- Rey Mysterio Jr. and Konan vs. Kevin Nash and Scott Hall
- (WCW: 2/21/1999)
- Rey Mysterio Jr. vs. Kevin Nash (WCW: 2/22/1999)
- Sara Del Rey vs. Claudio Castagnoli (CHIKARA: 7/31/2011)
- Joey Ryan vs. Danshoku Dino (DDT Pro: 11/28/2015)
- Joey Ryan vs. Sally Stitches (Freelance Wrestling: 12/4/2015)
- Hallowicked vs. Princess Kimberlee (CHIKARA: 12/5/2015)
Joey Ryan’s penis went viral last week. For independent professional wrestling this is what’s considered a good thing. Anytime something happens that draws notice to a product that isn’t Vince McMahon’s hyper glossy, overly manicured sports-entertainment juggernaut is good. The problem is, Ryan went viral for a spot that didn’t happen on American soil, but in DDT, an over-the-top Japanese comedy promotion that is tailor made for viral videos because it is both actually funny and caters to a particular subset of American Internet dwellers who gawk at things like wrestling blow-up dolls because they “appreciate” “Japanese culture.” Ryan was wrestling a gentleman by the name of Danshoku Dino, a highly exaggerated caricature of those lascivious, overly sexual gay men who exist more frequently in the ring than reality. Dino’s gimmick, like the exoticos of Mexico and the gay villains of America that inspire it, is that he gets under the skin of his opponents by kissing and molesting them. Ryan’s gimmick is that of the macho sleazeball—he’s “Ravishing” Rick Rude with even less nuance. Here’s what happens when you try to put your hands on Joey Ryan’s dick:
— Joey Ryan (@JoeyRyanOnline) December 2, 2015
I don’t know enough about Japan or its wrestling to offer much of a critique of Danshoku Dino’s character other than to say that I like it (and most gimmicks crudely parodying queer culture) despite its obvious flaws, and that in the context of this character and this match, the above spot works. The testicular claw, essentially aggravated sexual assault, has been around since the 1990s, and for a hypermasculine character like Ryan to no-sell the maneuver and overcome it so forcefully makes plenty of sense. And while it’s hardly a new spot in professional wrestling here or abroad, Ryan’s tweet clearly positions the 25-second clip for the sort of viral infamy that’s nice for a veteran who is never going to reach a large stage like the WWE to get. This video spread so quickly, and wrestling is slumping so poorly right now, that it’s possible to crown Joey Ryan’s penis the biggest star in professional wrestling.
But wrestling is loathe to just let things like this just happen. When something involving indie wrestling goes viral, the preoccupation of indie wrestling is to recapture the magic of the moment until it becomes rote. Joey Ryan’s penis set a landspeed record for becoming insufferable as, in his first match back in America, he repeated the exact same spot in a manner that flat did not work. In America, Ryan is mostly known for wrestling with and against women. He’s a premier name in the niche genre of intergender wrestling, which is the subject of ongoing debate in the indie wrestling community. He is one of the genre’s staunchest advocates, tweeting frequently about it being a progressive move towards gender equality in an entertainment that has historically never given a damn about women. That he’d feel this way is hardly unexpected, considering that intergender wrestling represents a significant portion of his American bookings. But one hardly need be suspicious of an ulterior motive to call Ryan on the fiction he’s trying to sell: just check out his signature move, the Boobplex, which you can see in a video Ryan uploaded to his personal YouTube account. Every argument for Joey Ryan as a progressive figure in professional wrestling ends there.
