The thematic framework Dirty Pair inherits from Japanese women’s professional wrestling cannot be overstated. The inherent and accepted performative artifice of puroresu is absolutely central to how Dirty Pair operates at a basic level, as is the genre’s target demographic. As an anime or manga, Dirty Pair is typically understood as seinen in the usual system of genre classification: This would be works specifically aimed at men between the ages of 18 and 40. Except…that can’t really be true, can it? In Japan, the original market for women’s professional wrestling was women themselves, and the wrestlers became icons to a generation of teenage female fans: Men were a periphery demographic. And so it is with Dirty Pair, which, while later appropriated and stolen by men (as men always do to things targeted towards women and have done throughout recorded history), certainly must be seen as a series written with an at least significantly female audience in mind.
Dirty Pair has done pro wrestling before, of course; There’s no way it couldn’t with its lineage. We have an entire chapter dedicated to Kei narrating a wrestling match in The Dirty Pair Strike Again, the girls being confused for wrestlers in “How to Kill a Computer” and participating in a sort of mock match themselves in “Go Ahead, Fall in Love! Love is Russian Roulette”, then fake fighting coded as a full-on worked shoot in “Hire Us! Beautiful Bodyguards are a Better Deal”. “The Chase Smells Like Cheesecake and Death” even featured actual wrestlers as major antagonists, Kei’s personal heroes Lan and Jerry, who were running an underground doping ring based around exploiting their brother’s developments in steroid research. This episode, “The Revenge of the Muscle Lady!”, plays out vaguely similarly, with an acquaintance of Kei and Yuri’s going rogue and getting involved in the trade of pharmaceutical muscle enhancements and the girls having to go in and sort things out.
But the major difference this time is that this is a story that doesn’t just evoke the trappings of pro wrestling as a nod to Dirty Pair’s heritage, it actually works entirely by the genre’s logic and storytelling conventions itself. The animosity between Sandra and the girls is quite explicitly a grudge match, especially the final confrontation in the rocket hangar bay, and the entire story is basically a wrestling angle. And what makes this story in particular unique and special is that it takes that style of narrative structure and blends it with subject matter more fitting Dirty Pair’s audience: Namely, young adult female fans of pro wrestling and science fiction (remember, this is Japan in 1988 so that demographic isn’t quite as strange as it probably sounds to a certain sort of Western audience). What we have here is a story that has its roots in school and relationship drama caricatured to puroreso levels.
In spite of the obvious steroid references, this is not a story about doping or drug use in sports, that’s largely just a framing device to get the girls to confront Sandra. Indeed, it has very little to say on the matter, and if anything it acknowledges the ubiquity of steroids and other underhanded shenanigans in professional sports: Recall how Kei has to cheat to win her first match herself. Cheating is simply part of the game, and, after all, Original Dirty Pair has done addiction cycles already so there’s little need for it to repeat itself here. What’s important about this plot point is what it tells us about Sandra: Sandra hates Kei and Yuri because they got Trouble Consultant positions and she didn’t, despite supposedly performing better than them in the various aptitude tests (whether she did or not is irrelevant, the important things is she *thinks* she did and considers herself superior). This marks Sandra as a heel, and heels are supposed to do mean things. In the world of Dirty Pair, this translates to being a bully to Kei and Yuri and running an underground drug operation the 3WA has to bust.
And Sandra’s heel status is clearly meant to contrast with Kei and Yuri’s face as part of the story’s central message. Even her gruff demeanor and steroid use makes her visually look and seem bigger, stronger and older then Kei and Yuri, who next to her look almost childlike here (accentuated by the general capricious and casual tone they adopt throughout this episode). But the truth of the matter is that Sandra is none of those things. All the training and steroids in the universe can’t hide the fact she’s not measurably grown since her school days, or even really mentally moved on from them. Kei even tells her something to that effect directly to her face. Sandra’s nursed a grudge and intense, seething hatred of Kei and Yuri for gods only know how many years, going over events from her past over and over again simply to stoke her thinly-veiled feelings of inferiority and betrayal. Kei and Yuri, meanwhile, have gone on to have an illustrious career and live a charmed life together, and Sandra really has no-one to blame for her own failures other than herself, even though she can never accept it and will cling desperately to her own entitlement complex.
