Going into a big – maybe the biggest – weekend for All Elite Wrestling, I had an entirely different column in mind when I sat down to write today. Something like an update to a prior column I wrote about how AEW might change the wrestling industry and where the organization and the business in general is today. But none of that seems to matter much right now, though one thing seems very clear – the industry is still in dire need of change, and fast.
Just as I was collecting my thoughts, the news broke that Shannon Spurill, known to wrestling fans as Daffney Unger from WCW and TNA, had passed away at the way-too-young age of 46. The night before, Shannon posted an unsettling video on Instagram that caused many of her friends and acquaintances in and out of wrestling to fear for her safety, frantically trying to find her current address to provide some kind of help. But they were too late.
We were all too late.
Too late to recognize what the wrestling industry can do to people like Shannon, to people like Hana Kimura, or Ashley Massaro, or Joanie Laurer, or so many others. To women in general that, even if they ‘make it’ in wrestling are too often spit out and unceremoniously thrown away, when they still have a lot more to offer.
There are macroaggressions like the rampant accounts of sexual and emotional abuse of women that came out in wrestling’s ‘Speaking Out’ movement, which mirrored the ‘Me Too’ movement that brought overdue attention to abuse within the entertainment industry at large. There are microaggressions such as the incident where a respected, tenured performer like Mickie James was thoughtlessly sent a literal trash bag of her belongings after having been released from WWE, or Mia Yim facing torrents of abuse online and being accused of contracting and transmitting COVID to her partner Keith Lee. And, for people like Shannon/Daffney and so many others, the dismissiveness associated with mental concerns is pervasive and, too often, crushing.
All of this, paradoxically, is going on during a period in which women’s wrestling is having a moment. WWE had it’s first women-only pay-per-view event back in 2018 (though this type of event has not been replicated in WWE or any other major organization prior to the NWA’s Empowerrr event last weekend), and main evented Wrestlemania 35 with Becky Lynch, Ronda Rousey, and Charlotte Flair in 2019. AEW’s women’s champion, Britt Baker, remains one of the organization’s most bankable and popular stars, and with the addition of talents like Thunder Rosa and (unconfirmed but likely) Ruby Soho, is clearly giving more attention to their women’s division. Ring of Honor has been revamping their Women of Honor initiative and adding to their roster. Even women’s organizations like Japan’s STARDOM are starting to make inroads into the formerly exclusively men’s wrestling organizations such as New Japan Pro Wrestling by offering dark (unaired) matches on NJPW events. Representation of women has gotten somewhat better as well, with women of colour and a much wider variety of body types represented across all organizations.
But none of that excuses what has happened and what continues to happen behind the scenes. Coupled with the grueling schedule and the litany of injuries and physical strains on performers of all genders, the mental stresses and inequitable treatment of women in particular is unacceptable in 2021, where women have stepped up and been a vital part of nearly every major organization. Abuse is still happening behind the scenes, while perpetrators cry ‘cancel culture’ and too often, see their positions on the card remain intact.
Shannon Spurill mattered. Her tenure in wrestling was typified by being a character that was wholly different from what was on offer in the industry at the time, and her influence was wide-reaching even if she was never properly recognized for it. Without Daffney, there may not be a Paige, or an AJ Lee, or a Rhea Ripley, or a Nikki Cross. It’s known that Daffney was a source of support for these and dozens of other women that have followed in her footsteps. Shannon fought hard and advocated for better treatment in wrestling – when TNA balked at paying for injuries she sustained on the job with that company, attempting to use pro wrestling’s problematic and exploitive ‘independent contractor’ classification as a defence, she held them to account.
Women in pro wrestling have fought for too long and too hard, and endured too much garbage for too little recognition. Shannon Spurill wasn’t the first, and unfortunately, she won’t be the last to be chewed up and spit out by pro wrestling, but she should be. It’s my hope that the many positive changes we’ve seen in front of the camera from organizations like AEW, Impact, and the NWA, are mirrored backstage as well. It’s the absolute least that can be done for Shannon Spurill’s legacy, and those of the other women that came before and after her.