How Professional Wrestling Raised a Legion of Nerdy Feminist Fans

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Actor and comedian Chris Gethard didn’t tell his wife about his wrestling fandom when they first started dating. While he has long been vocal in his support of women’s issues and unsparing in his mockery of the men’s rights movement, he had been less public about his wrestling fandom. That came to the forefront when a caller on The Chris Gethard Show asked to talk about pro wrestling for the rest of the program.

Gethard happily obliged before spewing out a giddy purge of wrestling trivia tidbits with his viewers who share passionate but harnessed wrestling fandoms. It made complete sense in the moment. Gethard is a champion for underdogs and misfits, and many wrestling fans fit oddly, but comfortably, within those categorizations. In the next episode, Gethard sat with another wrestling fan who’s regularly costumed as a character named Vacation Jason — and beside his guest, there was wrestler Eddie Kingston, who wrestles as a teenage punk character inspired by both AFI and Tupac.

These wrestling fans are part of an odd bunch, commonly grouped with the glasses-clad and sweater-wearing feminists who supported AJ Lee after her husband CM Punk retired, yelling her name over the shouts of more stereotypical fans who insisted on chanting “CM Punk” every time she made an entrance. Outsiders expect wrestling fans to be crass and shallow. But wrestling fans come in many shades, and those who fight the patriarchy in the wrestling world find commonality in the small communities they carve out together. Female wrestling fans may be the most visible members of these groups, but men who identify as feminists also play a surprisingly large — if largely under-the-radar — role.

Gethard compares the atypical fan to comic book readers who like uplifting superhero stories. They revel in the rise of wrestlers like Daniel Bryan, who is small in stature but won the WWE Heavyweight Championship after overcoming great adversity — and these fans’ eyes filled with tears when Bryan announced an indefinite hiatus from the ring due to injury. Another idol of alternative culture and a vocal feminist, The Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle, has written songs about the feelings of empowerment he got from watching wrestling as a child. He calls Chavo Guerrero a “defender of the downtrodden” on the band’s wrestling-themed LP, Beat The Champ. Looking up to wrestlers like this can be inspiring for fans like Darnielle and Gethard.

Millions of wrestling fans, most of them adult males, follow the broadcasts. Most weeks, WWE’s Monday Night Raw only falls behind football in Nielsen’s overall cable ratings, but wrestling is still a secret pleasure for many of its fans. It reveals itself as a slight nod to the coworker who braved wearing a WWE shirt to the office, or a secret kept until after going official with a new girlfriend — feminist wrestling fans don’t always proclaim their fandom as loudly in their daily lives as they chant in the crowds at a live ring event. Whether it’s because of the perceived sexism of this culture or simply because outsiders think wrestling is stupid, many of these fans don’t feel they can talk about wrestling as freely as sports fans talk about football.

Gethard recalls that the wrestling fans he knew growing up were usually not the cool football jocks but “were quiet kids and buried their faces in comic books.” Some men who became wrestlers were “just nerds who were able to grow muscles.” He even went as far as to say that for these kinds of fans, hiding one’s love of wrestling can actually elicit empathy and eventually inspire them to become feminists once they do grow up.

“Nerdy, bookish guys who keep their interests private because they feel like they’ll get picked on or judged are probably just men who grow up to be empathetic and sympathetic people,” Gethard said. “Sensitive [guys], who watch [wrestling] because of the storytelling or the way that the characters become empowered. They probably grow up to be men with good heads on their shoulders.”

This partly explains why wrestling has so many in-touch feminist fans, but they’re often invisible. Because of the stigmas, these more introspective wrestling fans submerge themselves in an ardent online fan culture. Many of them make up the 75,000 people who subscribe to a wrestling subreddit called SquaredCircle. This deeply active Internet community routinely has at least a thousand readers online at a time. Colt Cabana, professional wrestler for Ring of Honor and host of the revered Art of Wrestling podcast, said that online communities are crucial for the wrestling fan who hesitates to share fandom in daily life.

“There are a lot of people out there with a lot of issues who may feel more comfortable behind a keyboard, but I think it makes a big difference when you meet people in person,” Colt says in reference to the large cross-section of wrestling fans who let their weird and wild fan flags fly at WrestleCon, another safe community like The Chris Gethard Show. All types of fans — progressives, conservatives, feminists, jocks, nerds — unite here to celebrate a love of wrestling.

Fans with different views may disagree on how to treat female wrestlers like AJ Lee or how much airtime WWE Divas deserve; they typically get just one to two matches in most leagues’ televised programs, and are rarely a main event. To some, the women’s match is a break to grab another beer. But that’s changing slowly, and fans’ conversations are making a difference. Socially conscious fans continue to speak out about issues in the wrestling world, the same way people address politics in general. These fans tweet, calling for the WWE to remove the patronizing pink butterfly from the Divas’ champion belt, and they plead for female wrestlers to not be classified as “Divas” at all.

And the WWE is making some progress on issues like gender and race. The company rushed to erase Hulk Hogan’s titles from WWE.com after he made racist remarks last month. Earlier in July, several more female wrestlers had been added to the main roster in celebrated debuts during an episode of Monday Night RAW. AJ Lee’s sudden retirement in April spurred more discussion about equality, because just before her departure, she helped publicize the fans’ trending topic on Twitter, #GiveDivasAChance. In March, Ronda Rousey’s appearance at Wrestlemania excited fans for dramatic changes ahead. And at the top of the WWE’s corporate ladder, Stephanie McMahon, who was regularly the target of crowds’ jeering “slut” chants in the 1990s, is now Chief Brand Officer.

The vocally feminist wrestling fans who are speaking out and patiently waiting for these glimmers of equality will likely continue watching simply for the captivating storytelling that WWE provides every week. They’ll “cheers” pints of beer with fans who chant for CM Punk instead of AJ Lee during her entrance, and they’ll keep arguing with these fans on the Internet. Wrestling will continue to touch the fans who live for the never-ending melodrama, and the nerdy feminist fans who seek solace in wrestling will find a sort of secret-society group therapy in like-minded viewers.

During what wound up being three hour-long episodes of The Chris Gethard Show dedicated to wrestling, one caller confessed that he found The Undertaker’s defeat at Wrestlemania 30 heartbreaking, and Gethard asked him to explain why the loss cut him so deeply. “What about wrestling can break a young man’s heart?” Gethard mused. The caller talked about how wrestling brought back memories of his late father.

A viewer named Todd called later. “Pro wrestling is everything that I love,” Todd said. “When I didn’t have a parent’s hug, it was pro wrestling. Maybe when I wasn’t making friends in school like I should have been, there was always pro wrestling.”

Todd’s confessions then swelled into an inspiring feminist love letter to wrestler Mae Young. “She’s a pioneer,” he said. “She was a very strong and independent woman. I respect her more than I respect most people.”

“We’re all about that here, Todd!” Gethard shouted back.