Weekly Dance Break: Heard It Through the Grapevine (The Slits)

I was reminded of this great cover because of the music selection on the show we’re featuring today: Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None. Ansari included a song by The Slits during an explicitly feminist episode dealing with the differences between men’s and women’s experiences, both in the acting world and just in the world at large. Props to that show for bringing up this issue without mansplaining or hitting us over the head. And now, take some time for yourself and enjoy this dirrrty cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which is kind of a departure from our normal dreamy dance breaks—but a great one!


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Living Alone

I had gotten used to the droning of the LAPD chopper helicopters. They circled above my apartment almost every night and became soothing in their familiarity. I was always awake to hear them, whether it was 1 a.m. or 4 a.m., because I lost the ability to sleep. It wasn’t insomnia. It was anxiety at its zenith. I’ve suffered from all kinds of anxiety and neuroticism all my life, but this was something new. It was unadulterated fear for my safety. And it was fucking awful.

I had gotten used to the droning of the LAPD chopper helicopters. They circled above my apartment almost every night and became soothing in their familiarity. I was always awake to hear them, whether it was 1 a.m. or 4 a.m., because I lost the ability to sleep. It wasn’t insomnia. It was anxiety at its zenith. I’ve suffered from all kinds of anxiety and neuroticism all my life, but this was something new. It was unadulterated fear for my safety. And it was fucking awful.

I was afraid to drift into unconsciousness because that would mean that I would lose awareness of my surroundings. I was hyper-alert even when my brain was so foggy that I couldn’t remember what day of the week it was or what I had for dinner. I’d hear the slightest unfamiliar sound — hushed voices, thumping, footsteps, drunks being drunks — and go into fight or flight mode while lying in bed, my heart racing, tortured by my lack of agency… my inability to relax.

I didn’t own a gun or any kind of actual weapon. I had my pepper spray, but that was barely reassuring. There were knives in the kitchen, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to stab someone even if I was in danger. But this was all nonsense, because I was probably fine. I was on the second floor of a gated (although tenants usually forgot to close that gate) apartment building that had a gated door and four locks, for god’s sake. “You’re fine,” I would tell myself over and over again, “Seriously.” Yet I couldn’t shake this feeling of vulnerability.


I lived alone on the northern cusp of South L.A. near the University of Southern California, where I attended graduate school. This is a notoriously “bad” part of town, said the cop who showed up at my apartment one night. He said he could see why I was nervous. I was a young woman by myself, and he understood my concerns. It wasn’t crazy to him that I had called 911 in the early hours of the morning because I heard a “suspicious noise.” That noise, it turned out, was a washing machine. I felt irrevocably stupid as the cop explained this to me. I was standing in my PJs and sweating, my glasses slipping down my nose. But really. Who the fuck does laundry at 3 in the morning?

Loud washers aside, there’s a lot I love about South L.A. There is so much culture and community there, despite its bad rep. As a journalism student, my peers and I had done a lot of valuable reporting on the many positive changes in the area. My first multimedia package was on health initiatives and wellness trends in Crenshaw/Baldwin Hills of South L.A. When I did a radio piece on Proposition 47, I loved standing outside of Community Coalition on Vermont and 81st and speaking to passerby who had an opinion about it. None of these surroundings bothered me by day.

However, once nighttime fell, I went into insanity mode. I felt frenetic; I wanted to tear my hair out piece by piece and scream until my throat bled. But that wouldn’t even help soothe the trepidation bubbling inside. This discomfort began with what I suspect was an attempted break-in one evening. This was before I lived alone, but it happened at the same apartment. My ex-boyfriend lived with me at the time, but was out, when two men banged on my door and yelled, “LET US IN. OPEN YOUR DOOR.” I ignored it, assuming it would stop. Ten minutes later, it didn’t. I was too afraid to even look in the peephole to see who it was, so I went into my bedroom and locked the door, hoping they would leave.

The knocking only got louder and much more aggressive. “OPEN YOUR DOOR! OPEN YOUR DOOR! OPEN YOUR DOOR!” I called the police. By the time the officers had arrived, the men were gone. That incident left me with mild PTSD. That violent knocking stuck with me, and I found myself on edge whenever I’d hear a tap on a door or footsteps coming up the stairs, weeks later.

