With a switchboard hanging from her crotch, Momatron the Robot Mom, rushes onto the stage, flocked by the three silver-faced Martians of her entourage. She brought cookies. Elation frozen on her face, Momatron pulls cookies from her bulky white tin, and hands them one by one to the three celebrity judges perched on barstools as her theme song “Fembots” plays. One cookie for Rimbaud, a cowboy in underwear; one cookie for Magenta Delecta, a fake heiress in a Pepto-Bismol tinted wig; and two cookies for C-Ville Knievel, a pogo stick-riding daredevil and real life founder of CLAW USA (Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers), Jen Tidwell, who came all the way from Charlottesville, Virginia, in her red jumpsuit to grace this Brooklyn stage.
It’s Sunday night at Union Pool and the Five Boroughs Collective of Ladies Arm Wrestlers is about to be born.
“In this world of political, economic, environmental, social, intellectual, architectural, ecological, geological, logical, neoplasmic, spasmodic uncertainty…to whom can we turn for a sense of safety?” the emcee Julie Novak asks as Momatron’s Martian posse disappears into the crowd looking to fill their cookie tins with money; all of which will end up in hands of Safe Horizons, the chosen women’s charity of the evening. “MOMATRON!” Novak bellows, as Momatron, the real life 25-year-old actor and playwright Rachel Cole takes center stage and begins to mechanically gyrate, never once taking her bedazzled eyes off her audience as her switchboard sways.
What is Ladies Arm Wrestling? It is eight women wrestlers, and their created characters, raising money for a chosen women’s charity. It is theater. It is sport. It is grassroots fundraising. It is a creation that began as a joke when, in the fall of 2007, Tidwell—a single mother, performance artist, and website designer—challenged her friend Jodie Plaisance to an arm wrestling match while waiting for a band to start. It is one match that led to a joke about starting a women’s arm wrestling league. “It was all just smack-talk,” Jen says, “But everyone I mentioned it to said ‘Really, are you serious? If you’re serious, then I’m in!’”
Ladies Arm Wrestling is also smack-talk about starting a league that, within weeks, turned into an organizational meeting of 25 interested people at the back of Charlottesville’s Blue Moon Diner. It is a crazy scheme that, within a year, became a tent in Blue Moon’s parking lot filled with 700 people screaming for characters like Tragedy Anne and Homewrecker, with admission lines wrapping around the block.
Bitchy Strongstockings, playing a 12-year-old girl from Sweden who “thinks adults are shit,” is Momatron’s opponent for the evening. Sporting red pigtails that curl a foot up into the air, she enters as a marionette and then as her entrance song cuts to Kanye, flops into dancing like a lackadaisical doll, flanked by her freckled entourage and pausing every once and a while to flick the audience off.
“Bitchy Strongstockings, where are your parents?” the emcee Novak asks. “Do they know that you’re here with us so late at night?” Bitchy is really Adelind Horan, a 25-year-old actor who has recently moved to Brooklyn from Charlottesville, bringing with her an Anna Deveare Smith-style one woman show about mountaintop removal. She takes the blue Blow Pop out of her mouth before leaning into the microphone and saying in a voice so tiny that the D.J. stops the music: “Feck my parents.” The crowd goes wild.
“I really want you to win,” emcee Julie says to Bitchy, before Momatron and Bitchy Strongstockings lock hands and the ref blows his whistle.
What is Ladies Arm Wrestling? It is Momatron, defeated, flipping her car keys over one shoulder, pointing right at us, and letting out her signature battle cry: “America, Get in the Car,” before strutting off the stage. It is Astro the Atomic Bong, swinging the tube of her gas mask around and mumbling unheard threats in the face of her competition, Tower Power, a 6’3” washed up back-up singer from the ’70s, who up until the moment before she wrestles is still clutching her tambourine. It is watching Bonnie Collide, a 26-year-old visual artist from Brooklyn who wasn’t so sure she wanted to wrestle at first, wiggling to her jazzy entrance song under Union Pool’s vaudeville lights, a pink plastic water gun in her hand and a long thin cigar in her mouth, smiling now, despite herself.
It’s also about staying up until three in the morning the night before the event, watching my blonde, motorcycle-driving, tattoo-adorned friend stencil flowers onto a refrigerator-turned Barbie box, talking about her mechanic ex-boyfriend who helped her make it. It is two hundred people cheering for Muscle Beach Barbie as she appears on stage the next day, her body spray tanned and her face tilted, mock-still, behind the cellophane. It is a 20-something boy with a swagger and a chipped tooth holding up a top hat and yelling to no one in particular: “Money for Bitchy!”
What is Ladies Arm Wrestling? It is crumpled bills thrown on the stage, into pockets, sand buckets, ashtrays, and cookie tins. It is calling a tentative singer-songwriter friend an hour before the event and hearing him say, 15 minutes before going on, “I’m just gonna be myself, but in my underwear, okay?” It is Coyote Ugly, a professional model and Columbia graduate, who abandoned her original Coyote persona and showed up instead in a brightly painted Native American headdress having recruited some members of her entourage from off the subway. It is watching, to everyone’s surprise, as the wiry Coyote Ugly beats Muscle Beach Barbie and then jumps around on the stage yodeling. It is one of Momatron’s martians confronting Coyote Ugly in the unisex bathroom, telling her that he was offended by her representation of Native American culture. It is Coyote Ugly approaching me by the taco truck, excited that she had made it to the final round, but asking me, her sea-green eyes wide, “Do you think my persona is offensive?”
