Is WWE Too Smart For Its Own Good? What The Women's Money in the Bank Controversy Reveals

EDITORIAL BY TIM KAIL @TimKailWrites PHOTOS VIA WWE.COM

EDITORIAL BY TIM KAIL @TimKailWrites PHOTOS VIA WWE.COM

- INTRODUCTION -

A common criticism of the modern pro-wrestling fan is that they are "too smart for their own good"; the implication being that because the fan knows professional wrestling is a "work" (staged), they're less capable of simply enjoying it "the way it's meant to be". The smart fan assumes an editorial role rather than a purely observational one, filtering their experience of the art through a hyper-critical lens.

There's certainly some truth in this assessment of many fans today (although it's the inevitable result of pro-wrestling's exposure over the years). Wrestling legends, current WWE Superstars, and even independent wrestlers have made compelling arguments for why pro-wrestling fans aren't doing themselves any favors by being, in the words of Al Snow, "pseudo experts".

Even fellow pro-wrestling fans are exasperated with the never ending hot-takery that defines not just our community, but the entire internet.

"Too smart for their own good" is a criticism that doesn't just apply to pro-wrestling fans, though.

It also applies to the WWE.

How exactly?

We needn't look further than the way the WWE booked the first ever women's Money in the Bank ladder match to see "too smart for their own good" on display. 

Carmella at the 2017 Money in the Bank pay-per-view on WWE Network.

Carmella at the 2017 Money in the Bank pay-per-view on WWE Network.

- YOU CAN...BUT SHOULD YOU? - 

The company, building the match as a historic moment in women's wrestling, made the decision to undermine that historic occasion (as a part of the narrative) by having a man interfere and hand the briefcase to Carmella. The intent was obvious; generate the most amount of "heat" (anger) possible by taking advantage of a once in a lifetime booking opportunity.

Carmella, after being declared the winner of the first women's MITB

Carmella, after being declared the winner of the first women's MITB

It's not hard to imagine someone in a creative meeting suggesting, "What if Ellsworth won it?!" and then a roomful of men laughing in unison (partially at Ellsworth), loving the idea of the anger such a moment would elicit. It's a familiar style of pro-wrestling booking even if the specific set of circumstances are new (push a societal hot button while simultaneously doing the opposite of what is expected or wanted in service of the heel).

The WWE knew it would light up social media with outrage as a result. They likely watched with a sly grin as we, the audience, "worked ourselves into a shoot". Initially, I had hope that the WWE had actually thought its way through this intentionally controversial ending.

Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon, the general manager and commissioner of SmackDown Live, respectively, immediately sent out two kayfabe (in character) Tweets addressing the issue.

Those Tweets circulated, helping to fan the flames of frustration and intensify interest in the next episode of SmackDown. That immediate, scripted response demonstrated how a narrative was taking shape, harnessing the power of social media. It appeared the WWE had made this decision with a modicum of care.

The narrative represented a significant through-line on the next episode of SmackDown right from the start. Maybe the WWE was working toward a place where everyone wound up being more "over" (popular), and the MITB decision wasn't just another isolated incident made simply because it could be made. Perhaps the story of the fall-out would significantly benefit the heels and the babyfaces.

Becky Lynch's earnest plea, "Is it really that hard to do the right thing" demonstrated some foresight on the part of the booker and the writers. Becky would become the voice of the frustrated fan in this moment, thereby strengthening that bond and solidifying her role as Carmella's foil. That connection is incredibly important. When the hero and the fans share the same point of view, that translates into a successful babyface.

But it didn't take too long for the cracks in the creative foundation to show. The Bryan character's idea of "doing the right thing" proved that the WWE hadn't fully considered the implications of its decision.

- WOMEN BREAK RULES IN A MORE RULE-BREAKY WAY -

(even when there are no rules)

Carmella had her briefcase stripped by Bryan, negating her victory, despite the fact that she cited logical precedent for why she should keep the briefcase. Byan even agreed that she made a compelling argument. Others had interfered to help men win their Money In The Bank matches in the past, after all, and the rules of the match clearly state that it is "no disqualification" - in effect, there are no rules except that whomever grabs the briefcase first is declared the winner.