Knowing his reputation as the male name in intergender wrestling, it’s hardly surprising that his first match back in the United States after his tour with DDT was against a woman. It’s also not surprising that he’d essentially repeat a spot that is still generating buzz, though given a change in environment and opponent, the spot couldn’t possibly work as well as it did in DDT. But Friday night at Freelance Wrestling, Joey Ryan’s penis won a test of strength against Sally Stitches, and a room full of wrestling fans chanted “So big! So strong!” enraptured by his presence:
Ryan posted this video in reply to the Danshoku Dino spot, but the context is completely different. Forget, for a moment, that Sally Stitches is a woman. In DDT, Ryan was fending off a sexual assault. In Freelance Wrestling, he was the perpetrator of one. He forces his opponent’s hand onto his dick and goes into the spot. Regardless of gender, the “joke,” such as it is, doesn’t work. Stitches sells the power of Joey Ryan’s penis admirably, and, like Dino, she does so as an affirmation of Ryan’s masculinity. Turning the test of strength into an offensive maneuver makes no logical sense beyond Ryan’s seeming need to pander to a room full of fans who aren’t above being pandered to. It’s desperate and cheap, something like a stand-up comedian resorting to a popular joke from an old set not for the sake of structuring his routine, but because he knows it will kill. And, even when charitably thinking about the spot from Freelance as a kind of victory lap, it’s worth wondering about the function of this spot and others like it in intergender wrestling, because this spot and Ryan’s myriad Boobplexes are hardly isolated incidents.
One of the main criticisms leveled at intergender wrestling is that it’s essentially a fetishization of male-on-female violence for a predominantly male audience. Such arguments frequently leave women out of the discussion, both the women wrestlers who are a vital party to the action in the ring and the women who make up a not-insignificant portion of the audience for the genre. As I write this, CHIKARA became the first major independent wrestling promotion to crown a woman as its main champion. Scrolling through Twitter, my friends who are there live are losing it for Princess Kimberlee, the new champion. Video after video of her clutching CHIKARA’s Grand Championship is on my feed, the crowd at Philadelphia’s 2300 arena (formerly the ECW Arena, which, in the 1990s, was the headquarters of what wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer called the He-Man Women Hater’s Club) as loud as I’ve ever heard it. These videos are being recorded and retweeted by cis women and trans women and non-binary trans people. Criticism of the title change, at least on my timeline, has come largely from men who don’t like the genre.
PRINCESS KIMBER LEE IS YOUR NEW CHIKARA GRAND CHAMPION AHHHHHHHHHH pic.twitter.com/F4EnbMWUpJ
— Barry Grass (@theBGrass) December 6, 2015
I’ve watched a few of these videos, cell phone cameras shaking excitedly, remembering when I was front row in the same arena in 2011 to watch Sara Del Rey defeat Claudio Castagnoli in a match that is still my favorite live experience as a wrestling fan. When Del Rey was active on the indies, a reign atop CHIKARA was teased but never came to fruition. Now, in 2015 and 2016, there exists the possibility that two women (Heidi Lovelace, who may be my favorite independent wrestler, is also an active member of the CHIKARA roster) will wrestle for a championship that has, until now, only existed for men.
I want to be more excited about this possibility, but the video of Joey Ryan using his dick to outmuscle a woman hit the Internet on the same day Princess Kimberlee became CHIKARA Grand Champion. It’s a coincidence, but one that presents an opportunity to examine both intergender wrestling’s potential and how frequently it fails women by feeding directly into the kind of masculine power structures the medium of professional wrestling exists as supplication to. If the video of the test of strength from DDT made Joey Ryan’s penis the biggest star in professional wrestling, then the video of the test of strength from Freelance exists merely as confirmation of the first. I can think of few things less subversive than an affirmation of the power of a white man’s cock, and yet this is frequently the end that intergender wrestling is a means to. As a fan of the genre who advocated for it in my past life as a wrestling announcer, Joey Ryan incorporating his penis into a match against a woman without it being broken off should shake my faith in wrestling’s ability to present progressive narratives. And despite Princess Kimberlee’s championship victory, it does. More than that, though, it makes me angry.
There are two reasons for my anger. The first, more selfish reason is that Joey Ryan and his cock are making me confront that my utopian ideal of intergender professional wrestling is the exception and not the rule. Before those cell phone videos of Princess Kimberlee started rolling in, I was angry about intergender wrestling in a way that I haven’t been upset about wrestling since Rey Mysterio, Jr. lost his mask to the nWo Wolfpac in 1998. I wasn’t quite 11 when he wagered his mask against the hair of Miss Elizabeth in a tag team match against Scott Hall and Kevin Nash. Not that I was the kind of ghoul who wanted to see a middle-aged woman’s head shaved publicly, but Rey Mysterio was a literal superhero to me, and I cried as he took of the mask and revealed himself as a rather ordinary-looking human being. I was so upset by Mysterio’s unmasking that I didn’t watch wrestling for three years.
