaning and intention. Every single gesture a wrestler makes — even one as subtle as a "repulsive sneer" or a "conceited smile" — is for the purpose of explaining his character and moving the match's story forward. From this perspective, a spectator must focus all of her attention on the wrestlers' bodies in order to fully understand the match.
Naturally, much has changed about wrestling since 1957 (when Barthes's essay was first published), but the centrality of the wrestler's body hasn't. The body remains, as Broderick Chow writes, "wrestling's medium: it performs the stunts, sweats, and bleeds," which isn't to say that the body indisputably retains the exact significance Barthes attributed to it. Its shape, as Chow notes, may not positively correlate with a wrestler's character to the extent it once did. Nevertheless, the body remains just as important as it was in Barthes's analysis. But it's important for a different reason: its significance stems not necessarily from what it signals, but from what signals it may contest. On some level, though, the discussion of such details is academic. Even if the body isn't the coherent signal of meaning Barthes believed it to be, it's still at the center of professional wrestling.
Academics aren't the only ones cognizant of the body's role in a wrestling match. Wrestlers and trainers understand it as well. Hence, the body is central not only in theory, but in practice. For example, long time wrestler and renowned trainer Rip Rogers stresses to his students that "facials, body language, emotion and intensity get an audience going every time." Another eminent wrestler and trainer, Mike Quackenbush, offers a similar thought: "Every performer has three primary theatrical tools to use when they sell or emote to the crowd: facial expressions, vocalizations, and body language." Vocalizations aside, use of the other two "tools" obliges the wrestler to employ nothing other than her or his body.
Given this background, it's surprising to hear how wrestlers speak about the body's role in intergender matches. Although not in explicit terms, the majority of them seem to suggest that for purposes of intergender wrestling, it's best that the female competitor's body be obscured. Female wrestler Kimber Lee explains, "I've always been, oh, I want to wrestle the boys, I want to be equal with the guys, I don’t want to be looked at as separate." Seleziya Sparx argues, "Both men and women are...trained equally, the same way...you're a competitor, you're not just a man and a woman, you are equal competitors." Male wrestler Rickey Shane Page told a female opponent, "I'll make you a promise. I won't treat you like a young woman, I will treat you like a wrestler."
The language each wrestler uses here is striking. If we take them at their word, neither Lee nor Sparx wants the audience to see them as female. After all, if Lee doesn't want to be seen as "separate" from the males, she necessarily wants to be seen as overlapping with them. Sparx is more straightforward, suggesting that each competitor's identity as a wrestler renders gender inconsequential. However, Page's comment may be the most extreme of all; his apparent implication is that "young woman" and "wrestler" are mutually exclusive. If this is the case, then most female wrestlers lose their gender identity every time they step through a set of ring ropes.
The conflict between this school of thought and traditional perceptions about the body's role in a wrestling match is obvious. For Barthes, Chow, Rogers, Quackenbush, and many others, professional wrestling's efficacy is a product of each wrestler using her body as a communicative tool. The body is what tells the story and, ideally, will at all times command the audience's attention. But from the perspective of Lee, Sparx, Page, and many others, the corporeal body is not integral to the match. Indeed, they suggest that spectators can and even should replace the female body in the ring with a body from their own imagination: a "competitor's" or "wrestler's" body instead of a "young woman's." Put differently, Barthes and his intellectual progeny indicate that the best way to understand a wrestling match is to focus closely on the bodies in the ring. The intergender wrestlers themselves would seem to prefer that the audience disregard those same bodies.
This disagreement raises the question of why intergender wrestlers seem keen on obscuring the female body. As will be discussed below, this preference may well have something to do with concerns about whether the match's action appears coherent to spectators. A normative female wrestler has three basic options regarding her body's depiction in an intergender match. The first option has already been discussed: she can obscure her body, so that her gender is not a cognizable part of the match's story. As evident from the discussion of Chyna, taking this approach may drastically limit the extent to which a match depicts women as equally competent to men. This choice also has the potential to diminish a female wrestler's ability to use her body as a storytelling mechanism. For example, a wrestler that obscures her femininity by wearing a full mask precludes herself from using facial expressions to communicate with the audience.
