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Does Lucha Underground need intergender wrestling to stand out?

Ivelisse | Lucha Underground

Lucha Underground returned two weeks ago with the first episode of its long-awaited second season, lovingly received by seemingly everyone not named Jim Cornette. There was a lot to love after all: an incredible match between King Cuerno and Fenix, the post-closing credits return of Dario Cueto (and, by extension, Matanza), a great deal more drama and action in one hour than what WWE is typically able to deliver in five, and a sense of continuity that rewards viewers for being fans of the product.

The season premiere also made one thing abundantly clear to both first-time and returning viewers: in its universe, and in its Temple, women fight men and men fight women.

The efficacy of intergender matches divided fans during the first season of Lucha Underground, and it continues to be a divisive issue in the second. There are those who see the promotion of intergender wrestling as a progressive step in a new direction, those who see it as being a step backwards toward Kaufmanesque burlesque, and those who fall somewhere in the middle.

The argument has been made that having women go toe-to-toe with men positions them as equals. With a male-dominated audience that largely has been conditioned by years of mainstream professional wrestling to view women’s matches as fodder for bathroom breaks or objectification, Lucha Underground seeks to inform its fan base that female wrestlers like Sexy Star and Ivelisse are every bit as vital to the product as men. Lucha Underground wants to create the idea that any competitor can win any match regardless of gender, and as a result, it has positioned Sexy Star and Ivelisse as stars at a level equal to or greater than several male competitors.

On the other hand, intergender wrestling tends to require that women are deliberately punched, kicked, and choked by men. Even when it doesn’t, in instances where a match is limited to holds and the occasional unintentional strike, presenting bouts where men physically dominate women invites the fetishization of violence against women. These matches are enough to put viewers of any gender ill at ease when there is merely the hint of brutality against a woman. When the match in question has a 6-foot, 250-pound man clubbing, kicking, kneeing, choking, smashing, stretching, and ragdolling a woman who weighs less than half as much as he does, it becomes exceedingly uncomfortable regardless of how readily aware the viewer is of both the narrative and performance aspects.

There are also those who feel that women wrestling men is fine in some circumstances and some settings, particularly when the women are truly positioned as the equal of the men and when it is abundantly clear that the male performer is not taking any liberties or being reckless. It’s also worth asking why Lucha Underground, if the concept at hand is creating equality between its men and women, wouldn’t instead opt to take the presumed safer route of building a strong, well-booked women’s division by plucking up more female wrestlers from AAA and the independents. Certainly, giving more women wrestlers well-paying work and a better platform to make their names would be much closer to actual equity, particularly when the ratio of male wrestlers to female wrestlers on the current roster is something like 6-to-1.

The creators behind Lucha Underground recognize the divide in its fan base, but they are steadfast in the belief that they are following the best direction for their product. The fact that there were not one but two intergender matches on the season 2 premiere as well as Matt Striker’s decree that viewers should “forget gender roles” before Mil Muertes beat up on Ivelisse for five minutes, is enough to indicate that it is a hard and fast stance. Further, at a meeting alleged to have taken place at the end of 2015 between Lucha Underground and WWE personnel, representatives from the former were said to have boasted that having men fight women puts their show “ahead of the curve.”

But if having women wrestle men in order to establish a sense of equality truly is the next wave of professional wrestling, Lucha Underground’s presentation of that concept has been inconsistent. For every instance of booking that could be deemed progressive (getting Ivelisse over as an adversity-smashing babyface as part of the trios champions and having Sexy Star beat Pentagon Jr. clean with a lung blower at a point where he had been positioned as one of the show’s top stars), there are as many instances of women being booked as inferior.

Examples include Sexy Star being effortlessly squashed by Son of Havoc in her first match and ultimately getting the majority of her wins via cradles or after her tag-team partner hit their finishing move, women essentially being used as devices for advancing characterization and storylines for men like when Sexy Star was used as a conductor to get heat on Son of Havoc, Chavo Guerrero, Super Fly, and Marty the Moth; her feud with Pentagon Jr. being used primarily as a segue into his feud with Vampiro; and Ivelisse having to be rescued by Prince Puma at the close of last week’s show in order to foreshadow the storyline directions for Puma, Mil Muertes, and Pentagon Jr. Or, what about when women are being menaced and turned into fetish objects by men like the cliffhanger storyline of Sexy Star being abducted by Marty and seemingly bound to a chair for months on end? 

Where Striker may tell the audience to forget gender roles, the product itself tends to have no problem leaning on them for easy heat and storyline shortcuts.

