If anyone was going to have fun with Steve Bannon’s ignorant comments referring to all college-educated liberal women as “a bunch of dykes,” it was the audience gathered at the Los Angeles Lady Arm Wrestlers annual throwdown.
“What a chode,” said one fan, showing off the swag she’d made to support her favorite arm wrestler of the evening, Sister Patricia Pistolwhip. “Who are you here for?”
I say a silent prayer, because I have a terrific excuse for going somewhere alone: I’m writing this. I’m, like, working. People don’t think you’re the Unibomber when you are working.
But no one seems to care—the Fall Brawl is a safe haven from a state steeped in anxiety, swapping out panicked headlines for Tecate and the most earnestness in fictional sports characters I’ve witnessed this side of WWE. The LA LAW organization, now in its fourth year, is a cross-breed of pay-per-view style pro wrestling and roller derby that anyone can throw themselves into with a clear conscience—yeah, it’s silly, but it’s not against your basic principles. On this particular night, I’ll take those odds.
“If you’re creepy, we’ll kick you out,” warned one of the evening’s emcees, a veteran arm wrestler who’d do a full burlesque striptease and Bettie Page it on the arm wrestling table before the night was through. Executive producer of LA Law, Amanda McRaven, has been producing these events for years, and knew that putting emphasis on freedom of expression was more important in this political climate than ever.
“[We aim to] break down barriers between audience and performer, to celebrate liveness, to celebrate the performative ability of bodies of all shapes and sizes, to create a non-hierarchical, democratic shared space,” she said the day after the event. “We do social justice work in two ways…to put it quite simply, we are a judgement-free place where women can empower themselves to their fullest expression, regardless of shape, size, age, ability, race, etc. We are committed to strengthening our community and building connections between artists and community organizers.”
Let it be known that lady arm wrestlers know how to throw a fuckin’ party—the beer was flowing, gambling was encouraged (why not, it was all going to charity), there was pole dancing, and every member of the audience was goaded by the entourages of every athlete to get out of their seats and start screaming. Yes, the competitors had entourages. Yes, it was their friends in costume. Yes, it made me happy and on the brink of a panic attack for the entire night.
The characters each arm wrestler embodies are familiar to most of the audience I spoke to, some of whom were decked out in merch for their favorite lady. The organization holds a number of brawls throughout the year, always for charity, and devotees come prepared with cash and a betting mood. I put a few bucks down for my friend’s favorite, Crafty Carol—she was one of the characters with more levity, decked out in a kooky aunt wig, muu-muu and flanked with groupies crawling through the audience in cat costumes.
Her opponent? Reba SmackIntire, an exaggerated down-home badass with long red hair and swathed in at least twenty yards of denim and four gallons of cheap beer. The first hour of the event was mainly characters entering with their crews, blasting theme music and the grabbing the mic with the confidence of The Rock circa 2002.
The first round was all about selling personas. There was reigning champion Sarkosia, a warrior queen with arm muscles like tree trunks; Alexander Hammerpants, part Lin Manuel Miranda and part MC Hammer; She 1000, the steel-boned robot with Terminator goggles; and Mother Earth, a forest nymph pulled straight from your aunt’s tarot deck. Everything was smoke and mirrors except for the arm wrestling itself, an exercise so intense that I declared myself and my flimsy upper arms a disgrace to my gender before the first fist hit the mat.
The mission of the event, as with every LA LAW joint, is rooted in social justice and public service. This evening’s proceeds in tickets, raffles, auctions and betting on arm wrestlers all went back to the nonprofit venue it was hosted in, the Bootleg Theater, which puts up hundreds of music and theater events every year. In lieu of cash, audience members were encouraged to bring tampons and pads to donate to local homeless shelters, who sometimes struggle to afford feminine products.
“Each match, we partner with a local non-profit that is women-run or arts-focused,” McRaven explained. “We aim to bring disparate groups together to celebrate work that often goes unnoticed.”
Even after a loss, performers continued to auction off baskets to the audience personally curated by their character—think half-finished beers from Reba, manic embroidery from Crafty Carol, blood-stained clothes from Sister Patricia. Who knows what the actual net value of the packages were, but the performers knew how to sell them—most fetched over a hundred dollars apiece from excited audience members.
I don’t know what the normal level of enthusiasm at a coastal alternative women’s arm wrestling event is, but watching a blood-soaked nun chug a PBR and scream “HELL YEAH!” into a crowd of adoring fans felt good after a long week of refreshing that picture of Hillary Clinton hiking the day after her dreams were destroyed. You never know you need a fake nun screaming in your face until it’s already happening, though.
“The vibe in the room was very different last night. I had the feeling that no one wanted to leave,” McRaven said the day after the event. “There was an even stronger sense of unity that we usually have and a palpable desire to be together. This is always true for our events, but last night had a special density to it. Several people told me afterwards how much they needed it right now.”
Several drinks and one pole dance later, the finals come down to the two women with the darkest personas and strongest outward appearance of strength and badassery: Princess Zarkosia, and my girl Sister Patricia Pistolwhip. Cue the WWE-style upset. The audience had voted by applause for a best of three match between the women, whose entourages had reached a fever pitch. Suddenly, the six fallen competitors swung in, claiming that Sarkosia’s “Martian bones were made of steel” and that they wanted to join Sister Patricia’s team. The audience declined, demanding a one on one.
Sarkosia won, retaining her title as Sister Patricia raged. Two thousand dollars was raised for the Bootleg Theater after expenses. Everyone stumbled into an Uber happy. And, on this particular Tuesday, the bitches won.
Jamie Loftus is a comedian and writer. You can find her some of the time, most days at @hamburgerphone or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.