Up in arms: the Killer Bee
The Killer Bee has been drinking honey whiskey, and she’s already half stung by the time she takes the stage. It’s barely ten o’clock on a Saturday night, and the stage in question, at O’Malley’s Liquor Kitchen in Wrigleyville, is already populated by a soused cowgirl who calls herself Calamity Pain, a glamazonian emcee with cleavage all the way to Cleveland, two sketchy referees—one dressed as a hot dog—and a commentator wearing no pants.
But the star of CLLAW XIV, the Chicago League of Lady Arm Wrestlers’ latest bacchanal, is the Bee. Dressed in black tights, yellow go-go boots, and some kind of kid’s bumblebee Halloween costume, the five-time champion plays the villain and downs drinks with her black-and-yellow posse in a cartoonish manner that makes you smile at the pure showmanship of it all.
But she really is drunk.
Not too drunk, though, to defeat Calamity Pain (“Bitch, you’ve just been stung!”), her tattooed bicep writhing like an angry python, and take out a Tonya Harding clone who calls herself the Cutting Edge. The road to the finals is paved with not just battles of brawn but also Hula-Hoops, cupcakes, and beer chugging. The raucous crowd of 300 work themselves into a delirium with a barrage of jibes and bribes as they vie for senseless raffle prizes—such as an ovulation predictor kit—and enjoy the kind of rowdy unironic fun that ensues when there’s an open bar for $25. One man pays $50 for the privilege of, um, vigorously nuzzling the busty emcee, who gives him his money’s worth before shoving him back into the mob.
Tonight, the Killer Bee’s flight ends in the championship round, where she succumbs to a mustachioed, chainsaw-wielding lumberjack named Jill. The deposed insect pretends to go bonkers, flailing and kicking at the crowd, but it’s all in jest. It must be, because she never stops smiling.
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Killer Bee’s real name is Bess McGeorge. She lives in Boystown, works in the suburbs as a mental health counselor for teens, and at one point wanted to be a Hollywood stunt performer. “I grew up in southern Arkansas, and I have three older brothers,” says McGeorge, 31. “Lots of sports and roughhousing and deer hunting.” McGeorge’s manager, Dacey Arashiba, who seems slightly afraid of her, once watched McGeorge shoot a beer can off a friend’s head with a BB gun. Indoors.
McGeorge came to Chicago in 2007 to train at the Second City, and through her improv connections she landed at CLLAW. She created a backstory for her character (something about a mad scientist and an experimental lab under Cabrini-Green) and went on to glory, often defeating larger women through sheer, crazy willpower. “It’s about using your whole body and your core—not just your arm,” says McGeorge, who is actually allergic to bee stings. To improve endurance, she wedges her body into doorways to see how long she can suspend her weight; she’s melted 40 pounds from her frame through a combination of Jenny Craig and personal training. One of her rivals, the Cutting Edge (real name: Megan Smith), has taken to pole dancing to strengthen herself. A CLLAW blogger joked that the Edge has embroidered the words “do more pushups” on her underwear. The Edge denies it.
Good athletes and great actors, McGeorge and Smith are part of the national Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers, which has 19 leagues from Boston to San Francisco. The Chicago chapter is produced by the Sideshow Theatre Company, an inventive local nonprofit. The events—part sport, part improv comedy—are outlandish bashes that empower women and raise money for Sideshow and arts-based charities like Rock for Kids and Marwen.
Despite CLLAW’s theatrical origins, the wrestling is deadly serious. Just ask the mighty Armkansas, who, despite dwarfing her opponent, Connie Vict, by nearly a foot, managed to get her arm broken in a match at CLLAW XII last January. She was quietly ushered to the hospital with the crowd none the wiser. “We are very group-minded,” says McGeorge. “At the end of the day, you’re on the same team.”
It’s difficult for men to imagine any combination involving big crowds, sanctioned aggression, and copious alcohol intake leading to something positive. But therein lies the magic of female arm wrestling, where the usual “rules” of gender take a back seat to fun. A quick scan of CLLAW spectators is likely to turn up drag queens, lipstick lesbians, diesel dykes, married couples, entourages of armadillos and giant woodland dwarfs, hirsute bears, and hardbodies. And straight men.
Even pantywaist liberals like me, who claim to abhor violence, enjoy watching women get sloppy drunk and fight. It’s encoded in our DNA. But the attraction doesn’t stem from violence or the potential for nudity, both of which are great male motivators. It’s something else lurking in that gray space between sexy and sexist, something that holds true even if the fighters are dressed as a sloshed fairy and a giant strawberry.
I asked my father, a psychologist in Albuquerque, to explain this predilection. He suggested that watching women fight was an “acceptable” outlet for men’s sublimated anger toward women, and he drew a connection between aggression and sexual arousal. Then he laid some Darwin on me: “The victorious woman emerging from combat is more attractive as a mate, ensuring a more robust continuation of the species.” In other words, I’m hardwired to be a misogynistic, bloodthirsty pervert, no matter how much NPR I listen to.
The Cutting Edge, who just wants to kick ass and raise money, scoffs at such talk. “It doesn’t have anything to do with gender,” she says. “The ladies of CLLAW assume a certain contagious power that’s appealing to any of our audiences, male or female.” She scowls. “Whatever. You tell Killer Bee I’m gunning for her bigtime at the next match. She’s a hot-mess, freak-show, science-experiment-gone-all-sorts-of-wrong giant mutant bee.”
To volunteer as a wrestler or a manager or to learn about the upcoming CLLAW XV, go to cllaw.org.
Photograph: Lisa Predko