I have many thoughts. Forgive me as I try to lay them out as coherently as I possibly can.
1. The first thing that has to be stressed is Ship Canal's point that feminism is not a monolith, there are many different types of feminism and I'm sure you could view wrestling through the lens of feminism and come up with wildly different answers to this question. So I'm wary of statements that begin with "the only truly feminist way to promote wrestling is..." and you all should be too.
2. The second thing that has to be stressed is another point already made above me by Eduardo, that this is a discussion about feminism and the role of women in wrestling being carried out by mostly men. Now, that's just a reality of the makeup of this board (and all wrestling boards) and if there's any place where I trust a bunch of dreaded Straight White Males to have an earnest conversation about this it is definitely PWO. But I suppose one must always keep in mind that there's a limit to how much a lot of us can understand the experience of feminism and being a woman in wrestling.
3. My third caveat is a personal one, in that the way that I interact with feminism most of the time is through sport, specifically women's sport and the gender gap in sports coverage, money, support, etc. I created a Facebook page called Women's Sport in Sydney because I was frustrated with the lack of coverage of women's sport in my area. The struggle of women in sport is quite similar to the struggle of women in wrestling, actually, so a lot of what I touch on might have a basis in sports. It also might not, I have no idea what I'm going to say yet.
Luchaundead poses a lot of different questions, and they need different answers so I will address them separately.
Is inter-gender wrestling inherently sexist?
I don't think so, no. I agree with you in that a perfect inter-gender match would be completely devoid of sexual connotation and be worked as a contest between two wrestlers. Of course, this is pro wrestling and often that is where they fall down, making the match about sexuality. I mean even if you try to subvert the idea of male sexual dominance and have the female on top, you're still making it about sex, when it should be a wrestling match. But wrestling as a medium is often geared towards the lowest common denominator, for the cheap pop, for instant gratification, and when you put women and men together in front of a largely male audience, it is inevitably thought that going for something sexualised is the best (and easiest) route to take.
But no, I don't think the format itself is always doomed. People have already pointed to examples where it can work, such as Kana's run of inter-gender matches. All it takes is for everyone to treat it seriously and respectfully (as with all manner of things in wrestling). I haven't seen any of the inter-gender stuff involving Ivelisse or whoever in Lucha Underground (for the love of God someone tell me how to hook myself up with LU) but I'd be interested to see how they are portrayed there.
The funny thing about all this is that WWE, of all places, has a decent track record of relatively respectful inter-gender matches. Of course that goes along with all of the disrespectful stuff they've done too, but I mean I can think back to things like Lita getting to rana and moonsault all of the guys, Chyna competing in male divisions and winning belts, Beth Phoenix eliminating Khali from the Rumble that one time...there are actually times when they treat women as having physical talent that allows them to compete with men without irony. That match that Trish & Lita had on PPV vs Jericho & Christian during their angle...I mean I can't remember how much, if any, sexualised stuff there was in the match, but I remember it being an astonishingly great example of allowing the women to hang physically with the men to a certain extent without it coming off as hokey or un-believable. It was worked as a straight up match, and it worked.
So no, inter-gender wrestling isn't inherently sexist. But it would need to be treated as an athletic contest without sexual connotation, just the same way a match between two males is. Otherwise it can descend into something that sexualises and demeans women, and at worst gets a little too close to portraying sexual assault and violence against women than any reasonable person should be comfortable with.
Is it sexist to portray women in over-sexualised roles, or is it sexist to exclude them altogether?
The fairly obvious answer is that both are sexist. Is one more sexist than the other? I don't know, but I think it's pretty irrelevant to try to grade the different levels of sexism present, instead of saying that they're both sexist, and that the solution is to do something that isn't sexist. You see this in ALL areas of life where a feminist argument is present, it always goes along the lines of:
A: This female in this male dominated area is treated horribly/treated unfairly/sexually objectified/not taken seriously/subject to harrassment or abuse
B: Well would you prefer if there were NO women there?? Just be grateful that she's present in this area at all!
Apparently it hasn't occurred to any of those Bs that it is also possible for a woman to inhabit a space without being abused or exploited, and that that would be infinitely preferable to either being abused or exploited, or to not being there at all.
