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Burlington Women Try a Smackdown

Local Matters


Published August 17, 2005 at 5:39 a.m.

BURLINGTON--Each week, performers get hit with metal chairs, trash cans and sledgehammers; they degrade and humiliate one another with racial and ethnic slurs, act out scenarios involving wife battering and sexual intimidation, and depict any weakness as homosexual. And it's time to end this kind of "entertainment" -- a.k.a. professional wrestling -- on all city-owned property.

Those were some of the charges leveled by several Burlington-area women at the August 9 meeting of the Burlington Parks & Recreation Commission. They were there to ask the city to ban from Memorial Auditorium and other city-owned venues all pro-wrestling events, such as World Wrestling Entertainment's "Smackdown! Live" which was held earlier this month. They claim these events depict bullying and acts of violence against women as fun and games.

"Most of the situations I've described would be considered criminal acts in the real world," says Marcia Merrill, a Burlington accountant and past president of both the Vermont Federation of Business and Professional Women and Burlington Business and Professional Women. "A generation of children is learning to laugh at and enjoy violence as normal. It's no wonder that bullying in schools has become such a huge problem."

But Gary Davis, a corporate spokesperson for WWE, says that while he respects these women's right to protest their shows and express their concerns about violence, he doesn't believe they really understand pro wrestling.

"We're like any storyline-driven show," says Davis. "You can't just watch one, two-minute event within a two-hour program and then say you know what the program is all about."

Davis readily admits that WWE events include suggestive dialogue, double entendres, scantily clad women and males body-slamming female opponents. In fact, he says, all these acts are clearly described on the company's website, where parents can review them and decide whether the content is appropriate for their children.

About 73 percent of WWE's audience is 18 or older, Davis adds, and should be free to attend any event that abides by the laws of the community. "I don't think anyone who walked into Memorial Auditorium didn't have an idea what to expect," he suggests. "And, I think our storylines generally show women to be very independent, very tough and very resilient, which aren't necessarily negative images for women in our society. These women are not victims."

The city has yet to weigh in on the issue. After last week's commissioners' meeting, Wayne Gross, director of Parks & Rec, asked the city attorney to research whether other municipalities across the country have adopted similar bans. Currently, no Burlington ordinance restricts the content of events on city-owned property, except for a ban adopted by the City Council last year on circus animals.

"It does get to be a dicey issue when you're dealing with freedom of expression," says Gross, who notes that Memorial Auditorium has hosted the Golden Gloves tournament for decades. "For people who are concerned about violence, does that mean boxing is something that should be prohibited? It's a slippery slope."

Without question, pro wrestling is hugely popular. Its weekly cable programming consistently ranks among the top 10 in viewership. And two weeks ago, WWE's "RAW" broke the record for the longest consecutive TV series, with 636 episodes. The previous record-holder? The 1955-75 series "Gunsmoke."