Australian women are being hit, thrown, and slammed through tables by men in a form of sports-entertainment, and it has some domestic violence campaigners outraged. Even though the fights are choreographed and the violence is staged, mixed-gender professional wrestling has come under fire for allegedly promoting the abuse of women.
According to domestic violence researcher Dr. Anastasia Powell, the glorification of violence against women has no place in a society that aims to eradicate gender-based violence. "How can we promote respectful gender equitable relationships in education with our young people, when men's violence against women is held up as entertainment?" she asked VICE over the phone. And it's a fair question.
To get at least one answer, I met with Melbourne pro-wrestler Kelly Salter. At just 22 years old, she's an eight-year veteran of the sport. We started the conversation by going through her extensive list of wrestling injuries.
"My first injury was a fracture orbital bone that occurred mid-match in Adelaide when I was 16 years old," Kelly told me as if reeling off places she visited as a kid. "The next was a torn trapezius muscle. Then earlier this year I split my head open at training by trying out a high flying move—I looked like the elephant man after that," she said.
"I do have a few nagging injuries that will be with me forever like synaptic nerve problems, arthritis, and the constant sore neck, but that's the gig."
When I asked Kelly if mixed-gender wrestling was an appropriate thing to be doing given the extent of domestic violence in Australia, she said yes. "I love wrestling men as I believe it definitely empowers women," she said. "There is no sweeter satisfaction than winning your match against a male and a little girl coming up to you after it telling you you're their hero."
But for others, young fans are exactly the reason they want this form of entertainment banned.
Thirty-nine-year-old mother Diane Gould took her two children to a wrestling show. Diane was enjoying it until one of the female wrestlers was smashed through a wooden table by a male wrestler.
She says it was horrifying to see a woman sprawled on the ground in pain while the crowd rose from their seats and cheered.
"Some of the kids see this stuff, and they don't realize it isn't real. They see these women get beaten, and they hear the crowd cheer, so they'll think its OK," she said.
According to her, education is a vital part of the approach to Australia's domestic violence issue, and this need for education is more important than competition. "The kids should think it's a foreign, abhorrent thing to do."
At 17, Tallara George is only just beginning her wrestling career. The one thing she can't wait to do is compete against a man. And like Kelly, it's about creating a level playing field.
"When the girls share the spotlight with the guys, it becomes an actual competition, rather than a feminizing display of two women ogled by the crowd," George said. "We're willing to endure a ton of pain to prove that women can be bad-asses too."
And this is something that critics of mixed-gender wrestling often miss. While women have been part of wrestling for decades, they've traditionally served as sideshow events or worse: as window dressing. But be that as it may, the days of women squaring off against men may be numbered. Melbourne wrestling group Platinum Wrestling Enterprises (PWE) recently ceased their mixed-gender competitions following audience complaints.
"The goal was to treat everyone as equals knowing that the female wrestlers in this country are every bit as good as the boys, however it seems that some just aren't ready for it," a PWE spokesperson told VICE.
Salter argues that a woman fighting a man on equal terms is the complete opposite of man-on-woman abuse, and it challenges the "misogynist presumption" that women are weaker than men.
"The female stands toe to toe with a man, confident in her strength, skill, and courage. It's completely different. To forcibly segregate genders from competing for whatever reason is not only sexist, it's absurd," she said.
"Most the people who are offended by these matches don't understand the sport. By their logic horror movies should be banned," she added.
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