This false dichotomy comes up, where women either get a marginalised presence, or no presence at all. Those are the choices, pick one. And if you choose to be present, you have to accept that you will be subject to any kind of suffering that males seem fit, because that's the price you pay for being allowed to be included. And then in turn if you choose to not be present in a toxic space, you have to accept that it was your own choice and there's nothing stopping you from including yourself.
How about we all choose Option C.
On the question of what is more preferable, or more feminist - women competing with men or women portrayed as separate but equal to men?
I can't answer this, because like I said there's no one right answer that will cover all of feminism. Feminists can decide that for themselves. I guess my answer to the question is both, but neither. Again, to me it really goes beyond a question of "Which is better, A or B?" You can theoretically have feminist wrestling without having women ever compete against men. You can also theoretically have feminist wrestling that integrates them wholly with men. And you can have feminist wrestling with both.
The key to feminism in wrestling isn't in what specific form presentation of females wrestling takes. It's about simply treating female wrestlers the same way you treat male wrestlers. Treating them with respect. Treating them as people. The idea that there's no fundamental difference between male wrestling and female wrestling. The idea that female wrestlers are not there to be exploited, or marginalised, or there simply to titillate a male audience. The idea that they deserve as much promotion, as much presence on a wrestling card, as much time to wrestle matches as male wrestlers get. The idea that women could headline a WWE card, in the same way that a female fight can headline a UFC card. The idea that they can go out and have a wrestling match without being subject to sexual harassment by either the audience, the announcers, other wrestlers, or the company.
When you get to the point where two women wrestling a match is as normal and as non-sexualised and as accepted as two men wrestling a match. That will be feminism at work in wrestling.
As much as the tide is turning on this issue in the world in general, in sports in general, and in wrestling in general in recent times, there is still a LONG way to go for this to become a reality. Sexism is so completely entrenched in wrestling, particularly WWE. There is the emphasis on good looks and perfect bodies that was once paramount in hiring practices and probably still is to a large extent (and how the company reacts when women fall outside their vision of "beauty", from the treatment of Vickie to the portrayal of women like Molly or Mickie as fat or homely). In entertainment looks will always play a factor and I don't argue that, nor do I argue that male wrestlers' looks play a part for them as well, but it is so much harder for women to overcome this than men, and use of their looks is so much more exploitative. With women looks are prioritized so much more than actual wrestling, to the point where Mickie James had an elevated DDT finisher that so many of her opponents couldn't lift her up for because they were too skinny, which resulted in some dangerous bumps.
WWE has made some baby steps in the last year or so, and a lot of the largely ceremonial stuff has been taken care of. We've lost the purple butterfly belt and the term "Divas". The truly hideous aspects of creepy announcing and things like Bra and Panties matches are a thing of the past. We have the Divas revolution and Steph is their corporate feminist sponsor. Women get headline spots in NXT. There are more women's matches on WWE TV than there used to be, and they often get a bit longer to work or go through a commercial break. All of this is "progress" but it's also still largely window dressing. Women are still in their own little "token" spot on the card. It's just now there's a lot less sexual exploitation than there used to be. The next step is to move past tokenism and into truly equal portrayal. That is the part that will take time, and more than anything takes a willingness to do so. But we've seen it pretty much become a reality in NXT at this point, so it's certainly not impossible for this company to accomplish if they set out to do it.
I want to speak to the idea of being a female online wrestling fan as well, but I gotta go kick a football around so it will have to wait.
A few extra things to ponder:
This thread that I think came about after Sasha vs Becky, with Grimmas asking why women can't headline in WWE. More than anything else I think it's a fascinating look at how much opinions about women's wrestling and feminism in wrestling have changed JUST on this board and JUST in the last 12 months. And I'm not calling anyone out, I mean even I said things in that thread that I now strongly disagree with (such as that women will never headline a WWE PPV, nor should they bother trying).
This article "Can you be a feminist & a WWE wrestling fan?" and the others about WWE posted on SBS Zela, which is a site that covers women's sport and women in sport run by a major Australian TV network. The fact that a serious sports website in this country, particularly a feminist one, would cover wrestling at all (and totally independent of me) is amazing on so many levels. I know in America mainstream sports sites like Grantland and Deadspin and what not cover pro wrestling, but there is really NONE of that in Australian sports coverage.