Autobiographies by professional wrestlers tend to be read mostly by wrestling fans. As a wrestling fan, I get that people who aren’t interested in wrestling probably aren’t particularly interested in reading about it either. But a recent book by a former professional wrestler has a lot of profound insights that I was reminded of when the Harvey Weinstein scandal erupted. In his role as a producer and studio head, Weinstein allegedly assaulted or harassed numerous women – but there are other, more insidious ways that the entertainment industry demeans women, both as participants and as consumers. AJ Mendez Brooks, who wrestled as AJ Lee in WWE, brings some of those anti-women forces into the light in describing her own experiences in the wrestling industry.
Far too many female wrestlers are hired because they look a certain way – think skimpy outfits, breast implants, hair extensions, and fake tans – and not because they can actually wrestle. This isn’t to say that male wrestlers aren’t also hired for their looks; there’s more than a few male wrestlers with huge muscles and not much wrestling ability. But I know that both male and female wrestling fans really appreciate seeing a great match between athletic, dynamic female wrestlers, and hate sitting through matches between untalented women who can’t even perform basic wrestling moves. It’s particularly appalling when women who have “the look”, but who can’t wrestle, get pushed – getting good time slots for their matches, getting more opportunities to wrestle on TV or at pay-per-view events, getting involved in major storylines – while women who are great wrestlers but don’t have “the look” are marginalized.
In Crazy is My Superpower, Mendez describes growing up as an active girl who liked videogames, stories, and comic books. She was attracted by the athleticism and heroics of professional wrestling – but the first barrier she faced in entering the industry was being told that she was too short and slight to be a wrestler. Nevertheless, she persisted, and after numerous tryouts was finally accepted into Florida Championship Wrestling, which at the time was WWE’s entry-level wrestling organization. She was then assigned to NXT, the company’s secondary organization, before gradually moving up into the main WWE company.
The in-ring character that Mendez developed in NXT reflected her own “nerdy” personality. Mendez realized full well that she didn’t dress or look the way WWE’s female wrestlers were expected to dress or look. However, she felt that the AJ Lee character was not only an appealing character but also one that made good business sense.
While everyone was concerned about appealing to our male fan base, it seemed they were neglecting their fellow females, I realized that was who we as women should be targeting. They made up over half of our fan base but didn’t have someone they could see themselves in….I remembered that when I was a young girl watching the product, I wasn’t into designer dresses and high heels. I watched pro wrestling because I was a tomboy….I wasn’t trying to portray myself as some perfect unattainable specimen, which had been the formula laid out before us [women] for years.
Despite WWE management trying to push her into looking and acting like a “Diva” – WWE’s brand name for its female wrestlers – Mendez continued to build the AJ Lee character. And the more she worked on it, the more positively audiences responded, because she was so much more confident using her own characteristics instead of trying to be someone she wasn’t. In her words, “I embraced being the best version of myself. That started on a visual level, but then went much deeper. When given a microphone, I let my freak flag fly. I talked about robot handshakes, playing Xbox and eating pizza, and displayed a vast knowledge of pro wrestling history. I made jokes, snort laughed, handed out fist bumps, and acted like my true dorky self.”
But then AJ was called into a meeting with an executive from Talent Relations – the division of WWE that’s responsible for developing and managing the performers. In that meeting, this is what she was told:
Our female fans want to dress like you. Our male fans want to hang out and play video games with you. But no one wants to have sex with you. Do you see how that’s a problem for us?
Let’s just stop for a minute and think about that statement. It’s demeaning on so many levels. It assumes that audiences only relate to female characters if those characters are sexually attractive. It assumes that a woman is only sexually attractive if she’s wearing a ton of makeup and a revealing dress. It assumes that wrestling fans don’t want to see women wrestlers that look athletic, that look like real everyday women, or that are skilled wrestlers. And it assumes that women should know their goal is to get someone to “sleep with” them.
All of these assumptions are tied up in stereotypes of women that are not only out of date but tremendously sexist. And keep in mind that these statements came from a representative of a company that earned $729 million US in revenue in 2016. The attitudes underlying these statements are also attitudes underlying the strategies of an entertainment business that reaches millions of consumers all around the world.
Mendez notes that, along with WWE insulting her by telling her that she wasn’t “fuckable”, the “problem” that WWE identified wasn’t a problem. Audiences weren’t rejecting her character because they (allegedly) didn’t want to sleep with her – they loved her character, and they loved her because she was real. Mendez and her character dressed the same in and out of the ring, which, she says, was a deliberate choice on her part. She wanted to dress casually for her own comfort, and she also wanted fans to be able to copy her look easily and inexpensively – thus, the “Target jean shorts”, T-shirts, and Chuck Taylor shoes. WWE’s reaction to this choice was to complain that making it easy for fans to dress like her would hurt the sales of her character’s merchandise. Instead, the AJ Lee merchandise consistently outsold the merchandise of many higher-profile wrestlers with much more elaborate characters and costumes.
There were downsides to playing a relatable character, especially for a woman. Mendez recounts several harrowing tales of creepy fans who thought that because her character was so approachable, it was OK to do things like follow her on her way to and from shows. But interestingly – and smartly – she places these experiences within the context of the horn-honking and “Smile, honey!” street harassment that women are regularly subjected to. She firmly, and rightly, states that no matter how a woman dresses or presents herself, unwanted attention is wrong.
Mendez retired from wrestling in 2015. She married fellow WWE wrestler CM Punk, and he was fired from the company in 2014; she felt “caught in the middle” staying in WWE after his departure, and she also suffered permanent damage to her spine that made it unwise for her to continue in the sport. Her career proved that wrestling fans will support a female wrestler who can wrestle and who doesn’t look like an overinflated supermodel. Sadly, however, women wrestlers in WWE are still being forced into “the look”. There are a few rare exceptions, like the cheerful ponytailed Bayley – but if anything, the “Diva” stereotype is now being pushed even more strongly onto WWE’s female wrestlers, to the point of WWE Divas having their own faux-Kardashian “reality” show.
Crazy is My Superpower is an excellent read, and it’s an especially relevant read in the wake of the Weinstein scandal. Weinstein himself may no longer be a powerful person in the entertainment industry, but by no means is he the only person in that industry to stereotype and demean women. The attitudes that he represented are still there, in obvious and not so obvious ways. It’s going to take a very long time to get rid of those anti-woman attitudes, in the entertainment industry and in society.