I heard about C.L.A.W.: The Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers Movie just in time for the Austin screening. Ladies dressed in costume arm-wrestling to raise money for charity? Sign me up for more info about that, y’all. More info about the movie, I mean, not about the arm wrestling itself. ‘Cause that would not be happening for me. Even small children can likely beat me in arm wrestling.
The C.L.A.W. documentary is the story of a woman struggling with a devastating personal loss, who coped by turning to theater and art, and whose project ended up sparking the creation of women’s communities across the country. One local Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers match led to leagues in various cities, where women dress up as characters and bring entourages who dress up in a similar theme. They match up against each other while a referee oversees, and audience members pay for the privilege of bribing officials and betting on wrestlers. Proceeds go to charity, with some events raising three to five thousand dollars for organizations providing services to women and children in need.
These arm-wrestling women are all very strong. Many are athletes. They all pick for themselves how they want to costume, and what personas they want to take on. When you give a group of women a choice of how to present themselves, some of them go for conventionally sexy, some of them go for scary and gross, some of them go for camp, some go for pretty. There’s some burlesque influence, and a lot of camp and humor. Obviously everyone is influenced by their culture when it comes to choices about their appearance, but in this film you see such a range of reactions to “choose your own look.” I really enjoyed that.
(So while I was watching, of course I could NOT stop thinking about how women are often portrayed in mainstream superhero comics. What critics of the sexism in comic art are often trying to explain is that we don’t object to sexy, we object to all the women being drawn as if they would choose the same kind of sexy. HERE’S PROOF THEY WOULD NOT!)
I also loved seeing how much of the decision-making about the future of the league was worked through in discussion, with brainstorming, and with respect for people’s feelings. No petty infighting or power struggles were portrayed, though obviously all I know is what I saw in the movie. It was so refreshing to see a documentary about a growing organization and to not see those ugly dynamics emerge.
Here’s the trailer, language is probably NSFW and this film and trailer are definitely not for conservative audiences:
There was a lot to love in this film!
I had mixed feelings, though, about some elements. Again, it’s hard for me to know how much of that is the film, and how much of that is the actual C.L.A.W. organization, because we all know that filmmakers pick and choose what they focus on.
Here’s what I was left wondering about:
Where were all the women of color? It was like watching Whip It, and liking it, but wondering how a movie set in Austin, Texas didn’t have (m)any Latinas. There were obviously women of color involved in the various leagues. Though in the minority, they’re clearly visible in matches, in the entourages, and in the audience, as well as in meetings of the “steering committee” discussing the future of the leagues. But out of all the many, many, many interviews and sound bites, there were almost no women of color speaking. My discomfort with this was compounded when the film covered the league in New Orleans.
Going along with this, where was the critique of the cultural appropriation of some of the competitors’ costumes? The creator of C.L.A.W. explains that it’s clear to her these women have a lot of “selves” inside them, and she specifically mentions a woman in a burqa and a women acting as a Jamaican rapper. I also saw a woman dressed in a Native American-style costume. Obviously I don’t know her background just from looking at her, but I wonder if she too was also being a “self” that is effectively stolen from a group with less privilege. One wrestler brings up, later in the film, her concern that some of the costumes might actually be mean, and her specific example is dressing up as a poor woman who has a lot of children and can’t afford to feed them. So I’m not the only one feeling like parody of someone with less privilege than you crosses the line.
Where was the community when two of the competitors’ arms got broken? Both were such bad breaks they required surgery. One of them was out of work for quite a while. And the film said nary a word about how they fared, whether their “community” of arm wrestling ladies actually behaved like a community and supported them. Instead, it focused on how the leadership felt, and the decisions they struggled with. Did anyone bring these two gals meals, or help them do laundry?
Intersecting with my comments above, one of the gals whose arm got broken appeared to be a woman of color, and she was in one of the “processing” meetings of the steering committee, but the film doesn’t include anything from her speaking. She just waves her bandaged arm at the camera. It would have been great to actually hear directly from her about her experience.
On a less serious note, what the heck happened with the referee? The guy who originally had the role of referee in the original chapter was apparently fired after the first broken arm incident, and the film does not at all address why except for some sad comments from him and a strange vignette where he interrupts someone’s conversation for an extended and annoying bit of camera-hogging obviously taped before he was fired. It felt like bad filmmaking to make me sit through that, as I wasn’t sure what to take from it in general, and no one but him ever addresses the issue of his firing on film. Yet his mourning is given so much time that I could tell the filmmaker thought it was important. It left me with a “huh?” feeling.
Even with those caveats, I would recommend seeing it for fans of female athletics, theater (especially comedy), burlesque, and community organizing. No additional showings are currently on the calendar, though, so I’m not sure when others will have the opportunity. The mailing list on the C.L.A.W. site itself may be your best bet for keeping informed of any news.
Hat tip to Nicole Basham at LiveMom for the post that got this film on my radar!