When my ex lived with me, I somehow felt much safer. He wouldn’t have been able to do too much in the case of a, say, armed break-in, but knowing that I had someone else there with me was comforting. Plus, he was a person I had known for years and trusted. We moved across the country together and eventually broke up, in what was a completely mutual and respectful development, two months after moving into our South L.A. apartment. He lived there another five months, us alternating sleeping on the couch, before moving out.

I had never intended on living alone, and especially not in an area that is crime-ridden. A dark tone was set for me when, last summer, a Chinese international grad student was murdered blocks away from my apartment. Since then, there has been a stabbing at the burnt-down church across the street, a gunman on the loose and a series of sexual batteries. I couldn’t count the number of times I’d been catcalled even walking across the street to the grocery store in the daytime. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy that area — I did. I liked the businesses and the people. The crimes just made me paranoid, leaving me with this subconscious, constant dread.

This urban environment was new to me. Prior to living in South L.A., I lived in Oakley, Cincinnati with the same ex who moved out to L.A. with me. It was residential and largely safe, filled with white joggers and yuppie dog-walkers. There was maybe a pot dealer around the corner every now and then, but nothing more menacing. Prior to that, I lived near campus at The Ohio State University, always living with roommates, always surrounded by friends. Before that? My parents’ wealthy, conservative neighborhood in West Chester, Ohio.

I am privileged and always have been. This is something I recognize and something I am constantly aware of. It is something I don’t take for granted. But for someone as privileged as me, living alone in South L.A. — even for just a few months — was very testing. On top of all of this was 1. the stress and heavy workload of being a graduate student in my last semester, including my thesis 2. the inescapable loneliness of, well, living alone in a new city thousands of miles away from home 3. the fucking roaches that infested my apartment and wouldn’t die despite an exterminator coming in, me using roach poison and me yelling at them to go away. I was really hoping the last one would work, as a last resort, but nope. I took me two whole days to gather the courage to sweep up a dead roach that was at least two inches length-wise and had wings. Fucking wings.

Again, this is my privilege speaking. There are plenty of people who have had to deal with what I went through and much worse, and I sympathize with them and admire them for their tenacity. But for me, this was all new and difficult nevertheless. Because I was thousands of miles away from home and far from anyone I was truly close with, besides my ex, I had to force myself to accept my reality and make the most of it. I had to appreciate the positive aspects — that I was going to a top-rate university, that I would soon have my master’s degree, that I was living in Los Angeles, where I got to experience many luxuries, that I had the financial and emotional support of my family and friends across the country. I had to really let these positive factors seep in to begin to heal.

The author at her graduation.
The author at her graduation.

And I just had to deal with shit eventually. Even something as insignificant as trapping a roach in a cup and flushing it down the toilet became a small feat for me. When I had lived with my ex, roommates or parents, I could barely have brought myself to do that. More importantly, being able to take out the trash at night, coming home to my apartment and feeling calm walking up the stairs to my unit, staying up late working on my thesis without freaking out and then getting some much-needed sleep; those things were all progress to me.

Eventually, the sound of drunks wouldn’t startle me anymore. Eventually, I learned to love my own company and appreciate the privacy, not resent it. By the end of my stay there, I felt somewhat… empowered. I could see my mental fortitude strengthening over the four months I lived on my own. Eventually, I could sleep again. The finish line got nearer and nearer. Not only would I soon leave my apartment — a place I both despised and finally called home — but I would soon be done with a stressful grad program that consumed all of my time.

I left L.A. with more than a grad degree. I truly have a clearer understanding of myself. This doesn’t just apply to my career path, which, for the first time, I am wholly confident about. I went through an emotional renewal that proved to me that I could be independent in a new way; that I can overcome adversities, even if they’re mostly mental. There were times when I thought I wouldn’t be able to make it — that I couldn’t handle the fear, loneliness, stress and bullshit of my current situation. But now I realize, that was life at its realest, and while things may get easier for me, I’m prepared to handle much worse.

