Pro wrestling came into my life during the late-nineties hey-day of what was still called the WWF. My older brother Zak and his friends, then in sixth grade, were whipped into a frenzy by Steve Austin, Bill Goldberg, and a charismatic newcomer called The Rock. They went to matches, gathered for Pay Per Views and, like hormonal pre-adolescents all over the country, started their own backyard league; theirs was called the Roach Wrestling Federation. It was curious to me, because Zak and his friends were, frankly, not particularly sporty. They were nerdy kids who got good grades and listened to lo-fi rock n roll. In some of the videos that were preserved from Roach, one of them’s wearing a Weezer t-shirt. So for me, though not a wrestling fan per se, pro wrestling, intellectual inquiry and emotional honesty were never mutually exclusive. I was just a ten-year-old girl back then, but I’ve never forgotten it.
I’ve grown into a serious woman. I’m a committed feminist, I hold a literature PhD from Harvard, and I’ve always maintained my fondness for wrestling. To me, the scripted nature of the matches just made it more like the other art-forms I admire – drama, meta-narrative fiction. I know I’m not alone in this. I once attended a comparative literature conference in which a scholar argued that pro wrestling is the direct descendent of Homeric poetry. I thrilled to the Radiolab episode “La Mancha Screwjob,” which explains the conflict between Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels and Vince McMahon in terms of Don Quixote, or maybe the other way around. But never have I been so satisfied by smart people taking wrestling seriously as I was while watching Fighting with My Family. That’s because in addition to depicting wrestlers and wrestling fans with dignity, and showing the unbelievably difficult physical work that goes into it, Fighting with My Family is among the most convincing feminist films I’ve ever seen.
Boxing is sometimes said to be the most cinematic sport. Films like Raging Bull, Rocky, and The Boxer all make hay of the bare animalistic quality of the sport, using it as a canvas for the protagonist to work out his psychological conflicts. Million Dollar Baby and Girlfight are the two worthwhile entries on this list with female protagonists. The excellent 2008 film The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke is basically a boxing movie about wrestling, but it portrays wrestling, especially in the small, independent, anything-goes leagues, as a sad, pathetic business. Fighting with My Family is remarkable in that it not only celebrates wrestling qua wrestling, but it may be the first great feminist wrestling film in cinematic history. And I, for one, am ready to rumble.
Paige, AKA Britani Knight AKA Saraya-Jade Bevis, is not what you would call a feminist icon. Her story is not about shaking up a male-dominated industry with the aim of achieving gender equality, at least, not the way screenwriter and director Stephen Merchant tells it in his film. Based in part on the 2012 documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, the film tells the story of Paige becoming Paige, a product of her wrestling-obsessed family in the small city of Norwich, England, as well as an individual with the strength – physical and emotional – to make it on her own. Adorably, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who plays himself in the movie, discovered the documentary and approached Stephen Merchant about adapting it into a feature. He thought a British filmmaker would give it an authentic voice. Because that was his thinking, and because on dark days I believe The Rock is the only person who could unseat Donald Trump in the White House, I’m prepared to publicly forgive him for not seeking out a female director.
It’s a touching film that takes no cheap shots, while also allowing its characters, namely the Knight family, to be as bad as they wanna be. For Paige, who’s played in the film by Florence Pugh, that means transcending her fear and self-doubt to become the truest, most bad-ass version of herself.
The first thing to say in the case for Fighting with My Family as a feminist film is that it passes the Bechdel Test. Though its breadth is limited, the Bechdel Test remains a powerful litmus because of how few movies pass it, even now. The Bechdel Test is something that I, as a professional feminist killjoy, am always aware of when I go to the movies. Usually with wrestling, as a sport as well as a subject, you can take Bechdel-failure for granted. Not so in Fighting.
But there’s other ways that feminist philosophy is woven into the movie and, refreshingly, never at the expense of the world of wrestling. Because the movie isn’t a feminist critique, that is, it’s not about how wrestling is harder or more unfair for women than for men. Instead, it’s a hero’s journey – a protagonist on an adventure, overcoming challenges to reach their full potential. Except that this hero happens to be heroine.
The fact that Paige is a woman is an important part of the story. The film begins when she and her brother are little kids. Their parents call her Princess while at the same time encouraging her to join the family business in the ring. This nickname isn’t ironic, it’s not a joke about how tough she is or how goth she looks. Instead, it’s part of her multi-dimensionality; she is her parents’ little princess, at the same time that she’s formidable and they don’t exactly behave like they belong in Buckingham Palace.