Bryan's logic for retracting her victory was merely that no one, in Money in the Bank history, had ever literally climbed up the ladder on someone else's behalf and handed them the briefcase. That's true but, again, there are also literally, no rules against taking that action. 

Bryan invented a precedent that could have just as easily been invented years ago in the aftermath of Kane helping Seth Rollins win Money in the Bank. Kane attacked Dean Ambrose just as Dean was about to win, and then Kane literally held the ladder steady for Rollins so that he could more easily climb up and grab the briefcase.

Why is that sequence of events so different than had Kane climbed up the ladder and handed the briefcase to Rollins? It's not somehow more interfering in the match. The moment interference occurs, interference has occurred.

When an egg breaks, it's indeed possible to smash that egg into tinier and tinier pieces. But that doesn't make the egg more "a broken egg". The moment an egg breaks it can be defined as "a broken egg". The same principle applies to interference in a match, regardless of the style or severity of that interference.

Will this new rule, invented in response to Elsworth's actions, be applied to Rollins' victory from a couple years ago now that we know new rules can be retroactively enforced? Will Rollins' Money in the Bank victory, subsequent cash-in at WrestleMania, and subsequent championship reign be stricken from the record books as, in light of recent events, it should be? What's the statute of limitations on this sort of Money in the Bank infraction? How might this new rule inform the way authority figures police other matches?

Rules in matches that actually have rules are violated all the time, but for whatever reason, Bryan isn't interested in those violations. Why? Why is it that Ellsworth's actions aren't informing the way the WWE reviews all the rules in all the matches given the fact that it's obvious (based upon the evidence the WWE records with its own cameras every single week) that the entire rule-system demands greater scrutiny? What makes this particular occasion different enough to merit this degree of authorial intrusion?

Example of flawed rule-logic: Referees deliberate about the conclusion of the Money in the Bank match. The performances suggest they do not agree on a conclusion. Elsworth jumps in, stating his case, and then grabs the microphone and declares Carmella the winner. Does his declaration have the official capacity to solidify the conclusion even though he is not one of the officials?

Example of flawed rule-logic: Referees deliberate about the conclusion of the Money in the Bank match. The performances suggest they do not agree on a conclusion. Elsworth jumps in, stating his case, and then grabs the microphone and declares Carmella the winner. Does his declaration have the official capacity to solidify the conclusion even though he is not one of the officials?

I hope it's clear that I am not actually criticizing the fictional rules of a fictional sport. I'm not sincerely mad that a rule has been broken (or not broken) in the same way I'm mad at The Patriots for cheating. I'm not mad at Bryan in the same way I'm mad when an umpire has an inconsistent strike zone.

I'm not even mad.

This is a critical analysis of the WWE's flawed storytelling.   

If, as I suspect, the WWE doesn't want me to ask these kinds of questions about match-rules then the WWE shouldn't create stories that encourage such questions to be asked in the first place. And the WWE especially shouldn't have heels state, very clearly, the truth about such rules if the WWE wants me to boo the heel. I probably wouldn't have even thought about Kane's interference had Carmella not brought it up.

The WWE is in complete control of its wrestling universe and what its wrestlers say. It's very easy for the WWE to not create a story wherein the rules are so pivotal to the plot if they simply choose not to tell that story. Pro-wrestling is fiction, and so the rules can be whatever the WWE wants them to be - even that new rules can be retroactively applied to a match that is finished. It's not as though the WWE hasn't reversed an outcome before.

But the problem with this is that it's clear the WWE simply never thought much about the fictional rules of Money in the Bank Ladder Matches prior to making this incredibly sensitive booking decision. 