Ladies Arms Wrestling is laying rows of hand-printed panties out on the merchandise table alongside a representative of Safe Horizons who is laying out rows of rape whistles. It is Jackie O’Nasty, a math teacher at a Brooklyn middle school, lowering her bulbous shades to tell Bitchy Strongstockings that she is welcome to come to the annual Easter Egg Hunt at the White House if she wants to. It is the hush of the crowd as Bitchy pursues her lips and responds, softly: “I kill everyone.”
Since its inception, CLAW has inspired the birth of seven other leagues, which in the past four years have collectively raised over $70,000. From CCLAW in Chicago to NOLAW in New Orleans, Ladies Arm Wrestling has empowered women and strengthened local communities through these hybrid events of theater, arm wrestling, and fundraising for good causes.
This past January, several of the existing leagues gathered in Charlottesville and decided to establish themselves as a national nonprofit, CLAW USA. Jen Tidwell serves as executive director, and she and other members aim to support blossoming leagues, as well as to establish the integrity of the sport in the face of mounting media interest. Future projects include an inter-league championship and an eventual road show.
The morning after our first Union Pool event and before she catches her train back to Charlottesville, Jen and I meet for breakfast in Manhattan, where I ask her to explain the creation of her very first wrestling character, “The Prim Reaper.”
As Jen explained, “I had lost my husband a few years earlier and this cut-up wedding dress was something I’d worn in a carnival after he died, so it was definitely very personal, being wed to something that was not there. And at first I thought I wanted to play that, this sweet dead girl with a blank stare, but some part of me said: ‘This isn’t really you.’ Where do you go with a character that has no soul? That is when I created C-Ville Knievel, this daredevil on a pogo stick with a jumpsuit and helmet who is reckless and up for anything. She was more me—but they are both me, really.”
We talk about the nature of grief, the way it can expand our imaginations or unleash what seems is too large or unknowable for us to hold single handedly.
“After Sean died,” Jen recalled, “personas came out of me that never had before. It was my way of coping with everything. At that time I was organizing a carnival, and I became the bearded lady, and for the first time, I fully embraced both the masculine and the feminine sides of me which are both very strong. From that character, I was reborn.”
Offering a space for women to embody different parts of themselves as well as to revive, challenge, and refresh different female portrayals that are stale and stuck, is for Jen a social service that is just as powerful as the money that is raised.
“I have always struggled with a constant friction between the desire to make art for its own sake, without regard for who is going to see it, and the desire to be of use in the world,” she says. “Part of what is exciting to me about CLAW is that while it is more rough and tawdry than some of the other, perhaps more pristine theater I do, the fact is that it reaches more people—people who wouldn’t ever give that kind of theater a chance. And if we’re talking about making this a social movement, the more care we take with our events, and the more depth we put into our characters, the more powerful I think we can be.”
At the end of our meal, as Jen is sharing the experience of being inside the CLAW tent outside the Blue Moon diner, laughing, she says: “It just feels like another country.”
“And what kind of country is Ladies Arm Wrestling?” I ask.
She smiles. “It has a very collective feel, that country. There’s a sense that its existence relies on us all being heard. The world of Ladies Arm Wrestling is not unlike carnival, where even the audience feels at liberty to try on different ways of being. There’s a heightened sense that inside of this tent, this country, things are a little wilder and a little sexier and a little funnier than everyday life. It’s not like we set aside the real world and its problems; instead we up the light and we up the dark—both.”
In the final round at Union Pool, Jackie O’Nasty, in her pink fighting leotard, takes her seat across from Coyote Ugly as the crowd pulses closer to the stage. Co-emcee Kate “Lady Libertine” McNeeley reminds everyone that this is for charity as emcee Julie threatens to stop the show if she doesn’t get a twenty dollar up on the stage this instant. “This is fun but this is also fundraising people, c’mon now!” she yells. A twenty appears. It is pulled tight. Action resumes.
When the whistle blows, Coyote Ugly throws all of herself into the weight of Jackie’s steady grip. Tension mounts and hollers issue from all corners of the bar. Some of the yells come from the spectators and others are issuing from other wrestlers and their entourages, but aside from two unmistakable pigtails, it has become hard to tell who’s who in the crowd.
When the audience has thrown a total of 46 crumpled bills onto Jackie O’Nasty’s side of the stage, the celebrity judges waive the rule that both of Jackie’s butt cheeks must remain on the chair and allow the wrestlers to begin again. But Jackie always follows the rules. She remains primly seated in her chair and this time, takes Coyote Ugly’s wrist to the table. The ref throws Jackie O’Nasty’s arm into the air and she is declared the winner. The entire bar screams and roars as Jackie is presented with a little multi-leveled pink house. This is her trophy, made by the children who have been supported by Safe Horizons, and its glitter winks in the light as Jackie takes a dainty two-step to the edge of the stage and, with controlled grandiosity delivers the final words: “Ask not what you can do for your biceps, but what your biceps can do for your country.”
LILLY BECHTEL, a co-founder of Five Boroughs Ladies Arm Wrestling, is a writer and yoga instructor based in Brooklyn.