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  • WHAM, SLAM, THANK YOU, MA’AM! SELF-REPRESENTATION IN

    THE AUTOBIOGRAPHIES OF FEMALE PROFESSIONAL WRESTLERS

    By

    ROXANNE GARSTAD

    Integrated Studies Final Project Essay (MAIS 700)

    submitted to Dr. Nanci Langford

    in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of

    Master of Arts – Integrated Studies

    Athabasca, Alberta

    April 2014

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    ABSTRACT

    The representation of the self within autobiography is explored through an examination of three memoirs written by female professional wrestlers. The nature of self- representation is especially problematic due to the performance aspect of professional wrestling, in which professional wrestlers develop complex characters that carry out predetermined verbal and physical encounters. Determining voice and external influences in the texts becomes difficult when three potential selves converge: the real self, the wrestling character, and the autobiographical character. The reader is challenged to ascertain the authentic narrative voice and to determine if the real self is represented within the text, as the three memoirists alternate between the voices of their true selves and those of their characters. This compounds unsolved issues of legitimacy and authority within the genre of autobiography.

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    Wham, Slam, Thank you, Ma’am! Self-Representation in the Autobiographies of

    Female Professional Wrestlers

    Although the celebrity autobiographical craze has reached the realm of

    professional wrestling, few works have been written by women. Of those, three in

    particular emerge as illustrative of the struggle within self-representative writing to

    engage in complete candour (Gilmore ix). In a comparison of these three autobiographies

    written by female professional wrestlers, Lillian Ellison, Amy Dumas, and Alexandra

    Whitney, otherwise known to pro-wrestling fans as The Fabulous Moolah, Lita, and

    Blakwidow, one central question must be asked: how do issues with self-representation

    and autobiography as method manifest themselves? Although these accounts might very

    well be of interest only to pro-wrestling fans, a close reading and textual analysis of the

    three memoirs serves to highlight a key problem scholars struggle to solve within

    autobiography studies: whether the true self is represented within the text.

    Both autobiography and pro-wrestling are performances whereby characters are

    created, storylines are advanced, and universal themes are played out in titillating fashion.

    When studying either autobiography or pro-wrestling, the reader must constantly ask,

    what is real? When are liberties being taken? Is this a truthful representation of facts?

    And, critically, has the real person written his or her true thoughts and self into the text?

    Another complication is whether or not the self-representative writing can be

    labelled “autobiography” or “memoir.” Some scholars use the terms interchangeably,

    whereas others distinguish between them. Rak acknowledges the shifting definition of

    memoir, pinpointing it as a “popular textual product . . . [that is] the hallmark of personal

    vanity, not literary quality” (“Are Memoirs Autobiography?” 306, 311-312). A memoir is

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    a “certain kind of life narrative” (emphasis added, Couser, Memoir 3), rich in ordinary

    human stories that might not meet the literary appetites of professional critics or

    academics (Pinsker 320). Accessible to wannabe writers and their fans, memoir holds a

    great deal of appeal to the celebrity set. Memoir is more available to amateur writers –

    the non-academic, that is – than literary autobiography (Couser, Memoir 26) and is

    considered to be less sophisticated (Rak, “Are Memoirs Autobiography?” 310). Thus, it is

    the perfect venue for celebrities (often with the aid of ghostwriters) to tell their life

    stories.