It's not even clear the WWE knows the rules of any of its matches; there doesn't seem to be a rule-book for these fictional contests. The company, and the audience, operates from a place of familiarity with wrestling cliches, not an understanding of a clearly defined fictional structure. We all just assume we know what's going on because we've seen it so many times before. A literal text outlining the rules and guidelines of a fictional world, especially when the drama of that world is based in sport (where rules come standard), is essential when attempting to create a believable, consistent universe - it functions as a reference, a means of creating narrative consistency. Such a document is like The Constitution of a writer's story. It instructs the writer on how to maintain those rules, and when it's appropriate to break those rules for the sake of drama.

This lack of consideration continually reveals itself as a series of plot holes in WWE fiction, as it would in any other narrative medium where the writers do not know the rules of the world they're working with. This is partially why it feels so often like the WWE is needlessly contradicting itself and taking two steps backward as it takes one step forward.

I suspect the WWE doesn't know its own rules (or doesn't really care to maintain them) because they're always looking at "the big picture!", forgetting that "the big picture" is composed of a series of interconnected brush-strokes, some large and some small. Sure, not a single fan may care about the minutia of wrestling's rules and regulations but that's not a good reason for the WWE to not care.

I often hear that this kind of criticism is holding the WWE to "too high a standard". Is holding the WWE to the standard of making sense too high? Holding pro-wrestling to a low standard certainly doesn't make pro-wrestling better.

Not only does Bryan's incredibly flimsy logic open a creative Pandora's Box that never needed to be opened, it reads as yet another occasion where men are judging women on unequal grounds. The story justifies this by stating that because it's the first ever women's MITB it is appropriate to create new rules even after the contest is over. We're supposedly in uncharted territory, right? 

But we're not. At all. We are in extremely charted territory where a heel has interfered in a match that has no rules to help another heel win.

The only thing that's different about any of this is that it involves women.

Hence the WWE being "too smart for its own good".

The company accurately anticipated the initial fallout because it knows its audience well (up to a point), but the company didn't think up an adequate, respectful narrative response to its decision that justified making the decision in the first place. If they were going to knowingly create controversy by booking Ellsworth to win the first women's Money in the Bank, then the company needed to spend more time thinking about the repercussions.

The WWE clearly did not consider the optics of Daniel Bryan admonishing Carmella, and completely negating the events of the match the next night (which hurts all the women - all of their actions were negated).

"People want heels to be punished, right? This is all simple, right?"

No. It's not.

The narrative, as it is, implies that women are naturally more deceitful than men. It implies that women are so deceitful, in fact, that the rule-book needs to be fundamentally re-written to accommodate their unpredictable behavior now that they're fighting in matches they've never fought in before.

The WWE, whether it realizes it or not, is suggesting that when women cheat, they somehow cheat worse than men. Everything a woman does, even cheating, is subject to a harsher review. It was decided that Carmella's breaking of the rules (even when there weren't rules) was done in a manner that was somehow more egregious than any interference in Money in the Bank history. Only the male authority figure, representing the WWE organization, could step in and fix the problem.

If you're thinking right now, "Well what Carmella and Ellsworth did was worse than what anyone else did in Money in the Bank history, so what Bryan did makes sense", let me remind you that professional wrestling isn't real.

The WWE decided to script Carmella's Money in the Bank infraction. The WWE is responsible for creating the situation wherein a woman did the worst thing that's ever been done in Money in the Bank history. Following the decision to book that particular story, the company continued down a narrative path where Carmella's wrongdoing wasn't something the other women could have righted. It wasn't a wrong that Carmella could have talked her way out of (just as many of her male peers have talked their way out of synonymous situations).

Bryan's agency was the impetus for what came next in the story - not Carmella's, not Becky's, not Tamina's, not Natalya's, and not Charlotte's.

This demonstrates the WWE's unchanging, core point of view with regard to women; that they are inherently inferior to men. This perspective continues to pop up in all of its female-centric narratives on the main roster. It slithers like a persistent snake into booking decision after booking decision, likely without the WWE (and many of its fans) even realizing it because people in positions of power (the men writing and booking the show) don't have to be reflective. Their perspective is resoundingly endorsed by their culture. They are encouraged to assume their rightness in everything they think, say, and do.

