by David Jester
Some superheroes wear capes. Some have super powers. Some are vigilantes. Some arm wrestle. Climbing the steps onto the lit stage, two foes square off in the ultimate competition of strength. The room is draped in darkness. The audience is a swarm of sweaty bodies. A discordant thrum emanates from the crowd. The floor is sticky with stale beer, yet slick with fresh offerings spilled from red Solo cups. The audience erupts into boisterous chants, cheering on their chosen arm-wrestler.
The ref, Dick Hammer, is dressed in hot pants and a striped, tight referee shirt as he recites the rules to both competitors. The costume-clad opponents square off at the table and lock their right hands, never breaking stare. With free hands, they grip pegs on the table. Then comes the signal. Their biceps and forearms strain and bulge. The struggle is visible across their faces. A fist touches the table. Victory. The crowd erupts into cheers. Excitement pulsates through the crowd. This is S.L.A.P: The Superhero Lady Arm Wrestlers of Portland.
In most comics, superheroes wear costumes to protect their identities, because they fear revealing their true selves. But these mask wearing, cape donning arm wrestling superheroines from the State of Maine are in fact slipping out of their costumes before they arm wrestle. Their outfits and personas symbolize their release from the roles society forces them to play, to the point where sometimes it is unclear which ego is really alter. When Ursa Majora dons her white unitard and places a rubber polar bear mask over her head she is fierce, yet cuddly, a juxtaposition of personalities. Later on that night, she will ultimately defeat all her competitors to become the champion. Her roar will be heard across the din of the crowd.
Based in Portland, Maine, S.L.A.P. is just one league of C.L.A.W., The Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers. Founded in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2008, this organization has grown to 25 cities across the globe. Every year, leagues converge on a different city for the ultimate competition, Super CLAW. Tina Machina Lewis, the head of S.L.A.P., is also a board member of C.L.A.W. She prefers to think of herself as “the godfather” of Portland’s league, helping out with everything from costume design and creation, to helping develop backstories and lining up venues. She is the glue that holds the organization together, and is of course, a competitor as well.
But there is more to S.L.A.P. than just the competition. Machina notes that there are actually three components to their league: having fun, raising money for charity, and winning; in that order. A nonprofit international organization, C.L.A.W. uses armwrestling as a catalyst for women’s empowerment and community involvement. Funds raised from, and during matches, are donated to charities chosen by each league. Some of those nonprofits supported by S.L.A.P. include the Maine Tool Library, The Locker Project, and Maine Foodscapes. Arm wrestlers don’t just compete, they work the crowds, using their local celebrity status amongst fans to raise funds. Winning the trophy for wrestling is prestigious, but winning the Madame Moneymaker trophy is a much greater honor. And while each arm-wrestler gives it their all, without fun, their character performances would fall flat. If a competitor is too aggressive, they can become alienated by the group. And while everyone is there to win, no one is there to destroy. Machina remarks “good sportsmanship is a key to our success.”
People often compare theatrical armwrestling to roller derby. Women. Strength. Counterculture sport; however, Machina is quick to correct them. “S.L.A.P. is not like roller derby. It’s closer to professional wrestling.” But with one key difference. “We develop characters, create backstory, and of course there is acting, but the arm wrestling is real competition. The night of the event, we not only don’t know the lineup, we definitely don’t know who will win. The champion of the match is never predetermined.” The stage performance is not scripted. There are no rehearsals. Some characters have foes and nemeses. They get together backstage to coordinate their act. This is not even an hour before the show. Seeing it on stage, you would think they coordinated every aspect of the evening, yet their performances are pure improv. CLAW is many things; theatrics, philanthropy, entertainment and empowerment, but the armwrestling is 100% real. It’s straight up competition; brawn, might, and power. There is no faking. The struggle is real, on and off stage.
Ironically, arm-wrestling has historically been a symbolic competition of masculinity, a demonstration of strength and dominance. It’s place in American pop culture, whether in the saloons of Spaghetti Westerns or as plot twists in after school specials, has been about separating the boys from the men. But it wasn’t until 1952 that the first real competition was organized by Bill Soberanes in Petaluma, California at a bar called Gilardi’s, combining a bit of drunken chicanery with a sport of strength. However, it didn’t take long for the popularity of the event to outgrow its humble origins and the first World Wristwrestling Championship was held in 1962 with a grand prize of $5,000. Over 300 competitors were drawn to the event to flex muscle and test their strength. Televised for the first time in 1969 on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, it became a yearly ritual for American primetime audiences and aired for 16 years. Arm wrestling had found its stride in American culture. Yet women were still absent from the competition. At least in real life.
