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Spandex snobbery smackdown: why the liberal elite snubs wrestling

The sport has drama, showmanship, and gender equality as the film Fighting With My Family proves. Yet, because its working class, its marginalised, writes director Stephen Merchant

In 2014, after years of struggle, a working-class British woman, aged just 21, was awarded the highest honour her profession can bestow, live, in front of 20,000 people and a television audience of millions.

The Guardian didnt report it. In the days following, there were no laudatory profiles, no in-depth interviews, no op-eds about her stratospheric success in a male-dominated world.

Saraya-Jade Bevis, known professionally as Paige, is a World Wrestling Entertainment superstar. She began her career wrestling with her family in small venues across Norfolk, before climbing to the top of WWE, the billion-dollar US sports entertainment empire, to become the youngest ever Divas champion, the wrestling equivalent of heavyweight champion of the world.

I like to think Im culturally aware, but I had never heard of Paige. And I dont blame the Guardian, or the other broadsheets; they have no duty to report on any entertainer (professional wrestling is as much performance as sport). Nevertheless, it is interesting to compare the attention Paige received with that conferred on other British performers.

In the past 18 months, Claire Foy and Olivia Colman have deservedly won major awards for their brilliant portrayals of English queens. Both wins came with lengthy interviews and profile pieces in the quality newspapers, plus countless mentions on BBC TV and radio.

I have worked with both these actors and they deserve every plaudit and column inch that comes their way. But acting, like pro wrestling, is another branch of show business. Foy and Colman have been rightly celebrated for cracking the US and conquering Hollywood, so why not Paige, who cracked America and conquered WWE (the Hollywood of wrestling) three years earlier?

Over the years, Paige has featured in the Sun and other British tabloids, but the respectable middle-class media has largely ignored her. Why? Is it because Paige is a brash, blue-collar girl from East Anglia with heavy eye makeup and goth-rock stylings? Is it because wrestling is dismissed as frivolous, silly pantomiming for the great unwashed the same people who probably voted for Brexit? Is the reason you have never heard of her good old-fashioned snobbery?

I only found out about Paige three years ago, when I was contacted out of the blue by Dwayne The Rock Johnson. A former WWE superstar, Johnson was working in London in 2012 and one night in his hotel room happened to catch a Channel 4 documentary about Paige and her family. (I love picturing this scene. In my mind The Rock is chilling in a Travelodge, hes just finished the free shortbread and an episode of Grand Designs, and on comes this film )The Bevis family are flawed, rowdy and rough around the edges, but love one another deeply, and wrestling almost as much. Mum, dad, son and daughter all wrestle, and in 2010 the siblings got the chance to audition for WWE. It was a once-in-a-lifetime shot at making the family dream come true, but only Paige was signed; her brother, Zak, was left behind. What happened next almost tore the family apart.

Having come from a wrestling family, Johnson was riveted by Paiges story and later became tangentially involved in her career. Realising her story would make a great film, he reached out to me to write the script. (I suspect Johnson only has two Englishmen in his phone me and Jason Statham and he clearly realised that what I lacked in charisma and muscle definition, I made up for in typing speed.)

Dwayne The Rock Johnson (left) and Vince Vaughn in Fighting With My Family. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/AP

I sat down to watch the documentary, expecting to sneer at Paige and her family. Instead, I fell in love with them.

I went to meet the Bevis clan in their small house on a council estate in Norwich. I discovered the documentary was just the first act of a bigger narrative, one thats not really about wrestling at all, in the same way that Billy Elliot isnt really about ballet. The Bevis saga is a coming-of-age tale in which the kids and the parents were forced to grow up a funny, emotional, tough, tender, inspiring and uplifting story that just happened to involve people in threadbare tights throwing each other about.

Paige moved to Florida aged 18 to join WWEs intense training regime. She was a teenage mix of insecurity and arrogance, and often clashed with trainers and her fellow newbies, refining her raw talent in front of rowdy crowds, slowly proving herself to her paymasters and audiences while navigating the loneliness of life 4,000 miles from home.

