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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Comments

  1. Kharma isn’t that fat she is a very talented woman
    And yes kharma can succeed in the wwe she will
    Bring great storylines and make the divas division
    Alot stronger alot of people say Beth phoenix cannot
    Make the divas division a success I agree I don’t think Beth
    Will change the divas division much also beth lost to Kelly
    And truly kelly is not a good wrestler kharma is the only
    Diva that will shake the divas division and make it worth
    Watching just like what she did to tna kharma is the real
    Deal:)

  2. Well Kharma is not the first. Bull Nakano was in the WWE in the 90s and she was quite similar. Bertha Fay might also fit into this category. In fact women’s pro-wrestling in Japan is quite different than it is in the West. They’ve gone so far as to have barbed wire and light tubes matches… And stop calling wrestling fake. Its choreographed, like a ballet or a movie. People don’t call plays and ballets fake do they? No, so why is this hate word reserved for pro-wrestling?

  3. Ashley-Michelle says:

    Yessenia, you raise a good point that I hadn’t considered; about Stevens making sure not to refer to herself as a Diva. Whether that was an intentional act designed to reinforce her “other” status from those that she’s defeated in recent weeks, or a subconscious recognition of the inherent sexism between the two classes, the omission of the term is telling.

    Given the reassurances by her and the others in the business, it seems very likely that she will return after the end of her pregnancy and some additional months of maternity leave. That, of course, is sparking its own troubling wave of sentiment, including from many fans who feel that Stevens “owed” it to the WWE and beyond to “be more careful.” No mention is made of her long-term boyfriend, and his obligation to likewise be mindful of her blossoming career to take precaution. For all we know, obviously, both did and this just happened, but the idea that Stevens is somehow betraying her fans, the WWE and all the colored women of size she has come to represent seems deeply entrenched in our complicated relationship with women and sexual autonomy.

    Either way, it is probably safe to assume what career she has when she returns will not match the potential she had now. Vince McMahon isn’t particularly renowned for respecting either women or folks of color, and I think it’s unlikely he doesn’t subscribe to the belief that Stevens had a responsibility to keep from conceiving. The fact that she has, regardless of what efforts she might have undertaken to prevent that from happening, will likely be dismissed out of hand because she is, obviously, pregnant, and in wrestling circles, that tends to be treated the same as using illegal drugs prior to showtime or not showing up at all.

  4. Yessenia Jimenez says:

    I am one of those wrestling fans, but typically not a fan of female wrestling because the matches tend to lack content and clothing. Unfortunately, Kia Stevens has gone as quickly as she came. She is pregnant and, of course, can’t compete right now. I fear that the WWE will not support her and have a place for her after maternity leave–but I hope that it’s not the case. If her entrance into the WWE was a step forward, we’ll have to wait about a year for the next step because there simply is no one like her out there right now.

    I also wanted to note that in her departure speech, Ms. Stevens did NOT refer to herself as a “Diva” but rather a WWE Superstar as the male wrestlers are referred to. Even she seemed to want to separate herself from that label.

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