I can almost guarantee the WWE thought it was being the opposite of sexist when it wrote this particular story simply because it booked women to be in a Money in the Bank Ladder Match at all.

"Look at the opportunity we gave them! It's not like it was a bra and panties and ladders match...right?! Why aren't you happy?!"

It's great that the women were in a Money in the Bank match and got more time in the subsequent weeks. But, much like the aforementioned "broken egg", sexism is sexism whether it's as overt as a bra and panties match or as subtle as Bryan's involvement in this story. The WWE will not get a pass so long as it continues to fundamentally treat women as lesser than men in its narratives.

Inevitably, the man in this story winds up explaining "the way the world works" to the women, while holding the women to a different standard than men, all while purporting to advocate for "women's empowerment". This is the insidious double-think Orwell warned us about - blatantly confusing a lie with the truth so that it's impossible to tell the difference.

This perspective continually leads the WWE down the path to undermining its self-lauded "Women's Evolution".

Daniel Bryan - general manager of SmackDown Live

Daniel Bryan - general manager of SmackDown Live

It is important for fans to remember that the WWE has the power to shape impressionable minds. That's why this matters. Right now, the WWE is shaping people's minds about gender-issues in an incredibly haphazard way. The company excuses its sordid, misogynistic past as nothing more than "a different time". This erasure allows today's WWE to appear as a force for change righting the wrongs of some other organization. But it is the same organization with many of the same problems. This clever repackaging of the company's past frees them from having to take responsibility for their current transgressions because, in contrast to The Attitude Era, today's WWE appears more progressive. How could it not?

The effect this erasure has on the fans is damaging; the viewer is convinced to regard today's WWE as a champion of women, a progressive institute of equality when that simply isn't true.

The company just doesn't really know what it's talking about when it talks about "Women's Empowerment". The WWE only knows that it doesn't like the word "feminism". So long as they don't have female writers and female producers shaping these narratives behind the scenes, they'll continue to fumble around in the dark wondering why people are still criticizing them.

It's not that the WWE doesn't do a lot of good (it does). It's not that the WWE hasn't made progress (it has). It's that the WWE continues to also do a lot of easily avoided bad, and fans will and must hold them accountable for it.

Apart from the optics, the WWE also didn't seem to consider whether or not the specific events of the past few weeks would actually result in the women being "more over" than had they simply had a straightforward Money in the Bank match the first time around.

- THE LARGER WORK AT WORK -

At any time, the WWE can create the conditions whereby it appears to be addressing the concerns of the fans by "making amends". The company can do this purposefully over the course of several weeks, or it can improvise based on feedback. Either way, this dynamic works to their benefit.

That's the larger "work" at work here.

Some fans likely were satisfied by the fact that Camella's briefcase was taken away, and believed that the WWE had adequately "addressed the controversy". Some fans likely were happy that there was a second Women's Money in the Bank and felt that compensated for missteps that occurred along the way. Others, likely weren't satisfied by these creative decisions, but still enjoyed the contests because pro-wrestling is enjoyable. Regardless, all of us were naturally more focused on the WWE's booking decisions rather than on the characters in the story. The drama was about "How will the WWE address this issue", not "What will the wrestlers do?!" That perspective is not the fault of the fans for being "too smart for their own good".

That perspective is the direct result of the WWE's self-obsessed design. The WWE wants us focused on them, because the WWE organization itself is the "top guy" of modern pro-wrestling. No character on RAW or SDLive is more powerful than the General Manager and The Commissioner. The fans are conditioned, like the characters on the show, to defer to these authority figures. As a result, it becomes hard for fans to focus on anything other than the company's booking decisions, both within and without the fiction. 

The talent did not benefit more by having two Money in the Bank matches. The talent benefited because they got more time than they usually get. If anyone is more over, that's the simple reason. Time. The talent could have had two of any matches. 

Some would argue that the second ladder match got people to tune in to that particular SmackDown - that all the complainers were "marks" who didn't understand how they had been "worked". People who think such things are also being worked (because all wrestling fans are being worked and that's okay).

