We Don’t Need AEW Heels To Make A Wrestling Community

Riho defends her AEW Women's Championship against Britt Baker on the October 16, 2019 edition of AEW Dynamite. Photo: Lee South/AEW
Riho defends her AEW Women's Championship against Britt Baker on the October 16, 2019 edition of AEW Dynamite. Photo: Lee South/AEW /

AEW Heels is a pricey, non-inclusive service run by a company that has already failed women repeatedly. Why should women’s wrestling fans invest in this?

Despite initial promises of gender equality and taking women’s wrestling seriously, the history of women’s wrestling at AEW has been a confusing parade of missteps, and calling it anything else is giving the company far too much credit. On a weekly basis, women get little time in the AEW ring, and the time they do get is often squandered on valet and sidekick roles or wasted in half-baked angles that are barely given a chance to stick with the audience before they’re scrapped. 

AEW has been promising change and growth for the women’s division for over a year now, but the company has lacked a coherent vision for executing those changes, leaving most of us frustrated. What do they think fans want, and when are they going to give it to us?

On Wednesday, we finally got our first glimpse of what AEW thinks women’s wrestling fans want from their company: A pair of high-heeled shoes with a Zoom account.

Because women love shoes, am I right!?

AEW certainly hopes so, because they are now trying to sell a $50 yearly subscription to what appears to be the same awkward videoconference happy hours we’ve all been trying to duck since this pandemic started. (No physical rewards provided as of yet, but feel free to drop $20 on a totebag in the gift shop, girlboss!)

First off, telling women that you’re trying to uplift them and then charging them $50 for the ride is absolute nonsense. We know that men have access to more money and social capital than women (and if you want to argue with me about this on Twitter, go nuts! You’ll get to see at least one funny gif before I block you). A less-discussed fact is that the pay gap also exists along racial lines, and it also exists for LGBTQ folks. The more marginalized you are, the harder it might be for you to access the very service AEW claims to have created to give you a voice.

AEW would have been wise to consider the public downfall of The Wing, a women’s coworking space that meant to empower women but ended up punishing everyone except the rich, white and elite. You can have the best intentions in the world, but feminism and capitalism are not friends, and there should never be a price of admission for a real community.

Also, can we talk about the “heels” thing? As a queer cis woman who doesn’t wear gendered clothing, I would sooner eat a pair of high heels than wear them. The logo for AEW Heels tells me, and people like me, that this product is not meant for us. You would think a wrestling promotion that mutated out of a t-shirt company would have a better grasp on creating universally-appealing branding, but here we are.

Not only is the assumption that all women love shoes pretty cringey, it shows that AEW doesn’t understand a huge part of the community that it is supposedly trying to uplift. There are plenty of women who find hyper-feminized marketing insulting, especially when it is tied to paying extra for something just because you identify as female.  AEW Heels feels like the wrestling version of Bic Pens for Her.

More important is the question of why this branding, and the vision for AEW Heels in general, ignores my trans and non-binary friends. According to the press release, AEW Heels is a  “female-forward movement […] designed to celebrate and inspire our female fans around the world.”

Many, many people have fairly noted that the focus on female empowerment does not include support for trans and non-binary fans. This is a misstep in launching ANY inclusive initiative, but it’s particularly surprising here because AEW is the home of Nyla Rose, the first transgender female champion of a televised North American wrestling promotion. AEW has publicly supported Rose and pushed back against fan transphobia.

Which is why it’s so weird that Heels was apparently created with no acknowledgment of the gender diversity present in the AEW fanbase. Creating a women’s-only service without creating space for other people with marginalized gender identities is thoughtless. What is going to happen to people who don’t neatly fit into a gendered box but genuinely want to participate in Heels? Gatekeeping along gender lines has not worked out well for other promotions, and I do not expect it to work out well here.

Failing to include trans and non-binary people in projects like this inadvertently reinforces the idea that their identities are invalid, which can lead to real harm against their community. It does not make women safer; it only makes transgender people less safe.

Also, many of my wrestling friends are non-binary, and I don’t want to support spaces that don’t include them! Why would I pay $50 to join a club they don’t seem to be invited to? That sucks, and I’d rather just keep using Twitter, thanks.

Speaking of Twitter: the most frustrating aspect of AEW Heels, at least to me, is that it effectively erases all of the efforts that people of marginalized genders have already made to make wrestling a welcoming space for people like themselves. When you read Brandi’s reasoning for why AEW Heels is necessary, she emphasizes the need for someone to create a women’s wrestling community: “This platform is a place where women can be themselves as wrestling fans, create friendships, and learn. We can create a movement.”

Great news for Brandi: that movement already exists, and we don’t need anyone else to make it for us, much less charge us to have access to it. As described by Jess Krenek, an academic researcher who studies wrestling fan culture:

"“I think a lot of the non-male-identifying people that I’ve talked to have all had the experience where they felt like they were the only one watching, but then they went online. They realized that there were all these other women who were maybe not in the same physical space in the way that they used to be, but who were all participating and sharing– and really always have been–it’s just there wasn’t an easy way for them to see one another…So if you’re physically there, you feel more isolated, but if you’ve carved out a space for yourself online… [you] are able to be that vocal presence again.”"

If AEW was at all plugged into wrestling fan culture, they would realize that people of marginalized genders are already doing this work on a grand scale within wrestling fandom. We are making the best zines, running the most popular GIF accounts, creating incredible works of fanart, consistently engaging in some of the smartest criticism and wrestling journalism you can find, and are already acting as some of AEW’s most ardent brand ambassadors.

And it’s not like we’re going anywhere. I’ve written elsewhere about my experience finding community among wrestling fans. Wrestling fandom has given me weirdos in my DMs, sure. But it has also given me writing jobs, and friends, and a network of people who love to talk wrestling and also have my back when I get trolled. I am not going to pretend like marginalized people don’t get a lot of garbage on social media, because we know it’s rough out here. But the mute and block buttons are free, and most of us keep on doing this work simply because we love wrestling and we want it to be better for everyone.

We also are not hard to find. If AEW had wanted to build bridges with the existing community, there are a lot of ways they could have approached this: a coordinated launch with women’s wrestling sites, for instance, or a greater effort to reach out to their creative and passionate fanbase and make them a part of the launch. They did not do those things as far as I am aware, but they would still like your money. For AEW to ignore the existing community and try to create one of their own instead is insulting to those of us who have been out here holding space and welcoming new fans since before AEW even existed.

You do not have to give AEW a single dime of your money to find a community of supportive wrestling fans. There’s no reason for AEW Heels to exist as a money-making enterprise, save one: if they slap a trademark on it, they can sell your own community back to you. I, for one, am not buying it.

Next. How AEW can improve their Women's Division. dark

Look, $50 is a lot of money to some folks. But if it’s not a lot of money to you and you genuinely feel like you’d get some benefit from hearing Brandi Rhodes explain Instagram to you, go for it! But don’t tell yourself it’s anything more than a cash transaction. Community isn’t something you buy, it’s something you build. Real community among wrestling fans of marginalized genders already exists, and you don’t need anyone to sell you a ticket to it.