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Raised by a single mother and my grandmother, I didn’t watch professional wrestling growing up. We were more of a musical household, watching old Shirley Temple movies. But after I married a man with whom I’m raising two wild, physical boys, I suddenly found WWE on constantly in our house and I was hooked. I think my husband wanted our boys to fall in love with the WWE, so it was a surprise to both of us when I was the one who fell head over heels. Because what does the WWE have to offer a middle-aged woman who doesn’t even really like sports?

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I remember squinting at the television, trying to make sense of what I was seeing, the over-the-top drama, the costumes and pageantry, why did it seem so familiar and captivating? Finally, I realized: it was drag!

Anyone who has ever seen a drag show knows that drag is not about naturalistic gender simulations. To draw attention to drag by appearing in a show is to abandon the game of passing in the first place. Similarly, people who have a truly violent altercation rarely dress up in pink spandex and babble into a microphone for a few minutes first. In either case, the aim is not exact realism: If the WWE tried to mimic real violence, it would look like MMA but with manipulated results. Similarly, drag queens like Trixie Mattel embody something beyond the feminine—they explore a region of the unreal that can only be described as art.

The unreal can have so many facets and be used for so many purposes, but I found the particular facet of professional wrestling exhilarating.

As a novelist—someone so professionally obsessed with the artificial that he has spent years of his life creating little imaginary towns, families, and people, each with their own little biography, memories, and psychological complexes—I was fascinated. The unreal can have so many facets and be used for so many purposes, but I found the particular facet of professional wrestling intoxicating. Part of it was the obvious silliness of certain gimmicks. I loved The New Day, with its bright neon colors and hip swings and its breakfast cereal “Booty-O’s.” I loved the overtly gothic style of characters like The Undertaker and Paul Bearer, the funeral music at the entrance, the bizarre urn. But what I loved most was the way it all mixed together, the silly and the scary, the dark and the light, like some kind of crazy group project at school where everyone got to join in and none of it fit together, but it was all glorious and deeply weird.

Professional wrestling is often described as a soap opera for men, and it’s very interesting to follow the storylines of the various disputes between wrestlers, but I was fascinated by the ambiguity of these plots. There was always a kayfabe or “pretend” storyline, e.g. “Macho Man is mad at Hulk Hogan for taking care of his wife and manager Miss Elizabeth,” but underneath that there was another “real” story, e.g. “In reality, Macho Man is freaking out with jealousy over this story, even though he knows it’s made up and is driving a wedge between him and Hogan, who are actually friends in real life.” Every story had a public and a private version, and the line between the two often blurred, with real life spawning new stories and stories spawning new real-life problems. For a novelist, this was pure catnip.

While I fell in love with professional wrestling almost immediately, it took me longer to decide on women’s wrestling. Women’s sports in general stress me out because the perceived physical inferiority of women is painful to me. To be honest, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out that women are weaker and slower than men, simply because I didn’t know any men growing up. I had no father, uncles, or brothers. In my household of three women, I was the strongest and therefore in charge of carrying luggage, assembling furniture, digging holes for trees or fence posts. I have always been strong for a woman and always enjoyed beating my friends at arm wrestling.

It was terrifying when I realized as a teenager that even the weakest, nerdiest boy with the skinniest arms could beat me at arm wrestling. In my early 20s, I was in an abusive relationship where I learned firsthand how little I could physically defend myself and how helpless I really was. And so the constant jokes in the culture about women’s basketball just seemed dark to me. It all seemed connected, our supposed physical weakness, our status as second-class citizens, our pay disparity, our objectification. We were literally not as good as men. Who wanted to watch that?

What I’m really describing here is how I swallowed some of the cultural groundwater during my own upbringing. I believe that women’s sports will continue to grow in popularity and profitability. I believe that women’s sports are valuable and important. But that doesn’t mean that on some level it breaks my heart that we are not physically equal to men.

Serena Williams, arguably the greatest tennis player of all time, is the first to admit: “If I played Andy Murray, I would lose 6-0, 6-0 in five to six minutes, maybe 10 minutes,” Williams told Letterman. “The men are much faster, they serve harder, they hit harder… It’s a totally different game.” That’s the reality. And that reality is awful. I just wish it weren’t like that!

One of the reasons I chose to be a writer was because I was pretty sure women could be good at it. My sense of inferiority as a woman has colored every decision I’ve ever made, and it can be difficult to express that without seeming like I’m supporting the position that women are inferior.

So I avoided women’s wrestling for the same reason I avoided most women’s sports: It would have forced me to confront that reality again. So imagine how I felt the first time I saw her: Rhea Ripley. Her pure, pulsating magnificence. In real life she’s only 5’7″, but in the ring she easily looks 6’3″, which she claims is because she’s “putting on a big front”. Her size is an illusion, her power is an illusion, of course it is, it always is, but when I looked at her I found I could believe in her in a way I hadn’t believed before.

A truth that requires dishonesty, illusion, art, is the most interesting kind.

With her black lipstick and leather and spiked aesthetic, Rhea Ripley has a clear ancestor in Chyna. Maybe because she was a member of D-Generation X, with her gross air humping and charming “suck it” motto, I just never liked Chyna, but she was the first female wrestler credited with defeating a male wrestler in a one-on-one match, with wins over Triple H, Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho, and Jeff Jarrett. Chyna was only 5’10” and 200 pounds, and there’s no way she could defeat any of those men in a real fight. But the American people believed in it, and that’s what mattered: That’s what gave her power.

Since Chyna, there have been many wonderful female wrestlers: Ric Flair’s daughter, the extraordinary and stately Charlotte Flair, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart’s daughter Natalya (one of my favorites), goofy-evil Bailey, rainbow-haired Asuka, fiery and fierce Becky Lynch, and my husband’s one true love, Bianca Belair with her 5-foot braided hair. Women in WWE have gone from bra and panties battles to being the heart of the company, and they’ve done it by forcing the American people to believe in them, love them, and fear them.

If you look at pictures of Rhea Ripley before she became Rhea Ripley, you can see that she still had an impressive physique and was undoubtedly as strong as she is today. But she had blonde hair that fell past her shoulders, the sporty gymnast look, and a sweet smile. The raw, shimmering power that makes her catchphrase “Mommy’s always on top” exciting rather than comical comes from the color, the makeup, the way she presents herself: it comes from her feminine charms, which she has used to new and interesting ends.

In both drag and women’s pro wrestling, the artificial and the performative come together to allow for that rare and fleeting something: the expression of the true self. A truth that you couldn’t articulate if you limited yourself to reality. And to me, a truth that requires dishonesty, illusion, and art is the most interesting kind. It’s one thing to see the fruit on the table and be so moved by its beauty that you have to paint it. That’s a good and wonderful impulse, and a lot of my own art comes from there: I see people and how they fight and how they love and what they need, and I’m so moved that I feel like if I can’t put it into words, I’m going to die from it.

But there is another kind of artistic impulse: to feel something unnamed, a longing, an itch, and to realize that it can only be satisfied by painting an imaginary fruit that doesn’t exist, a glowing ball made of an alien fruit that recalls other planets, other worlds. That is the feeling I am always chasing, the ghostly impression that the imaginary world has left on the real one.

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Margo has money problems by Rufi Thorpe is available from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Featured image: Tabercil, used under CC BY 3.0

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