But as stated previously, the female body being obscured is not an inevitable outcome of intergender matches. To the contrary, a female wrestler may choose to emphasize her body by making it a cognizable part of the match's story. Because the very act of wrestling naturally emphasizes the body, one might even say that emphasis is the default state: a wrestler emphasizes her body so long as she does not actively take measures to obscure it. Importantly, if a female wrestler has a normative female body, then to emphasize her body would (usually) emphasize her gender as well.
An emphasis on the female body may have a different effect depending on the nature of the match in which it occurs. At the risk of oversimplifying, two types of matches exist in which the female body is emphasized: 1) the male competitor dominates throughout and 2) evenly fought or the female competitor dominates. By examining how they function on a practical level, we can get a better sense of how each approach impedes a resonant depiction of the female wrestler as equally capable to the male.
Approach 1 (Female Body Emphasized in Match Dominated by Male)
Adam Cole vs. Candice LeRae at Pro Wrestling Guerilla (PWG)
March 28, 2014
PWG is one of the most well-known and respected independent promotions in the world. Journalist Dave Meltzer — professional wrestling's answer to Roger Ebert — has persistently raved about its quality. It's not uncommon for celebrities to attend its shows (Sofia Vergara had a front row seat for a June 2015 card), and many of its wrestlers have gone on to sign with WWE (including both participants in the match at hand). All of this is to say that this match isn't just generally representative of intergender wrestling, but the best it had to offer at the time.
Cole enters this match as PWG Champion and, in fact, portrays a standard "cocky champion" character who, as one of the commentators explains it, considers himself to be "significantly better than anybody" (PWG). LeRae is a scrappy, underdog-type whose gender and small stature — the commentators estimate she is a foot shorter and one hundred pounds lighter than Cole — cause Cole to take her lightly. As Tom Prichard explains, the match is a retelling of two of wrestling's most enduring stories: "wrestler A is the champion and wrestler B wants the title" and "lesser known wrestler A needs to beat wrestler B to establish [her]self." In other words, everything about this match is normative. The characters, motivations, and narrative arc are straightforward and familiar. So it's not surprising that Cole and LeRae employed another normative approach in emphasizing their bodies. As the above suggests, the size disparity between the two is not only acknowledged, but central to the match's structure.
Shortly after the bell, Cole ducks behind LeRae, shoves her to the ground with one hand, and then mockingly does jumping jacks while she recovers. This single sequence offers a fair encapsulation of the entire contest. Reviewing the match for a popular wrestling website, Jake St. Pierre observes that LeRae is never depicted as having a chance to win. She at no point has the upper-hand on Cole, and even her "hope spots" — short sequences where she gets significant offense in — result more from Cole's miscues than her own ability. This assessment seems perfectly consistent with the in-ring action. Cole repeatedly attempts to pin LeRae in a lackadaisical manner that implies his belief he can end the match whenever he likes. Further, LeRae comes closest to victory when she attacks Cole while he's in a protracted argument with the referee (i.e., while he's distracted).
The match's commentators, Excalibur and Chris Hero, identify a clear culprit for LeRae's struggles: her body. When she fails to lock in a sleeper hold on Cole, her arms are too short. When she appears out on her feet, she's giving up too much body weight to Cole. Interestingly, the commentators at one point frame LeRae's struggles as a matter of size, not biological sex, suggesting that Cole's sadistic ringwork would be less objectionable if he were wrestling a larger female opponent. But much more frequently, they seem to fixate on gender. Hero in particular is guilty of this. He derisively calls Cole a "real big man" after he inflicts gratuitous punishment on LeRae and suggests LeRae is lucky to be breathing after Cole hits with her an ordinary kick. The phrase "misogyny of low expectations" comes to mind here: they don't perceive LeRae to be as good of a wrestler as Cole.
As a clear consequence of her normative female body, LeRae is not depicted as a viable opponent for Cole in this match. There is, however, a potential silver lining to this fact, which is that the match's action is coherent. Put differently, the simulated combat conforms to the audience's general understanding of what would happen in a legitimate fight between two competitors separated by twelve inches and one hundred pounds. This next match, then, poses a new problem: how does one evaluate a match in which the action contradicts the audience's general understanding of reality?
