Out in the Ring
(Canada/USA/UK, 105 min.)
Dir. Ry Levey
Programmes: Septentrion Shadows, Queer Genre Cinema Spotlight
In his feature directorial debut, Canadian director Ry Levey details the history, inclusion, and portrayal of LGBTQIA+ athletes in professional wrestling. Out in the Ring uses a bevy of archival footage and interviews from performers, fans, and writers to dive into the world of pro-wrestling through a queer lens presenting thoughtful commentary on homophobia, misrepresentation, and the progress made in the sport.
Out in the Ring begins by stating a contradiction of the sport: the act of wrestling can be a homoerotic affair. Moreover, the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the performances can be quite flamboyant — and yet, wrestling has long harnessed homophobia to appease their fan base. This is exemplified best with Billy and Chuck, a wrestling tag team who performed with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) from 2001 to 2002.
Billy and Chuck began their WWE team-up as ‘heels’ (i.e. the villains of the ring). Increasingly, their storyline emphasized their relationship. WWE’s presentation of them as baddies soon blended with their perceived homosexuality. In 2002, the story of Billy and Chuck culminated in a proposal and commitment ceremony performed on the vastly popular WWE program, SmackDown.
Just as the “officiant” was about to declare them husbands/partners, Billy and Chuck pulled the rug out from everyone declaring this whole thing to be a publicity stunt that was about to go too far. “Hey, we’re not gay,” Billy told the crowd. “I mean, we got nothing against gay people….”
This moment would become a controversial piece of wrestling history. It not only showed WWE’s attitude towards the queer community, but also demonstrated just how willing they were to appropriate and misrepresent them.
One interesting aspect to the story that Levey leaves out, though, is GLAAD’s (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) involvement. WWE had consulted with GLAAD about the Billy and Chuck narrative and, upon seeing the “ceremony,” GLAAD was rightly angry at WWE when their true intentions were presented.
This is a recurring trend throughout the film. Rather than wading into the politics and business of wrestling or the motivations of the WWE, Out in the Ring focuses on the impact the Billy and Chuck’s stunt, Gorgeous George’s appropriation of queer culture, and other cases that had an impact on the fan base, particularly young fans who might become wrestlers themselves. By doing so, Levey’s film goes beyond being a strict historical information dump, and becomes a personal film made for fans by fans.
Given the vast amount of information given in this film, Levey does a great job of organizing Out in the Ring into an entertaining essay. His interview subjects are well chosen: wrestlers, journalists, historians—all of whom are massive fans of the sport. They are very open with Levey and not only speak intelligently about the wrestling industry and history, but are very heartfelt and forthcoming with their own experiences in the ring or on the sidelines cheering on their favourite wrestlers. One of the most interesting discussion points among the interviewees is their internal struggle with being a fan of the sport of wrestling, while simultaneously feeling vexed by its culture.
There’s an honesty to Out in the Ring that is refreshing and effective in conveying the nuances of the subject. And because Levey tells the sport’s marred history and celebrate its beauty through fans’ perspectives, the film transcends the sport. Rather, it’s a conflicted love letter from fans, who acknowledge the sport’s misgivings, and ask for it to be as beautiful and exemplary as they know it can be.