Chyna broke through professional wrestling's sexism, but her legacy deserves more respect

For Women’s History Month, we are publishing Celebrate Her—an essay series honoring women who deserve more public praise for how they have inspired us. An HG contributor celebrates Chyna, the late wrestler who broke boundaries for women in the sport but has been ignored by the WWE because of sexism and sex work stigma.

For Women’s History Month, we are publishing Celebrate Her—an essay series honoring women who deserve more public praise for how they have inspired us individually and empowered their communities: Scientists, activists, and artists. Screenwriters, comedians, and actors. Burlesque dancers and wrestlers. Those who have passed on and those who are still with us. Here, HG contributor Scarlett Harris celebrates Chyna, the late wrestler who broke boundaries for women in the sport but has been ignored by the WWE. Read the rest of these essays here, and read about even more incredible humans in our Women Who Made Herstory series.

About five years ago, women wrestling fans, myself included, began clamoring for iconic woman wrestler Joanie “Chyna” Laurer to be inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame.

Even if you’re not a wrestling fan, you’ve probably heard of Chyna. She broke the mold of the typical blonde ring escort and showed that larger women had a place in wrestling. She made headlines wrestling men, and she was the first woman to win a male title, the Intercontinental Championship, in 1999, before winning the Women’s Championship in 2001.

When I first got interested in wrestling, I actually only saw Chyna wrestle a few times—she was soon forced out of the company amid tension with her ex, Paul “Triple H” Levesque, who had begun dating the daughter of the WWE’s owner, Stephanie McMahon. Chyna subsequently spiraled into addiction and began engaging in sex work, the latter of which is the reason for her repeated omission from the Hall of Fame and WWE history more broadly.

“I’ve got an eight-year-old kid and my eight-year-old kid sees the Hall of Fame, and my eight-year-old kid goes on the internet to look at, you know, ‘There’s Chyna, I’ve never heard of her. I’m eight years old, I’ve never heard of her, so I go put that in, and I punch it up,’ and what comes up?” Levesque, now a WWE executive, said in 2015. “And I’m not criticizing anybody, I’m not criticizing lifestyle choices. Everybody has their reasons and I don’t know what they were and I don’t care to know. It’s not a morality thing or anything else. It’s just the fact of what it is. And that’s a difficult choice. The Hall of Fame is a funny thing in that it is not as simple as, this guy had a really good career, a legendary career, he should go in the Hall of Fame. Yeah… but we can’t because of this reason. We can’t because of this legal instance.”

Spencer Platt/Newsmakers
Spencer Platt/Newsmakers

But three years ago, on April 20th, 2016, Chyna died of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose at the age of 46. In a year full of emotional celebrity deaths, this one hit me particularly hard. Before her passing, Chyna had been teaching English in Japan, where she also wrestled for a time after leaving WWE, and had reconnected with her estranged family. She had been working on a documentary and petitioning on social media to be added to the Hall of Fame, seemingly turning her life around.

Chyna would not be alive to obtain the recognition so craved from the company that wronged her.

Coinciding with Chyna’s death was the “women’s wrestling evolution” one that posits that women can wrestle just as well, if not better, than men: a theory Chyna proved 20 years ago. Now that women’s wrestling is being taken seriously, and will likely be the closing match of wrestling’s Superbowl, WrestleMania, in New York in April, WWE has finally decided that Chyna is worthy. She will be inducted into their Hall of Fame the night before WrestleMania—but there’s a catch.

The induction is for the group D-Generation X, who traded in the crude jokes, sexism, and blackface that defined the offensive 1990s “Attitude Era” of wrestling. Chyna had a largely silent, background role in DX, for short, and she will be inducted alongside its group members.

While Chyna’s family is happy she is finally gaining the professional acceptance that eluded her in life, I’m pissed that she’s once again taking a backseat to the men she worked with in a group that doesn’t represent her contribution to wrestling, especially when most of her groundbreaking work occurred when she struck out on her own.

M. Tran/FilmMagic
M. Tran/FilmMagic

It’s plain to see the influence that Chyna’s singles wrestling career had on the women wrestlers of today.

Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair and Ronda Rousey (she’s a wrestler now!) have frequently used items such as kendo sticks and crutches to beat each other with—perhaps a call back to Chyna’s “Good Housekeeping” match—while Nia Jax became only the fourth woman ever to enter the men’s Royal Rumble match in January. The first was Chyna.

Those with opposing views to mine will say that a Hall of Fame induction is not even a real accolade: it’s a token gesture arbitrated by the conservative men at the helm of the company. That’s why Donald Trump is in it.

It’s entirely up to WWE as to how it chooses celebrate Chyna for her contributions in death that she wasn’t privy to in life. As the tastemaker of the wrestling industry, if WWE says sex work isn’t shameful and doesn’t define a woman (unless she wants it to), then that progressiveness will ripple across the wrestling industry. And if WWE finally acknowledges that Chyna was a pioneer for the current women’s wrestling evolution, then that’s indisputable. I, for one, won’t stop preaching the Chyna gospel until she alone receives that honor.