The Paris Review

The Spectacle of Women’s Wrestling

Vintage newspaper photograph of women wrestlers.

“The virtue of wrestling is to be a spectacle of excess,” Roland Barthes begins—but we are wary of excess in women, wary of too much flesh, too much blood, too much lust or power. Too much knowledge: Eve was tossed out of the garden, over the ropes. Too much beauty: Helen slaughtered two nations. Too much faith: Joan was burned at the stake. Excess in women is criminal, and the punishment is debasement or death.

What becomes of wrestling’s virtue, then, when the wrestlers are women? The art itself risks diminishment, limited not by the action nor its performers but by the world outside the ring. The expectations of the audience play as great a role as the action itself; our participation is not optional. “A light without shadow elaborates an emotion without secrets,” Barthes says of the ring’s floodlights, but we aren’t used to seeing the emotions of women so bared. We think we are—the woman hysterical, the woman scorned—but such displays are the wave, the crest and the trough, and the ocean goes on below. 

“Wrestling is not a sport,” Barthes scolds, “it is a spectacle,

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