In light of the charges brought against Jimmy Snuka, Adam Hofmeister examines the history of misogyny in professional wrestling.
TW: graphic descriptions of violence against women, rape, domestic violence.
2015 has been a very rough year for WWE. Dusty Rhodes and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper have vaulted off of the mortal springboard, Daniel Bryan has retired due to being physically broken in 3.5 million places and, most infamously, Hulk Hogan, the very face of wrestling itself, has been unceremoniously fired from the company for racist comments he made in (of all places) a sex tape back in 2007.
Hogan’s ejection (try to scrub that image from your mind) should open up a debate about the history of racism within the industry, but this seems unlikely. Confronting institutionalised racism would force us to ask some very uncomfortable questions about wider society, and no one wants to do that. After all, why would we question stereotypes and prejudices when it’s far more fun to laugh at African American wrestler R-Truth in a Confederate Army costume, or Latino wrestlers Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio competing in a match to – I shit you not – settle a custody dispute?
But now there is a new notch in the WWE disaster post: the arrest of Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka on the charge of the third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter of Nancy Argentino in 1983. It is one of those cases that kind of flies around in the background of a celebrity’s career for years but it is never really addressed e.g. the Woody Allen or Bill Cosby accusations (until recently, that is). And perhaps because Snuka isn’t exactly a household name, the case had disappeared from popular consciousness.
The Argentino murder was long considered a cold case. In May 1983, Snuka reportedly assaulted Nancy (as, according to witnesses, he had done in the past) in a motel and left her unconscious on their bed, neglecting to call the emergency services. He then left to film a WWF show in Allenstown, Pennsylvania. He returned around 9pm to find her still unconscious. An ambulance was called, officers and medics arrived, and Argentino was rushed to hospital. She was pronounced dead the next day and her autopsy revealed that she had “suffered 39 cuts and bruises — a possible sign of “mate abuse” — on her head, ear, chin, arms, hands, back, buttocks, legs and feet.”[i]
Snuka’s story varied from person to person, some in which he admitted to pushing her, others in which she fell of her own accord earlier in the day. His career never took off after the incident, and he was relegated to an ornament of nostalgia fairly quickly. It was only with the release of his 2012 autobiography, Superfly: the Jimmy Snuka Story, that attention was once again brought to the case, due to his official story contradicting his past accounts.
Nancy Argentino’s death was a combination of systemic misogyny and steroid abuse. Snuka’s actions – whether intentional or not – killed Argentino but he is not the lone architect of domestic violence; he is just another cog in a very unpleasant machine. We can see throughout the history of wrestling a degrading and often possessive attitude towards women (there are numerous stories about Randy Savage and Ms Elizabeth’s gimmick having a great deal of truth behind it), often exacerbated by the heavy lifestyle of mentally exhausting non-stop schedules and brutal matches, and substance and steroid abuse. But an attitude towards women that sees them as items to be won or displayed leads to these kind of tragedies across the board, not just in the world of wrestling.
Needless to say, WWE has suspended Snuka’s Legends contract and removed his page from the Hall of Fame, in what is only the beginning of their airbrushing of him from their history. Obviously, this is no bad thing as the nature of the crime is horrendous and should not be ignored for the sake of some phoned-in appearances or a misguided company pride.
However, I fear that, much like the racism debate triggered by the Hogan incident, the question of the industry’s bad track record with women and violence will peter out. I must also stress that what is important here is not Snuka’s legacy, but rather the serving of justice for a tragic death that many thought would never be recognised, especially the Argentino family.
It would be disgustingly reductive to imply that the only reason Nancy Argentino died was due to Snuka’s steroid usage; it was because one man viewed her with enough contempt to leave her to die without thinking that maybe she would require medical attention. It would also be unfair to say that the sport of wrestling inherently attracts woman-beaters and drug abusers but we cannot deny that violence against women is an endemic problem, and that there is a misogynistic strain in the history of professional wrestling that can contribute to it and – at the very worst of times – glamorise it.
There have been a whole host of domestic violence cases in wrestling: Lex Luger, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and John Morrison amongst them but the most publicised (that is, the worst) is the 2007 Chris Benoit incident, in which the wrestler murdered his wife and son before killing himself. The scandal brought up steroid abuse in the industry (11 superstars were later found to be using steroids) and fingers were pointed at Vince McMahon in a media-wide witch hunt, much as they had done during the 1993 steroids scandal. Benoit has been erased from their official history because the McMahon frame of mind is that it was a freak occurrence, not something wider, or something that he could’ve possibly seen coming.
We may never know the full reasons as to why Benoit did what he did. It could’ve been brain damage that left his brain similar to an “85 year old Alzheimer sufferer”[ii], or it could’ve been steroid abuse. Most likely, it was a very strong combination of the two. What can be taken from it is that the WWE doesn’t feel the need to fully confront tragedies, only to hush them up, and especially when they involve women. Subjecting Snuka to a damnatio memoriae will make their PR department feel great in the short term, but solve nothing in the long run if there isn’t a wider discussion.