In the spring of 1968, the great Charles Schulz created 11 Peanuts comic strip storylines focusing on wristwrestling. In the series, Snoopy, obsessed with the World Wristwrestling Championship, actually travels to Petaluma, but upon arrival, he discovers his inability to compete because, as official rules state, you must be able to wrap thumbs. But it was in the 1969 Peanut’s special It Was A Short Summer, Charlie Brown that the competition got fierce. In this animated cartoon, the gang was off to summer camp, where the boys get brutally beaten at athletics against the girls. That is until they decide to have a masked Snoopy challenge Lucy to an arm wrestle. From then on, it was a common setup, with Snoopy committing a foul by giving Lucy a kiss, forfeiting every time.
But back in real life, women’s roles in arm wrestling were tenuous. In 1963 a woman announced she would compete against the other men in the World’s Wristwrestling Championship. Boasting she would go undefeated, many men withdrew from the competition, and she later chose not to attend the event. The next year, a Women’s Open division was created, and Barbara Sappington became the first Women’s World Wristwrestling Champion. Still, they did not compete against male competitors.
The 1980’s saw a spike in women competing in arm wrestling. Kathy Hill, an arm-wrestler out of Maryland, won multiple national and state titles in the eighties and nineties. In a 1984 Washington Post article, she noted the reluctance of men to try their strength against a woman, “It sort of kills their egos for a little while. A lot of guys won’t even wrestle me for that reason. A lot of ‘em are surprised. Some of them feel embarrassed.” Where women saw strength and empowerment, men saw humiliation and embarrassment.
Today, each arm wrestler decides who they want to be. It is up to them to develop their own backstory. When the arm-wrestlers of S.L.A.P. put their outfit on for the show, they are dressing into themselves; who they see themselves as, their bottled desires, their anger and frustrations. They are allowed to expose their emotions on stage as part of an act. But when the performance is over, they undress, putting back on the costume they are forced to wear in real life.
For instance, Brenda is better known amongst S.L.A.P. groupies as Black Mamba. Strutting toward the stage, the audience parts, making a path for her. Her character is imposing. She is tall, standing above six foot. Black lipstick outlines her lips. She is clad in black head to toe, like the Dark Phoenix in the ’80’s X-Men comics, a black cape trailing behind. Black Mamba is a dark character who is about destroying. She is the antithesis of Brenda. Arm wrestling is her pressure valve, her outlet. “When people put on the costume, they become their character, shedding their problems and woes. It helps those who do it find balance in life.”
In fact, Brenda has never seen pictures of herself as Black Mamba because she knows that if she did, she would stop performing. Her character is bold and aggressive, but that’s her as Black Mamba; carefree, imposing, strong. Brenda has an index card of adjectives. Its a list of words she asks people not to use when describing her height. It’s heartbreaking. Brenda is nothing short of incredible, her character embodies her desires, strong, bold, and confident. Her arm wrestling costume is Black Mamba, but the outfit society imposes upon her, as Brenda, is the weight she must carry everyday in real life; Brenda the PhD who works as a policy analyst.
Everyone gets something different out of S.L.A.P., but if one thing is universal, it’s the ability to be real. When each arm wrestler gets into character for the night’s performance, they shed a costume society has dressed them in. They no longer have to be the polite, genial women who must not have too much emotion, lest they get hysterical. No. Arm wrestling lets them approach the stage and rage. Their characters embody their inner desires, their restrictions uncaged.
In that darkened bar, they are adored for who they are, gods locking arms to best each other, women in positions of power, choosing their own backstory. It is consent to the utmost, asking only themselves who they want to be, and then embodying those characteristics. But at the end of the night’s match, members of S.L.A.P. head backstage and put society’s costumes back on. Donning jeans and t-shirts, they are unassuming at first glance. You might not notice the bit of glitter still glued to Machina’s cheeks, shimmering as she walks under a streetlight. Brenda’s black lipstick has been wiped off, but there is still a vague inkiness, a coal smear languishing across her lips. Like the X-Men, they fight not only against villains, but against misogyny itself. Their battle during competition frees them. On or off stage, these ladies are superheroes, they are arm wrestlers. They are S.L.A.P.