It seemed to be fate. For a month, my friend Ellie and I had been
practicing a feminist performance art piece in which we shouted rhyming
couplets over a series of big-time wrestling moves we'd learned from
Hulk Hogan videos. We had recently graduated from college and needed work that didn't tax our
artistry. We weren't altogether naive: We knew this might be a vaguely sleazy
operation where our shapely legs counted more than our tour jetis. But we
believed that the world was a place where little miracles -- in the form of
easy, glamorous jobs tailor-made for our bohemian laziness -- could happen.
The auditions even took place in a sky-lit studio where we often took
modern-dance classes. It seemed only natural that we should go.
But even when we got there, it was as if there were a scrim over all we saw.
This was our fantasy job, after all. We would let no ugly realities get in
"We want honest fights," spat Tiger Lilly's proprietor, Edwina, a
well-groomed pit bull of a woman, tapping her clipboard and stalking the
mats. "Absolutely no biting, you hear me? Twenty-five dollars extra for
hair-pulling and scratching."
Ellie and I giggled appreciatively at her sense of humor. The other
women stared at us pebble-eyed, failing to get the joke. We pulled at
the edges of our cotton leotards and adjusted our little dance belts and
glanced over our competition. I guessed that most of the other women had
just been released from prison. They too must have been drawn to the easy
money but, poor things, they obviously didn't have the skills we had to
offer. Their giant bangs, set aflame into glossy cocoons with hair spray
and cheap dye, leaped off their foreheads like animals trying to escape.
Their eye liner curled wet around their eyes and their vaguely dilated
pupils had the fierce indifference of malnourished hyenas. They were
tough, raw young women who looked like they'd seen their share of street
fighting. I remember feeling concern for them flash across my mind: These
young women didn't look sufficiently groomed for a career in entertainment.
How on earth would they know how to perform for the camera?
We signed waivers promising we would not sue Tiger Lilly under any
circumstances. Then we approached Edwina about our expertise.
"We have a routine perfectly worked out," I began.
"Good girl -- the camera will love you. We don't want nothin' fake, get
it? This is real athleticism. Can you give me real?"
"Our routine is very real," said Ellie, beaming. We'd recently taken a
fight choreography class and learned hair-pulling, stomping on stomachs and
Edwina began pairing the group off according to weight and height. Ellie
and I were nearly identical in size but Edwina ignored this, punching her
clipboard in our direction. "Friends don't wrestle," she explained. She
matched Ellie with a 6-foot redhead named Grace.
I was paired with Venus, a sculpted blond with forearms like pork
rounds. She was beautiful as only a serious female bodybuilder can be:
carved from stone and tanned to a medium toast, with glinting feral eyes
and a quick feminine flutter of a smile. She seemed quite nice, different
from the other women. We introduced ourselves, both confessing that this
was our first time. But before we could really talk, Edwina called out, "No
talking to your opponent. I don't want any fixes. Winners get $225 -- $25 for
The lights from the video cameras made our skin glisten. Between grunts
and gropings I could see the black impenetrable eye of the lens swooping in
like a snake mouth to swallow us whole. Edwina, the producer, encircled us
like a yipping dog, bending over unnecessarily to offer the camera
close-ups on her black and white referee hot-panted ass. Venus was a
gracious opponent, though I don't know if she would have gone so far as to
make a deal. But each time she slammed me to the ground, she whispered an
apology in my ear.
After one or two such apologies, it occurred to me that aside from the
blue mats and the shrieking whistle, this "wrestling" bore little
resemblance to the sport favored by Bulgarian Olympians and thick-necked
high school boys. In addition to the hair-pulling and scratching, which
Venus thankfully never resorted to, choke holds were fair game, as were
"scissors" and a host of other illegal moves. And though it was primarily
made "for gentlemen's entuhtainment," as Edwina put it, it was not a staged
athletic spectacle like professional wrestling or roller derby. It was real
fighting -- not sport, not theater. Think cock fighting with women instead
of roosters. Whoever wanted to watch this wanted to see blood, pain, a
real struggle for dominance.
The other young female wrestlers sat by, staring gloomily. Gradually, it
dawned on me that they were regulars and, unlike me, they were prepared.
They knew this easy money was nothing to giggle or preen over.
