WWE's 35% Female Viewership in Context of the Earliest Televised Pro-Wrestling
Recently, Zeb Colter and Jack Swagger released a YouTube video defending WWE and its diverse audience (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AJgxbQx0No). The statistics revealed the wide audience that WWE has in terms of race and gender. Specifically, in terms of gender, thirty-five percent of WWE fans are female (“WWE Corporate”). But is this really at all surprising?
When looking back at pro-wrestling history, it is no wonder that there are so many female fans. Author Chad Dell even wrote an entire book dedicated to female fans entitled, The Revenge of Hatpin Mary. In it, he details the female pro-wrestling fan of the 1950s, showing how female fans drove the popularity of pro-wrestling on television to become a cultural phenomenon.
Much has been written concerning the marriage of television and pro-wrestling. As television started to become more popular so did pro-wrestling, and female viewers are particularly the reason why.
Pro-wrestling fans were not generally female prior to the 1950s. Before television, women were rarely seen at pro-wrestling events, but with television broadcasting pro-wrestling, women tuned in more so than men (Dell 18-19).
What television did was bring a world seemingly unknown to women right into their living rooms. No more was pro-wrestling an event confined to dingy, smoky arenas, as it could be viewed by anyone in the comfort of their home.
Of course, there are a variety of reasons why the performance of pro-wrestling was and is popular. As Dell points out, “the choreographed battle between combatants in the ring; the morality play that makes up wrestling’s grand narrative; and the exaggerated body of the wrestler himself” is the sum of the professional wrestling performance (19).
The combination of these three elements is what also makes up the encompassing “sports entertainment” moniker that WWE famously uses to describe pro-wrestling. For many women of the 1950s, these three elements added up to equate a unique form of entertainment that provided enjoyment.
It is no wonder that women would be pro-wrestling fans. Nothing on television was like pro-wrestling, and this was proven by reactions noted at the time. According to Dell, “One wrestler, known in the ring as the Ape Man, was cited in TV Guide in 1954: ‘Women aren’t supposed to yell and scream around the house,’ says The Ape Man, ‘but they do feel they can let themselves go when they’re watching a wrestling show on TV” (39).
For some of the first female pro-wrestling fans, their ability to escape societal norms helped to shape their pro-wrestling fandom. The grand spectacle of pro-wrestling allowed women of the time to be engaged in entertainment in a way not generally permitted before.
Of course, the lines of gender today are not as divided as in the 1950s, but female pro-wrestling fans remain. Many of the same reasons that draw anyone to pro-wrestling still work today in that inconsistently consistent balance of sports and entertainment.
From personal experience, I have seen female fans enjoy WWE shows without any males around. Also, as a high school teacher, I talk to many students who used to watch WWE as children. Usually, these are male students who have moved on to viewing UFC. During this school year, I have talked to four students who currently watch and follow WWE. On the surface, the surprising fact is that all four of these students are female, and they are some of the most ardent WWE fans that I have ever met.
At first, this surprised me, but when looking even briefly at pro-wrestling history, I quickly realized the rich tradition of the female pro-wrestling fan—a tradition that continues to this day. When WWE touts their diverse viewership, it is impressive, but it is more impressive through the gaze of history.
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