Crushing Gender Norms and Noses: Inside the Hustle for Pro Wrestling's Main Stage
From nine to five every week day, Gabriella Belpre works at the mayor’s office in Philadelphia.
It’s a good job, if a bit predictable — the kind of place where everybody wears black and gray and drinks hot coffee spit from a dusty machine.
She’s got magenta hair some days, and bruises that run up and down her legs in a gnarly leopard print. Even so, watching Belpre click-clack the keys of her computer, and take polite sips from her iced Dunkin’ Donuts, it’s easy to forget what she does after hours.
Belpre, 25, is an independent professional wrestler — meaning she dons spandex booty shorts, struts into stage-lit high school gyms and church basements, and, standing at five feet tall, elbow drops a rotating cast of competitors.
It’s a surreal side gig — as dramatic as kabuki theater; as subversive and over-the-top as a dive bar drag show. She goes by “Gabby Ortiz,” a name she got from her late mother.
“I’m not me [in the ring],” Belpre says. “I’m pompous and arrogant. I wear pink and jewel-toned colors. This is a version of myself that I would like to be.”
Professional wrestling, the kind that mixes soap opera dramatics with feats of athleticism, has supplied America with a steady stream of entertainment since the 1950s. It hit the mainstream in the ’80s, with stars like Hulk Hogan and André the Giant, who passed the torch to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Bill “Goldberg,” and a handful of wrestlers ‘90s and ‘00s kids (like Belpre) grew up idolizing.
It remains one of our greatest—and weirdest—pastimes. Historically, it’s also been one of our broiest.
From the superstars who swan dive into the ring on World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) Monday Night Raw to the indie wrestlers who work small, untelevised circuits throughout the country, pro wrestling has mostly been a space for swole dudes to perform gender norms to an audience of not-so-swole fanboys.
Slowly, that’s changing. The WWE has started giving its female roster much more screen time, both in pay-per-view matches and primetime slots like Raw. In a much-hyped broadcast this past March, WrestleMania 35 featured a “triple threat” showdown between Becky Lynch, Ronda Rousey, and Charlotte Flair — the first time a woman’s match has headlined the event in its three-decade history.
As female superstars become more ubiquitous, indie performers like Belpre are flooding the feeder stream of readymade talent.
“Making it” is still only an option for a supremely gifted, ultra-charismatic few.
But at least it’s an option now.
There’s this scene in GLOW, the Netflix series about an all-female wrestling circuit in L.A., where director Sam (Marc Maron) recruits a blonde up-and-comer named Debbie (Betty Gilpin). “I need a star,” he says. “I want [your] cavewoman anger. I mean, you’re like Grace Kelly on steroids.”
She gives in, eventually, and goes on to rock an ‘80s bouffant and the stage name “Liberty Belle.” Like the real “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” a troop of women who wrestled in low-budget televised matches from 1986 to 1990, Debbie kicks ass.
Three seasons in, Netflix’s adaptation subverts the male gaze, and satirizes the lazy cultural stereotypes that pro wrestling sometimes doubles down on (the black “Welfare Queen,” the Asian “Fortune Cookie”). Stereotypes that long outlasted GLOW’s real-life run.
Ever since women popped onto the pro-wrestling scene, they’ve either been typecast as histrionic damsels in distress, or sidelined completely.
“Miss Elizabeth,” manager of the legendary Randy “Macho Man” Savage, was lusted after by George “The Animal” Steele, and kidnapped caveman-style (on the WWE’s YouTube channel, you can watch retro footage of a 1987 “Winner gets Elizabeth” match. It’s gross).
Then came the “Attitude Era,” a period starting in the late ’90s when the WWF (which would later become the WWE) used gore, misogyny, and chair shots to the face to lure viewers from its competitor, World Championship Wrestling (WCW).
The women, known as “Divas” at the time, were almost always auxiliary characters; girlfriends, card holders, and simple-minded, revenge-driven jezebels written into the script to enhance the men’s storylines.
In one super cringey plotline, billed as “Hot Lesbian Action,” two scantily-clad babes sashayed around the ring in a “will they or won’t they” ratings grab (obviously, they didn’t).
Another sleazy gimmick fashioned Stephanie McMahon, daughter of wrestling royalty Vince McMahon, into a sexual pawn for male wrestlers to kidnap, drug, and rape. Which is even more of a head-scratcher when you consider the fact that Vince, as chairman and CEO of the WWE, oversees all of these storylines.
Then came 2015.
In a February episode of Raw, four female wrestlers faced off—the Bella Twins versus Paige and Emma—in a tag team match that lasted an insultingly short 30 seconds. That night, #GiveDivasAChance trended on Twitter, and the next day, wrestler AJ Lee started a Twitter feud with Stephanie McMahon (now chief brand officer of the WWE, a title she still holds) about the company’s miserable reputation among women. That went viral too.
Soon, a domino effect followed. In 2016, Stephanie announced that the WWE would retool its women’s division to include longer matches and more nuanced storylines. By the end of 2018, the female roster had its own pay-per-view event.
