I learned of Dusty Rhodes’ passing while on a bus from San Jose to Santa Cruz. I waddled to the back, read people’s reactions on twitter, and cried so hard one of my eyes practically swelled shut. I got off the bus in Santa Cruz, casually mentioned his death to the friend who met me at the station, and then didn’t talk about it with anyone (save on social media with other wrestling fans) again.
I often find trying to explain to non-wrestling fans why losing a wrestler wrecks me so intimately insurmountable in effort and more than a little humiliating in the ways it undermines my view of myself as aloof and un-invested in what others imagine to be very trivial shit.
I imagine many other wrestling fans feel this way.
But: we can’t let this timidity dilute or obfuscate the impact people have made in the world. I’m not being poetically holistic; Joanie Laurer, aka Chyna, changed the world. Not just wrestling, but the world as as it pertained to those who had a chance to see her, to exist in a time and society that observed and reacted to her existence.
Basically, I think doing the whole “broken angel” routine of lionizing the demons that plague female celebrities is patriarchal, demeaning, and completely inappropriate when dealing with a woman who competitively wrestled men during the most actively, explicitly, intentionally sexist periods in pro wrestling history.
Like Prince, Chyna, the "Ninth Wonder of the World" deserves her share of credit for challenging expectations of gender, thriving in a medium hell-bent on holding her down, and participating in guilty pleasure cinema. We can argue the difference in scope and ubiquity between the two, if you want, if you think asking that a woman’s life and accomplishments and struggles be equally recognized is an invitation for a fucking debate, but if we’re really here to exalt triumph over invisibility, and not just reify patriarchal narratives of “iconoclastic men” and “lost kittens”, then we can’t dismiss Chyna’s contributions to pop culture because of wrestling’s supposed fakeness.
Music’s fake too; I once saw Metallica’s frontman James Hetfield at SFO airport. His wife asked the TSA agents if they could cut in line. He was definitely not a werewolf, a battery, or a disabled war veteran hooked up to nightmarish life support. If he were, they’d probably just let him through without needing to ask.
Wrestling has been the sole constant in my life. Most things people presume to be static–name, gender and sexual identity, who you consider family and where you consider home–have all for me been dynamic. Literally the only thing that has remained was the love for wrestling. This gives me a sense of continuity but it also sometimes forces me to peek at memories that are uncomfortable or unnerving, like being a Metallica fan during the 00’s while I was in a band with a bunch of Nirvana fans, having long greasy hair and wearing leather gloves and purposely scraping at the knees of my jeans because it’s what musician I idolized did (15 fucking years ago, before I was born).
But sometimes that introspection gifts you some clarity: while I was in that band, I crashed at the bassist’s mom’s house once and we all watched his baby sister amuse herself by jumping off his bed and onto people and at some point someone said “Kyle, your sister’s gonna grow up to be like Chyna” and that was probably the first time I had ever heard “wrestler” be something that a little girl could grow up to be.
In that sense, Chyna changed at least my world.
There were other senses, too: manager or wrestler, face or heel, a constant facet to Chyna’s character was that she may have been trans or otherwise beyond standard notions of gender. There were remarks, from wrestlers, fans, and ring announcers alike as to the configuration of her genitals and whether or not she’d pass as a man. Anyone with a cursory understanding of trans and sex work tropes in media would see the implications in having your standout woman wrestler dressed in leather and fishnets with a shirt that just said “Master”, with a smaller, more traditionally feminine wrestler with a shirt that read “Slave” in tow.
If you paid close attention, you might have noticed the theme present in the lyrics of her theme song: Don’t treat me like a woman/Don’t treat me like a man.
That was a joke. There was nothing subtle about Chyna and the way she was (at times very, very probelmatically) promoted. She fucked dudes up. She took their titles, their girlfriends.
I wish I knew then what I know now, and had the tools to critically engage my fandom of Chyna and the transphobia and erasure of her body and identity that came with that ambiguity. As it is: seeing a muscly leather goddess clothesline and punch dudes in the crotch without a whole lot of waxing and waning about whether she fit descriptions helped me overcome my fears of my bulky, muscly frame and my inability to fit certain descriptions of “a woman’s body”.
There has been a perpetual pushback to her skill and her athleticism and popularity from certain people within the wrestling community, one that found a second wind immediately following her death. They’ve said, and they will again, that she wasn’t good in the ring, that she wasn’t over, she only had sex appeal insofar as they were curious what her birth assignment was, and that her career was nothing more than a symptom of nepotism and didn’t warrant itself at all.
This is revisionism. Chyna was over, and to say she wasn’t, or that the popularity of her issue of Playboy—the best-selling issue featuring a WWE performer—was somehow separate from her success as a wrestler or performer is like saying Hulk Hogan and John Cena got into films strictly on the merit of their acting ability.
Men did not buy Chyna’s Playboy issue of Playboy in droves strictly out of curiosity, or to confirm her gender assignment. They did so because they desired her. You might think it hyperbolic to say she commanded their awe and respect, but usually, when a man hits a woman in a wrestling match, the reaction is to boo or scream and look for a male wrestler to hit the ring to defend her honor. When a man hit Chyna, she hit him back. And then she hit him again.
