Feminist warriors: why wrestling for women is taking hold

The thrill of being thrown around a dusty wrestling ring, flipped over, then sat on isn’t one I’ve ever longed for. But Mercedez Blaze and Rebel Kinney, part-time warriors and full-time powerhouses, are determined to show me why wrestling isn’t just a thing, but a feminist thing. Call it the effect of TV series Glow, the influence of the fitness mantra that “strong is the new skinny”, or the fact that mainstream companies such as World Wrestling Entertainment and All Elite Wrestling have been forced to catch up with a fast-growing female audience, but women’s wrestling is having a major moment in sports halls and gyms up and down the country.

Blaze puts me in a headlock. It doesn’t feel like a political act, but she’s beautiful and smells like cocoa butter and I will believe anything she tells me. “I grew up on wrestling, it raised me, it’s my third parent,” she says gleefully. “Then I made my debut two years ago and now look at me.” My head is squished somewhere near her boobs. “I’ve never felt stronger or more confident than I do now. I feed off the energy of the crowd, I love the emotion of it – I’m meant to be here.”

There’s a lot to be said for women feeling empowered by their physical strength and taking up space loudly and aggressively in wrestling’s historically sexist, hyper-masculine world. And wrestling has had an especially bad rap: women have traditionally worked as glamorous ring girls. And, when they have wrestled, have been directed to perform “sexy” cat-fights. Being leered at and objectified was par for the course.

Mercedez Blaze: “I’ve never felt stronger or more confident than I do now.”

Mercedez Blaze: “I’ve never felt stronger or more confident than I do now.” Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

“But things have changed massively, otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” says Kinney. “This isn’t about sexiness or the male gaze, we’re putting on a performance of strength and power as good as any male wrestler – I was doing six sessions a week in the gym and nine in the ring.”

Kinney has a T-shirt that reads Psycho Dyke. You wouldn’t mess with her. But she also explains why the world of professional wrestling has been shaken up fighters like her.

Stella Cheeks and Erin Cline, hosts of feminist wrestling podcast Not Your Demographic, say wrestling’s growing appeal is down to the fact that voices like theirs are getting heard.

“The trend toward more inclusive wrestling came from the fans,” says Cheeks. “Frankly, I think a show like Glow was able to get greenlit because there was a clear fanbase in women that would eat it up and share it with friends.”

The Netflix series starring Alison Brie and Marc Maron is loosely based on the real-life 1980s crew, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and is often credited with boosting the current interest in women’s wrestling. The first series, described as smart, refreshing and “10 episodes of pure Silly String joy” by the New Yorker, was largely welcomed by the wrestling community. Audience appetite seems not to have dimmed; the third series premieres on Friday.

“I love wrestling because it’s everything I love about theatre,” explains Cline. “It’s character, storytelling, stage combat, catharsis. I love watching wrestlers fall into their characters. Sure, the ending is predetermined, but so is a play. It doesn’t make me enjoy it any less.”

Both Blaze and Kinney (whose real names are Gifty Boateng and Cydoni Trusste) agree there is a fairytale element to what they do.

“It’s like a dream,” says Blaze. Kinney adds: “You can go out with a planned match, but there are all these unexpected ways it can get there.” Both are a key part of Eve Academy’s roster. Run by husband-and-wife team Dann and Emily Read, Eve pitches itself as the world’s first feminist wrestling school and runs weekly training sessions – open to all women – and puts on dozens of sellout wrestling shows a year. The couple founded Eve a decade ago, after Emily stopped wrestling but knew she wanted to make it a better, fairer space. She says: “I had some bad experiences and wanted to make an all-women’s company that was a safe place, where women would never have to worry about being groped by men in the ring or cornered in the locker room with guys.”

Eve’s co-founder Emily Read: “We teach women to be strong and loud and stand big.”

Eve’s co-founder Emily Read: “We teach women to be strong and loud and stand big.” Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

At Eve’s base in Bethnal Green, east London, Dann talks me through their history – the Riot Grrrl wrestling matches, the punk wrestling shows and the importance of Eve’s political conscience to their success. He has the unfortunate habit of talking over the women, but is keen to promote their talent, saying: “For too long I was seeing girls working 10 times as hard as the boys and not being given the credit or opportunities they deserved. We’ve changed that. We’re the wrestling show the wrestling business doesn’t want.”

“We teach women to be strong and loud and stand big. When they walk into the room, people pay attention,” says Emily. “We get a lot of standups and hen parties coming to our shows and we love it. They see thicker-set women who would be booed in other wrestling shows, or be cast as baddies, and they love them. We’ve re-educated our audiences – any move that has a sexual connotation is banned in our shows. Any kind of harassment or bigotry or bullying gets you thrown out.”

Julia Hamer, better known as Sweet Saraya, has been a professional wrestler for 30 years and runs Bellatrix, another all-female wrestling company in Norfolk. She welcomes female-friendly companies, saying: “I think Eve are amazing, I really respect them. Our style is different. It’s not a problem to me if the audience fancies you – they buy more merchandise if they do. Plus, we’re wearing Lycra and you can see everything. I don’t encourage weirdos but you have to be a bit real when it comes to that element with women’s wrestling.”

Hamer is the matriarch of a wrestling family that has been the subject of TV documentaries and a 2019 feature film directed by Stephen Merchant. For her, it’s obvious why more women want to wrestle now.

“It’s a pure way of building confidence. I’ve seen a lot of quiet women use wrestling to build themselves mentally, not just physically. They come in timid and they’re tearing the roof off a year later. It definitely helps women who have anxiety.”

Nosheen Iqbal in the grip of Mercedez Blaze.

Nosheen Iqbal in the grip of Mercedez Blaze. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Professor Kerry Howley of the University of Iowa says the rise of women’s wrestling might be a backlash to cultural and social norms. “For many women there is an attraction to a way of life not bound to the dictates of ‘wellness’, of preserving life years, of carefully guarding every cell from the inevitable onslaught of entropy,” she says.

Howley spent three years shadowing wrestlers for her 2014 book Thrown, which was hailed by the New York Times. “There is a thrill in running into destruction when culture has instructed you to do the opposite. And there is an absolute thrill in watching wrestlers run toward destruction in the name of experience.”

Hamer agrees, and believes a wrestler’s mentality can be unique. “We’re all oddballs,” she laughs. “It’s an emotional and physical release. Every wrestler has a story to tell, and for women who have often been subject to abuse and been scared in some way, wrestling is a way to build yourself up from that.”

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