The male wrestlers in the film, both in the family’s amateur league in Norwich and competing to become part of the WWE, do not look down on female wrestlers. Yes, there’s a bit about an adolescent sparring partner getting a boner during training, but he’s the butt of the joke, not her. Nobody tells her she shouldn’t have been in the ring in the first place. Million Dollar Baby this is not.
Instead, we get a very real family drama about an older brother who feels he’s been left behind on the path he and his sister were on together. For a while, her brother Zak, whose ring name is Zak Zodiak, begrudges her success, but not on gendered grounds. A conversation he keeps having – with her, with the WWE recruiter – is about what she has that he lacks. I kept expecting Zak, in his anger, to shout “A pair of tits!” or something like that. But he never does. Slowly, he comes to understand that it’s the combination of drive and charisma. She may be better equipped for stardom than him, but in the end, she needs his help to unlock her own potential, something that comes from her family’s love.
Crucially, Paige can’t realise her own ambition until she starts acting like a leader, and specifically that means lifting up the women around her. When Paige first enters the audition, she’s psyched out by her competition: three gorgeous women who, it turns out, have no wrestling experience. They’re two former models and one dancer. That they also have their own psychology and back-stories comes out later (ya hear that, Bechdel?). Raven haired-Paige, whose copious eye liner calls to mind Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club feels immediately alienated by them, and a lifetime of having been teased for being a “freak” from “that weird wrestling family” has conditioned her to respond defensively. It’s understandable, just like her brother’s bitter jealousy is understandable. But they both heal their own hurt feelings by putting themselves at the service of others. For Zak, that means continuing to coach local youngsters in the ring. For Paige, it means humbling herself and teaching her rivals how to really wrestle. When she exits the ring after her victorious match against AJ Lee and runs into their arms for a sincere group hug, it’s a helluva moment for female empowerment. It’s almost as if they’ve formed a wrestling league of their own.
I understand why, outside of erudite discourse, feminism sometimes gets a bad rap. It’s given to weaponisation and lends itself to complication, so it gets misunderstood easily. At the end of the day, I think about it like this: feminism is the belief that women deserve all the same liberties as men, and the promise that we must all work, collectively and collaboratively towards achieving equality. That’s what makes Fighting with My Family a feminist movie.
And one more thing, about that eyeliner. There is a makeover trope in movies when women have to learn how to “be nice.” Sometimes it’s a literal, physical makeover, like in The Breakfast Club, for example, when the lovely Molly Ringwald scrubs the off-putting black makeup off Ally Sheedy’s eyes. But sometimes it’s behavioural, and even some of my favorite movies, like Clueless, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Trainwreck, and Bridesmaids, show the heroine humbling herself and learning how to become more pleasing, more approachable, more accommodating. In Fighting with My Family, Paige has a brief “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” moment of experimentation with blonde hair dye and self-tanner. But in this story, her makeover represents her straying off her path of self-actualisation. She never learns to be more accommodating. On the contrary, she learns how to deliver a real smackdown. And she gets there by embracing her inner freak, and by recognising the love she’s been brought up with in her weird family. She defeats AJ Lee using a move she calls the Paige-turner. Watching on tv at home in Norwich, her brother Zak recognises it, not with jealousy but with pride. It’s his signature move, the Zak Attack, which he taught her.As soon as I bought my ticket for this movie, I was already looking forward to telling Zak about it – my Zak, my big brother who taught me about wrestling. Our tastes have diverged as we’ve grown up, but this love of wrestling was his gift to me. For all my accomplishments, all I really want is for my big brother to think I’m cool and be proud of me. My Zak bristles at the mention of feminism, but I know he’s gonna love this movie, because it’s about pro wrestling and a kooky family where everyone loves each other and supports the little sister on the path to her dreams. The best feminist art doesn’t pummel you like an atomic drop. It feels more like a bear hug you don’t want to break.
by Abigail Weil
Abigail is this close to having a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Harvard. She’s working on a book about Jaroslav Hašek and also writes about food, theatre and other important facets of culture. Her comfort-films include The Royal Tenenbaums, Hedwig and The Angry Inch, and Weekend at Bernie’s. She lives in New York with her cat Schmootzy and is wildly under-appreciated on Twitter as @AbbieWeil.