Stephen Merchant. Photograph: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

I decided that if I was going to make a film telling Paiges story it must appeal both to wrestling fans and people like me who know nothing about her. You dont need to like boxing to enjoy Rocky, and you dont need to like Paiges sport to love her journey. As I researched the script, I started to understand wrestling. I finally began to get its appeal when one performer described it to me as a soap opera in spandex, in which the wrestlers tell stories with their bodies.

I also discovered that the wrestling world has not always been a pioneer in gender equality. For instance, WWEs female performers were often relegated to filler matches, nicknamed bathroom breaks by fans waiting for the next clash of brawny men. Pleasingly, however, Paige and her fellow female wrestlers have, in recent years, spearheaded what has become known as the womens revolution, gaining more respect and airtime for the women of WWE, and garnering a passionate fanbase among audiences of all genders.

While we were editing the film, the #MeToo and Times Up movements swiftly reached the public consciousness, and opened up a much-needed discussion about gender equality and inclusivity in all areas of life, including cinema.

The fact that my movie had a female protagonist suddenly felt more significant, although I had been drawn to Paiges story not so much because she is a woman, but because she struck me as a classic movie underdog and her teenage dreams of making it in the entertainment world chimed with my own experience. Only when I started writing the script did her gender become a bigger factor, along with something else: her class.

My grandad was a bricklayer and my dad is a retired plumber, so I felt an affinity with the Bevis family, who are wrestlers but also resolutely working class. I began thinking about how many films (at least those that hope to reach general audiences) have working-class British women as their leads.

Jack Lowden as Paiges brother, Zak, and Florence Pugh as Paige in Fighting With My Family. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/AP

There are many fine films that portray British working-class lives, including modern classics by directors such as Andrea Arnold, alongside socially conscious auteurs such as Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. These films are often brutally authentic and uncompromising, which means the multiplexes sometimes run shy of them so they become the preserve of the arthouse circuit, which cant always draw in the wider general audience, many of whom are the very people these films are about. This catch-22 can sometimes be particularly pronounced. I recall seeing the excellent Palme dOr winner I, Daniel Blake at a fancy north London arthouse cinema. During the harrowing scene in which Katie (Hayley Squires) is overcome with hunger at a food bank and forced to devour baked beans straight from the tin, I noticed the well-heeled man next to me was misty-eyed while eating roasted tomato hummus and flatbread with a side of Padrn peppers. I sensed the irony escaped him.

With Fighting With My Family, I wanted to take Paiges story to both the arthouse crowd and a wider audience. I wanted to see if I could make a film about working-class people that was neither a gritty, kitchen-sink drama, nor a broad, knockabout comedy. In the years since Paiges title win, and since beginning on my film, there has been a rising and necessary awareness of the under-representation of women, not just in cinema, but in the arts in general. These exclusions have rightly been brought into the light, yet it is revealing that a homegrown female talent like Paige has been overlooked.

While we were eating our hummus and flatbread, there she was, hiding in plain sight. Marginalised for being a working-class wrestler, ignored and unheralded. I hope our film will go some way in correcting this injustice, but I am also left wondering just how many other Paiges are out there.

Fighting With My Family is on release now

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What happens to your body when you eat spicy food?

Let the bloggers blog.
Image: Enrique Das / 7Cera / Getty Images

Every so often, someone will act very angry online because a recipe they clicked on has “too much text.” They wanted to make mushroom ravioli, but instead had to scroll through a bunch of words about what mushroom ravioli means to a blogger’s family. Boring!

It’s true that many (if not most) food bloggers write long narratives preceding their recipes. Sometimes, they explain how they developed the recipe. Other times, they share why they chose to post this particular food, or explain the modifications they’ve made to accommodate family members with dietary restrictions. They might share a story about the dish providing them comfort in a difficult time, or how cooking the dish with a loved one healed a broken relationship. Food is personal, after all; it comes with stories. 

So why do so many people rush to mock them?

Cadry Nelson, a food blogger who runs the vegan website Cadry’s Kitchen, includes narratives with her recipes regularly. (She’s also written an essay about recipe narratives.) This is partially because she wanted to document her transition to veganism, the context in which she developed much of her work. In doing so, she’d create a reference point for readers curious about going vegan themselves.

