Othering of Women in AEW: Gender-Segregated Wrestling

In this four-part series, Jason Norris and Jacqui Pratt, PhD, discuss the implications behind the AEW practice of “othering” their women’s roster. This is part 3 of the series.

Definition of “Othering”: the reductive action of labelling and defining a person who belongs to the socially subordinate category of the Other. To exclude and displace a person from the social group to the margins of society, where mainstream social norms do not apply to them, for being the Other.

In part 2, I summarized the legal history of separate but equal in order to demonstrate what’s at stake when we view gender-segregated wrestling as an extension of this rhetorical tradition.

In part 3, I argue that given the history of sexist portrayals of women in professional wrestling, the fact that gendered divisions do not address the reality of non-binary performers, and the dual rhetorical significance of championship opportunities and reigns, any professional wrestling promotion that features talent of all genders and does not invest in building viable opportunities for their talent equitably—including substantial TV time, extra-promotional opportunities (like action figures), or even intergender (i.e. integrated) competition for top-tier championships—maintains the inherently misogynistic structures embedded in the history of the business and continues to disenfranchise women seeking equal recognition for their skill and labor.

First, professional wrestling has historically been built around the male experience: the ideation of what the male body should (and shouldn’t) look like, how a man should (or shouldn’t) act, and what he should (or shouldn’t) covet. Or as wrestling scholar Sharon Mazer succinctly puts it: “what is presented, affirmed, and critiqued is nothing so much as the idea of masculinity itself.”

Meanwhile, as I’ve written about elsewhere, “women’s wrestling has been primarily understood as a side-show within the larger spectacle, a vehicle for emphasizing the (hetro)sexual construction of the masculine ego” because “up until too recently, women have most often been used as eye candy for male spectators, filler content to provide fans with opportunities for bathroom breaks, or merely as props within a larger (male-centered) narrative.” Given this “longstanding tradition of mistreatment, trivialization, and overt sexualization,” female wrestlers are inherently “othered” simply because their bodies are not coded male. In short, the assumed normal in professional wrestling is male; all else is to be qualified, coded, and branded as “other.”

While this might sound like an abstract issue at first, its impact is embedded in the everyday rhetorics of professional wrestling. For example, we have women’s divisions and women’s titles identified as such without consistent, equal branding for men. That is, we don’t announce men’s matches as “the following men’s division match is scheduled for one fall” or call someone the Men’s Champion.

Any match or championship without a qualifier is assumed to be male; it’s the women who must be identified as something else. These (and other) small but impactful rhetorical choices surrounding the presentation of and public conversation around gender in professional wrestling reify the inherent inequities of the current, dominant separate but equal rhetoric, ensuring that male-ness remains the assumed normal in the business.

Second, even if one were to attempt to resist, as best as possible, this deep history of “othering” female talent by providing equitable labeling, opportunities, representation, and rewards to both male and female talent, there is another inherent issue in segregating divisions by gender: what do we make of non-binary wrestlers?

While trans performers can compete in the divisions that match their gender identity, a separate but equal structure inherently excludes non-binary performers. Where does a non-binary wrestler compete in gender-segregated divisions? Does a non-binary wrestler compete in a women’s division for those titles? If so, this communicates the message that anyone who is not a man is “other” and belongs in a segregated space away from the primary action.

Or, on the other hand, do they compete in a men’s division for men’s titles? If so, it’s acknowledging a hierarchy among divisions where women are the ultimate “other”—i.e. any persons other than women may compete in the “default” (i.e. men’s) division while women are relegated to their own separate space. It’s important to note that AEW appears to be going this route with its gendered divisions, seeing as the gender-neutral Sonny Kiss (who uses both she/her and he/him pronouns) competes in the men’s division.

Or, are non-binary wrestlers excluded from the action all together, victims of blatant gender discrimination? No matter which way it shakes out, addressing the reality of non-binary talent in gender-segregated environments renders visible the inherently unequal position of women in professional wrestling at best, and at worst, it excludes an entire group of individuals from participating in the first place.

Finally, while there are absolutely athletic elements involved, we have to understand that professional wrestling is ultimately a performance art, a fiction. Much like dancers, stunt performers, and drag artists, professional wrestlers use their bodies as the primary vehicle for expressing stories to an audience. While performers should possess some degree of athleticism to safely execute the required movements, any “sporting” element of the artform is in service to the fiction/narrative being created. In other words, wrestlers-as-people don’t authentically fight; rather, their characters simulate a fight, create the illusion of one, in order to dramatize a conflict.

Championship opportunities and reigns serve an important dual rhetorical function, then: they allow for a continual fictional story to be told (that is, they exist as a permanent narrative element) while simultaneously rewarding actual people for their exemplary work. In gender-segregated environments, women are barred from competing for the same titles as men. While women’s divisions may have their own championships for which female talent can compete (satisfying the fictional function of titles), since the assumed normal in professional wrestling is male, women’s championships, rhetorically speaking, are secondary to the unqualified top-tier championships for which only men are allowed to compete.

That is, as a symbol of recognition and prestige for the actual wrestlers-as-people (the second rhetorical function of title opportunities and reigns), men’s and women’s championships are inherently unequal in status. Thus, the inequalities within separate but equal rhetoric overviewed above protect men’s status as the predominant figures in the business by ensuring that only they compete for the most prestigious titles, leaving women out of the conversation entirely.

Once again, there is something tangibly at stake for women, then, in desegregating wrestling: who is allowed to be recognized as a top performer in the business. In the current separate but equal landscape that generally permeates professional wrestling (AEW included), no matter how hard women work, no matter how much buzz they generate, no matter how often they outperform everyone else on a card and steal the show, they’ll always matter less than men simply because they are afforded limited (i.e. inequitable) access to professional opportunities, rewards, and prestige in segregated environments.

In the fourth and final part of this series, I will explain why integrated wrestling is the equitable way forward for professional wrestling promotions.

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