A Feminist Watches WWE: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Pro Wrestling

April’s WWE Extreme Rules pay-per-view event featured a “Kiss Me Arse” match between Sheamus and Dolph Ziggler. A relatively minor interlude between the pre-show warmup and the main event, lasting only two minutes longer than the Divas (women’s) match which is traditionally always the shortest of the night, it was designed as a piece of fluff to keep the crowd’s attention until the real action happened. As the name suggests, the rules of this particular match prescribe that the loser must kiss the winner’s ass.

Dolph Ziggler, a tanned bleach-blond, conquered the pale Irish Sheamus and proceeded to chase him around the ring with his ass exposed while Sheamus made a show of pure and abject horror. Finally, in a pretty predictable turnaround Sheamus ignored the rules of the match and forced Ziggler’s face against his ass. The match itself was relatively boring compared to the five minutes in which Sheamus and then Ziggler in turn hurled themselves around the ring dry-heaving at the prospect of putting their mouths where their hands had just been during the match. After nine minutes of sweaty muscle-on-muscle action, both had to perform homosexual panic as if they hadn’t just been pressed against each other’s bodies in any number of compromising positions.

Dolph Ziggler and Sheamus promo for WWE “Extreme Rules”
Dolph Ziggler and Sheamus promo for WWE “Extreme Rules”

The Kiss Me Arse match beautifully dramatizes one of the most enchanting things about mainstream pro wrestling: both the wrestlers and the audience must negotiate the close proximity of male bodies in a highly performative event in a way that both plays on but leaves normative masculinity (more or less) intact. It’s a subtle dance, especially in a space in which the male body is so fetishistically focused on.

Like many women, I suspect, I begrudgingly began to watch pro wrestling because my boyfriend does.* Before that, the only thing I knew about wrestling was that The Rock—featured on a poster on my elementary school cafeteria wall—got his start in the erstwhile WWF before transitioning to action movies. Before I began to watch in earnest, I dismissed pro wrestling for many of the standard reasons: it’s sexist and racist, female wrestlers are both marginalized and subject to the male gaze, the narrative moments are both contrived and inconsistent, and nationalism and violence are fetishized for easy pops.

And these things are true on the surface. But the point is that wrestling is all surface, all performance, all glitz. The entire production is so self-consciously performed that even the more unsavory aspects of its operation become caricatures of themselves. It’s difficult to read Ziggler and Sheamus’s homosexual panic as anything other than a cheeky jab at the undisguised homoeroticism of the wrestling enterprise itself—as, that is, a reminder to the viewer that the pleasure of the spectacle is precisely the sweaty grind of two (or more) muscular beefcakes.

Masculinity occupies a strange position as the golden calf of the pro wrestling world. Both the privileged fetish and the false god of the ring, it must continually be set up as a sacred image only to be spectacularly revealed as empty. This is not to say that an empty masculinity is by necessity barren or vapid. In fact, in the hands of the WWE’s stable of talent masculinity becomes a deeply captivating and seductive exhibition, but one that is nevertheless produced insistently on the surface as image, persona and drama.

There is no such thing as essence in the world of wrestling.

In the 90s when academic queer theory was just beginning to codify itself, the drag queen held a privileged position in the canon for the way she revealed the non-essential and performative aspects of gender. We’ve talked about this before at Acro. Judith Butler, the fairy godmother of queer theory, suggests that the drag queen is a particularly apt way to think about “gender performativity” and citationality precisely because she proves that gender has no essential tie to bodies or body parts but is rather continually reproduced in repetitive acts of performance and language (hailing someone as “she,” for instance).

I find this both compelling and a little gross. Historically, queer theory has had a way of objectifying drag queens and trans* people in order to prove theoretical points about gender as if drag performance and trans* identity were a theoretical rather than deeply personal identity. Luckily, however, the same point about gender performativity can be made using any number of figures—there is nothing theoretically essential about the drag queen, although early queer theory paradoxically seemed to treat her as such. Since the 90s, the canon has expanded to include drag kings and other forms of what Jack Halberstam calls “female masculinity,” meant to reveal perverse and prosthetic aspects of normative masculinity.

Enter pro-wrestling.  Masculinity is as much a prop in the wrestling ring as it is on the floor of a drag king show. An image to be lovingly lambasted and playfully ribbed by friends who love you for your flaws.