"Let's go girls," Edwina hissed. "All the way, now. To submission."
In her brand of wrestling, the object was not to press your opponent's
two shoulders firmly against the mat, but throttle her until she whimpered, "I submit!"
Venus and I fought for a gruesome 10 full minutes -- the designated length of
the first half. By then my body was surging with a nausea I'd never know before.
As black amoeba-like stuff closed off my vision, I realized I was in over my head.
We were nouveau gladiators performing for men with
wrestling fetishes - which I have since learned is relatively popular. A short trip into cyberspace will yield a myriad of Web sites
devoted to wrestling, cat fights and other gore for the violently horny.
For these men, it's the sight of women really hurting one another that
turns them on. Edwina's claim that the work was
"non-sexual" had put me at ease. But just because it wasn't sexual for us didn't mean that it wouldn't become a
turn-on for the video's eventual consumers, their greasy faces flickering in the
blue glow from the TV screen. That was an image that grew more vivid each time I
felt myself splayed in a new position of humiliation. Someday
unzipped sleaze balls on couches would eat up this spectacle like vultures
Had the listing actually used the word "sexual" I probably never would
have had the nerve to try it. And if for some strange reason I had arrived to
find real sexual interaction, I doubt I could have ventured onto the mats.
But I didn't really think subjecting myself to a little violence would
traumatize me. In fact, I didn't really recognize it as violence at all
until I was sick with it. Like much of our society, I apply a different set
of criteria to the taboos of sex and violence. After all, I engage in sex
but feel less comfortable talking about it to a child than I would about
violence, which I do not engage in. Violence is bad; sex is good. But
somehow a job that involved a little head-bashing put up fewer red flags for me
than one that might involve the lighter kind of touching.
My failed career as cat fighter forced me to confront the ways in which I
bought into all the strange contradictions of our culture's twin obsessions.
Despite the yoking of "sex and violence" in the debates around censorship,
V-chips, TV and movie ratings, I realized they rarely figure in the same political
struggles. By bringing them together, uttering them as a single phrase,
they taint and distort each other. Sex becomes scarier; violence a
little less real. Whether it involves Larry Flynt's latest fight over a filthy cartoon or Tipper
Gore's mission to institute labeling for the recording industry, sex is usually
the source of the most consternation.
Yet football and boxing -- which both cause real brain damage -- are prime-time sports, and the nightly news lingers over the details of murders in
far more detail and with far less hand-wringing than all the recent chatter
about cigars, stained dresses and blow jobs. Even the rating systems often
overlook the obvious: The video label for the recent Joaquin Phoenix
picture "Return to Paradise" offers warnings about nudity and profane
language but suggests nothing of the graphic and harrowing execution
at the end of the movie.
After my "submission," I sat on the sidelines, watching Ellie eagerly
strut her stuff against Grace, a 6-foot bodybuilder who had been
in Edwina's stable for some time. Neither woman wanted to submit. They tore at each others' faces, swore, pulled
hair, until finally Grace, bleeding from a gash along her neck, gave out under
pressure. Ellie walked away
with $225, thrilled with her newfound employment. She returned
the next month only to rip a knee ligament and sue Edwina for unsafe
Although Ellie had a little more cat-fight mettle than I did,
neither of us really understood "violence work" as well as we might have
understood "sex work." After all we were both happily sexually active. But
violence was an unknown world to us, except for movies and TV. Unlike the
hard-luck women who found nothing to giggle at in Edwina's lectures, we
didn't have any firsthand experience beating people up. America hasn't seen a war on its own soil in this century. Increasingly, with the
advent of high-tech weaponry, even our soldiers barely know what it feels like
to hurt someone. We may have grown inured to violence as much
for the ubiquity of its images as our own ignorance about it.
I also learned how much longer a shelf life violence has in our
consciousness. Soon after our fights, Ellie discovered that Grace, despite
her bodybuilding thighs and sharp long nails, had been like us, a feminist
performance artist slumming for a cheap thrill and a quick rent check. My
husband ended up befriending Grace, and I am still friends with Ellie. But
the two women -- despite their shared community -- continue to hate one
another 12 years later, as if their scratches had never healed. Had they
been locked in a deep-throat kiss instead of a choke hold, somehow I doubt
their feelings would be quite so raw.