Wrestlemania 35 came a few months later. The main event pitted three high-profile athletes against each other: Rounda Rousey, a famous mixed martial artist; Charlotte Flair, daughter of WWE legend Ric Flair, and Becky Lynch, a trash-talking Irish wrestler who goes by “The Man.”
Lynch, the night’s winner, was once written into WWE scripts as a “heel,” or villain, but was so universally adored by fans that writers had no choice but to make her the good guy. And that’s no small thing: Wrestlers who win blockbuster matches are usually the ones fans decide MUST win. So when a stadium packed with nearly 100,000 people cheered Lynch’s name—liked they’d cheered for The Rock, John Cena, and Hulk Hogan in past WrestleManias—she became one of the biggest superstars in wrestling history.
That doesn’t mean she gets paid like one.
The WWE doesn’t disclose wrestling salaries, but it’s no secret that its women’s roster makes significantly less than its men’s. CNBC estimates that Lynch’s salary hovered around $250,000 in 2018 — while Brock Lesnar, a popular male wrestler, took home about $12 million.
And while the company has added lots of feminist verbiage to its promotional material, it’s hard to tell how much of Lynch’s moment, and the growing attention paid to women’s wrestling in general, is thanks to legitimate progress at the WWE, and how much is just marketing.
Cliched storylines—catfights, boyfriend problems—are still par for the course. And just because some female wrestlers are getting more opportunities doesn’t mean they all are.
“The WWE really loves it’s ‘moments,’ says Mairead Small Staid, a writer and fan who’s covered pro-wrestling for publications like The Ringer and the Paris Review. “It worked really hard to tell the story of women main eventing WrestleMania for the first time, and that was incredible. But there are a dozen other women on the roster who haven’t had screen time in months.”
WWE wrestlers are treated like independent contractors — the company doesn’t have to give them health insurance, benefits, or a retirement plan. If you’re a superstar like John Cena, who gets blockbuster movie parts and lucrative merch deals on top of multi-million dollar contracts, having to sort out your own 401(k) might not be worth complaining about. But making it to the WWE doesn’t automatically make you a star. And if you’re a woman making significantly less than your male co-stars, these issues aren’t as easily shrugged off. “The people who have the leverage are not the people who really need it,” Small Staid says.
If anyone deserves a pat on the back for making this sport a more equitable one—outside of the wrestlers like Lynch who fought like hell to get here—it’s the fans. Women now make up 40% of the WWE’s audience, the company says. Some are new to the sport; others want to jump in the ring themselves, eventually.
“Half of my fan base is young females who want to be professional wrestlers,” says Daria Berenato, a WWE wrestler who goes by “Sonya Deville.”
Berenato, 26, is the first openly gay woman in WWE history. She grew up in New Jersey, and trained as an MMA fighter before moving to Los Angeles, where she met Maria Menounos of Access Hollywood fame. The TV presenter is a WWE nut — after watching Berenato in an MMA fight, she convinced her to make a career change.
“I think we’re on the right track,” Berenato tells me about the strides around pay. But for now, “It’s a continuing process of proving that we’re so undeniably good, and undeniably equal, that they have no choice but to pay everyone equally.”
The thing about professional wrestling, a sport that bills itself as hyper-masculine, and ultra-violent, is it’s actually pretty … elegant.
So when I walked into Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn one recent night, I didn’t find a bunch of methed-out Lou Ferrignos smacking the shit out of each other, like I thought I would. But something closer to dance practice.
The push and pull, the give and take — is almost like pair skating, or ballet. There’s showboating, obviously, but just as much succumbing to someone else’s showboating. Ultimately, it’s about feeding into your partner’s energy, and building something together.
Gleason’s is a boxing gym, but a retired WWE wrestler named John Rodriguez—“The Unpredictable Johnny Rodz”—runs a pro-wrestling training club on one of the back rings.
Johnny is 78, he says. His office sits behind a row of lockers — if he rolls his desk chair all the way to the left, and leans his head towards the door, he has a clear view of about a fourth of the ring. He usually doesn’t need it.
“I can see through this wall,” he tells me with a wink, before yelling into the ether that “whoever’s out there is WORKING TOO HARD” (Johnny-speak, I think, for smacking the shit out of someone.)
Pro wrestling takes years and years of training. The WWE isn’t the only dream destination—indie circuits like “Ring of Honor” and “Shimmer” are sprinkled throughout the country—but it is the holy grail. Most who make it to that level come up through the WWE’s Orlando, Florida performance center — including about 80% of “Raw and Smackdown superstars,” according to a company website. Every day, people who dream of being in that other 20% come to Johnny.
There were four women training the day I went, and about 15 men. After a long preamble, touching on everything from the nature of fame to the state of magazine journalism, Johnny had “the girls” show me their stuff — three in a “triple threat” match, the fourth refereeing. And it was metal AF.
They slammed onto the ground so often, and so hard, it made my stomach churn. Ditto this insane move they practiced where “the heel,” a tall woman named Rene, gets charged at by the other two, and then sort of clotheslines and flips them over at the same time.
A few got tossed out of the ring, just like on TV. Jada Hill, a 26-year-old who works in middle school administration, is so convincingly good at flying through the ropes that I thought it was an accident, even after she did it a second time.