Approach 2 (Female Body Emphasized in Competitive Match)
Deonna Purrazzo vs. Matt Riddle at Beyond Wrestling/Women's Wrestling Revolution
April 5, 2018
Lit Up is one of a very few shows that have featured exclusively intergender matches. Because Lit Up was an interpromotional event — that is, an event in which each wrestler competes against an opponent from a different company — there is no preexisting storyline between Purrazzo and Riddle here. Like Cole and LeRae, the two structure their match around a relatively simple narrative that underscores their divergent bodies: Riddle is hyper-conscious of the size disparity between himself and Purrazzo, and is therefore reluctant to trade blows with her.
Purrazzo vs. Riddle is a short match, lasting exactly five minutes bell-to-bell. The two begin tentatively, but Purrazzo quickly increases her intensity and begins taking the fight to Riddle. Initially caught off guard, Riddle recovers from Purrazzo's onslaught and pins her after a running knee strike. Lest this description not do justice to the amount of offense she gets, Stuart Iversen observes that the match "made Purrazzo look good, which is the important part."
What is striking is not that Purrazzo dominated large portions of an intergender match, but that she did so against Riddle. Important to know about Riddle is that he's an accomplished amateur wrestler, has won world titles in Brazlian jiu-jitsu, and had a successful UFC career before he was terminated due to his marihuana use.
The point here is what Barthes refers to as "intelligibility." While wrestling fans are willing to suspend their disbelief, this willingness has its limits. They don't demand that wrestlers legitimately hurt each other, but they do demand an intelligible simulation of wrestlers hurting each other. Put more simply, wrestling does not have to be "real," but it without exception must look real. As Quackenbush explains, even though fans are well aware of professional wrestling's artifice, they nonetheless gravitate to the aspects of it that appear truthful and authentic. Consequently, the most compelling feuds are rooted in reality; they don't offend the audience's sense of what is reasonable.
It stands to reason that few (if any) female wrestlers are a plausible match for Riddle. For a woman to appear capable of defeating Riddle, she must possess at least one of two attributes: 1) a significant advantage in size and strength or 2) elite (i.e., professional MMA level) quickness and mat-wrestling ability. Purrazzo's wrestling persona, billed at five foot two and one hundred thirty pounds, has neither. No matter how reticent Riddle may be to fight her, it's nearly impossible to imagine Purrazzo dominating him in a legitimate bout to the extent she does in their match.
Of course, the vast majority of male wrestlers lack Riddle's credentials. But this point doesn't make intelligibility any less of a problem in most intergender matches. Most notably, the size and strength disparity between competitors is frequently conspicuous. While female wrestlers may appear quicker and more cunning, these advantages have diminished utility given that matches take place in the confined environment of the ring. For better or worse, to depict a woman as physically overpowering a larger man is unbelievable. This unconventionality would undoubtedly reduce a match's intelligibility. Rip Rogers explains the matter more bluntly: "If I'm booking...an intergender match...The man would destroy the woman...You got to have some reality booking." While Rogers could be more tactful, he expresses a sentiment common to many fans. Perhaps wrestling can take a page from boxing and book intergender matches according to weight classes.
All of this may begin to explain why intergender wrestlers seem eager to obscure the female body. As posited in the discussion of Chyna, obscuring the body may well compromise the gender-equalizing function of intergender matches, not to mention limit the female wrestler's ability to emote to the crowd. But perhaps these outcomes are preferable to those that are almost inherent to emphasizing the female body. Indeed, if a female wrestler chooses that approach, one of two things are likely to happen: either she will not be depicted as a viable competitor, or her depiction of a viable competitor will be unintelligible and unpersuasive to the audience.
Intergender wrestling is in an unenviable position. Whether the body is obscured, emphasized in a non-competitive match, or emphasized in a competitive match — whether the body is shown too little or shown too much — the end result is the same: women are not convincingly depicted as equally competent to their male counterparts. In the first instance, the female wrestler is not conventionally "female" enough for her matches to send any cognizable messages about gender. In the second, the woman is consciously portrayed as an inferior wrestler to her male opponent. And in the third, the in-ring action is, simply put, beyond the scope of what the audience is willing to accept.
None of this is to say, however, that intergender wrestling is inevitably doomed to inefficacy. Just because women have not yet been consistently portrayed as viable competitors does not mean it is impossible to portray them as such. Only time will tell whether intergender matches will successfully depict women as equally competent or superior competitors to men.
From guest contributor David Turkel