Wing Bowl 24 winner Molly Schuyler (center, before the competition) is unimpressed with your mansplaining

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As I left my first Wing Bowl and made my way to the Broad Street Line subway, weaving between packs of smiling bros and listening to the street sax player poking out plaintive notes of “Gonna Fly Now,” the first thing that popped into my head was gladiators. As raunchy and raucous as WIP’s annual eating competition was, I thought, at least our stadium spectacles no longer involve watching humans actually kill each other, or try to fight off wild animals, like they did in ancient Rome.

The historical comparison was quickly followed by a more contemporary idea: Is Wing Bowl really that much worse than the Super Bowl?

A group of big, husky men doing things to their bodies that most of us — normal people — would never even contemplate doing, or be able to execute if we tried. Visuals that at times turn ugly, like when a player goes down on the field after a particularly rough tackle, or when an eater pukes up the 20 pounds of wings they just shoved down their throat. Unlike the football, though, competitive eating usually isn’t cause for chronic illness or life-changing injury. After the event, the contestants go home to live regular lives.

Then there’s the part about provocatively dressed women. Are the go-go dancers and strippers who cheer on their eater that different from the squads that jump and dance for pro football teams? In other words, how much difference is there between a Wingette and a cheerleader, aside (probably) from the size of a paycheck? Dallas Cowgirls outfits usually cover a bit more than some strip clubs’ Wingette outfits (like the ones made of electrical tape), but not much, really.

And at the past three Wing Bowls, there has actually been a woman participant in the competition. That’s certainly more than the NFL can say — the league now finally has a full-time female assistant coach, but the idea of a woman NFL player is a considered laughable.

Would a woman really want to subject herself to the rough and tumble of professional football? You could ask the same about Wing Bowl, and there find Molly Schuyler to answer: Yes. At 120 pounds, she’s the opposite of most of her opponents, yet she has twice taken the crown.

Molly Schuyler celebrates her win
Molly Schuyler celebrates her win Credit: Danya Henninger

Schuyler recently described her ability to demolish absurd eating challenges as something she was born with, “like a sixth toe.” But watching her throughout last Friday’s event from my position on stage, I was rapt. She has an entirely different approach than the other eaters, one that’s planned, methodical, and — you could say — very feminine. Instead of bobbing up and down and getting distracted by the live feed playing out on the giant arena screen, Schuyler remains intensely focused. Her head rarely moves from its precise position bent over her plate, and her arms almost look like windmills as they drag wings through her open mouth. Left, right, left, right, left, right, water, repeat.

Another notable difference: Her Wingettes are her friends, and they actually help her make it through. Each competitor is assigned an entourage of females to parade around on their introductory float and cheer them on while they’re slurping up poultry. Most of the women on stage spent more time gawking at the big screen than paying attention to the wing carnage right in front of them.

Not so with Molly. One woman (her wingwoman? sorry), kept her position at Schuyler’s right ear through the entirety of each of the three eating rounds. Her voice wasn’t audible over the roar of the arena, but it seemed like she was alternating quiet words of encouragement with updates on whether other eaters — most specifically Schuyler’s main rival, Patrick Bertoletti — seemed to be pulling ahead or falling behind.

“She’s amazing!” I kept saying to anyone who would listen as I prowled around snapping photos. “I want to be her.”

Aside from Schuyler, I was the only female on stage not dressed to look hot. (In addition to the Wingettes, there was the P.J. Whelihan’s crew, a dozen or so 20-something waitresses in tight pants and tees. Were they picked for their looks, I asked the PJW management? Of course not, was the answer, but the fact remained that all of them were lookers.) But in the stands, among the crowd, there were plenty of normally-dressed women. And some of them, quite a few of them, ended up flashing the camera.

I wanted to be those women just as much as I wanted to be Molly.

Because in contrast to reports I’d read, not one of the females who actually lifted her shirt and showed her tits to the big screen looked like she was forced into it. There were plenty of times the Can Cam landed on a couple of women who obviously weren’t going to play the game. Instead, most of them just waved, or got up and shimmied, or lifted their tee above their waist in a mini-tease, or, sure, hid behind their hands. But there were plenty who took the opportunity to show off some flesh, and not just the few wearing shirts that could pass as bras. Is having a crowd cheer when you bare your chest objectification if you want to do it? Or is it just a fun thrill, an appreciation of the female body?

Like everyone else, Wingettes couldn’t take their eyes off the big screen
Like everyone else, Wingettes couldn’t take their eyes off the big screen Credit: Danya Henninger

Certainly, it wasn’t just the men in the room who couldn’t tear their eyes away from the Can Cam. All of the Wingettes had their eyes glued to the screen, too. I know I did.

The only thing that made me look away was the gratuitous replays of the vomit — and only the first couple of times. After the third close-ups of retch played out in slo-mo, I realized my gag reflex was gone. So it’s puke. Barely digested puke. Big whoop. That’s in contrast, I have to say, with the slo-mo replays of football collisions: Dislocated shoulders, knees flexed the wrong way, helmet-to-helmet thunderclaps that leave one player motionless. Those always make me duck behind a raised arm, no matter how many happen during one turn on the gridiron.

I would never have attended Wing Bowl as an audience member, and I won’t beg to return as press again, either. But I’m glad I got to witness the spectacle up close. It was more full of camaraderie and way less crazy than the idea of it I had after countless screeds against its horribleness.

In the end, Wing Bowl was intensely fascinating, supremely disgusting, and impossibly unique. Which is, as a friend noted, pretty much the essence of life itself.

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...