WWE, though particularly in the 2000s, had a very insidious approach to how it treated women. Throughout his tenure, Vince McMahon (in character, and supposedly in reality) made sexual harassment and power trips a routine, including forcing Trish Stratus to strip and bark like a dog in the ring for his (and the crowd’s) amusement. He made threats to have the Undertaker’s wife “raped by a motorcycle gang.” Whilst a heel is meant to be an awful person (that’s why we root for the good guys), it’s still just the tired trope of using sexual violence to titillate an audience… something I’m sure Game of Thrones fans are very aware of.
To top it off is probably the most tasteless thing WWE has ever done: the “Katie Vick” storyline. This plot had Triple H accuse Kane of murdering his ex-girlfriend and raping her corpse years before. He mocked him by conversing with a doll with “HO” written on it and, later, by dressing as Kane, crawling into a coffin with a mannequin, and simulating sex with it. Since the incident, WWE have done all they can to bury the footage, but even when it’s not grossly over-the-top villainy, there’s still an underlying resentment towards women throughout the company.
I’ve mentioned before how the female character spectrum seems to range from slutty smiling plaything bitch, to crazy bitch, to sinister devil bitch, with only recent years showing an improvement on the characters and their writing. Even in the PG Era of the here and now, it was only a couple of years ago that John Cena got an entire crowd to slut-shame by yelling “hoeski” at Eva Marie, whilst wearing his famous “Rise Above Hate” shirt.
We can also look at how the company have treated Chyna; one sex tape and she was out the door, yet X-Pac (who was in the very same sex tape) gets to show up at Wrestlemania 31 with no questions asked. Despite her iconic status as being the only woman to ever win the Intercontinental title, they won’t have anything to do with her.
To say things haven’t changed at all would be incorrect. I can’t remember the last time there was an intersex match, which thankfully means no more Dudley Boyz power-bombing Tori through tables. Not only that, but in 2014 Stephanie McMahon brought in a correction to company policy that states:
“WWE has zero tolerance for matters involving domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault. Upon arrest for such misconduct, a WWE talent will be immediately suspended. Upon conviction for such misconduct, a WWE talent will be immediately terminated.”[iii]
There’s almost a dark humour in that this only happened last year, as opposed to within the last two decades; marital rape was made illegal in the UK in 1991, so to finally have a statement about it now says a lot about the business. It also highlights that many of the characters we love have been played by people with a history of abuse and addiction, but due to arses on seats, they weren’t subjected to the scrutiny they’d receive if they’d committed those crimes now. This is still a present in which convicted rapist Mike Tyson has his own cartoon show and seemingly unrepentant Rihanna assaulter Chris Brown has the brass to feature on a song called “Hold You Down.”
But, as mentioned, there are great indicators of hope. Mick Foley – one of the most awesome guys in wrestling – recently called out a Tough Enough contestant for slut-shaming her fellow contestant through exposing her sexual history, and then attempting to turn the audience against her by implying she was sleeping her way to the top. What is important here is that we have a prominent figure in wrestling using his platform to bring attention to an everyday form of misogyny, and wonderfully using that space to promote the UnSlut Project, a slut-shaming awareness campaign founded by Emily Linden, which you can visit here.
Let’s be honest: wrestling didn’t create misogyny or racism. Racism and misogyny are just two of the masks it can wear. My last intention is to single out and scapegoat wrestling – an art form I have truly come to love – as the root cause of all of society’s ills, because it is simply not the case. A political and historically unpleasant climate exists which facilitates women being blamed for rape, even by female rock musicians, and in which there are films like No Escape, wherein a wide-eyed and alabaster Owen Wilson runs away from murderous Asian people, manifested as a zombie-like horde intent on killing tiny white children. These two ideologies are pervasive, but wrestling is an easy target because it isn’t seen as “legitimate,” and therefore there is no need for us to collectively call it out when someone within that industry does something horrific. And as much as it may have pleased me to hear him say it, one Mick Foley is simply not enough, because I fear on some deep, dark level we just assume that “boys will be boys.”
So perhaps the hyper-masculine nature of wrestling increases a hostile attitude towards women, but even in a world without the joys of a ladder match, misogyny would still exist. Women would still be depicted as either devious whores or milksop love interests in mainstream cinema. There would still be music treating them as dehumanised capitalistic rewards. And in the UK, 2 women a week would still die from domestic violence, with 1 in 3 women worldwide still being locked in abusive relationships.[iv] The Argentino case is no aberration. Until we truly confront misogynistic attitudes head on, incidents such as the Jimmy Snuka one will persist, be it in wrestling, or in our everyday lives.
- Adam Hofmeister 06/09/15