In wrestling, women are collateral damage

Where are all the women’s stories on "Dark Side of the Ring?"

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Where are all the women’s stories on "Dark Side of the Ring?"

by Scarlett Harris

(PHOTO: “Woman” aka Nancy Benoit with Disciples of Destruction circa 1995; via Getty Images)

Dark Side of the Ring, the VICELAND documentary series about tragic stories throughout professional wrestling history, recently launched its second season. The series tagline says it is about “finding truth at the intersection of fantasy and reality in the veiled world of professional wrestling.”

One of those truths? The deep-seated foundation of sexism that wrestling built its popularity on top of. Unfortunately, Dark Side of the Ring never explicitly grapples with this fact. However, it unwittingly shines a light on it through its choice of subjects, experts, and narratives. 

The first two episodes of the second season centered on “wrestling’s darkest hour,” when former World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) wrestler Chris Benoit committed a double murder-suricide of his wife Nancy, a former wrestling manager who worked under the ring names “Fallen Angel” and “Woman,” and their seven-year-old son Daniel, in 2007.

“Benoit Part One” and “Benoit Part Two” paint a captivating picture of a monumental event in the world of wrestling. 

But it is one of the few documentaries across the sixteen episodes of Dark Side of the Ring that casts a woman as a subject of the story and features women as positions of authority as talking heads in the documentary. 

In the two episodes, Nancy’s sister Sandra Toffoloni is candid and unforgiving in her retelling of her sibling’s life. Vickie Guerrero — the wife of Chris’s best friend and fellow wrestler, Eddie Guerrero, who died two years prior to Benoit’s murder-suicide from heart failure — provides insight into the machinations of Nancy and Chris’s marriage. And Julie Malenko, the wife of another wrestler, Dean Malenko, also shines light on the tension in the Benoits’ marriage, from which Nancy filed for divorce in 2003 (the petition was dropped before her murder). 

That’s a positive step in the right direction. Still, that’s just three women. IMDB lists 14 men providing commentary in the episodes.

And ultimately, Nancy Benoit’s story is only being told at all because she was collateral damage of the wrestling industry.

Ring rats or WAGs

Nancy emerged on the wrestling scene in the mid 1980s, during the first boom for women’s wrestling. The Fabulous Moolah, who was the subject of last season’s finale, Wendi Richter and Cyndi Lauper (!) helped elevate the division as part of WWE’s Rock ’n’ Wrestling partnership with MTV. Though Nancy primarily acted as a valet and wrestling manager, providing a ringside and promo (wrestling speak for interview) presence to her male charges, she revolutionized that role that had previously only been held by men. But by the end of the decade, Moolah, as is detailed in her episode, had monopolized women’s wrestling so that there weren’t many opportunities for others. 

Women who did break through as wrestlers had much shorter careers than their male counterparts. Wrestlers like The Undertaker and Goldberg are still active into their 50s, whereas women rarely wrestle for more than a decade, usually leaving the industry to start families.

For so long in wrestling, the only prominent roles available to women were ring rats (wrestling speak for groupies) at worst, and WAGs (wives and girlfriends) at best.

All too often in wrestling history, being a WAG has been synonymous with being a victim. Sexual harassment, assault and a general disdain for most women who tried to step through the ring ropes and into the boys club that is professional wrestling kept them in a relegated position. It’s an extreme version of what we see in other sports: women are caretakers or trophies but, until recently, they haven’t been taken seriously as comparable athletes.

The rest of Dark Side of the Ring reinforces this reality. An upcoming episode will cover the 1983 death of Nancy Argentino, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka’s girlfriend, for which he was indicted in 2015. (The charges were dropped in January 2017 due to Snuka’s incompetence to stand trial. He died twelve days later.) 

And in the six installments from the first season, only two women are biographized: the late Miss Elizabeth—whose tale shares airtime with that of her former husband, “Macho Man” Randy Savage—and The Fabulous Moolah. Moolah had a storied multi-decade career, but is perhaps best known now for stealing her female trainees’ earnings, fixing matches (as much as can be done in a predetermined industry!) and allegedly pimping them out to wrestling bookers. In that respect, Moolah’s episode, which served as last season’s finale, features the most amount of women in a Dark Side of the Ring episode thus far.

Women’s stories, and voices, are MIA

Of course, it’s not just the VICELAND series that disregards women’s stories and voices in wrestlers. HBO’s 2018 documentary about Andre the Giant credits three women as interviewees, one of whom was Andre’s cast member in the film The Princess Bride, Robin Wright. 

WWE’s Ruthless Aggression docuseries about the mid-2000s features three women — current wrestlers Becky Lynch and Natalya, and legendary women’s wrestler Lita — giving their thoughts across the whole five episodes. Meanwhile, around two dozen men are featured in the series. 

While women were yet to reach the prominence in the mid-2000s that they have today, surely some of WWE’s female Hall of Fame inductees who were around at the time, such as Trish Stratus and Torrie Wilson, were available for comment. A second season of Ruthless Aggression is set to premiere later in the year, and one episode is about the Diva Search, a competition series to find the company's next female star at a time when women wrestlers were called Divas and expected to look like models rather than use their bodies to compete in the ring. A source who has seen the episode tells me that although it might seem obvious that this is the episode where women finally get to tell their own stories, this is apparently not the case. Perhaps that shouldn’t be so surprising; after all, a competition that had a sexually-suggestive pie eating contest and judged the women on who best seduced a male wrestler was almost certainly designed by men, so who better to speak on it, right?

And another recent WWE documentary about wrestler Edge introduces Beth Phoenix only as his wife, not as a four-time women’s champion and youngest WWE Hall of Fame inductee in her own right.

In terms of women wrestling journalists, not many are invited to speak as talking heads in these documentaries, primarily because there are so few of them in the industry as a whole. This means that even successful women’s wrestlers are usually having their stories told by men. For example, the memoirs published by Moolah, Lita, Joanie “Chyna” Laurer, and Charlotte Flair during their time with WWE were all ghostwritten by male authors.

The slow march towards equality

A lot has changed in the wrestling industry since the time periods these documentaries cover. Today, the women’s wrestling evolution is in full swing. Beginning in 2015, as a response to audience dissatisfaction, the WWE’s women’s division has been given prominence and respect (though not equal pay) that is more in line with other sports and and our culture at-large. Women’s wrestling headlined last years’ WrestleMania—WWE’s Super Bowl—and most of the mainstream representations of wrestling is centered on women, such as Netflix’s GLOW, the Total Divas/Total Bellas franchise, and Fighting with My Family, the 2019 Florence Pugh movie about former wrestler Paige’s journey to WWE. 

And while the retirement age of men still far surpasses that of women wrestlers, starting a family as become less of a barrier for women in the ring; for example, the first women’s Royal Rumble match in 2018 consisted of thirty women entering the ring at two-minute intervals, just under a third of which were mothers, including the overall winner, Asuka.

With this in mind, maybe in future seasons of Dark Side of the Ring and other wrestling documentaries, we won’t just be seeing the stories of the late Chyna and Ashley Massaro, or women who came back from the brink and overhauled their lives, such as Paige. We’ll be seeing the stories of women who broke out of the molds that previously encased them and achieved success on their own, not as an appendage or footnote to a man’s achievements.

Scarlett Harris is an Australian culture critic. She is writing a book about women’s wrestling entitled A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler, forthcoming next year from Fayetteville Mafia Press. You can read her previously published work at her website, The Scarlett Woman, and follow her on Twitter @ScarlettEHarris.

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