Can Kharma Crush Stereotypes in Women’s Wrestling?

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Kharma in the ring. Photo via www.ultimatesportstalk.com

By Ashley-Michelle Papon

For as long as I’ve been playing the dating game, I’ve witnessed how wrestling (the fake kind) has a hold on the people of my generation. In fact, of all the people I’ve dated (or, in a select few cases, married) wrestling seems to be the only unifying thread. I had never understood the attraction to watching half-naked grown men pummel it out with story lines that obviously had been ripped from the mock-ups of “All My Children.”

My attitude changed somewhat after former star Mick Foley became an outspoken advocate for the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. The actions of a man who made his career in an industry not exactly renowned for empowering women certainly caught my attention, both as a member of the RAINN Speaker’s Bureau and as an individual who would have preferred watching cat food commercials to the awkward Sparta-meets-Susan Lucci experiment that wrestling delivered. So, for the last year and a half, I’ve been tuning in, and taking notes.

What’s come across my clipboard this week is a wrestler by the name of Kia Stevens, who goes by Kharma, formerly known as Awesome Kong. Currently appearing on the Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment’s Raw brand, Kharma has been an active wrestler since 2002, even earning the number-one spot in Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s inaugural list of top 50 female wrestlers. She’s the largest woman to wrestle for the WWE, and she’s a woman of color. And, according to at least one WWE fanboy, Kharma was handpicked to begin her career with the WWE this month by the heir apparent to the empire, Triple H.

With all that in mind, I have just one question: how could the WWE be so close to getting it right (for once) and ultimately fail?

Obviously, the WWE doesn’t generally tend to be on board with advancing the agenda of women’s empowerment. One quick glance at the championship belt for the Diva’s brand, with its curlicue letters, shimmering rhinestones and butterfly-shaped emblem is all it takes to set some viewers back a century in their perception of women as athletes. And if that doesn’t seal the deal of sexism on screen, watching as women battle it out in the ring with pillows while screeching about the “disrespect” they’ve experienced probably will. Here’s a hint, Chairman McMahon: if you can’t tell the difference between your show and ‘Jerry Springer,’ neither can your audience.

This is also why Kharma’s inclusion into the WWE could turn the world of Diva wrestling on its ear. To begin with, Kharma’s attire reflects something very different. Kharma’s revolving line of costumes is seemingly channeling the wardrobe of some ancient culture’s warrior. Not exactly original, but a refreshing departure from the typical ware of bikinis and bondage straps favored by many of her peers, and it helps build on her gimmick (in wrestling lingo, ‘gimmick’ refers to the identity of a character and their basic back story) as this phenomenon from another culture. It forces the audience to pay attention to her behavior in the ring, versus getting lost in the flashes of bare skin across the screen.

Additionally, Kharma is a woman of color, something that was a rarity in the WWE until the last few years. But the real kicker is that Kharma is also a person of size. According to the WWE’s website, Kharma is almost six feet tall and nearly 300 pounds, the largest Diva ever on record.

It would be easy to conclude the article here with a paragraph praising Kharma’s feats and congratulating the WWE for joining the rest of us in the 21st century. But it isn’t that cut and dry, because the introduction of Kharma also highlights some of the most troubling aspects of race and sex that have long plagued the WWE.

In her three-week tenure as a WWE Diva so far, Kharma has chewed through half a dozen of her Diva peers. With the notable exception of Alicia Fox and Ever Torres, each Diva Kharma has destroyed in the ring is not identifiably of color.

The racial aesthetic can’t be ignored, particularly with how the matches have been executed. The visual is striking, and intentionally so: Kelly Kelly, with her gold lame wide-belted boy shorts and perfectly straight blonde hair, a shrinking violet to the large, menacing advance of the multi-braided Kharma. It doesn’t help that Kharma enters to a theme music composed of the sudden strike of a piano, and her own maniacal laughter against an electric guitar riff fit for a haunted house. The idea of the savage (Kong?) is complete.

Perhaps it’s a failure of the writers behind the WWE, who have given us stereotype after stereotype to disservice people of color. Whether it’s the duo of Cryme Tyme talking about boosting cars or Yoshi Tatsu appearing to speak in only broken English, the WWE continually exposes our worst perceptions and promotes them. As Daniel Douglass writes at Inside Pulse, the WWE remains unapologetically racist, questioning, “Why waste time with character shading and depth, when we can simply seize a ready trait, inflate it and hope to Christ they don’t notice they are cheering a cardboard cut-out?”

For women, the lack of character depth is part and parcel of being involved in wrestling. A year and a half ago, WWE fans witnessed as Mickie James, a spunky, bright-eyed Diva with real talent, got demoted to the Smackdown brand. Not long after, James was thrown into a Mean Girls-esque rivalry that left her re-christened ‘Piggie James’ and defending her (healthy) body size to her competing Divas, and the millions of WWE fans who tune in every week. As Kit MacFarlene concludes over at PopMatters, “The fact that it’s just about impossible to find a word to describe the not-extremely-thin Mickie that doesn’t essentially imply ‘fat’ says a lot about how far we haven’t come with cultural body image problems.”

The treatment of James also exemplifies why Kharma’s presence should be a welcome one to confront and shake up the notions of what makes a WWE Diva, and also hammers home why the limited performance of her character so far is a profound disappointment. It’s not as though the WWE is the first or even the worst offender in terms of the intersectional prejudices Kharma represents, but given that the WWE is showcasing women doing something that is traditionally a man’s activity, is it wholly unreasonable to expect more than what they’ve delivered so far?

No, it isn’t.

In order to create change within a faulty system, it is important to work within it. Kharma’s had a disappointing show so far, but it isn’t too late to turn around and portray Kharma as a woman who is intimidating because she’s one hell of an athlete, not because she happens to be a person of size and a person of color.

It goes without saying that wrestling is never going to be the hotbed of intellectual discourse, and that’s fine. We’re talking about a genre that banks on mixing comedic punch lines with impressive acts of athleticism—but for the minority voices in wrestling, we want to see them do more of the latter and stop being the former.

UPDATE June 10, 2011:

On May 30, the character of Kharma was dealt another blow when Stevens announced her real-life pregnancy. For the first time since the introduction of her character, fans were introduced to the voice that had previously been reduced to maniacal cackling while the mouth bit off the heads of Barbie dolls. With restrained passion and emotion, Stevens discussed her dreams of becoming a WWE superstar, only to be told by one of the largest names in the business that she was too fat to succeed.

Her poignant speech might have served as something of a wake-up call for the audience, but in characteristic WWE fashion, the surface-level enlightenment is immediately dismissed by the real men behind the curtain. Out pop Kharma’s earlier pummeled rivals, the Bella Twins, to deliver a hat trick distracting from social awareness.

In a 90-second promo, they make 10 individual references to Kharma being too fat to wrestle or to sleep with, concluding her partner must have had to use a seat belt. Although the send-off will serve to hold fans over for the duration of Stevens’ pregnancy, it’s nevertheless the same misogyny and warped body messages being rehashed to a character that might have risen above them otherwise.

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