I was one of those rare working-class American kids that got through the 80s without getting into professional wrestling. That doesn’t mean wrestling had no influence on me at all. As a very little kid in the 1970s I played “Lucha Libre,” emulating the late-night Mexican wrestling that’d get broadcast on channel 41 (back when it was on UHF and there was no such thing as Univision yet). I can recall many a time play wrestling my older brother. He’d lift me up over his head and swing me down on the bed, both of us calling out “¡LUCHA LIBRE!” It was a war cry and an expression of pure joy. But we never emulated a particular wrestler, nor could I tell you much of anything about even the most popular wrestling figures. I just liked the idea of the masked wrestler, and that is kind of where my head is still at. I would be fronting if I said that I was a “real” fan of wrestling, but I am not a person who puts it down either. I’d rather imagine a world where Santo could be champion and a defender of la raza against dark occult forces than dismiss all its fun by nay-saying something that just doesn’t appeal to me that often. As my late nephew (who loved wrestling) once explained to me in a way that made me take his point of view to heart: Professional wrestling isn’t fake, it’s choreographed. And I think that is an important distinction. Watch a movie like 2008’s The Wrestler and you’ll see what I mean. It doesn’t matter who is set to win; the wrestlers put serious stress on their bodies to perform for their audiences. It is a theater of pain.
Mentioning that Aronofsky film is probably the clearest evidence of my position vis-à-vis wrestling, since I have no deep reference, no archival knowledge about wrestling and wrestlers that I can easily access to make my point the way I do when I write about a character like Spider-Man, for example—who, by the way, started his career as a wrestler. My general ambivalence to professional wrestling as a sporting exhibition, however, might explain my fascination with the ways it might resist gender conformity. I can stand outside it and appreciate its queerness.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about women’s wrestling and ways that superhero narratives and wrestling identities intersect and overlap in comics because of my love of Los Bros Hernandez’s Love and Rockets, especially Jaime Hernandez’s stable of women wrestler characters in his Locas serial; from legendary disgraced champion, world adventurer and political agitator, Rita Titañon to Maggie’s aunt Vicki Glori with her own women wrestlers training camp, to Xochitl, wife, mother and mediocre wrestler, and to the countless others introduced or referenced in the decades of the comics’ publication.
I recently wrote a bit about these luchadoras in exploring the way God & Science: Return of the Ti-Girls creates an alternative tradition of Latina superheroes. In “Succeeding in the Super Biz: The Subaltern Superhero in Jaime Hernandez’s God and Science,” which was printed in the Spring 2016 issue of the Journal of Comics & Culture, I explore a counter-history written into existence through reader-provided macro-closure of the fragmentary and incomplete records of tough women who struggle in an absurd world with a skewed moral landscape. But if God and Science is Jaime’s way of using Silver Age superhero goofiness to explore a community of women and imagine mythic traditions that mainstream narratives of Latina life often ignore, then the constant return to women wrestlers in the rest of the Locas serial is a way to embody the struggles of women to perform a femininity that is as elastic and capacious as the absurdist masculinity performed in male wrestling—a masculinity so elastic it swells into the homoerotic. I am only interested in male professional wrestling to the degree it pulses with sublimated desire, with a glistening attention to the male body, violent throws and holds punctuated with strutting and preening. In other words, I see male wrestling as space where the elasticity of male-identified gender is apparent. It is worn on the sleeve, like Roland Barthes explains in his “World of Wrestling,” “Each sign in wrestling is…endowed with an absolute clarity” (though I’d argue that the range and diversity of potentially contradictory signs is wider than Barthes would admit). Wrestling is a world where men are called “Gorgeous” and “Beefcake.” Once they wore big mustaches and daisy dukes, now many are slick, chiseled and hairless, yet they always define macho. The wider acceptance and success of women’s wrestling then, like that in the world Hernandez imagines, could provide such a space for elastic femininity as well, while avoiding the narrow-casting of the male gaze that’d reduce their exhibition to a cat fight, a sexy play-fight for the pleasure of men.
