Last month on Paste Wrestling I wrote about how the women’s merchandise section on WWEShop.com leaves much to be desired. One female Superstar who does have plenty of eye-catching merch, though, is the current Raw Women’s Champion, Bayley.
Since her fledgling days in NXT, Bayley’s gimmick has been that of an aw-shucks wrestling fan who’s young at heart and can’t stop herself from hugging all her favorite wrestlers, from an unenthused Kevin Owens and Sheamus, to legend Billy Gunn, to her iconic embrace with her fellow Four Horsewomen at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn in 2015.
While it’s a refreshing development for a woman wrestler on WWE programming to be openly and platonically physically friendly with her colleagues of all genders, not everyone is as comfortable expressing physical affection. Bayley’s propensity for hugging emblazoned all over her kindergarten craft-corner merchandise prevents some wrestling fans, specifically children on the spectrum or who don’t like to be touched and women who experience sexual harassment and assault, from supporting their favorite wrestler and buying her merchandise.
I spoke to Tom Green, whose two young boys, Eric, 5, and Nolie, 3, came from a traumatic background before being adopted by Green and his wife a year ago. Both fans of Bayley, whose “overwhelming bright colors in her presentation seemed to hook them,” Eric and Nolie in particular identify with her and think of her as their friend, Green tells me. “They often remark on how ‘nice’ Bayley is, which I think stands out since a lot of characters on either side of the coin aren’t extremely polite or kind to each other,” Green says. “Bayley teaches them some good values. She works hard, always helps her friends, is polite, friendly, and constantly positive. I am proud that she is someone that my boys look up to, because she shows them a good way to be.”
Using this logic, the “hugger” gimmick and its accompanying merch seems like an obvious move. But WWE obviously didn’t take into account the lived experiences of many of its audience members in approving the shirt. Green, too, says that until he adopted Eric and Nolie, it wouldn’t have crossed his mind.
Eric has developmental issues and an eagerness to bond with strangers, while Nolie is more trepidatious when it comes to meeting new people. At an indie wrestling show, Green explains, Nolie was approached and hugged against his will by a female attendee. “Some people who would see a ‘I’m a Hugger’ shirt on a child and see it as permission to hug a stranger’s kid are well-meaning… but that slogan printed on a kid’s chest still welcomes unwanted advances of embrace,” Green says.
The invitation to be hugged that Bayley’s merchandise extends is something not a lot of women wrestling fans—and women in general—are comfortable associating themselves with in public, either. Though I’m not a sexual assault survivor, I have experienced harassment, and having “I’m a Hugger” splashed across my chest in neon colors is a bridge too far. Erin Cline, host of the feminist wrestling podcast Not Your Demographic, agrees, saying “I would never wear a Hugger shirt at a show or in public.”
“I have been harassed in public before, [I] live in a large city [and] use public transportation often and would not want to invite that into my personal space,” Cline continues.
In response to my tweet asking for women wrestling fans’ experiences with sexual harassment and assault at shows and how Bayley’s shirts could impact that, user @Icefire149 revealed encounters that occurred when she was wearing a charity tee bearing a similar slogan to “I’m a Hugger”:
“I wore the shirt to sports practice and it got me a talk from my coach. She saw it as [me] inviting trouble. I’ve worn the shirt as a pajama top in college and I’ve had male friends feel it gave them the right to invade my personal bubble. I said no and he thought it was more amusing to ignore me because the shirt says he can hug me. I had to threaten the individual to stop him from touching me. So I’ve learned that people just can’t accept things as just a shirt and not a public invitation.”
Though one can never, by definition, “ask for” sexual harassment or assault, it’s easy to see how a Bayley shirt might be used against its wearer in an instance of it. Green reiterates this, asking us to “imagine if Nolie wore a shirt that said ‘I’m a Hugger’ in giant letters? We have plenty of people come up to us at public events and compliment us on the boys who never go near the point of touching. Now if we put them out in shirts promoting how they’re ‘huggers’, the stranger contact traffic, whether well-meaning or not, goes up tenfold. ‘Oh, this little guy’s a hugger, I see…’, one might say before reaching in for an unwanted embrace. Between Eric’s willingness to make everyone happy and Nolie’s incredibly small physical size, it would not be hard for an already-frightening exchange to quickly get scary if someone with quick instincts had bad intentions.”
It’s clear this wasn’t taken into account when WWE was coming up with the idea (or many of their ideas, to be frank). Cline believes it’s due to a lack of concern for WWE’s female audience that could be rectified by “having literally any women, and preferably several women, on their creative team [which] would help bring these issues into the conversation during branding and creation of the gimmicks.” Greene agrees that the “Hugger” merch was probably a response to the question of how to market the rare wholesome female character that appeals to women and children to men. “I can only assume it was meant to be put out as a silly thing for guys to wear, with no thought put into any differences that those groups of people might have,” Green says. Independent companies are arguably less concerned with being “PC” and welcoming diverse audiences, with Pro Wrestling Tees selling an ill-conceived Adam Rose t-shirt that featured his mug shot from his arrest for domestic abuse, making light of the fact that many women aren’t safe in public spaces such as wrestling shows or in their own homes.
In my earlier piece on women’s merch, I asserted that women wrestling fans aren’t that different from male fans when it comes to wanting quality merchandise. And while Bayley is one of the few women wrestlers on the roster with a robust range of merchandise, it is exemplary of an intrinsic difference between female and male fans. Until, as Cline suggests, more women and, I would wager, minorities are involved in and represented at all levels of the professional wrestling juggernaut, insensitive and exclusionary gimmicks, storylines, catchphrases and merchandise will continue to be produced at the expense of its audience.
Scarlett Harris is an Australian writer. You can read her previously published work at her website The Scarlett Woman, and follow her on Twitter at @ScarlettEHarris.