As someone who only got back into professional wrestling in recent years, I’ve had a lot of catching up to do. My limited contact with the Divas era, in which the sex appeal of women in the company was consistently placed over any attempts to take them seriously as wrestlers were enough to put me off wrestling for years. Nevertheless, in regaining my love for this theatrical sport, I’ve gained an appreciation for so many women who laid the groundwork for the pushes towards equality we’re seeing now. I’ve discovered badasses like Lita and Luna Vachon, with their work in intergender wrestling that’s fondly remembered to this day, and most recently, I’ve started following Chyna.
Despite being one of the most well-known wrestlers of the 1990s and early 2000s, Chyna’s legacy still feels smaller than it should be. A documentary on her life was released in June 2021, but she’s still not nearly as heavily promoted as successful male wrestlers from her era, and all the popularity the Ninth Wonder of the World gained has still never resulted in a solo induction into the WWE’s hall of fame. If anyone deserves a posthumous induction in the pantheon of women’s wrestling, it’s her. Her intergender wrestling career was her biggest accomplishment in the eyes of many and turned her into a bonafide superstar. She was the first woman to compete in a Royal Rumble match, and to date, she’s the only woman to have held the WWE Intercontinental Championship in an era where many of the male competitors for the title were incredibly strong and remain household names today. Despite this, she’s often been retroactively slept on, dismissed as having slept her way to the top and typecast as a sex symbol rather than the powerhouse she truly was.
It’s not exactly breaking news that the late 1990s wasn’t the best time for women’s representation in popular culture. In something of a backlash to the decade’s Riot Grrrl movement, strict adherence to marketable femininity was encouraged for most women in the public eye, and if it wasn’t sexualised pop divas, it was ladettes repressing their femininity to fit lad culture. Chyna was sometimes explicitly marketed in this vein, as the lone lass of D-Generation X, but she was so much more. Amongst a group of incredibly strong male wrestlers, she was known for her strength, a bodyguard capable of instilling fear in the most powerful of athletes – and yet, she didn’t have to sacrifice her femininity. Many women rising the ranks in the company today, particularly those cunning heels like NXT UK’s Kay Lee Ray, are descended from Chyna’s wrestling bloodline, her legacy in their veins.
The uphill battle Chyna faced to success also adds to both her impact on the sport and her fond memory in the eyes of fans. She wrote in her 2001 memoir that many men on the roster were frosty at the idea of letting a woman overpower them onscreen, and offscreen, there were plenty of higher-ups in the WWE who initially didn’t think a woman decking a man would sell with audiences. Despite this opposition, and the demonisation she often faced for her domineering presence in the ring, her star power persisted. Legitimising inter-gender wrestling in the WWE became a defining facet of her legacy. As the practice gains more positive reception on the indie wrestling circuit as a mark of gender equality, more and more fans point to figures like Chyna as an example of what can still be achieved.
The tide seems to be shifting on inter-gender wrestling, and Chyna sending it mainstream helped propel this change. Her upcoming doc will be a sure-fire way for new fans of her – myself included – to see her in action and witness why her legacy remains strong.