My mind returned to wrestling and Locas when I watched a documentary short called Luchadora about a Mexican woman wrestler, Maria De Los Angeles Aranda Ramirez, aka Luna Magica. It struck me that it might be productive to consider the comic’s consistent interrogation of gender and gender performance, particularly through women wrestlers, against a representation of the real thing. It may seem obvious, but years of reading Love and Rockets put me in a position to note how women like Luna Magica struggle for the right to perform femininity in a way that does not conform with traditional notions of womanliness, but that is nevertheless connected to respected traditions. In other words, it shines light on the erased traditions of women who fight (like the debate over those exhumed Vikings who turned out to be women). There is a dissonance between how luchadoras are culturally and physically marginalized (not being legally allowed to compete in Mexico City until 1986 because their wrestling was deemed “immoral”) and their visibility on the wrestling circuit and as part of a long tradition.
Wrestling is a particularly useful lens put to work by Hernandez’s Locas stories, becoming an embodiment of feminine will to struggle against the notion of a woman’s body as existing only to serve men. In both River Finlay’s Luchadora and Marta Franco’s multi-media reportage, Las Luchadoras, women wrestlers explain how in response to their career paths, men have told them that they should be washing the dishes or squeezing out babies, not using their bodies in a way that has been deemed unfeminine. Suddenly the “libre” in lucha libre resounds with meaning. Wrestling becomes a freestyle resistance against patriarchy, trying to smash through the confines of gender. As Luna Magica explains in the film, “Tengo que luchar en el ring y luchar en mi casa.” In other words, there is a continuity between the everyday life of women and the performative violence of wrestling, except that in the ring women are allowed to fight back.
In Luchadora, scenes of Luna Magica demonstrating her wrestling acumen are cut with her record of dealing with sexism and the confines of gender expectations. Male wrestlers on her circuit make jokes about hitting their wives, and she tells the story of how she lost custody of her son when her ex-husband had her declared an unfit mother because of her career choices (a story that echoes an element in Hernadez’s “House of Raging Women,” first published in 1986). The documentary also features a brief interview with a 14-year old enmascarada talking about how she dreams of being a wrestler, but already understands the resistance lucahdoras face about their choices. In a way she is already a luchadora, because she entered una lucha, a struggle against patriarchy. The way the wrestler, Maria De Los Angeles Aranda talks about her Luna Magica identity also provides a sufficient distance between her personal struggles and what she can accomplish in the ring to provide her with her own inspiration when the stress of being a woman in a man’s world becomes overwhelming. As the wrestler Big Mama explains in one of Marta Franco’s videos, “When you step into a ring you relieve all your anger and your rage… When I am stressed, and I have a match…I leave it all behind [in the ring].”
This room to vent and to imagine is also a key component to Hernandez’s use of luchadoras in his Locas stories, even if the stories are complex enough to explore multiple simultaneous perspectives on the travails of performing a non-conforming femininity. Take Vicki Glori, for example, whose apparent homophobia is in sharp contrast to her professed ethical obligation to help women succeed in her sport. In “Chester Square” (originally published in Love and Rockets #40, May 1993), Vicki’s work to maintain a training camp for up-and-coming women wrestlers is interspersed with flashbacks to her “heel-turn.” The latter is a result of her vicious homophobia and her feeling of being preyed upon by other women wrestlers, more and more of whom appear to be lesbian as she rises in the wrestling world due to her skill and association with “Queen” Rena Titañon. In fact, Vicki’s assumption that Rena is also gay distracts her during a crucial tag-team bout, and leads to the two of them losing their championship belt and dissolving their partnership. Vicki would later defeat Rena, taking her championship belt using dirty tricks. Eventually, Vicki’s transformation back into una “technica” (essentially the equivalent of the “face” in American pro-wrestling—they are known for their fair play and technical skill, and don’t need to resort to dirty tricks to win) that brings Rena out of retirement (in a scene from “House of Raging Woman,” published in March 1986). Rena refuses to let Vicki become a good guy and returns for the belt she lost to her former protégé.
