Sexy Star stands alone in the ring on the new Latino-focused El Rey Network luchador show. (photo source)
My interest in professional wrestling began in 1999—I was just a kid who loved watching WWF (now known as WWE) on TV. This time period, characterized by egregiously violent matches, aggressive sexuality, and ‘‘politically incorrect” characters and stories, is commonly known as the “Attitude Era.” Back then, I didn’t have much of an understanding of feminism and the role media plays in socializing us. I only knew that louder-than-loud personalities like the Rock, Mankind, and Chris Jericho enchanted me on a level no other characters on TV could.
Although the Attitude Era introduced me to wrestling, I don’t look back on it fondly. Storylines played to racist and homophobic stereotypes and objectified women to an absurd degree. It got to a point where I sought alternatives to WWE, and my love for smaller, independent wrestling companies was born. While things have slightly improved since WWE programming adopted a PG rating in 2008, to this day not one episode of Monday Night Raw goes by where I don’t shake my head at least once. And yet I still watch. When you’re a feminist, taking an interest in popular culture means having complicated relationships with things you inexplicably love. My fascination with professional wrestling is no different: I look hard for the bright spots and often settle for what I can get. Although social progress in professional wrestling moves at a glacial pace, there may be a light on the horizon: the El Rey Network’s Lucha Underground and its lead female protagonist Sexy Star.
Sexy Star flexing her muscles in a promotional poster for the El Rey network.
A bit of background: Film director Robert Rodriguez launched the El Rey Network in late 2013 as an English-language general entertainment channel targeted at Latino audiences. Through El Rey, Rodriguez plans to address the need for diverse voices in popular media and have “the face of the network more resemble the face of the country.” Launching a cable network during the streaming-media boom is a gamble, but for El Rey, it’s also forward-thinking: according to the 2010 U.S. Census, by the year 2042, racial and ethnic minorities will outnumber non-Hispanic whites, and Hispanic people will account for 30 percent of the overall population compared to 15 percent today.
One of the network’s first original shows is Lucha Underground. A combination of professional wrestling, telenovela, and episodic drama, the show takes its cues from the Mexican style of wrestling known as lucha libre, characterized by colorful masks and aerial acrobatics. It quietly boasts one of the most diverse casts in television: of the 17 performers listed on Lucha Underground’s website, 13 are people of color. One of those thirteen is the charismatic and tenacious Sexy Star.
With a name like Sexy Star, I can see how most people would view her as a sexist caricature. Pro-wrestling storylines and characters are over-the-top and about as unrealistic as any reality television. But within that context, I think Sexy Star is a step forward. In Lucha Underground’s series premiere, the viewer learns the story of Sexy Star’s character: a woman who survived “a world of abuse” found strength through lucha libre. She laces up her boots “for every girl out there who needs a hero” and shows them that women are equals to men in the ring. It’s troubling to see yet another “strong female character” narrative that relies on breaking down the woman before building her up. But remember how I look for the bright spots in the socially concerning things I love?
A screenshot of Sexy Star performing in a recent episode of Lucha Underground.
Sexy Star’s first opponent on Lucha Underground was the contemptible Son of Havoc, who initially refuses to wrestle her because she’s a woman. While the commentary team built her up as a credible fighter who regularly grapples with men and women in the Mexico-based wrestling company AAA, Sexy Star ultimately lost the match. This loss, of course, could not stand. In the following episode, she faced off against Son of Havoc and his partner Ivelisse by teaming up with Chavo Guerrero Jr., a member of the beloved and legendary wrestling family, Los Guerreros. The match ended with Sexy Star scoring the pinfall on Son of Havoc, but by episode’s end, the heroic Chavo turned on Sexy Star and the rest of their peers and hit them all with a steel chair. This is where things get interesting: Sexy Star returns in the fourth episode and sends a warning to Chavo—she will not allow such vicious attacks on her and her friends to go unpunished. With a hard stare into the camera and amid the roaring cheers of the crowd, she says, “Yo, con estas manos de una verdadera reina, voy a terminar con la dinastía Guerrero.” Translation: “I, with these hands of a true queen, will finish the Guerrero dynasty.”
The WWE isn’t exactly a hotbed for progressive, women-centered stories. Despite the the female talents’ athleticism and effort, their matches are often framed as a break between men’s matches, and they are rarely given the complex personalities and main-event storylines afforded to male wrestlers like perpetual hero John Cena or enigmatic cult leader Bray Wyatt. Within four episodes of Lucha Underground, Sexy Star, the character with a history of fighting back, leads the charge against a corrupt member of wrestling royalty. She opens the show, takes the microphone, calls Chavo a coward, and promises to avenge her fallen comrades.
Sexy Star represents the female character I’ve wanted to see in wrestling since ’99: a hero who looks out for others, a Latina who uses English and Spanish interchangeably, a person who reflects the face of a growing, changing population. When I look into her eyes as she says she will finish Chavo, I want to lace up my boots with her.
Since wrestling doesn’t always adhere to continuity, this storyline could be gone and forgotten as soon as next week. But it’s a start, a sign of forward movement in a business that in many ways is stuck in the past. Lucha Underground has the seed of something fantastic with Sexy Star, and I hope they keep pushing forward.
Ariana Vives is the new media intern at Bitch. Her all-time favorite wrestler is Eddie Guerrero. And she is happy and grateful to have finally gotten the chance to talk about the fake sport she loves.