By Noor Al-Sibai – [email protected] – Staff Writer
When Amber Maness came up with the idea to do a Jell-O wrestling fundraiser for next semester’s presentation of “The Vagina Monologues,” she thought she was organizing an event that would be fun and empowering for spectators and participants. As news of the event spread, that notion was challenged.
Maness said she expected backlash, and backlash is what occurred as members of the UNC Asheville Feminist Collective, as well as others unaffiliated with any organization, began to express their misgivings about the event.
“My initial reaction was like, ‘Wait, what? Jell-O wrestling, you mean the same kind of Jell-O wrestling that really problematic hegemonic men watch or perpetuate as a means to sexually objectify women for their pleasure?’” said Amanda Harzula, a member of the leadership for the Feminist Collective.
Harzula’s sentiments were echoed at Friday’s meeting of the Feminist Collective as members discussed the event and the potential problems associated with it. Harzula cited concerns for the safety of the participants as well as the social implications of participating in such an event.
“My main complaint is that we are just participating in and perpetuating rape culture,” said Harzula, who also acts as the intern for UNCA’s Safe Zone program aimed at promoting diversity and safety for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students.
Maness, along with Janie Warstler, co-president of SPEAK Up, UNCA’s anti-sexual violence group, said that while they expected and considered responses like Harzula’s, they are planning an event by and for women, not one geared toward men.
“For us, it was never meant to be that – some sort of sexy showmanship thing. It’s gonna be a fundraiser for the benefit of women. Wrestling, to us, is more empowering women to be badasses for a night,” Warstler said. “Granted, I’m gonna dress up, and I’m gonna look hot, but it’s not for men.”
“The purpose of this is not to be sexy, but rather to provide an opportunity for expression. Honestly, people can wear nun’s habits for all I care,” Maness said.
Warstler was the first to reach out to her friends and fellow members of SPEAK Up, and she said she began receiving critical feedback as soon as she proposed it.
“I started asking people, and some people were understandably hesitant. I get it, I’m by no means telling people they have to wrestle. Some people were getting weird and saying, ‘Well I don’t want it to be this big sexy thing where I’m displaying myself for others’ enjoyment.’ That was never how I saw it,” Warstler said.
The safety of participants, an issue brought up by Harzula, is one that Warstler said she’s taken into account as organization of the Nov. 17 event progresses.
“I got up with one of my friends in Charlotte who is in the Gore Gore Luchadores, who are a similar female fundraising wrestling group, and they’re pretty well-known, so I asked her what to do if I was going to have an event like that,” Warstler said. “There’s a variety of things, like taping ankles and other safety provisions. We don’t wanna just have anyone from the public just be able to jump in there.”
Warstler said other precautions, like the wrestling taking place in its own enclosed pool and the perimeter blocked off from the crowd, will be taken the night of the event.
“It’s gonna be a really controlled thing – there’s not gonna be a bunch of chaos or a bunch of dudes just there watching a bunch of girls wrestle each other in Jell-O,” Warstler said.
Harzula suggested other safety measures, such as a no-recording rule at the event and throwing out disrespectful audience members without a refund.
“They should indicate what kind of environment they’re fostering,” said Harzula, who was a cast member of last year’s “Vagina Monologues” and will be in next semester’s production.
Despite her criticism, Harzula said she doesn’t want to police anyone’s actions or tell anyone else what to do.
Maness and Warstler said the choice to participate is an important aspect of the event.
“The people that want to do it are opting to do so and not being forced into it in any respect,” Maness said. “The important thing is that we’re raising money and awareness to provide important resources that work toward ending sexual violence and the rape culture that allows it to continue.”