The Women's Evolution In Wrestling: Breaking The Cycle of Sexism
The following is an editorial submission by Daniel Lee. You can follow Daniel on Twitter @Lee_Daniel721.
- INTRODUCTION -
On April 1st, WWE Announced they will air a Global Women’s Tournament this summer with 32 competitors from 17 different countries. The Cruiserweight Classic and United Kingdom Championship Tournament were both critical successes for WWE Network. The single elimination tournament format created stakes based in reality for those involved and was portrayed as legitimate sport, real people with backstories all vying for a championship and the opportunity to be seen by the WWE Universe.
The very next night on WrestleMania 33, the RAW Women’s Championship and Smackdown Women’s Championship matches were given less than 20 minutes of screen time on a seven hour card, pre-show included. Nikki Bella and Maryse were part of the mixed-tag match but what we remember is Cena’s proposal to Bella, not their ring work.
Opportunities for Women’s Wrestling have resembled a trickle down theory where a few stars get consistent TV time while the majority languish in obscurity. For every RAW and PPV that Charlotte and Sasha Banks main evented during their excellent feud in 2016, there were the likes of Alicia Fox, Summer Rae, Emma, and Dana Brooke who were left off TV altogether for months at a time. SDLive deserves credit for using their entire women’s division more effectively with multiple storylines, but it’s somewhat negated when their championship match unfairly gets the bathroom break treatment at WrestleMania.
The recent Superstar Shakeup has reinvigorated both RAW and SDLive Women’s divisions with fresh storylines. We’ll see if RAW, in particular, will learn to use their entire roster. But with only 6 women per show, storylines are likely to get stale and feuds may become repetitive way too quickly.
- GLOBAL WOMEN’S TOURNAMENT -
The timing for the Global Women’s Tournament is perfect because there has never been a deeper talent pool. Will NXT stars like Peyton Royce, Billie Kay, Ember Moon, and Nikki Cross use this as a launching pad to the main roster? Will they announce former TNA Knockouts like Jade, Awesome Kong, and Velvet Sky? Will they announce former Lucha Underground Champion Sexy Star? Will they announce Indie Stars like Santana Garrett, Amber O’Neal, Madison Eagles, and Nicole Savoy? Will WWE announce the return of Melina, like they did with Brian Kendrick in the Cruiserweight Classic?
As confident as I am that the Global Women’s Tournament will be a success, the million dollar question is whether or not the momentum it creates will be sustained by the company. One way to do that would be to take the Women’s Evolution to its logical next step: create a weekly program on the WWE Network exclusively devoted to Women’s Wrestling.
I decided to attend a TV taping for WOW Superheroes on Thursday, May 11 to see what an episodic Women’s Wrestling program would be like. WOW filmed at the historic Belasco Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, a small, beautiful venue that fit several hundred people. On their website WOWE.com, the mission statement of WOW is to “empower you to Be Yourself. Be Strong. And Win!” and to deliver accessible content. With those stated objectives in mind, how well were they able to accomplish those goals?
Each wrestler had distinct characters and clearly defined motivations. As a result, the audience knew who to cheer and who to boo and there was an innocence and purity to seeing wrestling fans actually follow the script in 2017. The audience was diverse with young and old, various ethnicities, gay and straight. I particularly enjoyed viewing an entire show without any lewd or misogynistic comments directed toward the performers.
The talent was obviously not on the same level as WWE. And while there may not be a transcendent star on the level of Charlotte or Sasha Banks, the majority of the performers are capable ring workers. The likes of Santana Garrett, Khloe Hurtz, and Jungle Grrrl already have an IT factor that with some WWE-polish could put them in NXT in the near future. Also, the biggest weakness of WOW and almost every independent promotion was the caliber of TV production. There was a lack of refinement, from the film projector airing pre-taped segments against a wall and the production crew passing out prop fan signs for people to hold, which hopefully they will no longer need to do as their fan base grows.
WOW Superheroes did deliver on their goals and create an entertaining product that harkens back to the days of GLOW Wrestling in the 1980’s. If WOW is a well-conceived public access television show, then WWE is certainly capable of taking that intellectual property and turning a Women’s Wrestling show into must see episodic television.
So what lessons can be learned from WOW Superheroes and applied by WWE?
- Shoot at Full Sail: One of the reasons the Cruiserweight Classic and the UK Tournament were successful was that both tournaments were held in smaller venues at Full Sail University and the Empress Ballroom respectively, in front of the most rabid of audiences. One of the main reasons 205 Live is unable to capture the magic of the Cruiserweight Classic is that it airs right after SD Live in front of exhausted fans.
