Character is collaborative. You can write every intended spoken line and weeks worth of kayfabe tweets, but you can’t move their mouths or blink their pretty eyes for them. At some point, the wrestler enacts agency.
David McLane’s women-based wrestling promotions GLOW and Women of Wrestling were plagued with setbacks by the bucketful, the least of which was a racist run rampant, practically sprinting.
It’s easy, or rather it has been societally programmed as such, to look at women of color playing out race-baiting pantomimes and fall back on the either/or: they must have full agency over their decision to take the part, or they lack all agency in their participation. The truth is stuck in the mud along the border of the rival states. There is room for enjoyment, satisfaction, coercion, and frustration, for working with the system and being exploited by it, simultaneously–the scenario is universal, but the reaction is case by case.
All this to say that WoW’s Slam Dunk made the most out of a preposterly offensive gimmick. She was set up as a (then) heel inversion of Mt. Fiji–the giant undefeated woman. Supposedly banned from the WNBA for being too violent, Slam Dunk compensated a weak knack for grappling with heel ring psychology and the sort of trash-talking swagger of self-love and confident that white America had come to resent so immensely in young black athletes.
As a face, Bret Hart insisted he was “the best there ever will be”–he wasn’t even the best wrestler on the roster at time. But when Ali called himself the greatest, the soap boxes lined the streets. People begged and pleaded that someone, out there, would be able to teach Ali some manners and his place in society. Babe Ruth calling his shots is now endearing nostalgia–would we tolerate this from a black athlete?
One positive (of many) in building wrestling shows around non-wrestlers who are trained and learn how to be wrestlers as they go: you can actually sell a leg drop. The roughshod choreography of spots, and Slam Dunk’s imposing size difference over her opponents, makes her leg drop look at the very least unpleasant, if not legitimately painful.
Most women who get into wrestling are taught how to work the crowd as managers–when they finally get a chance to compete in the ring, it’s hard to translate that manager heat into sustaining the audience’s attention. So they try to stick more moves and repeat botched spots and fall apart into a frenzy of awkward half-bumps when the match isn’t working.
Slam Dunk, wisely, spends more time working the crowd than she does her opponent who is, like her, a wrestler by happenstance. You do the best you can with what you have, and many of the women David McLane wrangled for his schemes weren’t given much in the way of respect or concern for safety.
A towering and obnoxious villainess like Slam Dunk is a staple of a successful fledging roster. You can feed them smaller, less experienced wrestlers for heat, then blow it off with an underdog fan favorite with a convincing half-crab (like Slam Dunk’s rival, Roxy Powers).
She may not have a believable big leaguer, but Slam Dunk had the puckered-lip cockiness and stage presence of a reliable heel menace that could have helped WoW cultivate an acceptable product. At least until they could have afforded to give her a less obvious temporary tattoo. Of a basketball.
David McLane does not have an entry in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s database and frankly this vexes me.