    Memoir’s sophisticated big brother is, of course, autobiography. Scholars hold

    the autobiographical canon in high esteem, including, as it does, the works of Augustine,

    Rousseau, and other accomplished male scholars or literary figures of the past

    millennium. Women have largely been excluded from this self-reflexive discourse (Rak,

    “Are Memoirs Autobiography?” 310). Stanton argues that “autobiography [is] wielded as

    a weapon to denigrate female texts and exclude them from the canon” (4). For much of

    the twentieth century, it was not socially acceptable for women autobiographers to write

    of their achievements, ambition, or accomplishments without citing the help of others

    (Heilbrun 24). Since the 1970s, women’s autobiography has been considered complex

    enough to be worth critical reflection (Smith and Watson, “Introduction” 4-5), although

    some scholars argue that autobiographical works are still mostly written by men (Pinsker

    312). Memoir has been set up as an easier-to-write, more accessible and straightforward

    form of life writing for writers and readers alike, one that seems to allow the participation

    of women. Gilmore argues that women’s writing is often viewed as “homelier” and not

    deserving of categorization within the masculine world of literary autobiography. She

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    contends that “women’s autobiography cannot be recognized as ‘autobiography’ when it

    is written against the dominant representations of identity and authority as masculine” (1-

    2). It is often assumed that female autobiographers are really just making up the facts

    (Gilmore 8). The reader is therefore left wondering about the truthfulness of the

    memoir’s content.

    This is where the likeness between the worlds of memoir and pro-wrestling meet,

    for they are both threats to their parent disciplines – pro-wrestling undermines the

    credibility of the “real” sport of Olympic-style wrestling (Leng et al. 45) and memoir

    highlights the deficiencies within the genre of autobiography. Rak claims that “in

    autobiography criticism memoir presents itself as a threat to autobiography because it

    points out that there is a lack in the genre in the first place” (Rak, “Are Memoirs

    Autobiography” 317). Pro-wrestling and memoir are the bottom-feeders of the sport and

    literary worlds. And when these two worlds come together, the reader should expect to

    be intrigued and entertained, with their base appetites satisfied (Rak, “Are Memoirs

    Autobiography” 315). Ellison, Dumas, and Whitney (or Moolah, Lita, and Blakwidow,

    whoever is speaking at a given moment) seek to gratify these appetites.

    It is worthwhile to examine the nature of women’s professional wrestling in order

    to obtain a sense of how the construction of female characters in wrestling is problematic.

    Pro-wrestling began as an “honest” sport, although it is estimated that by at least 1910,

    orchestrated wrestling – that is, wrestling with pre-arranged motions, fixed endings, and

    actor-like contenders – replaced real wrestling (Barthes 16, Maguire 155). In the early

    decades of the twentieth-century, women’s pro-wrestling was seen as immoral. To

    circumvent this, by the 1940s women were cast as valets or managers (Oppliger 125).

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    Slave Girl Moolah, later The Fabulous Moolah, was one of the pioneering female

    managers. In her memoir, The Fabulous Moolah: First Goddess of the Squared Circle,

    she remembers this time well:

    When I was coming up, it was unheard of for a lady wrestler to be strong

    and independent. We were the valets for the men stars, and we had men –

    promoters, other wrestlers, husbands or boyfriends – telling us exactly

    what to do. Well, I never did listen to any of them. I did what I wanted to

    do, ever since I was a little girl and defied my dear daddy’s wishes by

    entering the ring (Ellison 11).

    During the 1980s and 1990s, the world of wrestling changed for women.

    Violence was combined with sexual imagery (Mazer 115), with female wrestlers

    especially becoming increasingly sexualized (Oppliger 125). While male pro-wrestlers

    tend to fill a number of different stereotypical roles, such as “the millionaire”, “the surfer

    dude”, and “the biker,” “the characterization of women in wrestling remains for the most

    part abstract.” Instead of taking on roles that women normally have in day-to-day life, in

    modern pro-wrestling, there continues to be a virgin/whore binary in their

    characterization (Mazer 123). Oppliger, in her discussion of modern types of female pro-

    wrestlers – two of which she characterizes as “the powerful” and “the masculine” –

    remains more optimistic regarding the roles that modern female pro-wrestlers can take

    on. The powerful type most approaches the situation enjoyed by male wrestlers, in that

    the female has a voice, both behind the scenes, in the development of plotlines, and on

    the wrestling “stage”. In addition, this newly powerful female is more than just “eye-

    can