As I did my evening scroll through Twitter the other night when I scrolled past this:
— The Brandalorian (@TheBrandiRhodes) May 18, 2020
I blinked. I turned to my husband and said, “Ummmmm. This is… This is awkward, right?” I read the transcript. I squinted at my phone. I watched the video. The more I thought about it, the more complex my feelings were based on the very little information we have about AEW Heels.
The one-minute video invokes a lot of things women want, but what the hell is AEW Heels, and how does it meet that need? It’s too early to say much about what AEW Heels will be. I, for one, am leaning heavily on the assumption that it’s a fansite. Whatever it is, this teaser leaves a lot of room for speculation, and as far as first impressions go… Well.
I don’t hate it, especially as a concept. Creating a space for women to express their fandom isn’t a bad thing, and I don’t have issues with voluntarily segregated spaces so long as those spaces aren’t used in an exclusionary way to encourage derogatory behavior and ideas. (And I have no reason to think this is going to do anything of the sort.) It’s hard to talk trash on the idea of giving women a space where they don’t have to constantly defend their space in the fandom. Having a place where you can just exist is honestly wonderful, and I hope AEW Heels fulfills that need for women who love wrestling.
It feels a bit like a passion project for Brandi Rhodes, even if hearing the woman near the top of the AEW food chain saying, “I want to contribute,” throws me out of the mood of the video. AEW Heels seems to reflect an aesthetic she likes, and I can respect why she’d lean into that. Lots of women feel pressured to shove aside their feminine interests and expressions when they’re trying to move through male-dominated spaces. Having her roll out here and be like, “Feel like you belong while wearing heels!” feels a bit triumphant.
This is where my positive feelings are taken over by my scrutiny. As a woman, it seems neat! As someone interested in the portrayal of women and women’s’ stories in media, it feels like there’s a lot to unpack.
The elephant in the room is simply: this is a goofy name. Wrestling relies heavily on an axis of characterization that includes “goofy,” and to dismiss that would be to ignore a large chunk of the storytelling medium. But when launching a brand pointed at women who often feel dismissed, I’m wary of settling for the goofy name. It’s very, “Ha! Get it? Heels?” I don’t like it on principle alone.
What’s more complicated is trying to parse if it’s reductive, if it does more harm than good in a space as aggressively male as the wrestling fandom. The logo featured at the end of the AEW Heels promo video looks like something you’d find on a self-made romance novel cover:
Plus, representing the women in your audience with a pair of heels? It’s messy.
On one hand, I assure you that women aren’t so fragile that we’re gonna look at a name and go, “Oh no, not heels! I don’t wear those, so I can’t hang out here.” Most of us, by adulthood, have figured out that we can have tons in common with women we don’t share aesthetic preferences with. At the same time, we’ve also learned to read the room, especially if we’ve struggled to fit in and feel acknowledged in the past. Everyone has, at some point, met a new person or a new group of people and realized through subtleties, “Oh, I don’t belong here.” That heels logo gives an impression, and I’m not convinced it’s the best foot forward for this concept.
Additionally, we can’t ignore that heels as a fashion accessory are extremely divisive. I personally like them, and wear them when it’s practical to do so. For a lot of people they’re a symbol of sexism, a weapon of a society that values how women look regardless of the toll it takes on their bodies. It’s a political shoe, and I’d argue that the history of women’s wrestling is deeply political as well, and in a lot of parallel ways. Were women doing their bikini matches in the 1990s empowered because they chose the work for themselves and owned their images? Or is that empowerment an illusion, and were they actually just objects and eye-candy of The Attitude Era? I think it’s a complicated question with a lot of nuance to it.
I’m concerned about the inclusivity of this space for women, given all that, especially when wrestling is full of personifications of the “right” women and the “wrong” women (and men who will not hesitate to let you know who is who). From what I’ve seen, AEW avoids a lot of those pitfalls and leaves behind the idea that there’s a wrong way for a woman in wrestling to present herself, so is tying the idea of women to heels really in keeping with that goal? It feels regressive to me. AEW clearly wants to be better than all that.
I think this would be less messy with some demographics. I’d love to know what the Venn diagram of women who resonate with the aesthetic implication presented by Brandi Rhodes and women who are fans of wrestling. There’s definitely overlap, but how big of one? Large enough one to support a website called AEW Heels? I have some concerns about that, if the site doesn’t do active work to be inclusive of all women, not just the heeled ones.
My last concern is simply: will segregating fans enforce the notion that there’s wrestling that’s interesting to women and wrestling that’s interesting to men?
Let me be perfectly clear: women do not owe it to any fandom to break their backs to make it inclusive. We shouldn’t shoulder the emotional labor of making fan spaces less toxic, and definitely not without everyone working to do the same. But at the same time, I simply find myself wondering if the bad actors in wrestling fandom—the ones who drive others out by making them feel excluded—will feel emboldened by the idea that women have their own wrestling fansite. How long will it take for AEW Heels to become a punchline in the hands of hamfisted jerks who just don’t want women to play with their toys?
It may be that my concerns and nitpicks are off-base, and not reflective of what AEW Heels actually is. Skimming the replies to the original tweet, more people seem excited by the idea than they are skeptical. Maybe everyone is more interested than feeling like they get to belong, than they are about the optics of the thing—and I think that’s okay.
All the same, it seems to me that if one wants to energize their female fanbase, put at least the energy into the women working as wrestlers. Make sure those women have a voice in their own stories and image—let them reach out to the women in the audience through stories that resonate with them and work that rocks. And maybe don’t lean on, “Women love shoes! ‘Heels’ has a double meaning!” as the crux of your new thing’s branding. Especially while advocating for women simply wanting to feel like we matter.