Would people watch women brawl with men? Looks like World Wrestling Entertainment’s Mixed Match Challenge, a mixed-gender tag team tournament that premieres on Facebook Live tonight, might be answering that question for us. The weekly competition will pit 12 male-and-female partnerships against each other in what could mark WWE’s latest foray into testing the waters for a full-blown intergender wrestling renaissance.
Intergender wrestling, which involves a woman wrestling a man, enjoyed some popularity in WWE in the late 1990s and early 2000s and sees continued success on the independent wrestling scene, with Princess Kimber Lee (now known as Abbey Laith in WWE) and Sexy Star winning male titles in their respective circuits. The World’s Cutest Tag Team, consisting of Joey Ryan and Candice LeRae, even has a line of intergender merchandise currently being sold at select Hot Topic stores.
Intergender wrestling has largely fallen by the wayside in WWE in the last decade or so as the company marketed itself as a family-friendly product. Though the MMC will not officially involve any male-on-female contact (the definition of a mixed match is that when an opponent of another gender tags into the match, they must only wrestle a member of their same gender), WWE has slowly been flirting with the idea through their “Women’s Evolution,” that men and women are equal now and can therefore face off against each other.
At last year’s WrestleMania event, John Cena and Nikki Bella wrestled The Miz and Maryse in a mixed tag team match, so while Nikki was not technically allowed to touch her male opponent Miz, that didn’t stop her from taking a suicide dive out of the ring and onto him.
It wasn’t until this past November that the first official intergender match in five years took place on WWE programming, though. In a storyline that simmered for the better part of 2017, James Ellsworth finally faced Becky Lynch on SmackDown on the USA network, a match that Lynch won.
Leading up to the aforementioned WrestleMania match, Bella performed her finishing move on male wrestler Tyler Breeze, which caused her to injure her surgically repaired neck. In that respect, the argument can be made that women are genetically weaker than men and shouldn’t be competing against them. To take it a step further, one could say intergender wrestling perpetuates and normalizes gendered violence, which is a debate that rages on wrestling Twitter every other week.
However, professional wrestling is fake or, to placate my fellow wrestling fans, I’ll use another term: pre-determined. This means that the match outcomes and much of the in-ring performance have been decided ahead of time. When two or more wrestlers get in the ring together, they’ve agreed to the simulated violence that takes place therein. In other words, intergender wrestling—and all professional wrestling, for that matter—is about consent, whereas domestic, intimate partner and gendered violence is most definitely not.
Woman wrestler Mia Yim, also known as Jade in TNA Wrestling, has been very vocal about being both an intergender wrestler and an intimate partner abuse survivor. In a 2016 interview with The Huffington Post, Yim details her abuse at the hands of her male then-partner, also a wrestler whom she had faced in intergender matches. “We choose to get in the ring. We’re trained to keep ourselves and our opponents safe. But when someone brings it back home, that’s not wrestling anymore. That is not entertainment. That is just straight abuse,” she said of the difference between consensual and non-consensual violence.
In an article on its website about the upcoming first-ever women’s Royal Rumble match (a 30-person battle royal where the winner gets a title match at WrestleMania, the men’s version of which has been running for 31 years), WWE wrote that, “Oftentimes, men’s and women’s sports have slightly different regulations…However…the first-ever Women’s Royal Rumble Match will feature no such alterations to its rules.” This is a marked departure from their previous attempts to position wrestling as a legitimate sport, and perhaps the only way they can make intergender rules mesh with their family-friendly brand.
Though spectacular athletes, in this way WWE wrestlers are more like superheroes or stunt performers than sportspeople. Plenty of pop cultural products that feature equal opportunity violence manage to maintain a PG rating. Some feel in order for WWE to make good on its promise of the “Women’s Evolution,” which has been criticized for being little more than a hashtag, the MMC needs to eventually lead to direct male-on-female wrestling.
“TV and movies don’t shy away from intergender scripted fighting, so WWE should catch up with the rest of the entertainment industry,” Joey Ryan tells Playboy. He feels people didn’t mind women fighting men in popular productions like Kill Bill, Tomb Raider or The Avengers, so why should wrestling, another form of entertainment, be any different? “True equality is intergender wrestling.”