Spandex snobbery smackdown: why the liberal elite snubs wrestling

The sport has drama, showmanship, and gender equality as the film Fighting With My Family proves. Yet, because its working class, its marginalised, writes director Stephen Merchant

In 2014, after years of struggle, a working-class British woman, aged just 21, was awarded the highest honour her profession can bestow, live, in front of 20,000 people and a television audience of millions.

The Guardian didnt report it. In the days following, there were no laudatory profiles, no in-depth interviews, no op-eds about her stratospheric success in a male-dominated world.

Saraya-Jade Bevis, known professionally as Paige, is a World Wrestling Entertainment superstar. She began her career wrestling with her family in small venues across Norfolk, before climbing to the top of WWE, the billion-dollar US sports entertainment empire, to become the youngest ever Divas champion, the wrestling equivalent of heavyweight champion of the world.

I like to think Im culturally aware, but I had never heard of Paige. And I dont blame the Guardian, or the other broadsheets; they have no duty to report on any entertainer (professional wrestling is as much performance as sport). Nevertheless, it is interesting to compare the attention Paige received with that conferred on other British performers.

In the past 18 months, Claire Foy and Olivia Colman have deservedly won major awards for their brilliant portrayals of English queens. Both wins came with lengthy interviews and profile pieces in the quality newspapers, plus countless mentions on BBC TV and radio.

I have worked with both these actors and they deserve every plaudit and column inch that comes their way. But acting, like pro wrestling, is another branch of show business. Foy and Colman have been rightly celebrated for cracking the US and conquering Hollywood, so why not Paige, who cracked America and conquered WWE (the Hollywood of wrestling) three years earlier?

Over the years, Paige has featured in the Sun and other British tabloids, but the respectable middle-class media has largely ignored her. Why? Is it because Paige is a brash, blue-collar girl from East Anglia with heavy eye makeup and goth-rock stylings? Is it because wrestling is dismissed as frivolous, silly pantomiming for the great unwashed the same people who probably voted for Brexit? Is the reason you have never heard of her good old-fashioned snobbery?

I only found out about Paige three years ago, when I was contacted out of the blue by Dwayne The Rock Johnson. A former WWE superstar, Johnson was working in London in 2012 and one night in his hotel room happened to catch a Channel 4 documentary about Paige and her family. (I love picturing this scene. In my mind The Rock is chilling in a Travelodge, hes just finished the free shortbread and an episode of Grand Designs, and on comes this film )The Bevis family are flawed, rowdy and rough around the edges, but love one another deeply, and wrestling almost as much. Mum, dad, son and daughter all wrestle, and in 2010 the siblings got the chance to audition for WWE. It was a once-in-a-lifetime shot at making the family dream come true, but only Paige was signed; her brother, Zak, was left behind. What happened next almost tore the family apart.

Having come from a wrestling family, Johnson was riveted by Paiges story and later became tangentially involved in her career. Realising her story would make a great film, he reached out to me to write the script. (I suspect Johnson only has two Englishmen in his phone me and Jason Statham and he clearly realised that what I lacked in charisma and muscle definition, I made up for in typing speed.)

Dwayne The Rock Johnson (left) and Vince Vaughn in Fighting With My Family. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/AP

I sat down to watch the documentary, expecting to sneer at Paige and her family. Instead, I fell in love with them.

I went to meet the Bevis clan in their small house on a council estate in Norwich. I discovered the documentary was just the first act of a bigger narrative, one thats not really about wrestling at all, in the same way that Billy Elliot isnt really about ballet. The Bevis saga is a coming-of-age tale in which the kids and the parents were forced to grow up a funny, emotional, tough, tender, inspiring and uplifting story that just happened to involve people in threadbare tights throwing each other about.

Paige moved to Florida aged 18 to join WWEs intense training regime. She was a teenage mix of insecurity and arrogance, and often clashed with trainers and her fellow newbies, refining her raw talent in front of rowdy crowds, slowly proving herself to her paymasters and audiences while navigating the loneliness of life 4,000 miles from home.

Stephen Merchant. Photograph: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

I decided that if I was going to make a film telling Paiges story it must appeal both to wrestling fans and people like me who know nothing about her. You dont need to like boxing to enjoy Rocky, and you dont need to like Paiges sport to love her journey. As I researched the script, I started to understand wrestling. I finally began to get its appeal when one performer described it to me as a soap opera in spandex, in which the wrestlers tell stories with their bodies.

I also discovered that the wrestling world has not always been a pioneer in gender equality. For instance, WWEs female performers were often relegated to filler matches, nicknamed bathroom breaks by fans waiting for the next clash of brawny men. Pleasingly, however, Paige and her fellow female wrestlers have, in recent years, spearheaded what has become known as the womens revolution, gaining more respect and airtime for the women of WWE, and garnering a passionate fanbase among audiences of all genders.

While we were editing the film, the #MeToo and Times Up movements swiftly reached the public consciousness, and opened up a much-needed discussion about gender equality and inclusivity in all areas of life, including cinema.

The fact that my movie had a female protagonist suddenly felt more significant, although I had been drawn to Paiges story not so much because she is a woman, but because she struck me as a classic movie underdog and her teenage dreams of making it in the entertainment world chimed with my own experience. Only when I started writing the script did her gender become a bigger factor, along with something else: her class.

My grandad was a bricklayer and my dad is a retired plumber, so I felt an affinity with the Bevis family, who are wrestlers but also resolutely working class. I began thinking about how many films (at least those that hope to reach general audiences) have working-class British women as their leads.

Jack Lowden as Paiges brother, Zak, and Florence Pugh as Paige in Fighting With My Family. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/AP

There are many fine films that portray British working-class lives, including modern classics by directors such as Andrea Arnold, alongside socially conscious auteurs such as Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. These films are often brutally authentic and uncompromising, which means the multiplexes sometimes run shy of them so they become the preserve of the arthouse circuit, which cant always draw in the wider general audience, many of whom are the very people these films are about. This catch-22 can sometimes be particularly pronounced. I recall seeing the excellent Palme dOr winner I, Daniel Blake at a fancy north London arthouse cinema. During the harrowing scene in which Katie (Hayley Squires) is overcome with hunger at a food bank and forced to devour baked beans straight from the tin, I noticed the well-heeled man next to me was misty-eyed while eating roasted tomato hummus and flatbread with a side of Padrn peppers. I sensed the irony escaped him.

With Fighting With My Family, I wanted to take Paiges story to both the arthouse crowd and a wider audience. I wanted to see if I could make a film about working-class people that was neither a gritty, kitchen-sink drama, nor a broad, knockabout comedy. In the years since Paiges title win, and since beginning on my film, there has been a rising and necessary awareness of the under-representation of women, not just in cinema, but in the arts in general. These exclusions have rightly been brought into the light, yet it is revealing that a homegrown female talent like Paige has been overlooked.

While we were eating our hummus and flatbread, there she was, hiding in plain sight. Marginalised for being a working-class wrestler, ignored and unheralded. I hope our film will go some way in correcting this injustice, but I am also left wondering just how many other Paiges are out there.

Fighting With My Family is on release now

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