A few weeks ago I was in Calgary on a Saturday night. And what does one do in Calgary on a Saturday night? Take in some professional wrestling, of course.
I was in town working on a documentary series for APTN called Going Native. The theme of the episode we were shooting is Indigenous people involved in wrestling. There were some such wrestlers on the card and we were scouting the scene for a later shoot.
There I sat, watching several hours of some of the finest choreographed fighting in town. It was typical wrestling: good versus evil, exotic costumes, loud boasting, louder body slams and a panorama of unusual colourful characters striding about, including one called the Goose, a fighter who got stronger the more the audience honked.
Then came the third fight. It was an intergender match, meaning it was a man versus a woman. I’d never seen one of those, though I’ve been watching wrestling off and on for decades. The man was a good five inches taller than the woman and about 30 pounds heavier. But she looked tough and able to take care of herself. Neither were Indigenous, but I’ve heard settlers have been known to tussle it up a bit and I was curious.
This is where the evening shifted from a night of mindless entertainment into a perplexing evening of personal confused soul searching. The fight started off like all the rest: taunting, name-calling, some pushing, then the two combatants went at it full blast, aided by the usual impotent referee. Suddenly I saw the man knock the woman to the ground. He quickly crawled on top and start pounding away at her, fist to face. Immediately it stopped being fun.
This man was savagely beating up this woman. I couldn’t take my mind off that. People all around me were cheering; a good time was being had by everyone. Was I the only one realizing how this appeared? I think I was. Part of me was repulsed. Part of me was also watching the show as the theatre artist I am. In that ring was a story, were characters – and beyond it an audience eager to be entertained. But by this?
I knew it was wrestling. I knew it was as “fake” as an ex-partner’s promises of everlasting love. None of the dozen or so fighters that night left with even a hint of a bruise or cut. Earlier I had even been in the change room where all the fighters – friends and foes, heroes and villains – changed and chatted amicably.
But there was something about that image that wouldn’t leave my thoughts. Of course, a few seconds later the woman knocked him off her and then it was her time to ground and pound the man. Later in the match, he grabbed her by the hair and sent her flying out of the ring. Almost immediately she crawled back in and drop-kicked him, also out of the ring. The thing about wrestling is it has to appear to be an equal match or the illusion doesn’t work. Trust me, this woman gave as good as she got.
Intellectually, I knew all this. This was no different than watching a Shakespearean sword fight. These were trained professionals acting out an agreed upon scenario. But emotionally, it was … different. In this post #MeToo and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls era, it made me uncomfortable. I am a relatively old guy, and if there is one thing the years have taught me it’s the violence men all too frequently force upon women.
Oh, I forgot to mention: The woman was the villain and the man was the good guy. As you may know, wrestling isn’t wrestling without a good villain egging on the audience – and she milked the role. So the audience was cheering him on. Even the women in the crowd were rooting for him. Every time he punched or kicked her, the audience loved it. It was an odd situation to observe.
I wondered whether this was just my issue to deal with: This man beating up a woman evoked such a visceral response in me, but nobody else. Many would say I was overanalyzing a simple local wrestling match. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as has been said. And, after all, the conceit of the evening was completely bogus: actors in a role.
In the end, the woman inflicted just as much damage (I’m talking a staged wrestling kind of damage) as the man did. And as I sat there pondering all this, I didn’t even notice who won. The hero is victorious typically, so I’m going to assume it was the man. I don’t think the organizers had planned to make any sort of political statement by having the woman defeat him. Maybe next week. Wrestling matches are like soap operas: The specifics are usually forgotten within a couple of days.
But it’s been a few weeks now and my mind still occasionally returns to that match. What to make of it? By no means do I think matches such as this should be banned. I don’t think that would accomplish anything, while possibly professionally harming some of the female wrestlers. Still, I can imagine somebody being seriously triggered if they were not aware of what they were going to see. I like wrestling. It’s not Shakespeare or Tomson Highway, but it is a fun and physical theatre. At least it was.
When did mindless violence become so complicated?
Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.