Hold my breath, not my hand — a view from the crowd at What Culture Pro Wrestling

It’s July 27th 2016, I’m surrounded by men, though with my not-awful vantage point over a small boy’s head, I can see other women present in Newcastle’s O2 Academy.

I’m here because I bought tickets for me and male friend to WCPW — WhatCulture.com’s newborn wrestling promotion freshly sprung from it’s increasingly virile (read: successful) WWE and Wrestling focused YouTube channel.

This is not the first time I have attended WCPW, and it is not the first independent wrestling show I’ve seen — It won’t even be the only live show I see that week. It is however, sadly the only independent promotion I‘ve seen with my own bespectacled eyes that includes women wrestlers.

The singular women’s match, announced with a bit of shouty fanfare by the GM Adam Pacitti (one of the personalities of WhatCulture’s Youtube channel) is a new addition to proceedings, last month’s debut of WCPW missing out women entirely. The match comes fairly early in the evening, and, in a move surprising to exactly NO female wrestling fans, I brace myself.

To be a female wrestling fan is not, as some may claim to just be a wrestling fan.

Steeling my nerves and straining my ears to take in every tiny breath from the crowd, I split my attention to be simultaneously entertained by the match between Bea Priestley v Nixon Newell, and ready to pounce.

To say that wrestling crowds can be laddish is underselling it on the level of Hulk Hogan v any finishing move ever. You already know this reader, I already know this. Despite the “revolutions”, the outcrys, the s-l-o-w-l-y turning tide has not swept us away into a paradise full of respect for women in the wrestling biz. I’m stood in the dark, watching two women risk their necks to put on a good show for us mere slobby mortals, and I’m clenched, half awaiting a fight of my own.

Through the introductions, murmurs fill the air, not many of us know these women.* I feel a weight of responsibility to cheer, no matter what happens in the ring. I grimace at my own thought processes.

Minutes pass & the two wrestlers pull off an astounding move, it has men around me gasping, and a breath hitches in my throat. Suddenly a chant from the other side of the ring “Women’s Wrestling” *clap clap, clap clap clap*. I allow myself a smirk at some ever-so-quiet grumbles behind me. The tide inches ever closer.

We chant. We chant for both women, but Newell is our babyface, we chant for her comeback against Priestly’s disgusting chewing-gum antics. We squeal, we groan, we make noises at what’s happening in the ring and refreshingly, not what bodies are on display. I unclench.

The crowd are not all saints. I smark at some increasingly lary fans behind and to my left as they keep attempting some offensive (and only funny to them) chants. Later in the evening I cringe as I recognise one of the men as Maffew of Botchamania fame.

It’s a long show to be hyper-aware of all that’s going on around you. I flit between embracing the crowd chants and cringing at “banter” — like calling the only visably ethnic character a “chocolate nonce” or “paedo”. I’ve been to ICW shows, and I know it could be much worse, but still I bristle.

There isn’t a part of me that didn’t enjoy the show. 3+hrs after entering the academy I stumble out a hot, sweaty, adrenaline filled mess. For the most part, I was surrounded by fellow wrestling fans. Around 800 people who’s choice of soap opera involves punching, grappling, acrobatics, masks and occasionally a steel chair.

At wrestling’s best, you are watching art, a performance that you feed as a fan and that performers give back to you in spades. 
At wrestling’s worst I’m left adrift, conscious of the differences in both how i’m seen — as an outsider, a girlfriend dragged along, not a “real fan” (gatekeepers, gatekeepers everywhere) AND how women performers are seen — as eye candy, as wrestlers boyfriends, as models, as toilet break matches.

I demand the same chance to be comfortable in that crowd. To not have to wince at sexist chants, to have to endure bullshit homophobia when a wrestler simply wears some pink ring gear. When that tide gets here, when women wrestlers aren’t an afterthought to a roster, aren’t a toilet break to ppv’s, will fans be less emboldened to chant stupid shit? Will it take guidance from the promotions themselves, can WCPW influence fans towards zero tolerance attitudes? 
Or, as I believe, is it more likely that we police ourselves and as fans we speak up when homophobia and sexism are excused and tolerated as “banter”?

We can do better. And we should, for everyone to feel included.

*My friend mentions as we make our way home that night — that he thought at first Bea Priestley might have been a model & not a wrestler, I shoot him a look that makes him rush to explain. He’s seen this look before. In explaining he realises, of course this was a stupid notion, but for some reason he felt the need to tell me this. He actually considered because of her ring gear, that WCPW might not have booked women who could wrestle. I stare blankly ahead.
That tide isn’t coming in yet.

Mere days after this show I would go on to see yet another promotion — North Wrestling NCL in a smaller venue, with a smaller crowd and an almost mind blowingly, clearly noticeably different male/female breakdown. The crowd is at times less hostile and, by the end of the night, female voices are leading the charge against one (possibly inebriated) arsehole who wouldn’t stop hurling a barrage of insults at a wrestler midway through the main event. 
I took a different friend.

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