Chyna was the first woman to enter the King of the Ring and the Royal Rumble events—to put this in perspective, imagine once a year your job has a work party and the party is really just everyone kicking the shit out of each other and it’s always been men and whichever man wins gets promotions and letters of recommendation and goes places and then one year a woman just shows up and is like “okay yes I am here to kick butt let’s do this”.
Chyna’s appeal translated to fame in ways that wrestling doesn’t really translate well to analogy. This is why I tend to keep these feelings confined to my other “wrestle friends”, where we can speak entirely in reference and metaphor, unafraid of these gaps or pratfalls in relation.
But we must try.
For tall girls (and “tall girls”), muscly girls, angry girls, ambitious girls, unsatisfied girls, —and even and especially people who don’t identify as girls but strive to live and thrive outside the confines of a rigid patriarchal binary—Chyna’s unrepentant menace inspired and stood for our aspirations, dreams, and desires.
Because we grew up in a time where we could know of Chyna, many of who we were grew to become who we are. Chyna challenged patriarchal non-conformity in similar ways to Prince and Bowie. Even if that desire was just “I don’t want to be kept apart from things I want just because I’m a woman.”
Chyna competed against Eddie Guerrero, Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho, Jeff Jarrett—current Hall of Famers, future Hall of Famers, and men who thought they’d one day just buy their own Hall of Fame. She wrestled Masahiro Chono and Hiro Tanahashi in Japan. I don’t have a witty follow up to that. I just think it’s fucking great. At one point, she headbutts Chono so hard he stumbles across half the ring and into the corner, where she just starts slapping the shit out of him.
We’ve all been there, I think.
She was undoubtedly exploited and betrayed and mistreated by the men in her life, especially Triple H, who was (very very likely) responsible for her being released from WWE and then, after being promoted to COO of the company, said he could never induct Chyna into the Hall of Fame because his kids might google her; a whole other thinkpiece could be written on the privilege and animosity towards women’s sexuality that informs a man like Triple H, who’s career has included performing in blackface and simulating necrophilia, to worry about his children learning his ex-girlfriend did porn.
(Not to give Sean Waltman, the producers of The Surreal Life, and Dr. Drew a pass.)
But to confine Chyna’s narrative to the ways men wronged her limits the ways she, in the relatively short time she was an active wrestler, Chyna changed the industry.
A woman wrestling a man, competitively, was once a novelty, and now it’s something we are growing to expect. Kimber Lee is the current CHIKARA Grand Champion. Sexy Star won the Lucha Underground Championship this month—the one day she held it before losing it to Johnny Mundo could seem a blissful eternity to countless women in the industry confined to bathroom break matches and inconsistent, at times-aggressively nonsensical booking.
The only team confirmed for King of Trios 2016—an annual event that, like PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles, is considered a sort of World Cup of indie wrestling—are a team of Japanese women. And man: we are fucking hyped.
And the people who watch these shows, who pay to sit front row for “fake fights”, drive or take the real bus back to their real lives, moving through the world with the memories and knowledge that, at least once every few weeks in a high school gym or a Legion of Honor hall, the rigidity of patriarchy can be nudged and bent, even if just a bit. And that infallibility of society’s expectations, however temporary, heartens us in our efforts to put the hands holding us down in knuckle locks and ask if they’d had enough.
Some of us are women learning to take up space, to not punish ourselves for not having the bodies we see so exalted around us. Some of us aren’t content with excellence in women’s-only competition, and we want a chance to be seen as equal or even greater caliber to our male peers. Some of us are macho women, glamorous men, non-binary folk fierce and tender in equal measure. We want more than what we’ve given. We are all trying to counter the figure four of patriarchy in our own ways.
And it might be embarrassing, uncomfortable even, to articulate how a person you’ve never met, who may not have even known you existed, had such a profound impact on the ways you move through the world by doing a half-sport, half-performance art people take a sort of glib pride in not understanding—but we have to try.
Otherwise, Chyna and other women like her won’t be remembered for the battles they won (or at least lost in a way that still brought entertainment and joy and gratification to people), but those they lost.
The wrestling business should have been better to Chyna (as should other media outlets and institutions that profited from her substance abuse and depression). They should be kinder to her memory now.
There is one less career out there that women and other people who fall outside of strict patriarchal gender performance can never be.
And as those people, inspired by Chyna’s example, integrate into the sport in larger and larger numbers, WWE will have to either acknowledge and incorporate a wrestling culture which allows for competitive intergender wrestling or take a stand and assert itself as a needlessly out-of-touch, conservative standard bearer.
In any case: you can keep her out of the Hall of Fame, you can tell your kids not to google her, but Chyna’s influence will not be squashed (that’s a wrestling reference). At least, not as long as we, as fans, as participants in the wrestling community, speak up about her, and about other non-men who’ve fought through the crowd of patriarchy (another wrestler reference, sorta) to help us all get a push (last reference, I promise).
We mustn’t be afraid or ashamed to share the ways in which people like Chyna, through their “fake wrestling”, have moved us in “real ways”. Because we are real people and the lives and struggles that are enriched, inspired, or simply comforted by that magic space of wrestling are also vibrantly, painfully, at-times-tragically real, too.