Last week, #SpeakOut started trending on Twitter, as women wrestlers across the industry shared their experiences of sexual abuse and assault throughout their careers. Within a matter of days, women from wrestling companies big and small had accused almost a hundred men of some form of sexual assault, highlighting a problem that’s been hidden in plain sight for years. The tweets encompassed a variety of accusations, including grooming, rape, assault, and blackballing a woman’s career for not agreeing to commit a sexual act. RingSide News currently has a running list of most of the men who have been accused, but the site includes the caveat that because there are so many, it’s hard to keep the list as up to date as possible.
Some wrestlers who have been accused are currently facing punishment. Sammy Guevara, a performer with All Elite Wrestling, has been suspended without pay after a video of him surfaced saying that he would rape WWE Superstar Sasha Banks because he found her so attractive. Another wrestler, Jack Gallagher (real name Oliver Claffey), was released from the WWE after a woman shared her story about how Gallagher had allegedly gotten her drunk and assaulted her in a bathroom. Other performers who have been accused are undergoing investigations being lead by their respective companies which include WWE, All Elite Wrestling (AEW), Impact Wrestling, and National Wrestling Alliance.
Fans of professional wrestling know that there has always been a complicated relationship between fans, wrestlers, and wrestling promotions. Wrestling promotions like WWE are, by nature, exploitative of their wrestlers through their employment contracts and inhuman schedules. But wrestlers and fans are also locked in a strange symbiotic relationship that makes exploitation, stereotyping, and sexism profitable marketing tools.
It’s a known fact in the wrestling community that storylines and wrestlers live and die on what’s called “pop.” Pop is crowd reaction. If a wrestler comes out to a crowd full of boos, it’s still considered good pop because it signals that the crowd is invested in the character as a villain. In the early days of wrestling, the easiest way to get a villain pop was to make the wrestler into an Arab or southeast Asian stereotype such as the Great Khali, Muhammad Hussan, Jinder Mahal and early iterations of Mustafa Ali’s character. For years these characters got great fan interaction and thus were allowed to continue working within these racist constraints.
For women—on the rare occasions they were allowed to wrestle and not simply perform as arm candy—the pops came with wardrobe malfunctions and mud fights. Sex sold in the ‘90s, but when it became less popular to use women as sexual props the lens shifted, and women were given more space to create characters. Still, the sexy storylines remain even if they’re absolutely ridiculous.
The general rise in popularity of women athletes has paved the way for wrestling, which has always been a few decades behind the times, to take women wrestlers more seriously. In promotions that are widely televised like AEW and WWE, it seems as if women are really getting the shot they’ve been working towards for years.
But the proof is in the paperwork, and while it might seem as if a reckoning is happening with the current SpeakOut movement, there is one glaring issue— wrestling promotions are not obligated to do anything about it.
Wrestlers are for the most part considered independent contractors, despite the fact that their characters are the intellectual property of the promotion. For instance, if the Undertaker decided to leave WWE for a different promotion, the Undertaker character could not go with him. The McMahon family owns all of the merchandising and trademarking of that character. According to the Bella Twins’ memoir Incomparable, there’s also no HR structure in WWE specifically. The owners of wrestling promotions are not held accountable by the predatory contracts that their wrestlers sign, they’re beholden only to their fans who determine the profitability of the company.
Anyone who thinks that the SpeakOut movement and any result it garners is a result of wrestling getting better hasn’t been paying attention. If the internal mechanisms of professional wrestling had improved over the years in the slightest, then women wouldn’t be performing with their alleged abusers. But wrestling, despite the work of wrestlers to bring about change, is trapped within a vicious cycle made profitable primarily by the McMahon family.
McMahon’s model, which was ripped from the indies and replicated by other promotions like AEW puts the onus of a wrestler’s success largely on the shoulders of the fans. During the Ruthless Aggression period in WWE, fans were unable to connect with young upstart John Cena. Because he didn’t want to get fired, he went through several different character changes, eventually landing on the straightedge marine character that launched him straight to the top of the roster. British wrestler Paige was so beloved by the fans that Stephen Merchant and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson made a movie about her life years after she had to retire from wrestling due to a neck injury. These are just two examples, but this system is replicated with every wrestler who has succeeded or failed to make a name in the industry.
So when women wrestlers go public and reach out to the fans to say this is what’s happening, they’re not doing it just to start a movement or create a story, as some naysayers have accused—they’re using the wrestling model to effect change. If the fans don’t press strongly to condemn the actions of male performers and announcers who have gone unchecked for years, then there will be no change. It is literally up to every single annoying fucking Mark (that’s what the real fans are called) to finally stick up for the women who don’t get enough credit for everything they do. Investigations need to take place, but fans also need to take their cue from the brave wrestlers who have come forward, if we’re ever going to get to a place where “I like wrestling” isn’t a statement of shame.