I missed the next night, when Nash, ostensibly one of WCW’s biggest stars at the time, let Mysterio even the score somewhat by losing to him cleanly on national television. Mysterio’s feud with and victory over Nash went nowhere, but it established a narrative that WWE would use later in promoting Mysterio as an international star capable of holding the World Heavyweight Championship. Billed at 5’6”, 175 pounds, Mysterio was is by far the smallest person to have ever held that championship, and watching him wrestle the likes of Nash, The Big Show, The Great Khali, or Mark Henry is enough to acknowledge that the contract between wrestling and its audience to play things as straight as reasonably possible is one that will never be filled. But it’s in such contests that I found my platonic ideal for intergender wrestling, which should be and often is not presented as a straight competition between two wrestlers. Where Mysterio has the edge in these matches, and why I thought he and Konan stood a fighting chance in 1999, was in speed and determination. Against the overly cocky literal monsters of WCW’s heavyweight division, all Mysterio had to do was find an opening and he could beat anybody. He’d prove as much, at least, against Nash the next night.
Beyond the fetishized element of intergender wrestling, critics of the genre often bring up the variance between male and female bodies as being too vast to be realistically bridged in most instances. If realism is a requirement for somebody to enjoy professional wrestling then yes, I suppose that would be a problem, but only in a promotion like WWE, where women are often supermodels and men are frequently gods of mythological proportion. Indie wrestling is short on John Cenas and Bella twins, and the gap, if you see a gap, between Princess Kimberlee and former CHIKARA champion Hallowicked, is one that can just as easily aid the narrative flow of a match as break it. Just as Kevin Nash got cocky and gave Rey Mysterio an opening, intergender match after intergender match is built around the premise that a larger male wrestler doesn’t take a smaller female wrestler seriously and thus finds themselves caught in a harder-than-anticipated contest. That’s lazy storytelling, as lazy as intergender matches built around hyper-brutal displays of man-on-woman violence or sexual assault, but it’s a means of playing it straight, of saying that two skilled professional wrestlers, despite their advantages or disadvantages in terms of size, strength, speed, agility, and so on, might be able to put on a good match where wrestling is the point, rather than one of the competitor’s genitals.
And this leads me to the second reason a spot like Joey Ryan’s test of strength makes me angry: it asserts just the opposite. It says that there are no spaces for women in wrestling, at least none that aren’t beneath men. It creates an unsafe environment for fans and performers. Imagine being told by an entire audience that sexual assault and the inferiority of your gender are fun jokes to play out again and again. Imagine how easily the line between consent and coercion for a spot like this blur, and what, ultimately, the reward for the woman overpowered by Joey Ryan’s cock is. If, in a year, there is a montage of Ryan’s penis besting woman after woman, will the 26,000 fans who watch that video praise the women who fall victim for their ability to create dramatic action with the idea of a penis, or will they be laid to waste over and over again like the victims of the Boobplex? If a woman refuses to go through with this spot, are there any negative consequence? If the act goes too far, who is culpable? Who gets to decide how far is too far?
Wrestling does not have the answer to these questions, or many others like it. Too often, promoters and wrestlers point to the whims of their audience as an excuse for poor decisions, as if mobs of loud white men are a trustworthy barometer for anything. Professional wrestling in America has existed in its current state for a century now; at some point, a woman was bound to wrestle a man. Let this happen without the omnipresence of the male wrestler’s cock. Allow for more scenes like Princess Kimberlee’s in Philadelphia. I want this, but not just in one promotion, once in awhile. I want the confetti celebrations and boyhood/girlhood/personhood dreams the medium keeps reneging on. I want a professional wrestling that deserves us, but a professional wrestling that centers Joey Ryan’s penis doesn’t deserve dick.