- Promote and Relegate Talent (Like Soccer Leagues) Every 4-6 Months to Build a True Upper, Middle, and Lower Card: WWE can “promote” female talent to the main roster to serve as enhancement talent and create a mid card for the likes of Dana Brooke and Emma to string together wins without making Charlotte and Sasha look weak. Similarly, talents like Alicia Fox and Summer Rae can be “relegated” to the Women’s Show rather than remain underutilized on TV. All of which would prevent the exhaustion of feuds and redundant match combinations that we currently see on RAW and SDLive.
- Women as On Screen Authority Figures and Announce Team: Using Kurt Angle, Daniel Bryan, and William Regal (On Screen GMs of RAW, SDLive, NXT) as role models, imagine a Women’s Wrestling show with Trish Stratus as its on screen GM. Furthermore, have Renee Young as play-by-play announcer with Lita on commentary.
- Have Women Writers: WWE’s biggest impediment in regards to Women’s Wrestling is the depiction of their characters. One cannot expect older white males like Vince McMahon, Kevin Dunn, and whoever else is in those writer’s rooms to be able to understand the characters of a Sasha Banks or a Bayley. That is why their promos on the main roster come off so detached from reality and most storylines devolve into bad reality TV storylines with sexist tropes of boyfriends, body shaming, jealousy, etc. Put women in the writer’s room so that we can see genuine motivations: breaking glass ceilings, balancing career with motherhood, overcoming poverty and other life obstacles, being a woman in a male dominated profession, creating one’s own legacy, etc.
- Have Women Agents: WWE does a great job using legends in the business like Arn Anderson, Jesse James, Michael P.S. Hayes in plotting out matches. Pick the brains of WWE Hall-of-Famers like Jacqueline, Beth Phoenix, and Madusa (Alundra Blayze) and offer them the same opportunities.
- THE PROBLEM WITH LIVE SHOWS -
While a weekly Women’s show may continue the Women’s Evolution on TV and PPVs, there is one area of Women’s Wrestling that is still stuck in the dark ages: Live Shows. I’ve gone to almost every WWE Live Show in Los Angeles the last two years. Without fail, the women were relegated to a single 6-person or 8-person tag match on a 2.5-3 hour show. I’ve never seen the Women’s Championship defended at a live event. When Nikki Bella was in the middle of her heel championship run, I watched the Bella Twins come out as babyfaces with no regard for storyline continuity. On another occasion, I watched Becky Lynch receive the biggest babyface pop of the night, even above the likes of Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, AJ Styles, and Sami Zayn.
When Charlotte and Sasha Banks were wrapping up the longest and most compelling WWE title feud of 2016, I thought I would at least see a return match at the live show, like they do for the male talent. Nope, another 6-person tag. At the most recent WWE Live Show in December, I paid to see the brilliance of Charlotte and Sasha Banks in person. My excitement quickly dissipated when I had to endure a chauvinist male fan sitting behind me making lewd comments at Liv Morgan, Dana Brooke, and Lana. I heard one man make derogatory comments about Charlotte having a “man’s body”. Another disrespectful fan repeatedly shouted, “that’s a big b*tch” whenever Nia Jax was tagged in.
Sexism and Chauvinism have always been a part of wrestling culture. There will always be misogynists who will always objectify women. But WWE must stop being complicit in that behavior and resist the normalization of sexism in their portrayal of women. And we must play our part to keep WWE accountable. If you believe #GiveDivasAChance and #WomensWrestling made a difference in creating more opportunities for women, then we must use our power of influence, vote with our wallet, and continue the fight to empower idea of Women’s Wrestling in all aspects of the WWE.
- CONCLUSION -
In 2017, I had the great opportunity to meet both Sasha Banks and AJ Lee at signings. This was particularly meaningful because Sasha Banks is my current favorite WWE performer and AJ Lee was the first Women’s Wrestler whose character I invested in. At each signing there were men wearing their merchandise and women dressed in cosplay. Little girls looked at their idols in awe. I saw dozens of young women in tears because AJ showed them it’s okay to be different. Those moments illustrated to me why Women’s Wrestling is so important and what’s at stake for us all.
We need the Women’s Evolution to succeed so that we can share our fandom to the next generation without fear of continuing the cycle of sexism and misogyny.
If I’m lucky enough to have a daughter in the future, I want to look forward to taking her to her first wrestling event.
Read Daniel Lee's other editorial submission "Why Indie Wrestlers Don't Star in Summer Blockbusters".