All she wanted was a fight. At least, that was Phoebe Patey-Ferguson’s initial idea behind Femme Feral, a feminist fight club that combines protest, performance, and noise punk to ear-splitting, rib-cracking effect.
The London-based artist and PhD researcher founded the group in the gloomy days after Britain voted to leave the European Union. Anna Smith, her friend and studio mate, felt equally angry about the state of the world.
In the UK, women and femme-identifying people have come under sustained attack by the Conservative government. Funding cuts threaten domestic violence shelters around the country; the rate of poverty among women is rising higher than men; and the man tipped as the future leader of the Tories has admitted to opposing abortion even in cases of rape.
But Patey-Ferguson and Smith didn’t want to give in to hopelessness. Instead, they decided to wrestle each other in their shared art studio in east London.
“It was a way of channeling and being able to get that anger out and put it somewhere in a productive way,” explained Patey-Ferguson. “I think we wanted to find a way of sharing this anger and take up loads of space. It is a reaction to that [idea] as a girl you need to be nice, personal, peaceful, [to] sit down and be quiet.”
It may sound like an unorthodox way of working out stress, but it clearly worked. They felt exhilarated, if not slightly bruised. Several months on, Femme Feral has expanded into what Patey-Ferguson calls a “queer femme fighting force." Anybody who identifies as a woman can join; a total lack of wrestling experience is not only encouraged but embraced.
“The feral aspect is about this instinctual behavior that everyone knows how to do it. We deliberately don’t get good because we want people to be able to jump in,” Patey-Ferguson said. “You find this rage within you and you just go for it. I think a lot of that energy is very genuine and comes from a very instinctual place… rather than it being like a theater show. It is totally in the moment and deep inside you.”
The official Femme Feral wrestling night, THERESAMAYSMACKDOWN, is billed on Facebook as a "queer, feminist, anti-fascist, noise-driven ferocious fight to the death [of the alt-right]." Each night is loosely organized around short bouts of one-on-one wrestling, before everyone piles in for one last group fight. Unlike WWE fights, nothing is choreographed. Patey-Ferguson has ripped out a toenail; people leave covered in bruises. They’ve performed at music festivals like Latitude, club nights in London, art gallery events in Glasgow, and even the Labour Party conference.
Broadly went to film their latest event at VFD, a queer venue in London. Down in the basement club, over 10 wrestlers were getting dressed and warming up in their outfits. (Much like GLOW , the Netflix drama based on a real-life female wrestling group, Femme Feral takes a special delight in costumes – the more outrageous, the better. Think Borat-style mankinis, balaclavas, and ripped tights.)
As audience members entered the space, the wrestlers began moaning and crawling on the crash mats that had been carefully laid in the center of the venue. Over a live soundtrack of heavy mic static and crashing cymbals, it quickly crescendoed into a scream: “Fuck Theresa May! Fuck Theresa May!” And then, as two wrestlers squared up to each other on the mat: “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
A few days later, Patey-Ferguson told us that someone had cracked a rib in the middle of their fight. But it was worth it, she said. “Most of the spaces we perform in our queer spaces so often people haven’t been able to really allow themselves to feel the anger and rage that they do feel. So often they are thankful to us for the space that we can feel that together… You don’t feel like you are locked in your room staring at the internet alone. There is a kind of empowerment in that, because if we express that together, there is a possibility of change.”