The complex relationship between Rena and Vicki emerges from the conflict between their ambition and their desire to help each other. In fact, everything in the Locas stories that involves the luchadoras points to the fact that they can neither succeed without each other’s help, nor by helping each other too much. This paradox is further complicated by the pressures to conform to sexual expectation. In the world of wrestling, Vicki feels pressured to be gay, to fulfill the expectations of a “butch” woman wrestler, a pressure that makes her homophobia even more venomous as it reinforces the toxic assumptions regarding queer female sexuality from outside the world of wrestling that she also has to deal with. Vicki’s homophobia casts her as a villain at worse and clearly unreasonable at best, but either way, her rejection of women’s wrestling as a queer and queering space, undermines all of her homosocial relationships. As she gets older, her complicated relationship to gender expression continues, as she cuts her hair very short and takes to wearing western style men’s suits with a bolo tie in the tradition of many a wrestling manager. Despite her “butch” appearance, however, she remains straight-identified. It seems that eventually she makes a space for herself wherein she can express her gender as she likes without succumbing to the gay panic that once emerged from her fear of association. Eventually Vicki even tells one of her protégés “Your sexual preferences are your own business,” a rather moderate outlook when compared to her career-defining homophobic heel-turn.
In Marta Franco’s short films about Mexican Luchadoras, a similar discourse on femininity is explored. While none of the films address homophobia or butch lesbian stereotypes, the women (and some men associated with the sport) all discuss the expectations of body, behavior, dress, professionalism, sexist assumptions, and so on. In one short, Segio Trejo, host of a wrestling radio show “Titan’s Fury” claims as long as sexism is part of Mexican culture at large, sexism will be part of lucha libre. Simultaneously, however, the popularity of lucha libre and the long tradition of women wrestlers that goes back at least to the 1940s opens a space where an aficionado interviewed in one of the films can refer to women wrestlers as feminine and an extension “de la lucha de ser madre,” reconsidering how those feminine roles are defined. Yes, la cultura machista i reflected in wrestling, but it is also a space to resist it.
Identifying the possibilities in these re-imagined spaces is important work. As Jessica E. Jones writes in “Spatializing Sexuality in Jaime Hernandez’s Locas,” Hernandez’s women “productively spoil, or ‘queer,’ the heterosexist, patriarchal codes that govern the barrio to enable alternative forms of sociability” (36). In the case of these women wrestlers, this queering reaches beyond the barrio, but travels networked circuits of public exhibitions. The training camp and the dressing rooms of arenas may become queer spaces through the tradition of women wrestlers, but their broadcast and memorabilia transmit non-normative ideals of femininity through their embodied performance. The elasticity of gender that can hold within it Vicki Glori’s straight butchiness, Rena’s traditional bombshell look, and a range of lesbian women wrestlers makes explicit the inherent queerness of gender itself. To be clear, when I use “queer” here, I don’t mean “gay” only, but anything that disrupts normative and thus narrow notions of how gender is to be performed and its defining connection to sexuality. Jones’s article is concerned mostly with Maggie and Hopey, Jaime Hernandez’s most common protagonists (Maggie is Xo’s cousin, Vicki’s niece, and at times Rena serves as something of a mentor for her), using their relation to and construction of space to establish how their “queerness situates them at the margins of barrio culture” (49), but also how their complex gender identities make them “not so easily interpellated [as] the way they move and behave helps to rewrite space around them” (50). In las luchadoras we have both a tradition near the center of barrio culture, performing embodied gender complexity with reach beyond local spaces, but whose marginal position vis-à-vis dominant culture helps to preserve that space and resist the forces of hegemony.
In “Whoa, Nellie!,” tag-team partners and best of friends, Xochitl and Gina, struggle with their chosen career, navigating the consequences of backroom deals that put certain wrestlers in the position to win titles and belts, and mostly ignoring the obvious truth that Xo’s mediocrity is holding back Gina’s combination of height and natural instincts for grappling. At the end of the story, when this knowledge has soured their friendship—Xo encouraging Gina to progress without her, Gina lashing out at having her help rejected—they are part of a Battle Royale, and in their fury at one another manage to clear the ring of the nine other women competing against them for the $2000 pot. They face off, but then rather than tear each other apart for the last woman standing prize, they step out of the ring together, simultaneously disqualified, holding up each other’s hands as in victory, as the crowd jeers.
