Early in the morning on Saturday, Jan. 20, Hillary Clinton announces her bid for the presidency of the United States of America on her Web site, stating, "I'm in it, and I'm in it to win it." Four subway stops and one transfer away from her New York City office (roughly a 38-minute commute), a group of Canadian pillow fighters are nursing bruises and hangovers from the previous night's sold-out bout at Brooklyn's Galapagos Art Space and warming up for an impromptu (sold-out) encore.
Champain, Betty Clocker, Lady Die, Boozy Suzy, Roxxy Balboa and the rest of the Pillow Fight League are a group of about 20 women between the ages of 19 and 36, ranging in size from 4 feet, 11 inches to 6 feet, 3 inches, with day jobs as international tax consultants, bar backs, writers and human resources managers. At night, they smack the hell out of each other. They tour various cities in the United States and Canada.
It's at Galapagos where Lady Die, a sturdy and stately fighter in riding boots, hat and pearls, explains fighting: "There's nothing fake about it. It's not staged in any way. Broken bones are entirely possible." But Die insists there's a sense of sisterhood among the group. No one is out to hurt anyone too badly.
"But we do want to win," Die adds.
While they brawl in costumes that reflect their personalities, there isn't an overriding drama playing out, says the pillow-fighter Vic Payback, who joins the conversation. "It's not like, so and so hate each other because one stole her boyfriend," she says. There are rivalries, though; Payback was gearing up to fight in cahoots with Trashley against Eiffel Tower, the giantess (6 feet, 3 inches) warrior. "You should talk to [Tower]; see how scared she is," Payback says before splaying herself suggestively across a pile of pillows for this story's photographer, a man. This sight inspires the league's commissioner, Stacey P. Case, also a man, to joke: "Vic Payback is the reason I instituted Rule No. 6 of the Pillow Fight League: No rude, lewd or suggestive behavior."
Case founded the league in February 2004, originally culling members from Canadian burlesque troupes before opening it up to public tryouts. (Roxxy Balboa, a rugby player who grew up fighting with her brother, got in after reading about the open call.) As the league matures, most participants agree, it's heading more toward sport than performance.
"I had no idea I would like fighting," Payback says post-glamour shots. "We've all evolved with the league. I can't believe how we used to fight. Opponents would submit; they were too tired to keep fighting. [I watch old videos and] I look like I'm half asleep. Now you have to keep moving or you're down, knocked over, pinned."
Granted, these women are pillow fighting, but like in softball, where women turned the underhand pitch into a 70 mph windmill, the Pillow Fight Leaguers have adapted as well. In addition to lewd and rude behavior, biting, scratching and hair-pulling are off-limits, but pretty much anything else goes, as long as there is a pillow at the point of contact; hence techniques called "pillow punching," "pillow-as-noose" and "sweep-the-leg pillow."
In an age when third-wavers are reclaiming everything from knitting circles to pole dancing as "feminist" acts, Case walks a tenuous line, determined to keep things from devolving into a wet-T-shirt contest.
"At first, it was a lot of men coming out," Die says of the audience. "The idea intrigued them. Once they got here and saw that it's real fighting, it changed. Now we get all kinds: women on dates, women who want to be in it themselves." Jane Doe, a soaring sight in black Lycra and red eye makeup, casually shakes off the suggestion that her participation in the league might be considered feminist. Her reasons for joining: "making new friends, the performance; it's therapeutic."
Soon the lights dim and spectators take their seats. Fighters gather on the mat. Punk and rockabilly anthems fade into national anthems first "The Star-Spangled Banner," and then "O Canada," which the fighters proudly sing, as famous Canadian images (a moose, Celine Dion, Pamela Anderson) flicker on the wall.
The previous night's battlers failed to unseat the league's current champion, Champain. The action is set to determine a new "Number One Contender." First off, it's Jane Doe vs. Sailor Gerry vs. Roxxy Balboa. Sailor Gerry wins. A few more one-on-one matches ensue and a couple of amateur bouts, including a nasty three-way battle, in which one woman loses a tooth.
The action doesn't stop. In fact, free DVDs are at stake for the winner. Men chirp from the typical "Rematch in my apartment" to "She's mortal!" (when Scrapula's fake fangs fall out) to the disturbing "Hit her in her baby-maker!" which the heckler thinks is clever enough to repeat. Things gets mean: "It's a battle of beauty vs. beast!"
At intermission, there's a crowd forming in the lady's room but not in a line. "We're not waiting; we're training!" they say. A few PFL leaguers offer tips to Bunny Bang Up, an amateur about to be pummeled by "Anna Conda," a blond, sorority-girlish fighter who says into the mic after her win: "I just like to hit." But Bang Up put up a good fight. The tipsters were telling her that most newbies don't go for the legs; that, really, it's about the pin, not so much about pillow-swinging; it's all about the leg strength ..."
Eventually, it's time for the main event. Sailor Gerry asthmatic and cute as all get-out in anchor tattoos and Manic Panic red hair kicks the asses of both Lynn Somnia and Boozy Suzy, to be crowned Number One Contender. Gerry will battle Champain in the next event in Windsor.
These pillow-fighters aren't the only girls going at it. Newmindspace, an interactive public art collective based in New York and Toronto, prompts public pillow fights and bubble battles. And artist Meg Duguid recently staged a "purse-fight" in front of Chicago's Prada store.
Detroit is no stranger to aggressive lasses, either. The Detroit Derby Girls have been rollin' and bruisin' since 2005. And back in the late '90s, female wrestling league New Girl Order battled it out at the Gold Dollar and Old Miami.
"It was a blast," says Killer Bee, one of the New Girl Order wrestlers. "It was fun to explore an alter ego, to be wild and crazy, to be physically aggressive, to be silly ... I also really liked that NGO was something different for every girl. Some girls would know what would happen in their matches more of a performance while other girls just straight-up brawled."
Back in Brooklyn, the show's over. Outside, fliers get handed out for Amateur Female Jell-O Wrestling, which takes place next month at another bar. The flier screams in caps that it's an event "produced by women for women." It's free for wrestlers, $3 for girls who choose not to wrestle, $7 for boys who come with girls and $15 for single boys, where the flier adds: "Get it? Bring a girl."
In Windsor this weekend, women who like to hit, will hit. Guys who like to run their mouth will shout demeaning asides at them, and they'll all laugh their asses off because these women are sweaty and they're beautiful and they're beasts, in it to win it.
Pillow Fight League 8: doors at 9 p.m. Friday, March 30, at the Boom Boom Room, 315 Ouellette Ave., Windsor; 519-971-0000.
Melissa Giannini is a freelance writer living in New York. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org