This all comes together beautifully during the fight in the cargo bay, where Sandra abandons all pretenses of form just to brutally whale away at Kei, while Kei keeps ducking and weaving out of her path. Sandra keeps screaming injustice and accusations, and all Kei can do is look back with shock and horror. At first the Star Trek fan in me kept wanting Kei to strike back with a big Captain Picard speech throwing Sandra’s words back at her and pointing out that, far from being inferior the Lovely Angels are actually *better* than Sandra because they live their lives together in the moment instead of wallowing in self-pity and rage, but then I realised that wouldn’t have been the appropriate tack to take here. While she doesn’t say anything, Kei’s expression speaks volumes, for it’s one of profound sorrow and sadness. Kei is heartbroken by Sandra because she knows Sandra could have been a friend and a colleague if she didn’t have so much hate within her.
The only hurt and betrayal here was what Sandra’s anger and bitterness brought on herself and others, and, now that she’s up against the Lovely Angels’ cleansing fire, there’s really only one fate in store for her. Perhaps this is why this story has a minor reoccurring theme about womanhood and what it means to be a woman, and why the subtitle poses a question about “the true form of women”. Obviously, being a kind of utopia, there’s far more gender equality in the Dirty Pair universe then in ours. But remember this, like all Dirty Pair stories, is a performance, and, being the sort of science fiction it is, is meant to provide commentary on *our* world. Much like the trick “The Ultimate Computer” pulled way back in the original Star Trek by making Richard Daystrom of African descent, Sandra’s inner turmoil is definitely something that can be compared with internalized misogyny, which is a real thing that real women go through as a reaction against patriarchy. And people like that deserve some manner of pity and sympathy, even if circumstances force us to fight them as our enemy as much as the forces of hegemony themselves. That’s the big difference between Sandra and Kei and Yuri: While Sandra hates, Kei and Yuri empathize and forgive.
It’s also interesting to take stock of how this episode immediately follows on from “Are You Serious?! Shocked at the Beach, Wedding Panic!”, if not in terms of plot, then certainly thematically. While that episode was very much about Yuri, this one is largely about Kei, and Original Dirty Pair gives her the exact same care and nuance it gave her partner (and her, for that matter!) last time. Pay close attention to how the girls divvy up screentime here-Kei gets the big fight scenes and the brunt of Sandra’s evil monologues, while Yuri runs around trying to keep the rocket meth lab from taking off. However, neither one truly slips into a support role: Yuri tries to, especially in the scene with the bomb after she meets up with Kei, but she never quite manages to, always finding herself falling into an action sequence somewhere, much to her chagrin. Yuri even tries to hide behind Kei during Sandra’s final meltdown, passing the plot and conflict onto her, but it’s played for laughs and Kei doesn’t let her get away with it. This story is as much about her as it is Kei, and that’s going to prove very revealing.
Notice how when Kei finally does get a story about her, it’s explicitly within the performative artifice of a literal wrestling angle. Even when the story overtly tries to focus on her, things aren’t comfortably straightforward. So, “Revenge of the Muscle Lady!” isn’t *really* about Kei, it’s rather a play Kei and Yuri have placed themselves in as insert avatars and is actually about something else, namely solidarity and what the way different people conceptualize the past and memory says about the way we live our lives. Even here, Kei is deflecting narrative forces in intriguingly different directions. Although really it’s Yuri who gets the best visual metaphor for this in that genuinely delightful scene where she shoots out the spy drone that’s following her as she climbs the cliff face…A spy drone that, for a brief moment, actually shares our camera’s POV and tries to shoot Yuri through the Male Gaze. That’s what you get for trying to leer at Yuri’s interiority, you pervert!
But it’s appropriate that the girls would be on the same wavelength here, because its their working together, and staying together, that ultimately saves the day. Digetically in the sweet “I’ll be the arms, you be the eyes” scene, and extradiegetically all throughout by serving as the necessary counterexamples to Sandra’s agony and pain. Sandra lived in one sad moment from her past that she could never find her way out of. Like DaiMon Bok in “The Battle”, she can’t ever let go of what happened years ago and the person she used to be. But Kei and Yuri, who live in the eternally unfolding present, have found a way to extend a happy moment to last several lifetimes. They once again show us the value of tenselessness not just linguistically and mentally, but philosophically and spiritually. And as the modern shamans they are, they do it through performance. Kei and Yuri seem to shake off the rather devastating injuries they acquire over the course of this episode rather easily and quickly, with Kei even drawing attention to this and writing it back into the text through a sort of improvisation. Just like the grudge match itself, it’s was all just an act.