omen’s wrestling has been undergoing a revolution of sorts in recent years. It’s slowly garnering more respect and recognition, with women even main eventing World Wrestling Entertainment’s WrestleMania — the industry’s Superbowl — last year.
And some performers, such as independent wrestler Priscilla Kelly, are using their bodies — and their bodily fluids — to push these boundaries even further.
About a year ago, Kelly set the internet ablaze at an adults-only wrestling show in Los Angeles in a match against the aptly-named Tuna. Kelly taunted her opponent by sticking her hands down her pants and rubbing them in Tuna’s face, culminating in a spot (wrestling speak for a highlight or climax of the match) in which Kelly reached into her wrestling shorts, pulled out a “bloody” tampon, and stuffed it into her opponent’s mouth.
“The story is, ‘I don’t care what I have to do, I’m going to win the match,’” Kelly told the Wrestling with Reality podcast. “And if I have to mess with your brain a little before I do then so be it.”
Now, we all know professional wrestling is “fake”, in that the violence is agreed upon beforehand and all opponents know how the match will finish. The storylines and characters are sacrosanct — everyone maintains what is called kayfabe (the scripted reality that wrestling exists in) — but given the vitriolic reaction to Kelly’s spot, it was as though she had truly gone rogue.
Kelly’s “used” tampon was of course not “used” at all and Tuna had more-than-likely signed off on the “humiliation” tactic, but the very idea that she would dare to brandish even fake menstrual blood threw Kelly into a red-hot spotlight of controversy.
Kelly became the bane of wrestling Twitter’s existence, with such notable names as wrestling announcer Jim Ross calling it “embarrassing” and former WWE and TNA star Gail Kim admonishing her.
“It’s seriously a disgrace,” Kim tweeted. “Why??? Whoever thought that was a spot that was gonna get a pop and was worth it….. NO. how about telling a story in the ring with your wrestling instead?”
Others wanted to see her punished.
But despite some outcry from seasoned veterans, in the wake of the tampon heard round the world, Kelly’s spot went viral and increased her Twitter following by tens of thousands; it seems to indicate the stunt was more than worth it.
“The truth is I really don’t care what people are saying,” she told Wrestle Talk. “The fact of the matter is, Jim Cornette is wishing for me to die in a boiling tub of oil? Okay, that’s great, but all his thousands and thousands of followers? They’re seeing my name, they’re clicking on my profile.”
“You might find some nasty things, you might find me putting my hands down my pants, licking, biting, grinding, but you’ll never find me making a homophobic comment, you’ll never find me making a sexist comment or racist comment, tearing someone down talking trash on somebody. You won’t find that in my social media. You won’t find that in me as a person in my day to day life.”
It was for these reasons that Kelly was “confused” at the anger directed towards her.
She didn’t know “why anybody in their right mind is angry about what I did because I didn’t hurt anybody, physically or verbally. Nobody is in danger. Nothing that I did was cruel. It was a match…Of course I expected people to be grossed about because that’s the point of the whole thing. If it didn’t gross people out, I wouldn’t have done it, but I don’t understand why people would be angry about the situation.”
Kelly, who comes from a conservative background and was featured on the reality show My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding in 2012 at age 14, said she had to hide her sexuality, bodily functions, and was even shamed by her parents about a sexual assault at just 11 years old. Her wrestling persona, which spits in the face of these humiliations and abuse — celebrating rage, the beauty of female sexual physicality — is a kind of embodied catharsis of years of oppression.
As the overwhelming response to Kelly’s incorporation of menstruation into her schtick attests, there’s still a shocking amount of misogyny and stigma around the female body in wrestling, not to mention the rest of the world.
This makes sense, given the patriarchal origins of wrestling that still permeate today.
While World Wrestling Entertainment, the best-known wrestling company, has undergone a “women’s wrestling evolution” in recent years, granting their women wrestlers more time for matches, opportunity and character development, their content is still majority-male.
Their extremely problematic partnership with Saudi Arabia, which has prohibited women’s wrestling from the shows that take place there up until late last year, is but one example of this.
Given that only 12% of Saudi Arabian women are comfortable discussing their periods with the men in their lives — who have to accompany them to WWE shows and other public events by law — it’s unlikely that one of the female competitors could even borrow a tampon from a local woman in the bathroom of the arena if they were to need one.
UK wrestler Heather Bandenburg writes about being unable to freely discuss menstruation — and the reproductive issues she was plagued with during her career — in the boys club of wrestling in her memoir Unladylike: A Grrl’s Guide to Wrestling, released last year.
“… [I]n no wrestling books to date have female wrestlers spoken about their periods. They do not point out the fact that women train just as hard as men, but have the added bonus of a monthly hydrogen bomb of oestrogen to contend with. In theory it should make us better warriors, but it also makes you go to the toilet and cry if you can’t do a shoulder roll correctly.”
Australian wrestler Avary (who I watched wrestle Millie McKenzie at an all-women’s show in Melbourne last year with a tampon string visible through her skimpy ring gear) tells me that is something she’s worried about, along with bloating and tiredness.
“Oh, embarrassing,” she laughs. “Sometimes I accidentally sync to monthly shows and that’s a pain in the ass. I use the implanon for birth control so my periods are very strange. Sometimes for weeks at a time, sometimes not for months; sometimes extremely painful [and] others not at all.”
Traveling with male wrestlers most of the time, Avary says she’s always prepared to get her period because she can’t just borrow a tampon from her roadmates.
It’s not just in the ring that women wrestlers have to navigate period products. Former TNA wrestler Brooke Adams ignorantly weighed in on the topic on social media last October, writing on Facebook that “Tampons are made for WOMEN end of story. If you IDENTIFY as a man now but you were born a female with female parts you are biologically a woman. That is science.”
I reached out to my networks for any trans men or non-binary wrestlers to speak on this topic, but I did not receive a response from anyone in the industry who was comfortable talking about menstruation pre-transition. (And not everyone who identifies as trans or non-binary has medically transitioned either.)
If the taboo around periods amongst cis women in wrestling is still daunting, the stigma for people identifying outside of the binary is Herculean.
And when cisgender male wrestlers make themselves bleed in violent matches, it’s celebrated at best (fans chant for blood and guts!) and distasteful at worst, they are not met with the revulsion and hatred showered down upon Priscilla Kelly.
Women’s wrestling may have reached unprecedented heights, but until gender equality is addressed and menstruation is destigmatized and normalized in wider society, we’ll always be wrestling with it.
Scarlett Harris is an Australian culture critic. She’s writing a book about women’s wrestling called “A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler” forthcoming in 2021 from Fayetteville Mafia Press. You can read her previously published work at her website, The Scarlett Woman, and follow her on Twitter @ScarlettEHarris.