It’s a happy ending because it imagines a relationship that, despite falling under the influence of expectations about gender—encouraging them to turn against each other, even as those same expectations would castigate them for being catty and vindictive—manage to construct and enact its own pro-social pro-woman ethics. In that moment, Xo and Gina are superheroes in their rejection of the measures of success, attaining an idealized ethics of solidarity, rather than the individualism the narratives of both wresting and superheroes most often reinforce. Earlier in “Whoa, Nellie!” there is a flashback scene in which a young Gina, first encountering women wrestlers on TV, turns to Xo (her babysitter at the time) to breathlessly point out “Lady superheroes, Xo!” From that moment of imagination, connecting the superheroic to the real through a reading that puts them parallel with each and in relation to Gina’s own position as a young girl with potentially narrow possibilities, a space is opened to achieve an alternative to normative gender roles.
These imagined spaces, traced into existence by exploring the exercise of an elastic and non-conforming female sexuality and gender expressions provide a wide range of possibilities. At the far end we have the superheroines of God and Science, where Hernandez imagines women who are free to dream of flying and space travel and robots villains, but the Locas stories also manage this through the intimacy and physicality of wrestling. It makes the superheroic tactile and almost mundane. In one of my personal favorite stories, “The Navas of Hazel Court” we get a glimpse of the everyday life of Xochitl and her husband Mario, who is a former wrestler driven to retire by an injury earlier in his career. The story’s attention to their family life, dealing with children, money, work, anxiety about the possibility of Mario’s resenting Xo’s modicum of wrestling success, the typical exhaustion of day-to-day life, all work to normalize what might appear strange about Xo’s chosen profession. When, at the end of the three-page story, we see an audience member sitting next to Mario at one of Xo’s matches make a comment about how great a wife she’d make, “you wouldn’t have to worry her. She could take care of herself all right,” we, like Mario, know better than to accept a simplistic perspective on the strong woman, because the story makes clear the necessity of their taking care of each other, and carefully navigating each others feelings. Simultaneously, Xo’s eye-gouging of a competitor in the foreground reminds us that she is also not a weakling, but is capable of succeeding when competition is called for.
The ability for serialized fiction to re-frame and re-cast identities and spaces as to make them available for non-conforming performance of gender is important, considering the complexity of those imagined spaces readers can project themselves into. This does not mean, however, that the real-world spaces they represent are unproblematically progressive. While the documentary shorts I have linked to here make plain the positive aspects of luchadora tradition and does not refrain from making it clear that women wrestlers still don’t get the respect and accolades they deserve, they really raise more questions than they answer. This is especially true in the videos that are part of Marta Franco’s project. I want to know more about the different local circuits that wrestlers like Big Mama take part in. The economic significance of her use of public transportation to get to her gigs or having to live with her parents are never explored. She is just put forward as an example of body positivity. I can’t help but wonder to what degree any success she has in wrestling is a form of comic relief given her size and figure. Similarly, the racial elements that might be at work in the success of light-skinned Canadian immigrant wrestler Dark Angel goes unexplored. She claims (perhaps sincerely) that being a woman is not an obstacle because she has less competition because there are fewer women, but there are also fewer spaces for women. Her intentional development of her “sexy” persona works to her benefit, but also highlights the way white supremacist ideals of female sexuality are still a defining force for women in the sport, even if she demonstrates her awareness, in an interview, that “sex appeal” should not be a necessity for success.
Jaime Hernandez’s Locas stories produce a variety of queered spaces by exploring those places that might be hostile to women and re-imagining how these women navigate and reshape them. Wrestling may provide a violent embodiment of struggle/la lucha, but whether it is the marginal space of the Latina superheroes in God and Science, the world of mechanics that intermittently summons and rejects Maggie (despite her obvious prodigal ability to fix machines), Bumpers the Hoppers strip club (which becomes a hub for a community of local women to find work on their own terms) or punk rock’s frequent dismissal of women acts (as noted by Hopey and Terry Downe’s band), the Locas serial provides a way think about how those spaces are produced and how to look for them and encourage them in lived spaces. In exploring spaces for female agency, solidarity, and alternative sexuality, through inscribing legible traditions that already disrupt normative notions, while not ignoring the obstacles and struggle of establishing a counter-narrative, Love and Rockets highlights the possible by providing access to a productive imaginary capable of embodiment.