FILM : Lipstick & Dynamite: The First Ladies of Wrestling

‘These are not the type of women we usually listen to, so I was nothing less than thrilled to sit down to watch 80 minutes of their stories’

By Grace

Much as I love women in sports, and even sports with a little violence (remember my thoughts on roller derby?), I am hard-pressed to find feminist undertones in women’s wrestling.

That being said, I see definite heroine content in Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling. We live in a society in which listening to the stories of older women is in and of itself a revolutionary act. It is this act on which Ruth Leitman’s film is based. The film is comprised nearly entirely of interviews with women who wrestled from the 1940s through 1970s. These aren’t women we usually see in films, even documentaries. They are missing their teeth, their eyebrows, and often their qualms about telling it like it is.

The stories, though, are horrifying. Most of the women had horrible childhoods, abusive relationships with men, run-ins with sleazy wrestling promoters demanding sexual favors, and years of physical and financial exploitation. Their wrestling stories are full of body slams and headlocks, but they are sadly devoid of independence or agency. Only one of the women interviewed, The Fabulous Moolah, who worked as a wrestling promoter (and occasionally entered the ring herself) from the early 1950s until her death in 2007, speaks about her years as a wrestler as if she set her own rules, and given the discrepancies between her stories and those told by her contemporaries, one wonders how much in charge she really was.

Some of the women, however, continue their stories beyond the years of exploitation. Penny Banner, whose interest in martial arts began after an attempted rape, wrestled professionally for more than 20 years, then went on to become a Senior Olympics multiple medalist in discus, shot put, and various swimming events. Your feminist heart must be very hard if watching a 70 year old woman throw a discus doesn’t choke you up a little bit.

Another of the featured women, Ida May Martinez, who spent the majority of the 1950s wrestling, said that she was grateful for the “road education” she received through wrestling, but went on to explain that her true source of pride in her life was her post-wrestling work as one of the first nurses for terminal AIDS patients. My favorite story, though, is that told by the most bitter of the former wrestlers, Ella Waldek, who moved from farm girl to roller derby queen to professional wrestler to owning her own security firm.

Few, if any, of the interviewed women make explicit claims to feminism. They show varying levels of awareness of how mistreated they were as wrestlers, mostly by male promoters. However, the film is made in an explicitly feminist way. Ruth Leitman takes her subjects seriously and allows them to speak for themselves, shooting them and their stories for what they are, both the good and the bad. As a documentarian, I give her full heroine content points.

On race, Lipstick & Dynamite is about what you would expect of a film featuring women whose glory days were mostly pre-Civil Rights. All of the women featured are white, with the exception of Hispanic Ida May Martinez. The only African-American woman I remember having any screen time at all is interviewed briefly about her relationship with The Amazing Moolah’s husband. Another problematic aspect is the segment about The Amazing Moolah’s relationship with little person wrestler Diamond Lil, who she describes as a midget and a dwarf and treats like a cross between a child and a house servant.

Of the film’s final scene, in which many of the featured wrestlers meet at a reunion, Roger Ebert wrote “one woman after another seems to have attended in order to say, “I’m still here,” as if being alive after what they’re been through is a form of defiance.” I would argue that being alive and telling these stories is indeed a form of defiance for these women, and one young feminists would be well served to learn from. I am impressed that Ruth Leitman was able to see this defiance, and will watch anything else she makes because of it. I’d give the film four stars, but I am knocking one off because I did feel that racial issues should have been addressed in the documentary but were not.

Source / Heroine Content / Posted August 18, 2008

The Rag Blog

Posted by thorne dreyer at 8:32 AM

Labels: Documentary, Feminism, Film, History, Independent Film, Women, Women’s Sports

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