During a lecture last week, I mentioned how, in an episode of Total Divas, pro-wrestler John Cena uses the word “partner” to reference Brie Bella and Daniel Bryan’s serious relationship. Total Divas is a reality show about women who work as professional WWE wrestlers. A reality show I (kind of) love. My Teaching Assistant threw up his hands and shook his head at me. I teach in the department of Feminist Studies.
Let me explain why I (kind of) love Total Divas, a show that unabashedly packages stereotypically gendered, heterosexual behavior for mass consumption. But first, some introductions: Brie and Nikki Bella (The Bella Twins), a “main event” in the “diva” category (the female division of the WWE).
They are hegemonically feminine (RW Connell defines ‘hegemonic’ gender as the most honored or desired) because they conform to ideal categories of beauty, body size, sexiness, and class-conscious body work (makeup, hair, nails, a boob job for Nikki). To top it off, they have heterosexual love matches with successful male wrestlers: Daniel Bryan and John Cena.
Yes, they’re lady wrestlers, but they are first and foremost LADIES. The show producers (or script writers, or directors) have them do stereotypical, over-the-top “female” things: get in “cat fights” about men and clothes, do yoga and shop for crap they don’t need, have “girls” brunches. The Divas are always made up, hair on point, outfits revealing and sexy. They are Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, and Miranda, if those women also happened to be professional wrestlers.
But their hegemonically feminine gender presentation is not quite seamless, not quite invisible, not exactly natural. It other words, it comes off a little queer. See, the show-makers can’t fully disappear the fact that these women are PROFESSIONAL WRESTLERS. They are super strong, have big muscles. They wrestle hard, sometimes violently. Their job requires a level of physical prowess that is not generally associated with the “shrinking violet” type. Yea, sometimes we get a femme character that also physically kicks ass (Buffy anyone?), but The Divas don’t just kick ass. They kick ass for a living. So for every two shots of them cat-fighting and brunching, we also see them working hard at the gym, pounding lean protein, body slamming people, and otherwise being fiercely strong. During one “cat fight,” Summer slaps Natalya. The result: Nattie’s nose gets fucked up, because Summer is a fucking pro wrestler.
Let me give you a for instance. Nikki Bella gets a tooth knocked out in the ring (not surprising, she is a professional athlete in a contact sport). But oh gosh and golly, what will her pro-wrestler boyfriend think now that her pretty face is ruined and she looks just terrible and low class?? So she skips away from his attentions, wears bright red lipstick, and demurely covers her mouth when she talks. Tee hee! When she finally tells/shows him about the tooth, his total lack of reaction is only punctuated by a comment about her being a professional athlete in a contact sport.
You might be thinking, “now Saucy, women can be strong AND feminine, why do the two HAVE to be dichotomous?” True, loyal reader, they don’t have to be, but they are built up and idealized like that by our culture. As RW Connell reminds us, a strong body, power, prowess, and violence are classic attributes of hegemonic masculinity.
Nikki Sullivan has a piece called “Queering Popular Culture” where she talks about ways to present popular culture queerly (switch the voice boxes of talking Barbies and GI Joes!), or read pop culture queerly (isn’t it kind of queer that they put nipples on the batman costume?) Queer in this case means twisting how certain identities are seen as normal and natural. Even though The Divas are steeped in femme behavior and looks, the show can’t cut out all the instances of them doing things that are just not very culturally femme.
Their hegemonic femininity has been hastily layered over an alternative type of femininity rooted in their bodies and jobs. And as much as the show tries to downplay this quality, it can’t be entirely concealed. It just looks a little queer.