This perspective presumes that people wouldn't have tuned in to SmackDown Live for any other kind of well-promoted match featuring the women in the main event; a presumption that is an extension of the WWE's resistance to prominently feature its female cast on a regular basis. The company so rarely books the women wrestler's prominently that many fans are predisposed to believe that there needs to be something extra (like a ladder or a cell or a controversy) added into the mix just to justify a woman's existence in the WWE at all, let alone in the main event.

The WWE, and such fans, are of the same mind, believing, consciously or unconsciously, that women wrestlers just aren't that interesting when left to their own devices.

"If a title isn't on the line or it's not a gimmick match, why are they in the main event?"

How many straightforward, lengthy one on one matches between the women have we seen on RAW or SmackDown at all in recent years, anywhere on the card?

This lack of consistent representation results in a deeply ingrained underestimation of the female performers even when the company actually does feature them in main events. These performers are always operating at a deficit, by design, and it's completely unnecessary. 

I remain unconvinced that Carmella, and the women, benefited more from this particular sequence of events than had the second Money in the Bank match simply been the first. 

The second match teased the idea of Ellsworth winning, but it did so in a fashion that gave Carmella agency and helped further define her character. She sat, purposefully, at the bottom of the ladder with outstretched arms as her little helper fetched the briefcase; an act consistent with her self-important Staten Island Princess gimmick. This attempt failed, so she then took matters into her own hands, demonstrated her vicious side with a few chairshots to Becky Lynch, and then grabbed the briefcase herself.

Carmella hits Becky Lynch with a chair.

Carmella hits Becky Lynch with a chair.

That specific sequence of events gets her the heat without robbing her of agency. That is a booking decision that doesn't defer to the crowd, it defers to Carmella and the ever-present need to create strong, powerful characters. That is a booking decision that also benefits Becky Lynch who fought valiantly and who could only be taken out by the cunning, assisted violence of her foe. That makes Becky look great.

As is, the debate about the original booking decision (which involves a lot of male wrestling fans telling female wrestling fans why they're idiots) hangs over the entire affair like a dark cloud, obscuring what's supposed to be something wholly good for professional wrestling and particularly for representations of women in the WWE.

Charlotte at the Money in the Bank Ladder Match on SDLive

Charlotte at the Money in the Bank Ladder Match on SDLive

- CONCLUSION -

The women's Money in the Bank booking decision demonstrates how the WWE's fixation on creating the most intense emotional response (regardless of whether or not it's the best emotional response) often obscures the company's vision, making it harder for WWE to see more beneficial outcomes.

As a wrestling fan, I'm wary of the company's obsession with (or reverence of) the reactions of other wrestling fans. The boos and cheers of my fellow fans are less important to me than the quality of the content I'm watching. I'm even more wary of the way the company manufactures the appearance of controversy so as to then manufacture the appearance of good will, all while telling me they're not doing something they're obviously doing. I'd rather the company just kept it simple, placed its faith in its wrestlers, whatever their gender, and told better stories. 

Just as a "smart fan" might ruin their experience of wrestling by being a pseudo expert on booking, the WWE ruins its ability to tell compelling stories by being a pseudo expert on female empowerment. This is why so many of these booking decisions contradict the WWE's depiction of itself as an advocate for equality. "Tainting" the first ever women's Money in the Bank quickly became tainting the first ever women's Money in the Bank. These shocks fail when they exist simply for their own sake rather than in service of a larger purpose, especially when the WWE has yet to demonstrate a basic aptitude for simpler storytelling that features female characters.

The women's roster didn't need a fabricated controversy to get people to care about them.

The women's roster needs more time. More time to have more traditional wrestling matches on a regular basis up and down the card.

Still, in the summer of 2017, ever after the #GiveDivasAChance and #WomensWrestling social media movements helped push the WWE toward booking the first ever women's Money in the Bank, time (and respect) remains hard to come by if you're a woman.

You don't have to be too smart to recognize that.

 

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