Wrestling is a show. Devoted to neither narrative continuity nor pure athletic exhibition, it has too much plotting to be a sport and not enough control to be a dance. While every wrestler in the promotion is undoubtedly a talented athlete, the true mark of success in the WWE is the ability to captivate crowds with one’s persona. Impressive moves mean very little if the crowd isn’t invested in the outcome of a match. Whether the audience loves a wrestler or loves to hate him, charisma is paramount.

Beyond the pleasure of watching talented and buff men dance around each other in twenty minutes of choreographed violence, one of the joys of the WWE spectacle is the unabashed absurdity of the narratives and characters. There are good guys (faces) and bad guys (heels) which change sides as the match-ups dictate, and the heels seem always to be trying to take over the world one wrestling match at a time. The personas are playful and occasionally compelling, but their job is to get the crowd interested. Before he became the iconic America-loving face, for example, one of John Cena’s early personas was as an evil rapper playing on levels of gender and race that eventually disappeared as his persona became more vanilla.

The point here is that the playfulness with which these wrestlers negotiate performance, masculinity and race is precisely the thing that makes them so compelling. Pro wrestling is a special space in which more or less normative audiences get the chance to enjoy the kind of play with masculinity that is thought to only exist in queer spaces. Violence might provide a plausible cover for the obvious queerness investing the wrestling ring, but it cannot erase the pleasure we get from watching beefcakes simper and strut.

Ric Flair, a wildly popular heel for over four decades, is a perfect example of the ways in which masculinity is revealed as a performance in the very moment of its exaltation. After sustaining a back injury in a plane crash in the 70s, Flair modified his persona and style to accommodate a lower-impact performance. Known for talking big game while avoiding actual time in the ring, Flair carried the crowd’s affection almost exclusively on the power of his charismatic persona.

Ric Flair in his legendary robes
Ric Flair in his legendary robes

Almost disturbingly blond, he was known for showing up to the ring in wildly bejeweled, custom-made robes to throw shade at his opponent before ducking out again. From brawler to “chicken-shit heel” (a technical term), and macho even in feathers and rhinestones, Flair is quintessential WWE masculinity.

In a famous promo spot, Flair performs this masculinity as only a pro wrestler could: aggressive but cheeky, excessive yet charming, abbreviated with energetic Woos! “Last year,” he begins, “I spent more money on spilt liquor in bars from one side of this world to the other than you make. You’re talkin’ to the Rolex wearin’, diamond ring wearin’, kiss-stealin’, wheelin’ dealin’, limousine ridin’, jet flyin’ son of a gun.”

Between the Rolex and the gun I count five different phallic symbols in a single sentence. The sheer number of times Flair identifies himself with the phallus reveals both his masculinity and the phallus itself as effects of performance. It’s not quite that he’s compensating for something—since to compensate is to contain a hidden depth that in the case of pro wrestling does not exist—but rather that he is reveling in the empty flatness of his persona through which the phallus becomes another prop in the performance rather than a core quality in need of protection.

The queerness of Flair’s performance is, in many ways, what has sustained his popularity over the decades. A trend I have noticed in my relatively short time watching wrestling is that performers with normative masculinity are far less beloved than those who embrace their flamboyance. John Cena, for instance, has a strikingly normative persona—macho, nationalistic, sporting jean shorts (the straightest of all sartorial options) and a dull smirk—that is also notoriously boring. Consistently booed by audiences despite playing the good guy, he is simply too normal to incite good will. Young children are the only demographic that like him, perhaps because he has the feel of a superhero, but his earnestness and apparent lack of ironic distance seem to rub adult audiences the wrong way.

Queerness seems to be the standard condition of the wrestling world. Even lady’s man personas such as The Rock’s are a little bit queer. His act is insolent and precious, and his famous raised eyebrow expresses a brand of masculinity that cannot take itself seriously.

The Rock and his eyebrow
The Rock and his eyebrow

The WWE offers a popular space in which queerness can be embraced and masculinity can be enjoyed as a performance. It is a space in which straight boys can take pleasure in watching sweaty men tussle and prance. It is a space in which violence is not provoked by the threat of queerness but is, in fact, the condition for queer performance itself.


*A boyfriend whose vast body of knowledge about wrestling, it should be said, I have to thank for making this piece possible.

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