“I was trying a lot of produce I’d never had before, as well as re-creating old familiar flavors but without meat, dairy, and eggs,” she explained in an interview. “I didn’t have many other friends who were vegan at that point.”

Sharing this information doesn’t just benefit her readers, either. It also helps her secure a place in the saturated food blog realm. “Through these posts, I’ve gotten to know bloggers’ flavor preferences too,” Nelson said. By sharing stories on blogs, people get to know the types of foods [and] flavors that specific recipe creators enjoy. You figure out who is a good match for your own palate.”

So why do people have such an issue with people writing about their own food? It seems to come down to convenience. Generally, perturbed readers complain that it takes too long for them to scroll down to the recipe itself.

Historian Kevin Kruse, for example, tweeted his disdain for recipe narratives last weekend: “Hey, cooking websites?” he wrote. “I don’t really need a thousand words about how you discovered the recipe or the feelings it evoked for you … I’m trying to feed my family. No need to curate the experience for me.”

“GIMME THE RECIPE HON MY SCROLL FINGER HURTS,” tweeted Chelsea Peretti last November.

Admittedly, it is irritating when anything is difficult to find on the internet, especially when we’ve come to expect an easy-as-pie user experience from every app and every website. It can feel like a slog to scroll through paragraphs of text when all you want is a list of ingredients.

But the thing to interrogate here isn’t necessarily whether blocks of text are annoying — it’s why people think these particular blocks of text don’t deserve to exist.

Nelson thinks there’s an element of sexism to the critiques she sees about recipe writing. Home cooking is still a deeply gendered pursuit, and writers whose work centers on home cooking are still perceived as less professional, less valuable, and less worthy voices.  “The feeling seems to be that they don’t think these writers have something of value to offer,” Nelson said.

There’s been high-profile backlash to the backlash against recipe narratives. After Kruse’s tweet, Smitten Kitchen creator Deb Perelman tweeted a thread on the matter, encouraging recipe writers to “write as long and as in-depth as your heart desires about recipes and anything else they drum up in your mind and ignore anyone who says you shouldn’t.”

Like Nelson, she also called out detractors’ casual sexism. “Congratulations, you’ve found a new, not particularly original, way to say ‘shut up and cook,'” she tweeted. “I just don’t see don’t see the same pushback when male chefs write about their wild days or basically anything. Do you?”

“I wish more people who cooked got to tell their stories,” she added.

There’s also a more technical element at play where recipe narratives are concerned: search engine optimization (SEO). Recipe bloggers want to catch the attention of the illusive Google algorithm —  and, ideally, land their recipe on the coveted first page — so they must demonstrate “authority” in their field. This means more comprehensive content, which is really hard to pull off with a concise recipe alone. (Tons of people will be using the phrase “apple crumble,” for example, but only you can write your own story about it.)

“When I’m writing, I try to tell a story that has a hook as well as please[s] the Google algorithm,” Nelson said. “I do keyword research … I see what kinds of questions people have around the topic, and look for ways to anticipate their problems, and answer their questions, so that they will have a successful cooking experience. Lately, I’ve been adding more step-by-step pictures of how to make dishes, as well as videos, because Google says that readers want that.”

‘I wish more people who cooked got to tell their stories.’

Even though she’s noticed people criticizing lengthy posts, Nelson maintains that writing a lot — authoritatively, of course — is what’s going to get eyes on her recipes. “People say they want shorter posts, but Google values information,” she said. “It’s hard to give information without using some words along the way.”

SEO and marketing experts agree that Nelson’s approach is a smart one, especially in such a saturated landscape. “Because a recipe usually consists of a listing of ingredients and steps, it’s often very difficult for a search engine to discern what this article is trying to convey,” Pete Herrnreiter, who is the VP of digital strategy at The Motion Agency, explained via email. “By developing a richer upfront with background on the dish … it [helps to] define the post.”

Content strategist Abby Sanders, who works for Von Mack Agency, also emphasized the advantages of differentiating one’s recipe from the pack. “These days, search engines are pretty effective at determining whether a page can serve as an ‘expert source’ on a specific query,” she said. “So any additional content that includes certain keywords, as long as it’s coherent and well-written, will improve that page’s ranking.”

