Last Tuesday, September 12th, Kairi Sane won the inaugural Mae Young Classic wrestling tournament. This event was a 32-competitor tournament exclusively for women, largely from independent wrestling circuits, and was a milestone in the journey of women’s wrestling. For the first time, women’s wrestling was brought to mainstream audiences around the world. The tournament was held in honour of the late Mae Young, a WWE Hall of Famer who wrestled her first match in 1939 and her last in 2010 at the age of 86, with an active career spanning 71 years and having wrestled in nine different decades. She was a true leviathan of wrestling and an undeniably incredible human.
Whilst WWE and the mainstream wrestling circuit is problematic in SO many different ways, and has a long history of problematic, sexist and racist behaviour, this tournament felt like a turning point for women in sports entertainment. Having recently devoured and enjoyed Netflix’s GLOW, and being keenly aware of the objectifying “attitude era” of wrestling that followed on during the 1990s, during which WWE treated its female performers as shameless sex acts and indulged in such awful titillations as lingerie matches and actual violence against women, it was so satisfying for me to see how far the treatment of women in wrestling has come. Even in the early 00s during the “PG era”, the women’s division was sickeningly rebranded as “Divas” and still hired its female participants solely on the strength of their aesthetic assets – or alternately, a ‘Beast’ if they were on the larger side and a joke otherwise Re: Mae Young’s later years on the roster. Yet, the women featured in the Mae Young Classic were diverse—in race, in body type, in character style, in approach. They weren’t all perfectly lean, big-breasted and tan–they weren’t all white (though the tournament could definitely have been less fair-skinned). They were fierce; they were strong; they were passionate. They didn’t hold back, they commanded respect, and they were taken seriously as wrestlers.
Women’s wrestling typically takes up less than a quarter of show time in your average WWE RAW or Smackdown promotion, and marginally more in NXT billings under the guidance of veteran pro-wrestler and showrunner Triple H, who leans towards greater female and independent-circuit presence. An entire tournament dedicated solely to women’s wrestling not only honoured a legend, but specifically made a significant space and time for women in an otherwise testosterone-dominated institution–and the 32 women from around the globe took up that space with a ferocity and a tenacity and an energy that would put any man to shame. People often try to take wrestling down a peg on the basis that “it’s fake”, but that shit hurts. Jumping from a height of over six feet and landing in a way that doesn’t significantly hurt you is no small feat; being thrown around a wrestling ring for 20 minutes is taxing, no matter how well you can land throws or sell suplexes. On that open stage, broadcast to the world, given room to peacock and flex their muscles and show their strength and skill, they flourished. My partner watches WWE matches regularly, and I don’t often engage, but these matches drew me in and held my attention, and I was invested.
Whilst this was inarguably a space in which to display their strength, agility and insane aerodynamic abilities, the participants were also given space to be complex and feminine alongside their physical strength. Many of the characters were played in a way that captialised on their femininity, whilst equally others took a more fluid approach–and those who did the latter were not exclusively marked as heel characters. I saw several matches in which the two competitors beamed at each other and shared a genuine and heartfelt congratulatory hug at the match’s close, celebrating and revelling in each other’s victories. The camaraderie was palpable–the sisterhood instilled in the participants and the weight of their gratitude for this space in the wrestling world was moving.
This may seem like I am congratulating the showrunners behind the Mae Young Classic for things which should be standard practice–treating women equally–but for an institution which has historically taken a terrible attitude towards its female participants, this long-overdue turn for the better is a strong example of how other, similarly awful brands can follow suit. The demand is there. That is a fact, and this tournament has proven it. We need more spaces like this for women everywhere. We also need for men’s and women’s matches to become obsolete, and for simply “matches” to exist. WWE has only very recently started to up its diversity game, with the so-called Women’s Revolution happening around two years ago. The Women’s Revolution refers to the trailblazing ascension of a group of female wrestlers to a place of being regarded as serious wrestlers as opposed to the heavily sexualised and lewd women’s participation in wrestling that preceded them. These women, Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Bayley, are now mainstays and absolute forcefields within the WWE universe, revered as skilled sports entertainers rather than as entertainment with tits. Even so, there’s a long way to go with representation. Earlier this year the Inaugural Women’s Money in the Bank Ladder match took place, during which a man controversially won the title on behalf of the female participant. There is currently only one openly gay wrestler on the main circuits. There is a long, long way to go.
When Kairi Sane delivered her final elbow drop from the top rope to Shayna Baszler at the final of the Inaugural Mae Young Classic, I was invested and awestruck at the sheer power and strength coming from such a petite human. I was transfixed. Inspired, I thought “maybe I could do that too”. This is why representation matters.
-L (thank you to Jake for being my wrestling encyclopedia)