I try to base most of my professional life on Vince McMahon. The grey, over-muscled, parody of a ruthless business man that runs World Wrestling Entertainment. He’s what the wrestling world calls a “heel.” Everybody hates him and they love to hate him. He’s loud, brash, offensive, and entertaining. He’s like an only-slightly-better-looking and equally disgusting Donald Trump, whom he incidentally wrestled with in Wrestlemania 23’s Battle of the Billionaires.
He belongs on the mat. He belongs in professional wrestling. His over-the-top nonsense persona fits like a glove into the colorful dynamic menagerie of wild, larger than life, characters. He lines up perfectly with the likes of Hulk Hogan, John Cena, and the Undertaker. That’s his lane.
Because that’s what professional wrestling is, actually. It’s a highly technical, theatrical, circus wagon running on obsessive fandom and cult-of-personality. The muscles are huge, the make-up at an almost kabuki level of theatricality, the emotions a combination of soap opera and commedia dell’arte intensity. Throngs of fans flock to stadiums and rec centers to watch men and women italicize their personalities and beat the crap out of each other in a painstakingly technical combination of stage combat, prop comedy, and gymnastics. It’s brutal, beautiful, and like nothing else on the planet.
Well, almost nothing.
When I was in college, I saw a fair amount of Drag King/Queen performance. Mild mannered men, women, and non-binary folk used costume and makeup to transform into gender-bent royalty. An average classmate became a goatee’d lip-synching dancer named Dustin Beavers. Dustin absolutely destroyed a complex routine backed by the rambunctious Jessie J tune “Do It Like a Dude.” I knew the day to day mild mannered Clark Kent version of Dustin and knew they had been practicing the routine ad nauseum for weeks prior to the show. The amount of skill, timing, and practice involved blew me away. And if TV’s smash hit RuPaul’s Drag Race is to be believed, that level of dedication and technical skill is not the exception. It’s the fierce and fabulous norm. People don outrageous costumes, adopt wild personas with names like Sharon Needles, Jinkx Monsoon, and Pearl Liason, all in the name of performance theatre. There’s drama. There’s dance. There’s something not unlike wrestling, too.
So we have two cultures rooted in hyperbolized gender expression and technical proficiency. The Manliest Men and the Womanliest Women costuming themselves into stunning and electrifying cartoons of themselves and each other. Some dance. Some smash folding chairs on each other. All of them boast and brag and rant in pitch perfect bravado to call themselves the best to ever do what they consider the most noble profession. Wrestling has heels and babyfaces, turnbuckles and piledrivers. Drag has werk and kikis, fishes and eleganza. They’re two sides of the same brash, entertaining coin.
And here’s what I don’t get. Most every wrestling fan I know would pantomime a vomit-party if they heard this. The performative masculinity of people like Brock Lessner and Kane and Stone Cold Steve Austin can’t be in the same business as RuPaul! It’s almost blasphemy to think it. There’s a strange current of gay-panic to professional wrestling, perhaps the sweaty rolling around on the ground betwixt men summons up a more venomous albeit unnecessary kind of defensiveness. It’s ugly and archaic but it’s there. But there is hope, and its name is Golddust.
Golddust is a wrestler who basically made a career out of being the gay-seeming “other” and villain of the WWE. He would dress up in gold leotards, robes, and a golden-blonde wig. He would kiss and hump his opponents to disorient them and make them vulnerable to attack. Some fans loved him. Some hated him. But he became a champion a few times over. Imagine if the narrative around Golddust changed from weirdo to hero. If something as deeply entrenched in toxic masculinity as the WWE made it not just okay, but heroic to be who you want to be, even if you want to be is soneone like Golddust, what kind of magic could that bring to the mat?
Drag has a catharsis baked into it. Transforming into an identity you built from the bottom up, from the aspects of your personality or gender you’ve been taught to be ashamed of, that can heal a person. It can help them walk taller, feel more at home in their own skin if sometimes they throw on a wig and high heels and destroy any stereotypes and misconceptions about who they’re supposed to be on a Friday night. And there’s always been an air of the battlefield about the drag show stage. With every song and dance the brave men and women fight on the front lines for the way gender and identity can be represented, for the idea and concept of gender and identity as a whole.
Wrestling can heal a person, too. And there’s combat and conflict in its DNA. It’s a fundamental attribute of the art form.
Pro wrestling can give kids someone to look up to. They can be a dedicated hard worker like John Cena, a hero of their people like the high-flying luchador Rey Mysterio, or a cunning and obnoxious business man like Vince McMahon. I think it’s time Pro Wrestling and Drag realize how similar their songs are, and how easy it could be to dance to the same tune. For drag, it could be a way further into the mainstream and opportunities in a new field with a cast of characters worthy of their larger-than-life magic. For wrestling it means role models for kids they may have ignored. It means that those wrestling fans, who felt scared to see it live because what they think a wrestling fan might be, can leave their house and revel in the theatre of violence like anyone else. It means that for a new generation of fans, there are million new and different ways to face the world and be fierce.
Besides, who wouldn’t want to watch a Championship Cage Match between the high flying drag queen Fabulous Steel Etto and that villainous homophobic heel Tom From A Different Time?
I’d watch that. Hell, I’d buy a T-shirt.