As a caveat, Sanders mentioned, there are “plenty of other factors that play a role in rankings, such as domain authority, links to that page, and the list goes on. But from a sheer content standpoint, it does make good sense for a food blogger to write some extra, interesting copy around their subject.”

So, fine. Finding a list of chili ingredients would be easier if we didn’t have to scroll. But recipe bloggers are writers, and they have stories to share that are poignant, funny, and valuable — even if you (and I) don’t love every single one you read. And if you really don’t like the narratives? There are plenty of places for you to find story-free recipes online, though you might have to pay for a subscription to see some of them. Also, cookbooks exist.

“My food blog is my own. It’s my creative space. I spend a lot of time testing the recipes, taking photographs, making videos, and writing my stories,” Nelson said. “If people aren’t interested in any aspect, so be it.”

“My blog is Cadry’s Kitchen. It’s literally the place where I cook,” she added. “I don’t know why I would write myself out of it.”

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Rare Half-Male, Half-Female Cardinal Spotted In Pennsylvanian Garden

Bird-spotters, twitchers, nature lovers, people spend years spying on wildlife in the hope of seeing, perhaps even capturing on camera, a rare and wondrous sight. A couple from Pennsylvania did just that, when they noticed a very unusual bird hanging out in their garden.

One side of the bird, a northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), had the spectacular scarlet plumage so iconic of the male, and the other half, the soft brown-green of the female, split down the middle.

“Never did we ever think we would see something like this in all the years we’ve been [bird] feeding,” Shirley Caldwell told National Geographic, after she and her husband Jeffrey spied the bird in their garden in Erie, Pennsylvania.

The bird popped up a few weeks ago, and she snapped the picture of it while it was chilling in a dawn redwood tree just 9 meters (30 feet) from their kitchen window.

Gynandromorphy is more obvious in species that are sexually dimorphic, where the male and female adults’ appearances are different, like northern cardinals. Bonnie Taylor Barrie/Shutterstock 

So, is it really half-male, half-female? Yes. Although rare, bilateral gynandromorphism – where a species’ external appearance is split down the middle, half male, half female – has been seen in a variety of organisms, including birds, insects, and crustaceans.

In fact, it possibly occurs more often than thought, and we only notice it when it’s really obvious, like in a species that is sexually dimorphic, where there are differences in the appearance of adult males and females.

Sex determination in birds is basically the opposite of humans. Instead of the females having two copies of the same sex chromosome (XX) and the male having a copy of each (XY), in birds it’s the other way around. Birds’ chromosomes are Z and W, so the female has ZW and the male has ZZ. So males’ sperm only carries Z, while females produce eggs with either Z or W.

Gynandromorphy occurs differently in different species. In birds, it’s thought that it happens when an egg develops with two nuclei, one carrying a Z, the other a W. If it gets fertilized by two ZZ sperm, then the embryo will carry both ZW and ZZ cells.

Photograph by Shirley Caldwell

Can gynandromorphic birds themselves breed? “So far as we know, yes,” Dr Alex Bond, senior curator in charge of birds at the Natural History Museum, told IFLScience. Although it may not be plain sailing. “If the gynandromorphy is complete, then birds will have one ovary and one testis. But all birds have just one urogenital opening – the cloaca. So externally they would look the same.” 

However, “If the breeding involves sex-specific behaviors, like songs or courtship dances, though, these may be only partial or modified, meaning the bird won’t be as attractive to the partner it’s trying to woo.”

Back in 2014, researchers studied another bilateral gynandromorphic northern cardinal for over a month and observed that it never paired up, or sang. It’s possible its behavior, rather than its looks, confused other cardinals. 

“Much like some hybrids exhibit behaviors from both species, gynandromorphs combine aspects of behavior from both sexes,” Dr Bond explained. “In some cases, they may sing like a male, but have the courtship dance of a female. Or the song and/or behavior may only be partial.”

So it may not be easy for this particular cardinal to find love, but Shirley remains positive, revealing it has been spotted a few times in the company of a male. 

“We’re happy it’s not lonely,” she said. “Who knows, maybe we will be lucky enough to see a family in summer!” 

[H/T: National Geographic]

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