With season two already in the can, it ultimately may not matter what Lucha Underground’s fans feel about matches pitting men against women. It may not even matter how deftly the creative team handles the material, how well the wrestlers tell their roles, or whether there is a substantive payoff for Sexy Star and Ivelisse down the road. The question should be whether putting women in matches against men will turn away prospective viewers and diminish potential mainstream exposure in such a way that it might ultimately hurt the product.

Intergender wrestling persists in smaller promotions with dedicated fan bases, but the fact that it would never take place in WWE today says a great deal about its tolerability in the mainstream. Kimber Lee becoming the Chikara Grand Champion works well not only because of the personality of that particular promotion, but also because Chikara tends to appeal to a smaller, more loyal audience. WWE, on the other hand, endeavors to reach to a larger and wider audience on a weekly basis. If an upcoming RAW was to feature Roman Reigns being booked in a match with Stephanie McMahon, there would almost certainly be substantial backlash regardless of the presentation or the result and in spite of protests about it all being a work of fiction.

This isn’t to say that using the metric of whether WWE would or wouldn’t do something makes them the arbiter of what makes for good wrestling booking, nor does it make them a bastion of all things tasteful (examples being Reid Fleihr’s name being invoked during the Charlotte/Paige feud, and Vince McMahon informing Roman Reigns that he is a generation removed from having a bone through his nose). Nor should professional wrestling -- a medium whose history is rooted in exploiting and monetizing stereotypes and inequality -- be looked at as a viable source for good social commentary.

But given how desperately the company seeks acceptance from the mainstream, and given the low reputation the product had among critics and potential sponsors in the days where its shows readily featured man-on-woman violence, WWE’s years-long refusal to have men even inadvertently lay hands on women is a fairly reliable barometer for how well the concept of men fighting women would fly with a broader audience.

Professional wrestling largely remains a niche product in 2016, but that does not mean that it exists in a vacuum. Defending controversial art for being subversive or effectively eliciting a desired reaction is fine, but the intent of the artist does not determine the response from the consumer. For as much positive buzz as Kimber Lee’s championship win has earned for both her and Chikara, there was arguably as much negative press surrounding her match with Chris Dickinson at Beyond Wrestling’s King of Arts show last March. There were those who vehemently defended that match for various reasons, just as there were proponents defending the less violent, but nonetheless jarring, match between Mil Muertes and Ivelisse from last week. To defend something on the grounds of personal creative preference is one thing, but if Lucha Underground simply dismisses those who respond negatively to Ivelisse being dismantled by Mil Muertes as simply not “getting it,” then they cannot be surprised if and/or when their viewership ultimately plateaus.

With Lucha Underground presumably hoping to get wider distribution through platforms such as iTunes and Hulu or with an eventual release on physical media, and considering its attempts to get on Televisia and expand its reach in Mexico, it is entirely plausible that the immediate goal for the product is to become the number two name in professional wrestling in North America. With that in mind, it must be asked: does putting on regular intergender matches help Lucha Underground in the present with the aim of growing its business? At this point, the simple answer is no. If anything, it seems to run entirely counter to that goal as it effectively takes a niche product (wrestling), limits its appeal by focusing on a subdivision of that product (lucha), and then dilutes the audience even further by adding the contentious wrinkle of intergender wrestling.

But perhaps given the more fantastical and unconventional nature of the product and its characters, which in and of themselves are off-putting to certain wrestling fans (particularly those named Jim Cornette), Lucha Underground simply doesn’t desire to be taken seriously at the mainstream level. Perhaps the minds behind the product are truly more interested in being the radical alternative for professional wrestling fans than they are in seeking wider acceptance. Certainly, the show persists as a forum for ideas that are not being tried on any other televised wrestling programs, and it has succeeded in gaining a loyal following, two factors that pull Lucha Underground in line with what ECW was doing in the early ‘90s.

Apart from the similarities in nonconformist spirit, unique aesthetic, and devoted fan base, one could draw a comparison between Lucha Underground’s insistence to promote its intergender matches as a selling point with ECW bringing hardcore wrestling into the mainstream. The team behind Lucha Underground may see intergender wrestling as eventually being a comparable influence on the wrestling business, a concept that is ahead of the times and bound to inspire its competitors to follow its lead into a new era of wrestling.

It would also be important to note, however, that ECW’s desire to stick to its guns worked to its detriment even after it helped popularize the hardcore trend, and that it eventually played a not insignificant role in facilitating the company’s demise. If intergender wrestling is the hill that Lucha Underground is willing to die on, so be it, but here is hoping that wrestling’s most interesting product doesn’t fall victim to its own stubbornness.