(Ed. note: After much debate on this site and elsewhere over the nature of feminism and ladies’ arm wrestling, we give the final word, fittingly enough, to a ladies’ arm-wrestling referee.)
A couple weeks ago, women from nine U.S. cities gathered in Charlottesville, Va., for the national championship of ladies’ arm wrestling. It was mid-June on a Friday night. Throngs of ladies (and a few gentlemen) descended upon a theater in downtown Charlottesville for an organizational meeting. The next day, folks rehearsed for hours for that evening’s big event: a sort of WWF meets Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Or, say, A League of Their Own with more sparkles, less sexism. And with hundreds of spectators.
It’s difficult to describe. It was SuperCLAW: The Mother of All Claws. (For the uninitiated, CLAW stands for “Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers.”)
However, a few months ago, Salty Eggs published a piece by Tara Nieuwesteeg, titled “Ladies Arm Wrestling Is a Thing.” In it, Nieuwesteeg questioned the New York Times‘ use of the word “feminism” in describing the sport’s activities, stating, “should ladies’ arm wrestling really take off … it would be nice to see these women use their collective arm strength for something not just awesome, but maybe a little bigger, too.” Ladies got up in arms (ho-ho!), and up in the comments section, challenging Nieuwesteeg’s conclusion.
To be fair, I can understand how, if one had never attended a brawl, one would have a hard time understanding what it is, let alone why it’s important. (Like I said, it’s hard to describe.)
Still, Alli Thresher of Think Progress offered a thorough rebuttal, remarking on the subversiveness of theatrical strength performances, the denial of the male gaze, and the poetry of women raising money for other women by performing their woman-ness as proof of CLAW’s feminist credibility. I can’t say it any better than Thresher, so I won’t try.
I also don’t want to strike out at Nieuwesteeg, because self-analysis is vital to any movement, and I don’t want to keep slap-fighting the dead horse of what feminism is. What I do want to do is tell you that verbs trump nouns, and why it doesn’t matter if arm-wrestling is feminist.
But first, a quick primer on the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers: CLAW is a national not-for-profit alliance of theatrical lady arm-wrestlers who throw brawls, or arm-wrestling events, to raise money for organizations that benefit women. The phenomenon started in Charlottesville, Va., in 2008, has since spread to 18 cities, and has raised over $200,000 for women through local fundraising and performance. Each chapter is autonomous, but collaborates with the national league to share practices and resources.
The gathering in Charlottesville was the first national brawl – a chance for the leagues to meet and compete and raise funds for beneficiaries in their hometowns. So, on the evening of June 16, after hours of rehearsal and months of preparation, the time came for the eight regional representatives to go wrist-to-wrist.
The gyrating nymphomaniac Copaphelia succumbed to Amy Smackhouse, a satirical specter of the fallen singer. Next, Sistah Mary Slammer, New Orleans’ own apostolic champion barely won out over Armageddon and her maniacal, apocalyptic crew. In the third round, Pain Fonda failed to flex hard enough against Ze Dirty Butcher, who came onstage in a white coat, a lot of fake blood, and little else. Finally, Charlottesville’s hometown girl, the Homewrecker, lost on a violation to Heather Weizen. The rest of the brawl is a haze of dance-offs, brazen cheating, thumb wrestling, unexpected displays of sportsmanship, public drunkenness, impressive improvisation, and a lot of skin. At the end of the night, Amy Smackhouse and Heather Weizen agreed to share the championship after persistent stalemates. It was a triumphant, rowdy, successful testament to female-driven fundraising.
Everyone kept their arms, wrists, and dignity mostly intact, and everyone had a great time. But, after everyone sobered up, the three-hour display of unchecked female exhibitionism triggered debate about brawn vs. breasts, skin vs. smarts, sexualizing ourselves and others, safe spaces, and whether we felt OK about what we did and how we did it.
The women involved had and continue to have widely varying answers to that last question.
A brawl might look like a theatrical arm-wrestling competition. What it is, though, is frequently a very public clash of feminist philosophy. That sounds heavy for an event in which women hula hoop and taunt one another for charity. But look: feminism is already complicated and nebulous. When you get a couple drinks in it, put it in a costume, and send it up on stage in front of several hundred people, feminism gets even weirder. We see women do all of the following and more: blow kisses, flex, flash various body parts, pull their opponent’s hair, mean-mug the crowd, make out on stage, shy away from the spotlight, lose and win gracefully, lose and win not-so-gracefully, and congratulate and support one another in competition.
But the point is that each of those individuals gets on stage and does what makes her feel strong. In a world where even the most empowered and assertive women are frequently subordinated, harassed, slut-shamed, or ignored, this is the place and time that women get to do whatever they want, and receive ecstatic support from raucous admirers.
That’s how we do it. Why we do it is about homegrown, small-scale philanthropy. What irked me a bit about Nieuwesteeg’s commentary was her assertion that a consciousness about “reproductive rights, equal work for equal pay, women’s healthcare, and a general message of promoting women as people” is the paramount requirement to be called a feminist.
NOLAW and New Orleans haven’t seen a lot of return on our outrage about the way resources are distributed, for women or for anyone else who is disenfranchised, by national, local, and hyper-local legislation. We don’t have a lot of faith in top-to-bottom reform, because the results are slow in coming and inconsistent in execution.
We don’t want to wait on all that. CLAW isn’t about adhering to a definition of feminism, especially one that values theory above action. It isn’t bumper-sticker activism or signing petitions. It’s about immediate action, and about making something out of nothing. In this case, funds for girls’ afterschool programs, pre- and postnatal services, shelter and food for disadvantaged people, and myriad other homegrown projects that benefit our local women and children directly. And we do it with joy, energy, and respect.
This kind of organizing fuses medium and message. Maybe we don’t always look or sound like feminists, but we’re supporting one another and the women in our communities through action and money. With our work and within our communities, we actually see results.
–By Maggie Calmes