CN: discussion of abuse, kidnapping, and rape
As Lucha Underground struggles to reach female demographics, despite positioning itself as modern, progressive, egalitarian wrestling, are critics suggesting that its intergender wrestling is turning off women failing to see the forest for the trees?
Dave on the board: "The audience for Lucha Underground this past Wednesday averaged 49 years old and 95% were male." Yikes!
— Keith Harris (@glasgowkjh) February 7, 2016
When we engage with any kind of media: books, films, or wrestling, we identify with the idea of the protagonist. We want them to be basically good —with nuanced, identifiable vulnerabilities, and character depth. We want to follow their triumphs and share their defeats.
The only unambiguous babyface female character in Lucha Underground is dynamic masked luchadora, Sexy Star.
In Sexy Star’s debut vignette for Lucha Underground, Sexy Star explained that she came “from a world of abuse; even contemplated suicide.” She elaborates that finding Lucha Libre, donning a mask, saved her life. Then she explains that she fights for every girl who no longer needs to be afraid. Immediately, Sexy Star is positioned as a hero for the underdog, for girls who have had fear and pain in their lives — who have struggled to survive.
Shortly afterward, Sexy Star would lose her debut match on Lucha Underground, against Son of Havoc.
On July 15th, two weeks prior to the Ultima Lucha double show season-finale, Sexy Star wrestled long-time creepy super-fan character Marty “The Moth” Martinez. She hits Marty with a La Mistica; locks in the Fujiwara armbar, and retains her Aztec Medallion. At the end of Ultima Lucha, we are shown that the hitherto unsettling but relatively harmless Marty—presumably flush with a desire for revenge—has kidnapped Sexy Star, and is holding her hostage in a disturbing extended-metaphor moth prison. Our “strong, sexy” female hero, our shot at a female protagonist, ends the season in bondage.
What does this teach the viewer about Sexy Star? Once an abuse survivor, always an abuse survivor? That women are always victims? Kidnapping, abusing, and raping female characters is a cheap way for media to try to get their male audience to build empathy with them, and has been massively criticised in other media. In 2012’s Tomb Raider videogame, featuring female protagonist Lara Croft, developers said “we don’t really expect players to project themselves on to Lara; we think they’ll want to protect her,” a stance that was used to defend the rape scene included in her backstory. This inherent implication that women don’t have their own agency—that they are “object”, never “subject—is an attitude that seeps into comics, literature, film, advertising… and now we’re seeing a particularly egregious example, here in Lucha Underground.
Female viewers don’t see a woman kidnapped and held hostage as empowering or as something they want to identify with, especially when she’s portrayed as having little or no influence over the situation. This is just another male power fantasy, where men are the arbiters of of violence, the saviours, the decision-makers, the protagonists and the antagonists. To introduce a woman as an abuse survivor and then have her kidnapped and abused again is an incredibly irresponsible plotline with insidious sexist implications—most of all, it’s failed to consider the millions of women internationally for whom abuse and fear at the hands of men is a daily occurrence.
Two weeks into Lucha Underground Season 2 and Star is still there: helpless, and now with new, more disturbing paraphernalia. The camera lingers pornographically on a leather belt on the dresser by Star’s shackled body. She’s covered in bruises; dirty and grimy; terrified and sobbing. Marty reaches his fingertip out to touch Star’s breast; she flinches and gasps. The implications here are, of course, darker than what they show explicitly.
If (hopefully, when) Sexy Star breaks free and manages to overcome her captor, how does this help women viewers or female characters in media in general? All it’s shown is that they only have one plotline that authors can write for a “strong female character”—only one struggle for them to overcome—and that’s the real life, horrifying struggle that women face every day: to be abused and tortured by men in their life. While men on Lucha Underground face obstacles like corrupt authority figures; complicated friendship allegiances and issues of honour; big scary spooky cannibalistic monsters; and Angelico’s terrible fashion choices– we are shown that the story for women is the same that it’s always been. That doesn’t feel an awful lot like escapist entertainment. And it certainly doesn’t feel progressive.