Jasmine Wiggins, a 28-year-old who works at a nonprofit in the Bronx, tested out this maniacal little laugh she’s been working on. Like the bulk of women trickling into the wrestling ecosystem, Wiggins doesn’t fantasize about marching across a stage in her underwear, or making audiences go wild at the thought of catching some Hot Lesbian Action. She’s a career woman, and a Northwestern University graduate, who grew up watching wrestling with her uncle.
She’s also a proud black woman, and a feminist. So when friends first tried goading her into giving pro-wrestling a shot, Wiggins was hesitant. She didn’t want to sacrifice her ideals — like straightening her hair, or making herself small to benefit a man’s narrative. But she did some Googling, and found Marti Belle, a Dominican-American wrestler who trained under Johnny, and was currently rocking an afro in the indie circuit. “That was all the confirmation I needed,” Wiggins says.
Pro wrestling isn’t cheap: At all levels of the totem pole, you have to pay for training, a gym membership, custom outfits to perform in, music to “walk on” to, and more. (Johnny’s wrestlers pay a one-time, $3,000 “lifetime” fee to be in his club.)
But Wiggins has been coming to Gleason’s for almost four years now, and it’s only strengthened her resolve.
“I knew from the jump that this was going to be a long road,” she says. “Johnny doesn’t train divas, he trains wrestlers.”
All Elite Wrestling (AEW), the first real competitor to the WWE in almost 20 years, held a big, boisterous preview event at the end of August.
It was a “casino royale” competition at the Sears Center Arena in Chicago—wrestlers got eliminated by being physically tossed out of the ring—and featured a packed lineup of female wrestlers like Brit Baker, a 28-year old dentist from Pittsburgh, and Mercedes Martinez, a 38-year-old from Waterbury, Connecticut, two indie darlings with decades of experience between them.
Unlike most women who sign big, life-changing wrestling contracts, the AEW roster doesn’t look like a bunch of jacked Victoria’s Secret models. A few are plus-size; one has dreadlocks. Nyla Rose, the night’s champion, is the first out transgender wrestler to be signed to a major wrestling promotion. Ever.
Their big break is being shepherded by a husband and wife team: Cody Rhodes, Executive Vice President of AEW, and Brandi Rhodes, Chief Brand Officer. (Like the McMahon’s, the pair play exaggerated versions of themselves on-screen.)
They’re an unlikely duo for a counter-culture revolution. Cody is the son of the late WWE superstar Dusty Rhodes, and looks exactly how you’d expect him to (strong, severe, relentlessly shirtless). Brandi is a model and former competitive figure skater who trained as a WWE wrestler, but ended up being used mostly as a ring announcer.
She left the WWE in 2016 to compete in the indie circuit, and met lots of up-and-coming female wrestlers. Women who clocked out at their full-time jobs at law firms, schools, and nonprofits to compete in front of small crowds of local die-hards. Women who came from immigrant households, and were carrying on the traditions of Mexican lucha libre and Japanese uroresu. Women who commanded a room not with sex appeal — but strength, intelligence, and wit.
“When you sit in a lot of locker rooms, you get a lot of insight into how people get along,” Brandi tells me. “I’ve seen so many different things that worked well, and didn’t work well. Times women were appreciated, times women were not appreciated.”
Now, she says, “It’s time to give some of these women that I’ve worked with throughout the years a platform. And a place to call home.”
AEW is branding itself as an inclusive alternative to the pro-wrestling establishment. It’s partnering with nonprofits like KultureCity, which works to make events accessible to people with autism spectrum disorders. It’s only hiring writers who have wrestled themselves, instead of the sitcom and soap opera writers who traditionally fill pro-wrestling payrolls. And it crowned a woman’s champion on opening night. The last WWE Raw event as of this writing (Monday, October 21) featured exactly zero women’s matches.
Most AEW wrestlers are independent contractors, just like the WWE’s, Brandi says. But those contracts are for one live show a week, she’s quick to point out, whereas bookings for shows like Raw and Smackdown can send wrestlers on the road for five day stretches or longer. The AEW schedule gives wrestlers time to recover and spend with family — lowering stress levels, healthcare costs, and the odds of sustaining an injury.
There’s also no gender pay gap — all AEW salaries are based on experience, Brandi says. That doesn’t mean everyone gets the same paycheck: Chris Jericho, a wildly popular former WWE star now at AEW, probably commands more than athletes making their TV debut. But male wrestlers aren’t going to get better offers just because they’re male wrestlers.
“Our athletes are well taken care of,” Brandi says.
AEW’s official debut, a traveling TNT show called Dynamite, premiered on October 2nd to strong ratings, renewing hope among wrestlers, and their fans, that the sport is entering an era of competitive freedom — where fair salaries and employer-sponsored health insurance are a part of every contract.
On October 16th, it came to the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia. Eight days after Gabby Belpre, the Philly-based up-and-comer, turned 25.
She clocked out at her job at the mayor’s office, stood in the packed house, and cheered for women she hopes to compete against soon.
“There’s been a huge renaissance in women’s wrestling since I started four years ago,” Belpre says. “I can’t imagine what it will be like in the next four years.”